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The Name of This Book Is SecretThe Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch. Read by David Pittu.
This is first in a series of five books all named to discourage the reader from opening up the book. It’s a fun concept, and I’d been meaning to get around to them for a while. Pseudonymous Bosch is a very prominent narrator throughout the story, and he (or she!) spends a great deal of time at the beginning explaining that the setting of the book and the names of the characters are all meant to be non-specific, to protect the people involved, and most importantly, to protect us, the reader, from the horrors that might befall us if anyone found out that we know the secrets. Then we get on with the story, which is adventure, mystery and a little fantasy. Our heroes are Cass and Max-Ernest, both of whom have trouble fitting in at school. Cass lives with her overprotective mother and spends a lot of time with two older men she calls her grandfathers, who run an antique store in an old fire station. Max-Ernest lives with his parents, who are divorced but live in separate half of the same house, refusing to acknowledge each other’s existence. The adventure begins when a real estate agent brings a pile of boxes from an estate house in to the antique store. In one box, Cass finds a fascinating box called the Symphony of Smells, which contains hundreds of tiny bottles of different scents. She learns that a fire burned only the kitchen, and, it is presumed, the owner of the house, an old magician. Cass and Max-Ernest go to explore the house and find a secret room. They barely escape with the magician’s old journal just as a creepy-looking couple, including a woman whose beauty and stiffness are both unnatural. When the same couple – Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais - turns up at their school the next day and a boy with synesthesia from the school goes missing at the same time, Cass is highly suspicious. Unfortunately, she’s of such an openly suspicious nature that now, when it really matters, no one will believe her. She goes off, followed by Max-Ernest, to solve the mysteries: what happened to the old magician? Why have series of talented children with synesthesia gone missing over the years? Why does the spa known as the Midnight Sun keep itself so very secret? Doom is predicted at every turn, but with somewhat less depressing results than another popular series with a prominent narrator. As in The Calder Game, there are a number of puzzles for Cass and Max-Ernest to solve, which the interested reader can solve along with them. There’s just a hint of magic as Dr. L and Ms. Mauvais are (shh!) searching for the secret of immortality. There's even some character development, which one doesn't necessarily expect in an adventure/mystery type book. The boy and I listened to this, narrated by David Pittu. He quite enjoyed it; I liked it fine, if it didn’t particularly grab me. That may be me just being jaded about danger levels, finding the dangers in the book not nearly as dire as the narrator foretold. So maybe better for kids than adults, but still a lot of fun.

Cross-posted to and .
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Leave It to ChanceLeave It to Chance. Volume 1: Shaman’s Rain. by James Robinson and Paul Smith with Jeromy Cox. “Why aren’t there more Nancy Drew-style books anymore?” the creators of this book asked themselves, and set out to create one. Well, kind of. These people are comics types, so this is a graphic novel. And they seem to like fantasy, too (fine by me.) Chance is the 14-year-old daughter of a famous modern-day magician whose job is protecting the town of Devil’s Echo. She thinks she should be learning to take over the family business, but her father, shattered by the loss of his wife several years back, has decided that only boys should do magic. Refreshingly, Chance’s preferred clothes are pretty gender-neutral, so that even though her gender is central to her motivation, there isn’t a lot of girliness that would turn boys off of reading it. That’s great, because Chance’s adventures are top-notch. She frees a small dragon from being sent to a possibly hostile dimension. Naturally, he escapes, and chasing him down leads her straight into trouble, as well as a cute and powerful sidekick. Chance finds a dead body, perhaps related to the vicious mayoral campaign underway; overhears a gathering of very disgruntled sewer goblins; and decides to try to locate the kidnapped daughter of a local shaman. She teams up with a Hispanic female police officer and a reporter, and ends up solving bunches of interrelated mysteries while always managing to stay just out of danger herself. The art style is clear and vigorous and shows plainly that Devil’s Echo is diverse in the normal human sense in addition to its magical denizens. This is just right for elementary-aged kids looking for straight-up excitement. While there are definitely shady characters, there isn’t any graphic violence and our heroine always manages to squeak out of even the tightest situation without harm. My love brought this home from the library for us, and as it’s out of print, that may be the easiest way to get it in general. There are two more volumes that I haven’t seen, but may yet track down.

Pirate King

Jan. 7th, 2012 01:29 pm
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book cover Pirate King by Laurie R. King This series has been getting good reviews for years, but this is my first try. It’s set in the 1920s, and Sherlock Holmes has married the much younger Mary Russell. Mysteries of course still ensue. This is the eleventh in the series, and I was finally encouraged to pick it up because it is about pirates. Not just any pirates, but the Pirates of Penzance, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which I have adored ever since I didn’t make my high school production of it. So: Fflytte films is a film company famous for filming the real thing. Now, there are two mysteries around it that Mary Russell is investigating: a missing secretary and surges in illicit items like arms and cocaine after Fflytte films does a film about such a subject. The easiest way to investigate is to apply for the missing secretary’s job, which Russell does. The current film – get ready for convolution here – is about a film company making a movie of the Pirates of Penzance (set in Portugal and Morocco instead of the actual Penzance in Cornwall), which gets overtaken by real pirates. Naturally, as the film company in our book heads off for Portugal and Morocco, they too are taken over by real pirates. Dun dun DUNNN!!! Despite the action, Russell felt developed enough as a character to keep the book from being a cardboard-character thriller. This was a mystery that hit the perfect balance of fun and literary without ever getting into the gory. It had plenty of both G&S and classic Holmes references to satisfy geeks of both varieties.

Cross-posted to and .
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book coverThe Entymological Tales of Augustus T. Percival: Petronella Saves Nearly Everyone by Dene LowThis one I picked up just based on the title. It’s funny and light, set just after the turn of the last century. Petronella, a plucky British lass, is just about to have her coming out party, having just turned sixteen. However, two unfortunate events occur. First, her uncle Augustus accidentally swallows a beetle and develops an insatiable and most improper appetite for bugs. Secondly, two foreign dignitaries who showed up at her coming-out party uninvited are kidnapped from it. Despite rival factions of eccentric relatives trying to prevent her from doing so, Petronella sets out to solve both of these mysteries. She is aided by her best friend Jane and Jane’s brother James, a beautiful specimen of manhood. (If only James would notice Petronella as anything but a younger sister! Alas!) Petronella and her Uncle Augustus are both charming characters whom I would love to see more of. This is a romp for middle school and up both as historical fiction and for the mystery, at an age level where mysteries are in short supply.
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book coverMaisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs is both the main character and the first book in a mystery series set in post-World War I England. It’s one of those that looked attractive when I first read the reviews several years ago, but I just now got around to reading. Maisie Dobbs is setting up shop as a private investigator when the book opens. Her first client is a husband who feels that his wife’s attention is straying and wants to know where she goes when she is out all day two days a week. Maisie solves this mystery in the first third of the book, but finds the case leading her on to a deeper mystery, one that turns out to have personal resonance. This involves finding a farm where WWI veterans with no faces go, and where they are called only by their first names. Investigating this draws us back into Maisie’s back story, a working-class girl whose aristocratic patron sent her to college, which she left to go to France as a field nurse. Maisie’s fairy-tale rise from the lower class and her great personal charm, beauty and intelligence go together to make a character that, while extremely likeable, uses more than a fair allotment of character points. I’m guessing, though, that this is laid on extra-thick because of it being the first book in the series and that Maisie will seem less magical in subsequent books. The darkness and probably reality of the battlefield story offsets this aspect of the book enough to make it neither too grim nor too sweet. This is an excellent choice for lovers of mystery and historical fiction.
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I am indebted to Colleen at for this as well as the Sisters Grimm… I think she wrote a column about mysteries for kids and teens last summer. Somehow I missed the first in the series and started with the second… though I made it through without noticing, you might wish to start with the first book, The Case of the Missing Marquess.

book coverThe Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer. Read by Katherine Kellgren. Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock – just 14, and knowing her older brother mostly through Dr. Watson’s famous books. Her mother recently ran away, and Enola is now living on her own, hiding from her brothers, who want to send her to boarding school. She and her mother communicate via ciphers in the newspapers, which enterprising readers could try to solve for themselves. Enola is posing as the secretary to a Scientific Perditorian or finder of lost persons, intending to do the finding herself. Dr. Watson comes to her office, seeking help in finding her, but accidentally leading her to the case of a missing society lady, only a few years older than herself. The police and Sherlock Holmes assume that she’s eloped, but Enola doesn’t believe it and uses her wits and multiple disguises to solve the mystery. Enola is an excellent character, determined to stay independent but still figuring herself out, and ever conscious that her name, backwards, spells “Alone.” Raised feminist by her mother, she knowingly manipulates the Victorian conventions regarding females to fit in multiple places without resorting so low as to disguise herself as a man, from high society houses to London’s poor and sooty underbelly. My husband and I both very much enjoyed these. For the children it’s actually aimed at, parents should be aware that there is some violence that could be disturbing for younger or sensitive children – I’d put it as more appropriate for 12 and up than the 10 years I read on the case. Katherine Kellgren’s assured British accents are perfect for Enola and adapt themselves well to the many characters of different classes in the book. Enola might not exist without Sherlock, but she’s well worth reading in her own right, a strong character in a vivid (if vivid is the right word for sooty fog) setting with just the right balance between plot tension and introspection.
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book coverThe Sisters Grimm: Fairy Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley This is the first book of a delightful fantasy mystery series for elementary-age kids. Everyone has heard of the Brothers Grimm, but what if the stories they wrote down were real? Sabrina and Daphne Grimm didn’t think so, until their parents disappeared, the only clue a red handprint painted on the dashboard of their car. Two years later, they’ve been shuttled from one bad foster home to another, when someone claiming to be their grandmother comes to take them home to Ferrytown. Daphne trusts Granny Relda immediately, even when she starts telling them things that can’t possibly be real. The older Sabrina is more skeptical – even when a first attempt at running away has them surrounded by stinging pixies. But the next day, Granny Relda brings them along as she investigates a crushed house, crushed into what looks remarkably like a giant footprint. Many of the old fairy tale characters came to America when life got too uncomfortable in Europe, she tells them. They’ve mostly settled in Ferryport, where a spell the Grimms arranged for keeps the Everafters safely inside and unwanted people out. It’s not an entirely popular solution, and the modern-day Grimms face a good deal of resistance as they investigate the crime and try to keep the peace. The premise is remarkably similar to the excellent graphic novel series, Fables by Bill Willingham, though appropriately lighter for a younger audience. Still, we find, for example, Prince Charming mayor of Ferryport, and not entirely popular among the many princesses he’s wed and left. Strong characters, an engaging setting, and a fast-moving plot make this a great choice for young readers, or even their parents looking for a light read.
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What can I say? I like fantasy. Here's three new books and an old favorite. All but the old favorite are intended for adults, though I think the last one has universal appeal.

The Famous Flower of Serving Men by Deborah Grabien Did I enjoy this book? I stayed up past midnight – with Mr. Froggy Pants asleep on my lap – which is certainly a measure of enjoyment of sorts. The novel is the second of a series which turns traditional English ballads into mysteries/ghost stories. As in, the characters of the original ballad are now uneasy ghosts, and the main characters need to solve the mystery and find out who the people were to lay the ghosts to rest. This one was based on The Famous Flower of Serving Men, a ballad I’ve always enjoyed, where a woman is treated badly, but starts a new, successful life for herself and gets revenge in the end. I must not have been thinking too clearly past that – a scaredy-cat like myself has no business checking out ghost stories. And even less, as a new mother, when the trauma involves a new mother’s husband and baby being murdered in front of her. Also different – if you know the ballad, the source of the haunting is clear from quite early on, so the mystery revolves around how to appease the ghost, not in who or what the ghost is. The resolution of the story was also dissatisfying: after the ghost was established as being horrible and scary, resolving it as basically just a good person who’d gone a little crazy didn’t work for me. She’s supposed to be evil and I’d prefer that she stay that way. In spite of these flaws, the main characters, the director of a small theater troupe and her musician/restoration expert boyfriend, were quite likeable and the story compelling.

The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable OK, this is another teen fantasy, though I read it before the teen fantasy project at work. Calwyn is a novice in a small matriarchal kingdom ruled by nuns, learning the chantments of ice. One day she finds a fugitive who made it over the wall of ice that protects the nuns, and she joins him in trying to stop the man who would become master of all nine Chantments. It’s the first of a trilogy (I’m not surprised, as fantasy books seem nearly always to come in trilogies.) I liked the world, obviously pagan and easy to slip into, and the sweet teen heroine. If you’re in to this kind of fantasy, you’ll enjoy it; if you’re not, this probably isn’t the book to convert you.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke This book got starred reviews in every journal I read, even for the audio version, though I was not about to attempt to listen to a 900 page book in a three-week loan period. It has a fascinating conceit: it’s Napoleonic England in a world where magic exists – maybe. Most of the people who call themselves magicians are only theoretical magicians, studying the deeds of the great magicians of the past. Only two men claim to be practical magicians, and they aim to restore the reputation of English magic by aiding in the war against Napoleon. The whole book sounds as if it were written by Jane Austen, if Austen had written fantasy. The first hundred pages or so were hard to get through – Mr. Norrell is not a sympathetic character, and Jonathan Strange is not introduced until later in the book. The language, while delightful, makes for slow going – it took me a full three weeks to get through the book, approximately three times as long as usual. But the story is compelling, the concept novel, and the descriptions of the fairy gentleman and his kingdom downright creepy.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, a girl named Sophie lives with her not-so-wicked stepmother and her two younger sisters. She’s resigned herself to a dull existence, because everyone knows that youngest sisters are the ones with the adventures. Then the Wicked Witch of the Waste comes into her hat shop and turns her into an old, old woman. Sophie decides that being nice is for the young, moves into the evil Wizard Howl’s castle and starts terrorizing him. It’s not a new book, but it is terribly funny and well worth reading.
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Reading these reminds me that, even though I try to keep my readers abreast of the latest publications, there were good books published before 2000.

Framed in Lace by Monica Ferris A quick little cozy mystery, again borrowed from my mother. It’s the Needlecraft Series, so all the books in the series include details on some form of handicraft, with a pattern. This particular novel focuses on bobbin lace, but I guess figures that not that many people can do bobbin lace, so the pattern is for cross-stitch instead. But again, digressing. Betsy Devonshire, still in Minnesota running her murdered sister’s needlecraft shop, is starting to settle in and getting to know the locals. They’re all excited about the raising of an old ferryboat, sunk in the forties, which is to be restored and put back in service. But when the boat is raised, there’s a skeleton on it – and an old lace handkerchief. Once again, Betsy finds herself drawn into the search to find out whose the body was, and who killed her. It’s a fun little world, with lots (maybe too many) of colorful village people and details of everyone’s current projects. Read if your interests include fibers and comfy mysteries.

The Little Country by Charles DeLint Loaned from yet another friend, as I really like DeLint. The are two storylines, both set in a small village in Cornwall, one at the turn of the last century, the other in the late 1980s (which would have been the present when the book was written.) Janey Little is a piper, contemplating her next tour, when she finds an old book in her grandfather’s attic. It’s a book she’s never heard of, written by her favorite author. As she reads it, strange things start to happen. In the corresponding story – which might be the one that Janey is reading - Jody is working for her uncle, a scientist, when the Widow transforms her into a Small, only a few inches tall. Music is woven throughout the book, with the chapters named after traditional tunes. I have always loved DeLint’s ability to intertwine magic, suspense, and the everyday world. For me, this book was no exception, though putting the two stories together does slow the action down somewhat.


May. 26th, 2004 07:30 pm
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Ok, these books have varying degrees of suspense, from the straight-out thriller to the relatively cozy mystery. But here they are:

Dead Ringer by Lisa Scottoline I was inspired to read this book (especially for all you fans of legal thrillers) by reading an interview with the author in [I]Publisher’s Weekly[/I]. She’s a defense attorney herself, and found herself frustrated by the lack of humor in most of the legal thrillers out there, as well as how generic the characters felt. Her books star Bennie Rosato, an Italian-American woman running her own little law firm, populated by several other Italian-American women and one Irish-American woman, all fond of making jokes. In this book, Rosato & Associates is suffering from hard times. No clients coming in, and the one they just had has declared bankruptcy. With an eviction notice on the door, Bennie almost doesn’t notice that her wallet has gone missing – until stacks of boxes charged to her card start showing up at her door, and she’s arrested for a theft caught on the store’s security camera. It must mean that her estranged twin, Alice, is back in town. But what does she want, and can Bennie keep calm enough to focus on running her first class-action suit, her last chance to save her business?

Death Gets a Time-Out by Ayelet Waldman Waldman is also a some-time attorney, now turned stay-at-home mom and author of the Mommy Track Mysteries. In this book, Juliet Applebaum, mother of two, is wondering how she can find the time to put in some hours at her job as a private investigator. Then, her old friend Lilly Green, an Oscar-award winning actress, asks for help clearing her stepbrother, the son of a famous cult leader, of murder charges. Things get complicated quickly, and the fact that she’s suddenly throwing up constantly doesn’t help things. She couldn’t be pregnant again – could she?

Someone to Run With by David Grossman This is a bestseller from Israel, translated into English. So many fewer books get translated into English than the other way around that I often feel a book must be extra-good to make it this far. At any rate, this book is like an oddly dreamy thriller. A boy runs through the streets of Jerusalem with a dog, trying to find her owner. The dog keeps running, and visits various friends of the girl – but she is missing, and none of her friends know what has happened to her. Meanwhile, we follow the girl, a month earlier, as she makes preparations for a dangerous mission. But what is it that she is so afraid of, and why is she giving up everything she cares about to do it? The tension only gets higher as the two timelines converge and the stakes and the risks become clearer.
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This time, only books I enjoyed. Really. And they're all recent, though I couldn't get my hand on Jennifer Crusie's latest. Otherwise, these books don't have much in common.

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by R.A. Smith McCall. Here it is, the promised third mystery, this one the second book in its series. It’s another village, though now the village is in Botswana. The story moves along at a relaxing pace. Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, takes some cases and contemplates life. Her assistant, Mma Makutsi, opens a new business, the Kalahari Typing School for Men. The book is full of old-fashioned African wit and common sense, somewhat alien to modern sensibilities: When a rival detective agency opens, there is some discussion of whether male toughness or female attention to detail make for a better detective. There is no argument over the characteristics themselves. Still, I very much enjoyed this book, particularly on CD with the musical African accents brought to life.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy by The Fab Five. You love the show – now there’s the book, too. Each of the Fab Five presents a section on his particular area of expertise – food, grooming, interior design, fashion and culture. The advice is presented with their characteristic humor, plus lots of gorgeous full-page photographs featuring the subjects and the Fab Five. The advice is sound, and brief – perfect for short coverage on these important areas. Of course, highly slanted towards men – but isn’t it about time?

Crazy for You by Jennifer Crusie. To be honest, most of my friends would rather be caught dead than caught reading a romance novel. Here’s a book to tempt you. Jennifer Crusie writes hip modern romances that blur the boundary between traditional romance and chick lit, with heroines who have more than fluff in their brains and are not at all inclined to swooning. When Quinn’s long-term live-in boyfriend refuses to let her keep the dog she’s fallen in love with, she realizes that he has always tried to run her life, and she has had enough, both of him and of boring predictability. And why is she just now noticing how hot her best friend Nick is? This fast-paced story has suspense, Fleetwood Mac, and of course, lots of romance and good sex.
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Today, for your enjoyment – two new and highly rated books, and a trio of mysteries.

The New Books

I know, I said I was only going to review books I liked. Well, I can’t say that I loved these books, but they were interesting and got good reviews from other people, so I thought I’d let you know what I think.

Alva and Irva, the Twins Who Saved a City by Edward Carey. Library Journal listed this as one of the best science fiction novels of 2003. Alas, the setting, a fictional European city, is as close as it gets to science fiction. Alva and Irva are painfully socially awkward, unsure even how to relate to each other. To save their own relationship, they decide to make a plasticine model of the entire city, with Alva taking notes on the buildings and Irva making them. When the city is hit by a massive earthquake, this model is the only remaining record of how the city was. The twins are lauded as the saviors of the city. The writer is not French, but lives in Paris, which perhaps accounts for the odd feel of the book, written like an experimental film with odd lighting and film angles, giving ordinary things unusual prominence. Was it enjoyable? The jury is still out. But memorable and thought-provoking, definitely.

Bandbox by Thomas Mallon. This book was billed as a romp through the exciting publishing world of the 1920s. It is that, chronicling the battle between two men’s magazines. The biggest drawback to this otherwise fine book is that the perspective switches from section to section between any one of about 20 main characters. It took me most of the book to remember all of them. Write them down at the beginning, and you should be able to enjoy the book.

The Mysteries

These are all mysteries of the type called “cozy” by librarians – no graphic violence or sex (romance allowed), usually set in a small village, and generally feel-good-at-the-end books. If you liked Agatha Christy, you’re likely to like these.

Aunt Dimity’s Death by Nancy Atherton. This novel is about as comfort-read as it is possible to get, with nary a sharp edge. Down-and-out American Lori Shepherd finds she must spend a month in a cottage in England (all expenses paid), to fulfill the last wishes of Aunt Dimity, previously known to Lori only as a bedtime story. No, no murders or thefts, but this book does feature some friendly ghosts, plenty of romance, and a stuffed pink bunny. This is the first book in the series, which is still on-going, and seems to get only better as it goes on.

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters. A mystery classic – this is the first in a series that has been going on for nearly thirty years, and still has legions of fans. Our heroine, Amelia Peabody, is (at this point) a sharp-tongued Victorian spinster, who would rather have her mind than a man, thank you very much. She sets off on a journey to Egypt for some amateur archaeology, taking the waif-like Evelyn under her wing along the way. When somebody – with the audacity to try to look like a mummy – tries to kidnap Evelyn, Miss Peabody sets out to stop the miscreant. I really enjoyed this as a recorded book, where the snap of Miss Peabody’s character comes through especially vividly.

OK, I lied. It was supposed to be a trio of mysteries – I’m still reading the third. I’ll get back to that one.


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