Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer

I'm embarrassed to be reviewing another Georgette Heyer so soon after the last one. I've just returned from a short but awesome beach vacation, and Why Shoot a Butler? was the book I literally grabbed on the way out the door. It happened to be the perfect beach read: light, fun, and not too absorbing.

Frank Amberley is on his way to visit his aunt and uncle when he comes across a car stopped on the edge of the road with a woman standing alongside. He stops to see if the woman needs help, only to discover a dead man sitting behind the wheel of the car. Amberley is drawn into a complicated plot of murder and deception, where nothing is quite what it seems on the surface.

The book was published in 1936 and has a lot of fun period details and slang. I enjoyed it even though Amberley comes across as a real jerk sometimes and Heyer doesn't play fair with the clues. She withholds information from the reader the same way that Amberley withholds information from the police. Even so, I figured out the whole plot ridiculously early--there's one all-important clue near the beginning that unravels the whole thing if you're paying attention.

Ordinarily I'd be sneering at a book with such an obvious plot, but the romance between Amberly and the woman he first sees near the corpse is so satisfying that I don't care that I guessed the murderer so soon. I enjoyed the book a lot.

B&N link

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Case of the Goblin Pearls by Laurence Yep

I've liked Laurence Yep's writing for years, ever since I read Dragon of the Lost Sea when I was a kid. Occasionally I pick up another of his books and I always enjoy them.

The Case of the Goblin Pearls is about twelve-year-old Lily Lew, who lives in San Francisco, and her Auntie, an actress who gained fame decades before as Tiger Lil but whose glamorous days are over. Auntie Lil comes to visit for Chinese New Year, mostly because she's organizing a parade float for a businessman whom she hopes might one day finance another Tiger Lil movie. But when a thief steals the famous Goblin Pearls, Lily and her Auntie end up digging into the mystery behind the theft. Not only do they uncover some shady goings-on in Chinatown, Lily learns a lot about what it means to be Chinese-American.

I liked the book, although it seemed a little rushed in the beginning while also taking a while for the actual plot to get underway. There's a lot of set-up for the whole series, not just this book. I would have liked to have a little more character development, too. But once the mystery really gets started, it's a lot of fun. Lily is roped into helping during the parade, and witnesses the theft of the pearls. She only decides to investigate when she realizes there's a connection between the pearls' owner and a sweatshop where the mother of a girl she knows works--a sweatshop that hasn't paid its workers in three months.

Oddly enough, the parts of the book I liked best were those where Lily was grappling with her own heritage and thinking about things she's always taken for granted. Another writer might have made this a Message book, but Yep handles the topic lightly. The glimpses of Chinese-American culture, particularly around Chinatown, are fascinating without overpowering the mystery. The book is for younger kids, so while the mystery isn't terribly hard to figure out, it's satisfying.

The book was published in 1997, and it's surprising how dated it feels. Lily's mother rents VCR tapes to show the family Tiger Lil's old films; when they can't find some of the movies, Lily asks a computer-nerd friend to check with his "connections on the Internet" to chase them down. It's a shame that the dated stuff shows up early in the book, because it's both distracting and not a bit important to the actual plot. I suppose if the book is ever reprinted it would be easy enough to update it.

B&N link (used book)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Footsteps in the Dark was first published in 1932. I love mysteries from that era. While this book isn't the finest mystery ever written, it was still a lot of fun.

Charles and Celia Malcolm, Celia's sister Margaret and brother Peter, and their aunt Mrs. Bosanquet have all inherited an ancient property known as the Priory. It's a picturesque place despite its lack of modern conveniences--like electricity--and they decide to stay there for the summer. But the Priory is locally infamous for being haunted by the sinister figure of a monk. Before long, the family hear footsteps and unearthly groans. Charles and Peter are determined to discover who's behind what they're sure is the only rational explanation: that one of the strangers lurking in the area is trying to drive the family away from the Priory for some purpose.

The book is surprisingly long, much longer than it really needs to be. The pace is slow. Characters recount to each other events that the reader has already witnessed, or repeat conversations the reader has already heard. But it's also a fun mystery, with lots of eccentric characters--from an entomologist supposedly searching for rare moths on the property at night, to a drug-addled French artist who fears and loathes the ghostly monk. There are skeletons and secret passages, people who aren't what they seem, suspicious-sounding conversations overheard.

While the plot is kind of absurd, there's a charming 1930s feel in the murderer's elaborate scheme. The subplot of a romance between Margaret and another character is abrupt but sweet. I can't say this is the best mystery I've ever read--it just moves too slowly and I did actually guess the murderer well ahead of time--but it was certainly entertaining and worth keeping.

B&N link

Monday, April 18, 2011

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

I'm sure this comparison is being tossed out all over the place, so I'll get it over with. This feels a lot like Scott Lynch's books, just not as grim. It's Scott Lynch lite, if you will.

It's not derivative, though. Among Thieves feels like the Gentleman Bastards books because of its subject matter, not its plot or characters (sort of like all heist movies resemble each other superficially). Main character Drothe is a Nose--someone who collects information--for a crime boss in the city of Ildrecca. He also runs a tidy side business dealing in relics.

Things are turning bad in the part of Ildrecca known as Ten Ways, where none of the city's bosses have the upper hand. Drothe's boss wants him to find out what's really going on. Drothe never wants to go back to Ten Ways--he's just happy he got out in the first place years ago. But when a relic Drothe has been after turns up somewhere it shouldn't be, and assassins turn up in his bedroom, he realizes there's a lot more going on than anyone suspects.

The plot is intricate, fast-paced, and clever. There's plenty of violence, but Drothe is a nice guy with a strong (if skewed) sense of morality--likable enough that I rooted for him without hesitation. The worldbuilding is solid too, with lots of unique details about the empire's history. In fact, there's an awful lot of what felt like infodumping toward the beginning of the book, although it's not as bad as the book goes on. While the story doesn't flag, all the extra information makes the book longer than it probably needs to be.

I enjoyed Among Thieves a lot despite its length (and it's not all that long, really; I'm just an impatient reader). It stands alone, but it's also definitely set up for a sequel. That's fine with me. I'll be reading it.

B&N link

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Raising the Dead by Mara Purnhagen

I'm pretty sure this novella is only available as an ebook. I bought mine from the Sony Reader store, but I'll link to the B&N ebook site below so anyone who's interested can go look at the description even if they don't have a Nook.

Raising the Dead takes place between the first and second books in this series, a few weeks after the events of the first book. During a talk by Charlotte Silver's ghost-busting father (a talk where she's helping out by handing him props, much to her chagrin--it's Friday evening and she has nothing better to do), a massive storm moves in. On the trip home through the downpour, Charlotte sees a coffin floating down the flooded street.

The coffin, and many others, have washed out of an old cemetery outside town. Charlotte's parents volunteer to help identify the remains so they can be reburied. Charlotte is still unsettled by the haunting she went through over the summer, and the cemetery dates back to the same era of her ghost, so she joins her parents to help and maybe learn more about what happened to her. But the cemetery holds more mystery than history*, from a strange figure lurking around to some coffins that aren't quite what they seem.

Since this isn't a full-length novel, there's not as much going on in the plot as in the other books. Also, since it's an interstitial story that doesn't really fall in the arc of the regular series books, none of the important issues (like Charlotte's incipient romance with her friend Noah) are really addressed. It is a mostly fun little story, though, set in the week before Halloween.

I get the impression that this might have been initially released as a serial story online, judging from the repetition of events and information at the beginning of chapters. There are also some weird discrepancies that argue a minimum of editing--for instance, one character mentions his grandchildren early in the story, but later on it's a plot point that he has no family.

The plot starts out slow but picks up quickly, and becomes really exciting halfway through where some of the mysteries start to come to light. But the ending is terrible. I do like that the mysteries are more natural than supernatural, and Charlotte still shows some spunk in this story. But the ending is so lame it overshadows everything that was good about the book.

*did you see what I did there?

B&N nookbook link (ebook)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reviewed by Sin - Popular Hits of the Showa Era

by Ryu Murakami
Amazon link

"Popular Hits of the Show Era" is about unlikable people doing horrible things to each other. It is also one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Written by Ryu Murakami, of "Almost Transparent Blue" and "The Audition" fame, it tells the story of two groups of people: six young men and six older women. The young men have no lives, outside of peeping and karaoke, and the women aren't any better. There wouldn't be much to say about their lives worth reading if they hadn't started killing each other.

It starts on an impulse. One of the young men, armed with a hard-on and no common sense, kills one of the women. Rather than go to the police, her friends discuss a course of action amongst themselves. Soon there's another dead body, and another murder being plotted. Hilarity, and more murder, ensue as Murakami gets inside each character's head and shows you that even the biggest losers can become heros - if only in their own minds. Set against the backdrop of Tokyo, Japan, this is a comedy for everyone with a dark sense of humor.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

It may be obvious that recently I've been reading classic mystery authors whose books I've never gotten around to reading before. I picked up The Maltese Falcon used last week, mostly because I've never seen the movie either and I wanted to read the book first.

I enjoyed the book and definitely see why it's been so popular for so long. The writing is old-fashioned and comes across as weirdly clumsy sometimes, but it's a great mystery. The surprises kept surprising me.

Sam Spade is tough and smart, and I actually really liked his secretary Effie and wished she was in the story more. The book is definitely a product of its time, though, with casual sexism and Sam smoking constantly. I also caught a few plot holes (like the disappearing daughter), but nothing major.

Now I get to watch the movie.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Alan Grant, a Scotland Yard inspector, is laid up in the hospital and bored. A friend suggests he work on a historical mystery to keep him occupied. Grant chooses Richard III, whose portrait intrigues him. With the help of a young historian to do the legwork and a lot of books, Grant researches whether Richard III actually killed his two young nephews, the Princes in the Tower--and if he didn't kill them, who did?

The writing is old-fashioned but lively, the characters pleasant to spend time with. This book was first published in 1951 according to my 1988 edition. I actually like this kind of cerebral mystery, a subtype of cozy mystery that's pretty much nonexistent these days.

But I didn't like this book. I don't know a whole lot of British history, but I do know that Richard III has long been exonerated of his nephews' murders. Moreover, I got the strong feeling that Tey had several axes to grind and was more interested in setting the record straight about certain historical events than in writing a mystery.

So the book fails as a mystery, and since it isn't a scholarly work it also fails as a history. I don't know what details Tey invented for the purpose of her story and what details are real. I never could get invested in the plot, and the more Tey insisted on telling me I should think this way about these events, the more annoyed I became with her.

What I really want to read is The Man in the Queue, Tey's first novel, but I haven't been able to chase down a copy yet. This was a poor substitute.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Running on Empty by Sandra Balzo

I think this book is being released on April 1, so if I did it correctly this review should run on April 1.

AnnaLise Griggs is a reporter in Wisconsin, but she heads home to North Carolina when she hears her mother drew several pints of blood instead of just one from a blood donor. AnnaLise is concerned to discover her mother is having occasionally memory lapses that might be early signs of Alzheimer's. She's less worried when the body of a local man is fished from the lake--it's Labor Day weekend and the man was drinking. But when another body turns up under much more suspicious circumstances, AnnaLise starts to wonder what's really going on in her sleepy hometown.

Running on Empty has all the elements of a fun mystery and for the most part it is fun. The plot is excellent--I truly had no idea who the murderer was or why the murders happened--and I enjoyed following along with the clues.

I was less impressed with the writing. Balzo seems to dislike using a name more than once a paragraph and practically twists herself into a writerly pretzel to avoid doing so, referring to characters as "the innkeeper" or "Daisy's daughter" or just "daughter." I found it jarring and sometimes confusing. I also felt like the book was trying hard not to switch to first person from third: frequently AnnaLise gave asides to the reader that seemed more appropriate to a first-person narrative. Even so, I never felt very close to her.

But the setting, a small tourist town in North Carolina, was well realized and I liked AnnaLise's mother and her mother's best friend. And as I said, the mystery was very good.

A copy of this book was provided to Skunk Cat by the publisher or author for review.

B&N link