Friday, May 24, 2013

The Best of Both Worlds: Mountains and Beach

I recently returned from a visit to my hometown in the southwestern Virginia mountains where I was fortunate enough to experience spring all over again.  In Louisiana the spring flowering has come and gone, but all the dogwoods in my childhood neighborhood were still in bloom.  I had fun one cloudy afternoon walking around in front of my mother's house taking these photographs.  (You can click on pictures to enlarge them.)

My childhood home in foreground

Blooming dogwood trees around Wassona Circle
The gully in the middle of my childhood neighborhood
Unknown (by me) yellow flowers in Mother's yard
I've also enjoyed being back in Louisiana--celebrating the Mudbug Season by making Southern Faire's delicious crawfish bisque one night.  Check out this recipe and other treats on this cooking (and Southern hospitality) blog.  Friday night my husband made his famous (among our friends) shrimp pesto pasta.  A friend brought the sangria and a fine time was had by all!

Sangria reminds me of the beach, and I've been doing some summer beach reading--by that, I mean I'm reading books with beach settings while I myself am not at the beach. In truth, I enjoy reading about the beach maybe more than being at the beach. I'm not a fan of swimming in the ocean or walking in the sand and, as you can tell, I'm a big fan of the color green in nature, interspersed with flowering plants. 

Obsidian/Penguin Group, 2013, 292 pages
However, I'm fascinated with Key West and I totally enjoy Lucy Burdette's series featuring Hayley Snow, food critic for Key Zest magazine!  They are fun, cozy mysteries that don't take themselves too seriously.  Hayley is serving as a judge for a cooking reality show, which will launch the career of one lucky Key West chef.   When one of the other judges is murdered, everyone involved in the show becomes either a suspect or potential victim.  No one, including Hayley, is safe until the murderer is exposed.

This mystery is all about the setting and features some quirky journalistic types, so don't expect a complicated plot.  Lucy Burdette is the pen name of clinical psychologist Roberta Isleib so it's fitting that her books make you feel good--like you've been on vacation yourself.  For vicarious fun in the sun, I recommend this new release.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just a Little Bit OCD

It's back to the British Isles in my reading, and time for another list of books.  Remember I can't seem to let myself give away my books that I've read until I mention them in this blog, and my book shelves are crowded.  The trials of being slightly OCD--did I ever mention that I have to fight the urge to straighten up books in a book store when I'm browsing?  This neatness compulsion stops there unfortunately--no carryover to my home.

Berkley Prime Crime, 2013, 293 pages
If the last mystery I reviewed featured a setting for my Scots ancestors, I now give equal time to a book set in Ireland that a friend gave me.  However, this book is not as good as A. D. Scott's A Double Death on the Black Isle.  It's a bit more romantic in tone--young American, Maura Donovan, is bequeathed money by the grandmother who raised her so she will return to the Irish village where her grandmother was born.  Once Maura gets there, she takes a job in the local pub because there is really nothing waiting for her in the states.  Maura is befriended by some of the locals--the ones who aren't trying to kill her after a decades old body is discovered in a near-by bog.  It becomes a bit far-fetched as newcomer Maura has information that can help identify the body.  If she is right, it opens up a lot of speculation about property ownership and succession.  This is the first of a new County Cork mystery series by author Sheila Connolly who touts her own implacable Irish credentials.

New American Library, 2013, 355 pages
I bought this book using a gift card from Christmas because I loved the cover art.  Set in 1920's seaside England, this book is a Gothic mystery, complete with a couple of ghosts haunting the house where Oxford student Jillian Leigh is staying as she tries to settle the affairs of her eccentric Uncle Toby who has died under mysterious circumstances.  A Scotland Yard detective is also on the scene, there are local villagers with their own eccentricities and secrets, and so many twists and turns that it is difficult to say much more about the book without giving too much away.  The heroine goes from crisis to crisis so one arrives at the climax quite exhausted.

Minotaur Books: A Thomas Dunne Book,
2009, 356 pages
Another piece of cover art that drew me in, so I used my generous gift card from friends to purchase Dying in the Wool, a mystery set in a Yorkshire mill town and featuring young WWI widow, Kate Shackleton who has agreed to investigate the disappearance of the father of a woman with whom she served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment during the war.  More deaths occur in the mill town as Kate traces the circumstances in the village when the man disappeared.  Suspicion falls first on one person, then another and Kate herself becomes the target of people who don't want this mystery solved.  Kate has been compared to Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, and the book provides the same pleasurable reading experience with a bit less of the horrors lingering from the battlefield.

Author Tasha Alexander
Minotaur Books, 2010,
306 pages
I've read several of the Tasha Alexander's Victorian series featuring Lady Emily Ashton.  In this one, Lady Emily is recovering from a near death experience.  Lady Emily has become a less engaging character in this book and seems newly prone to the vapors.   The mystery is filled with people with familial mental illness. This book was only mildly interesting--I read it but I wouldn't recommend it.  I think Tasha Alexander is a talented author, so I fully expect subsequent works of hers to be of a higher calibre.

Berkley Prime Crime, 2012, 325 pages
I'm not a huge fan of Ann Purser's Lois Meade series, but I read them if they fall into my lap.  This one involves a rich Japanese woman and her missing violin.  Lois gets involves because the young woman is the musical partner of Lois' talented son.  Purser captures village life in working class England.  I read a lot for milieu, and so far Purser hasn't captured my imagination, but I like the cover art!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Scottish Mystery and a Shared Last Name

I first read of this book from a fellow blogger, the well-respected Cathy at Kittling: Books who gave the book an A+ rating.  Who isn't drawn to  a cozy mystery set in Scotland and when the author shares my Scots-Irish family's last name, Scott, it seems like the mystery is calling my name literally. 

According to family lore, my ancestor James Scott was actually born in 1736 in Northern Ireland, but moved to Scotland to work as a groom for a prominent family, the Holmes, on their estate.  He ended up eloping with the Holmes' teen-age daughter and fleeing to America where they settled in the Blue Springs section of the southwestern Virginia mountains.  There they had 7 children who were fruitful and multiplied, scattering Scott relatives like roaches (my husband's words), across the country!

I don't believe this author is kin folk, but I put this novel on my Christmas Wish List anyway, and a friend kindly gifted me with the book.

Atria Paperback, 2011, 357 pages

Joanne Ross is a typist at the Highland Gazette, but has always wanted the opportunity to cover a big story as a reporter.  She gets her chance when two murders occur the same day on the local estate, but one of the "persons of interest" is a close friend of Joanne's from her school days.  Can a reporter maintain her objectivity under these circumstances?  Joanne accepts the challenge.  She is a single mother, trying to make a life for herself and her two children and stay safely away from her physically abusive former husband.  She is also anxious to prove herself worthy of her editor-in-chief's confidence in her.

Joanne and her colleagues at the paper keep pursuing the truth, although with everyone lying to protect someone else, it's sometimes hard to tell who the good guys are.  Likable characters, a setting in 1950's Scotland and a community full of secrets keeps the plot moving forward.   There are times when the events in the book strain ones credulity, but overall it is an enjoyable read.

A. D. Scott is the pen name of Ann Deborah Nolan who herself was born in the Highlands of Scotland.  A woman of many interests, she was educated at Inverness Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and has worked in theatre, in magazines, and as a knitwear designer .  According to the publisher's blurb, she currently lives in Vietnam and north of Sydney, Australia. 

This is the second book in this series featuring Joanne Ross and the folks at the Highland Express.  The first was A Small Death in the Great Glen, which I haven't yet read.  I'm a sucker for small town newspaper stories, so I'll be adding this book to my To Be Read List.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mystery Series

I mentioned several series that I enjoy in my last post, but it was by no means a complete listing.  I've been reading a lot of mysteries lately, and here are a few more of the authors that keep me returning to their works.  I admit it, I'm a list maker and I feel compelled to at least mention these books in my book blog before I give them away!

The Kill Artist, by Daniel Silva (Signet, 2004)
Silva is a suspense author, but each book has plenty of murders and mystery. Main character Gabriel Allon is a complex individual who shows his humanity, but he is also an assassin.  It was hard to read this book after the Boston Marathon bombing because terrorism is a featured aspect of each of Silva's novels, but every book of his is a page turner.   These novels are most often written from a Zionist Jewish bias, but this one had some Palestinian perspective interjected.  I read Silva's Gabriel Allon books in no particular order, but it doesn't bother me.

A Matter of Justice, by Charles Todd ( William Morrow, 2009)
A mother-and-son writing team turn out these Ian Rutledge mysteries.  They have written 10 of them, and I pick them up whenever I see them available for a good price.  Again I read them in no particular order.  This one featured a horrific crime committed and covered up during the Boer War, but evil deeds have a way of rearing up again to haunt the survivors. 
Chocolate Covered Murder, by Leslie Meier (Kensington Publishing, 2012)
After the graphic violence of the first two, a cozy mystery was called for. Of course this "cozy" featured a chocolate-dipped body!  A friend gave me this Valentine mystery featuring small town reporter and full time mom, Lucy Stone.  I enjoy reading about Lucy and her friends in Maine in this series, which often feature a holiday as part of the setting.

A Brew to Kill, by Cleo Coyle (Berkley Prime Crime, 2012)
Give me a trendy coffee house in Greenwich Village and some interesting characters and I'm along for the ride.  So I follow the exploits of coffee house manager Clare Cosi, her ex-husband Matteo and his mother, and Clare's police Detective Lieutenant boyfriend Mike Quinn whenever I get a chance.    Even though the plot was lame in this one (cup cake rivals and Brazilian mobsters in the same book), I still like the series.  This book was a Christmas gift.

Murder on Lexington Avenue, by Victoria Thompson (Berkley Prime Crime, 2010)
I'm a moody reader, moving back and forth between contemporary and historical settings, cozies and more hard-boiled thrillers.  I like interesting milieus and settings, characters that I can relate to and plots that are engaging on some level.  In this series midwife Sarah Brandt has a social conscience that takes her into some high risk areas and situations in Turn of the Century New York city.  I was a rural caseworker at one time, and I appreciate the character's efforts to help those whom society has ignored. The approach-avoidance relationship she has with Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy sometimes is tiresome, but it's part of the formula.

Naughty in Nice, by Rhys Bowen (Berkley Prime Crime, 2011)
A remaindered book I picked up because I had been reading Rhys Bowen's Juggle Red Writers' blog.  This  historically-based mystery features a poor relation of the queen, Lady Georgiana Rannoch.  The Nice setting was fun in this book because of the rich and famous people who summered there in real life and who were incorporated into this book, e.g. Coco Chanel and her friends.  Again there is a complicated, approach-avoidance romantic entanglement in this series that is part of the formula for this type of book.  It doesn't bother me but it might a more discriminating reader.

I really don't see how other bloggers read and review books that publishers and authors send them.  I tried it once and didn't care for the book, couldn't get in the mood to even skim it and felt guilty about it.  I  respect individuals who author books, but I don't want someone else to control what I read or when I blog about it.  Having said that, I am envious of friends who get the books before they reach the stores, but not enough to want to be a formal reviewer!

Vintage mysteries that I plucked off my shelves and read during the last few months:

Permed to Death, by Nancy J. Cohen (Kensington Books, 1999)
This book was left on my front porch by a friend, and I got interested when I read the author's description of coming up with the idea for the setting.  The plot spun off from there, but there was an amateurish quality to the book.

Mrs. Pollifax on Safari, by Dorothy Gilman (Fawcett Crest, 1977)
I've always loved Mrs. Pollifax mysteries and author Dorothy Gilman.  She and her recurring character, Mrs. Pollifax, are both "Grand Dames" of the mystery genre.

When in Rome, by Ngaio Marsh (Jove, 1971)
Who is stalking a group of tourists in Rome's subterranean grotto?  Roderick Alleyn removes his vacationer hat and switches back to Inspector to solve the murders that result.

Scales of Justice, by Ngaio Marsh (Jove, 1955)
Marsh as been compared to Agatha Christie, and her books are classics.  I found these tucked away on some upstairs bookshelves but I had never read them.

A Little Gentle Sleuthing, by Betty Rowlands (Jove, 1990)
Author Melissa Craig has come to the Cotswolds to plot her next mystery, but the discovery of a woman's body in the nearby woods derails her writing and puts her on the trail of a deranged murderer.

Death of a Hawker, by Janwillem van de Wetering (Pocket Books, 1977)
I was interested in the Amsterdam setting of this novel when I picked it up.  Definitely an old-fashioned feeling in the writing.  I have enjoyed reading some of the older authors for style, plotting and just remembering the names of companies that used to publish the paperback books.

I think I'll keep reading books off my personal library shelves, books I pick up cheaply or free, and just have fun while I'm doing it!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Comfort Books

People are always talking about the comfort foods that they desire when they need a bit of pampering.  I feel the same way about books.  There are mystery series that soothe and calm me when I need a break from real life.  In 2013 I've gone back to some of the cozy series or authors I used to read, and I've enjoyed the experience. 

Hmmm, I wonder what books are in these stacks

I have books tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the house and cottage.  Sometimes I just happen upon a book someone gave me, or that I acquired in a used book sale or bought off the remainder rack that I didn't know I had.  It's always a pleasant surprise.

Sometimes years will go by when I don't read any books by a particular author but when I open up one of these books after my hiatus, it's like reuniting with an old friend. We pick right up where we left off.  Here are some mysteries from favorite series that I've recently read.

The Singing of the Dead, by Dana Stabenow (St. Martin's Books, 2001)
Taking a vicarious trip to Alaska to see how Kate Shugak is doing after the death of her lover, Jack Morgan.  Kate is now responsible for Jack's son, Johnny, and still dealing with Jack's difficult ex-wife, making for family drama in Kate' usually solitary life in the Park.  This mystery combines a death from Alaska's Gold Rush Days with murders on a present day political campaign trail, and switches back and forth in time.  It took me a couple of tries before I got into this book, which is why it's been languishing on my shelves for awhile.  However, ultimately I was delighted to reconnect with Kate, trooper Jim Chopin, and Kate's friends, Bobby and Dinah.
Uneasy Relations, by Aaron Elkins (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008)
It's been a long time since I encountered Physical Anthropology Professor Gideon Oliver, and we reconnected at the International Paleoanthropological Society in Gibraltar as Gideon and his associates gather  at the ancient burial site of a mother and young child.  But all is not as it seems in academia, and people associated with the dig are dying.  Gideon himself is in peril, but manages to survive and uncover the culprit in a manner of old-style detectives, where every suspect is gathered in a room for the unmasking.

Sand Sharks, by Margaret Maron (Grand Central Publishing, 2009)
Judge Deborah Knott is heading to Wrightsville Beach for a well-deserved working vacation as she attends a summer conference for North Carolina district court judges.  An unpopular judge is murdered and Deborah soon is knee deep in murder suspects before exposing the guilty party.  I enjoy Maron's Deborah Knott series partially for the setting, close to my native Virginia, so I'm usually familiar with all the locales.
The Lottery Winner, by Mary Higgins Clark (Simon & Schuster, 1994)
Subtitled Alvirah and Willy Stories, this collection of short stories passed along to me by an older friend brought a smile to my face.  Who wouldn't love the irrepressible former cleaning lady and now lottery winner Alvirah and her husband Willy.  These light-hearted mystery stories are just what the doctor ordered.
Mourning Glories, by Susan Wittig Albert (Berkley Prime Crime, 2011)
It is always fun to reconnect with China Bayles, her friend and business partner Ruby, their families and all the folks in Pecan Springs.  I wish I could browse in her fictional store, Thyme and Seasons, and I appreciate my few pots of herbs more after I read a China Bayles mystery.  Drugs come to the local college campus in this mystery and murder  follows, but China and the police track down the perpetrator before more young women die.  I found another China Bayles' mystery on the shelf after I finished this one; Albert's books are making me want to hop in the car and head to the Texas Hill Country for spring.
I can't complete this post before I mention Sparkle Hayter and the Robin Hudson books again--you may recall I recently reviewed Chelsea Girl Murders on this blog.  I have now ordered and completed The Last Manly Man (1998), the Robin Hudson book that I hadn't yet read.  It is a strange and satirical mystery about aromatherapy and stolen primates and underground activists who save the day.  Hayter and her character Robin Hudson are like those friends from your past who were always wilder and crazier than you but you love hanging out with them anyway.
A bin of books tucked under a table in the small bedroom
awaiting the right reading moment!