Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, Books 1-4 by Deborah Crombie

Like Elizabeth George, Deborah Crombie is an American writing about Scotland Yard detectives in England. Her works come recommended by a friend who knows and shares my taste in mysteries, and now that I’ve been overtaken by a powerful urge for a mystery binge, I am finally checking them out. There are presently sixteen books in the series; I plan to tackle them in four installments.

share_in_deathA Share in Death
Newly promoted Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is in Yorkshire on holiday, taking his cousin’s place at a timeshare for a week. He intends to keep his profession a secret from his fellow guests, but when he discovers the body of an employee floating in the pool, he can no longer maintain his anonymity. And, despite his attempts to convince himself that it isn’t his case, he also cannot resist getting involved with the investigation.

In some ways, A Share in Death is a traditional British cozy mystery. Kincaid’s not an amateur, as many sleuths tend to be in those sorts of mysteries, but the action does take place in a small village and involves a finite cast of suspects, some of whom have preexisting relationships. Crombie has a way with physical descriptions that is admirable—she doesn’t expend excess words in the act, but yet I somehow came away with a distinct picture of each individual guest—and between this and the cozy feel, the experience of reading this book was rather like watching my own mental PBS mystery program!

It’s not a perfect book—one secret held by a guest was not difficult to work out, and I’m not entirely sure that everything about the resolution makes perfect sense—but it was still on the whole very enjoyable. Engaging and not intellectually demanding, it managed not to come across as fluffy or trivialize the act of murder. I very much look forward to continuing with this series, and especially hope to see more of Kincaid and his capable Sergeant, Gemma James, working together (as opposed to separated by distance, as they were here).

all_shall_be_wellAll Shall Be Well
Like the first book in the series, All Shall Be Well involves a murder that has taken place in close proximity to Duncan Kincaid. This time it’s his cancer-stricken friend and neighbor, Jasmine Dent, whose death might’ve been assumed to be natural had not Duncan been suspicious and ordered a postmortem, discovering that Jasmine died of an overdose of morphine. Suicide is a possibility, but certain details prevent Duncan from accepting that conclusion.

Again, there is a short list of suspects, with the strongest suspicion resting upon the douchebag boyfriend of the former coworker to whom Jasmine has left the bulk of her estate. And yet, the end result doesn’t feel as typically cozy as A Share in Death because Duncan’s investigation takes him far and wide in search of clues. Happily, there is also much more interaction with Gemma in this book. (I especially liked that Duncan made a point of comparing her to the aforementioned coworker and how the latter inspired parental feelings but the former certainly did not.) There is also a very positive outcome regarding Jasmine’s kitty about whom I worried for the entire book.

I am really enjoying this series so far, and looking forward to the third book, in which Duncan seems to shed his Jessica Fletcher murder-magnet ways and is actually assigned a case!

leave_grave_greenLeave the Grave Green
Okay, Leave the Grave Green is definitely my favorite of the series so far. Instead of a murder happening in Duncan’s vicinity, this time he and Gemma are assigned to the case of Connor Swan, an apparent drowning victim who also had handprints on his throat. He is the son-in-law of a famous and influential couple in the opera scene, thus Scotland Yard’s involvement.

I thought it was interesting that there was essentially no physical evidence to consider, with the autopsy being inconclusive about what exactly happened, so the case was more-or-less solved by talking to the same half dozen or so characters, over and over, with each revealing things they had neglected to mention in previous conversations until finally, Duncan works out what must have happened. It’s not as tidy of a conclusion as they could wish from a prosecutorial standpoint, but it’s satisfying enough for readers.

There was one instance where a clue about a particular family link was a little too obvious, but ultimately, I did not peg the likely culprit. I also appreciated spending more time with Duncan and Gemma’s partnership, complete with a burgeoning physical attraction that culminates in something that they have fascinatingly contrary reactions to afterwards. And, lastly, I didn’t even dare to hope that we’d get a kitty update, but not only did we, but Crombie also kindly told us who was looking after him while Duncan was away on the case. This degree of solicitude made me suspect Crombie must have cats herself and, verily, her bio confirms it.

mourn_not_deadMourn Not Your Dead
I begin to wonder whether I will declare with each successive book, “Okay, this one is my favorite now.”

Mourn Not Your Dead picks up a few days after the conclusion of Leave the Grave Green. Gemma has been avoiding Duncan, but must come into work when they are assigned to the case of a high-ranking police officer found bludgeoned to death in his home. In retrospect, the case itself isn’t terribly fascinating or twisty, but there’s a remarkably solid and memorable cast of suspects and locals, and the undercurrents between Gemma and Duncan make this quite a riveting read.

They are envisioning wildly different outcomes, and Duncan is hurt and baffled when Gemma calls what happened between them “a dreadful mistake.” I loved that he hadn’t even considered how she might worry about and wish to prioritize her career, and I loved too that he told her she had no need to apologize for what she felt or didn’t feel. It was a nice way of showing that he’s got some flaws, but also deeply respects Gemma’s agency. I also really enjoyed the way they gradually regained some equilibrium and how the case helped put some things in perspective.

I love mysteries where the leads are just as interesting as the cases, and this is definitely such a series. Onward, ho!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medDescription:
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Review:
I am one of those people who hears about a new movie generating some buzz and, instead of going to see it, thinks, “I should read the book that is based on.” And so it was that I came to read Gone Girl without actually knowing much about it. To sum up: Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for five years. They were happy at first, but things have not been going well recently. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy disappears and suspicion quickly settles on Nick.

For the first half of the book, narration alternates between Nick in the present and Amy in the past (courtesy of her diary). While Nick deals with the police investigation, a steady stream of unsavory discoveries about him ensues. He has also seemingly inherited his father’s misogynist rage, even if he is better at not speaking those thoughts out loud. Amy, meanwhile, recounts how they met and the early, halcyon days of their relationship before recent entries depict her as afraid that her husband might do her harm. This segment of the novel is perhaps the strongest, as it forces readers to question whether they ought to have sympathy for Nick or not. Dislikable though he may be, some apparently damning incidents are really just due to (occasionally excruciating) ineptitude.

And then there is a big twist, which I shan’t spoil. Alas, rather than making things more interesting, it ushers in a period of boring interludes and exposes even more character flaws, of the “crass and profane” or “snivelly and petulant” varieties. Granted, no one enjoys reading about perfect people, but I usually prefer there to be at least one character to legitimately care about. Still, I carried on, but was beginning to look forward to the book simply being over already. And yet it seemingly refused to end. Something would happen and you’d think, “Okay, that’s the revelation that wraps everything up.” But then it wouldn’t be! It would just keep going.

True, the final twist was something that, although the clues were there, I failed to see coming. So kudos for that. And yet, I find I can’t really recommend the book. I suspect that the movie is much better, because the story is condensed into 149 minutes, and presumably omits Nick’s often odious inner thoughts, but I doubt I’ll ever feel the urge to watch it. I must, however, award some points for the reference to the classic Pace Picante Sauce commercial, as my involuntary reaction to anyone mentioning New York City is to think, “New York City?!?!”

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

thousand-dollarFrom the back cover:
Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

Review:
I have been a fan of Veronica Mars from almost the beginning. I tuned in about midway through the first season, after reading about the show on the sadly now-defunct Television Without Pity website, and vividly recall how it quickly became appointment television, and how absolutely riveted I was watching the season finales for the first and second seasons. I mourned the show when it was cancelled, and when a friend forwarded me the link to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie last spring, I was practically delirious with squee. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie (after pre-ordering tickets the minute they were available, naturally).

I admit I was a little disappointed the first time through—ninety minutes just wasn’t enough time to flesh out both relationships and the case—but I did like it more upon a second viewing. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues the story from where the movie leaves off, and while I was a little unsure at first, I was soon won over by the characterization and the luxury of more time to spend with these characters, inhabiting their world.

A couple months have passed since the events of the movie. While Keith has been recuperating from his injuries, Veronica has been manning Mars Investigations, not that any challenging cases have come along. When a college girl in Neptune for spring break goes missing, however, a representative from the city’s chamber of commerce comes to the Mars family for help, since Sheriff Lamb’s inactivity on the case is resulting in canceled reservations and the loss of tourist revenue. Veronica’s ensuing investigation feels a lot like an episode from the third season of the show, from her dorm room interrogation of one suspect, to her tried-and-true drunk ditz routine at a party full of suspects. When a second girl with surprising ties to Veronica goes missing, things get even more complicated.

I thought the case was reasonably well executed, and the personal stakes for Veronica were intriguing, as well. Dialogue for all characters was great and easy to imagine in the actors’ voices; I even giggled a few times. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the book being written in the third person, saying that it lacks the same feel as the series, but I found plenty of internal contemplation from Veronica that read just like the show’s voiceover narration to me. (I can only imagine this will be even more true in the unabridged audio version, read by Kristen Bell. I bought that, too, and plan to listen to it very soon.) Plus, we’re able to get some insights into her thoughts that she might not even narrate, like this nice quote about Wallace: “There weren’t many people in this world who would let you be vulnerable and still believe you were strong.”

Speaking of Wallace, another complaint I’ve seen regards the lack of Logan in this book—he’s on an aircraft carrier thousands of miles away, so it only makes sense—but I actually welcome it. The movie put their relationship front and center; now it’s time to focus on Veronica’s other relationships. To that end, we get several really nice scenes involving Mac (who’s now a technical analyst for Mars Investigations), Wallace, and Keith. There was just enough Logan to my reckoning.

I did have one complaint of my own for a while—two if you count that nobody caught Gia Goodman being referred to as Gia Goodwin. I wished we saw Veronica embarking on an even bigger case, like actively working to expose the corruption at the Sheriff’s Office or to find out who was responsible for the hit and run that injured her father and killed Deputy Sacks. However, I eventually realized that there actually was a big plot on the go—bringing Keith around to the idea that Veronica is doing what she’s meant to do (as opposed to being safe, well paid, and bored as a New York lawyer) . The ultimate resolution here is extremely satisfying, and I find myself very excited at the notion that the two of them could really function as full-fledged partners on a future case. More Keith is always a good thing!

Currently, only a second book in this series is guaranteed, and it has neither a title nor publication date at present, though Rob Thomas has promised more Logan. I suppose it goes without saying that I really, really hope for more beyond that. Give the diehard fans an inch, and they’ll ask for a mile!

Catching Up with Lynley and Havers

carelessinredCareless in Red
It’s been a while since I talked about an Elizabeth George book on the blog. I did read With No One as Witness, but spent so long digesting my reaction to the surprise ending (which had, admittedly, been spoiled for me by the author’s website) that I forgot many of the other details. And I started the next book, What Came Before He Shot Her, but as it doesn’t revolve around our main characters and is massively depressing, I quickly abandoned it. Skipping ahead to Careless in Red runs counter to my typical completist sensibilities, but I’m glad I did, even if it is rather lame in various respects.

In short, a murder has been committed in a surfing town in Cornwall where many of the residents are sex-obsessed. The culprit is revealed to be exactly who I thought it was (though I didn’t know why) and then everyone proceeds to have a sudden change of heart. The much-put-upon husband casts off his horrid wife. The rebellious son decides to make a sincere attempt at learning his father’s business. The cantankerous grandpa decides to honor his granddaughter’s wish to become a nun. (Seriously, why were they even in this book? Their only contribution to the mystery was that the victim had once made a comment to the girl that she relayed to the police.) At least Lynley is the protagonist in this one and, even though we aren’t treated to any sections from her point of view, Havers has a decent role, as well. I swear she just brightened up the whole book when she appeared. I do so love Havers.

thisbodyofdeathThis Body of Death
Isabelle Ardery, a character from Playing for the Ashes who didn’t even merit a mention in my review of that book, is back, taking on the Acting Detective Superintendent role vacated by Lynley. And boy, is she unsympathetic. She’s an alcoholic for one and makes several bad decisions (often seemingly out of pride or pique) regarding the case at hand (a young woman has been murdered in a local cemetery). She is able, though, to get Lynley to come back to Scotland Yard, and in the end the thoroughly broken pair ends up as lovers. While I do not like her at all, it is at least in character for Lynley to have terrible taste in women (Deborah, anyone?) aside from Lady Helen.

Havers has more to do this time (yay!) but I object to some extreme rationalization at the end regarding her unwillingness to call for backup. Yes, Havers is very stubborn, but I just got the feeling that George knew a reasonable officer would’ve called for backup in the situation Havers found herself in, but in order to get her big, dramatic conclusion to work, she had to get Havers to wait. Also, is George trying to insinuate that Havers is in love with Lynley? Her reaction to Lynley and Ardery’s relationship makes me wonder. I really don’t want this to be true. They should be like Donna and The Doctor.

Overall, though, This Body of Death is an improvement over Careless in Red. The case is more interesting and twisty, with various elements that connect well in ways I did not predict. The only really obvious revelation—and I’m honestly not sure it was supposed to be a surprise to the reader, given the way the book is structured—regards one character’s involvement in a past crime. Not the best Elizabeth George, but not terrible, either.

believingthelieBelieving the Lie
AUGH! I HATE DEBORAH ST. JAMES SO FREAKING MUCH! I mean, I have intensely disliked her for some time, but her idiotic actions in this book, most irritatingly excused by Lynley and Simon, have caused my feelings to progress into outright hatred. When Lynley is tasked with quietly verifying that the accidental drowning of a rich dude’s nephew really was an accident, he enlists Simon and Deborah’s help. Deborah, true to irrational form, becomes obsessed with ferreting out a secret held by one of the periphery characters and ends up running off on her own to pursue it, which ultimately leads to tragedy. And, of course, it all has to do with having babies, which is Deborah’s primary fixation, even though she’s such a damned moron that I’d feel bad for any kid growing up under her care.

The rest of the book wasn’t so great, either. Though it finishes with much drama, it starts off terribly dull. One subplot I could’ve done without entirely involved a tabloid reporter who was having trouble finding a story salacious enough to suit his editor. He ultimately served almost no purpose whatsoever, except to give Deborah a ride on several occasions. And I was mad at myself for getting a bit misty-eyed over the resolution to another subplot, since it replicates almost exactly one that appeared just two books ago! Lynley seems to be sleepwalking through most of what occurs, and though something spurs him at the end to begin trying to move on from Helen’s death, I’m not exactly sure what that was.

Once again, the best bits were the Havers bits. The volume ends with a cliffhanger that will lead us into the next book, and I’m glad I won’t have to wait years for it. I’m a little worried that Barbara is going to do something to jeopardize her career at Scotland Yard, but if it can lead to happiness in her personal life, or even a glimmer of hope for future happiness, it will probably be worth it.

justoneevilactJust One Evil Act
I wanted so much to love this book, but it persisted in being so thoroughly frustrating and awful that in the end, I very nearly hate it instead.

Angelina Upman, mother of Havers’ sweet nine-year-old neighbor Hadiyyah, returns to her former lover’s life briefly before absconding with her daughter to Italy, where her new man awaits. Azhar (Hadiyyah’s father) does something stupid to try to get Hadiyyah back, Angelina eventually ends up dead, and Barbara does so very, very many thunderingly stupid things throughout that she’s probably tarnished forever now in my eyes, which makes me quite sad indeed. It’s completely in character for her to do what she can for Azhar. I mean, I get that, and I get how he and his daughter are practically the only thing in her life besides her job, but she persists in believing she can bend a tabloid journalist to her will, but it only ever gets her further into the shit. (Meanwhile, readers are treated to innumerable, interminable conversations between the two of them. George also throws in tons of random Italian words throughout; it’s both annoying and pretentious.)

I wanted a book with Havers triumphant. A Havers showing that, despite her problems with professionalism and authority, she really has something amazing to offer. Instead, the best parts of this book were other people, namely Lynley, who makes progress in getting over Helen, and the charming Italian detective, who seems kind of sweet on Barbara.

It literally took me months to finish this. I cannot recommend it. And yet… can I give up a series I have stuck with for so long? Time will tell, I suppose.

Four by Laura Lippman

In the mood for a new mystery series, I decided to check out the Tess Monaghan books by Laura Lippman. They’re compulsively readable, inspiring me to proceed to the next in the series practically immediately, but I found I hadn’t much to say about each. Therefore, a column of brief reviews was clearly called for!

baltimorebluesBaltimore Blues introduces us to 29-year-old Baltimore native Tess Monaghan, underemployed former newspaper reporter and fitness buff, who undertakes a surveillance job for a rowing buddy whose fiancée has been acting weird. There wouldn’t be much of a book if this assignment didn’t turn out to be more than she bargained for, and in due course, a famous local lawyer is dead and the rowing buddy the chief suspect.

Now retained by the buddy’s lawyer, Tess continues to snoop about. She’s just supposed to be finding enough information to achieve reasonable doubt, but is instead driven to solve the mystery. And, ultimately, she does. It was an outcome that I didn’t expect, and the various plot threads and loose ends are wrapped up reasonably tidily, though the suggestion that a second killer is still roaming free was relegated to one blink-and-you-miss-it sort of line.

Tess herself is a little bit generic at this point, but she’s likeable enough. It’s interesting that she’s an investigator who isn’t technically tied to law enforcement, so she’s not obliged to divulge full details about crimes, with the flip side that because she lacks status she probably couldn’t divulge anything anyway without irrefutable proof. Baltimore emerges as a character of its own, too, and I loved that there was a Homicide: Life on the Street shoutout. Actually, there was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reference, too. Does Lippman know how to woo me, or what?

charmcityCharm City is the second in the Tess Monaghan series, set about five months after the first book. Tess has both a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend for the first time in two years, but her boss encourages her to accept an offer to investigate how an inflammatory story, originally not on the printing schedule, wound up on the front page of the local newspaper. Eventually, deaths ensue. Meanwhile, some shady guys hospitalize her uncle Spike and stalk Tess and her family members.

The good things about this sophomore outing revolve around Tess and her personal relationships. She comes into sharper focus as a character, first of all, but also makes some serious changes and/or mistakes in her personal life. And yet, this doesn’t read like one of those chick lit mystery series—my mind goes immediately to Meg Cabot’s dreadful Size 12 Is Not Fat—where the protagonist seems too easily distracted by the male characters. Tess just seems… normal.

On the negative side, the subplot (involving the aforementioned shady guys) was a real yawner and there were a couple of instances where twists were really obvious to the reader, making Tess appear incredibly slow on the uptake. And though the final big reveal did surprise me, in retrospect it shouldn’t have, because it was essentially the same gimmick used in the first book! Is a pattern forming? As I head into book three, I will definitely be looking for a certain type of character and setting my suspicious sights on them from the start.

Overall, Charm City was a little disappointing, but certainly not bad. Onward ho!

butchershillIn Butchers Hill, Tess has set up shop as a private investigator in a not-so-great part of town. Her first two clients are looking for children—one wants to make amends to the witnesses of a crime he committed five years ago, while another wants to know that the daughter she put up for adoption is doing alright. Neither client has been completely honest with Tess, however.

This was a really interesting installment of the series. I appreciate that Lippman was able to creative multiple African-American characters who feel like full-fledged, sympathetic individuals (though I do wonder what an African-American reader would make of them). There’s commentary here on race relations in Baltimore, among other things, but it doesn’t feel too heavy-handed. I also like that Tess is not strictly a homicide investigator, though her cases have all involved murder eventually.

Speaking of murder, after Charm City, I was a little worried that it would be easy to predict the perpetrators in subsequent books, but actually, I didn’t see this one coming. And that’s a good thing, though the reason why I didn’t was that it was a rather crackalicious twist. Despite that (and the one aspect of the ending that I predicted), the conclusion to this one is surprisingly affecting. I hope some of these new characters stick around.

inbigtroubleIn Big Trouble takes Tess away from her hometown of Baltimore and into the unfamiliar environment of San Antonio, Texas. When she receives an anonymous letter that Crow, her former boyfriend, is in big trouble in Texas, Tess ends up contracted by his parents to track him down. She finds Crow in fairly short order, but he is greatly changed and is also involved with a crazy young woman whose influential local family is tied to a notorious murder 21 years ago.

This was a bit of a weird one. I can’t say I disliked it, or that I predicted anything about it, but Tess is so off-balance personally for the duration that it sort of feels like the story never really gets… grounded, or something. Unlike the others in the series, I was able to set this one aside for a long time—like, weeks—and didn’t feel any particular urge to get back to it. That said, I did think the San Antonio setting was portrayed well, and Lippman successfully instilled a serious hankering for some authentic Mexican food.

In the end, I’m enjoying the Tess Monaghan series quite a lot! I’m going to take a break here for a bit, but I do intend to return to the series in the near future.

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

Book description:
It was a senselessly violent crime: on a cold night in a remote Swedish farmhouse an elderly farmer is bludgeoned to death, and his wife is left to die with a noose around her neck. And as if this didn’t present enough problems for the Ystad police Inspector Kurt Wallander, the dying woman’s last word is “foreign,” leaving the police the one tangible clue they have—and in the process, the match that could inflame Sweden’s already smoldering anti-immigrant sentiments.

Unlike the situation with his ex-wife, his estranged daughter, or the beautiful but married young prosecuter who has peaked his interest, in this case, Wallander finds a problem he can handle. He quickly becomes obsessed with solving the crime before the already tense situation explodes, but soon comes to realize that it will require all his reserves of energy and dedication to solve.

Review:
I reckon that most people would think, quite reasonably, that a mystery with a name like Faceless Killers would be riveting. Unfortunately, those people would be wrong.

I’d been aware of the acclaim that some Scandinavian crime fiction has garnered in recent years, and the Wallander series was the one seemed most visible—not saying it’s the best of the lot, but there is that Kenneth Branagh series on the BBC—so I decided to start there, and with the first book in the series.

It’s January 1990 when a seventy-year-old man wakes in the night, sure he’s heard something amiss at his neighbor’s house. He’s right—the couple inside has been brutally murdered, and wife’s dying words (as well as one particular detail about the crime) suggests involvement by one or more of the many foreign refugees flooding into Sweden. Wallander and his team investigate.

I like to think I could’ve pegged this for a first book in a series even if I hadn’t known. There’s just so much to give that away. Wallander has a set of stereotypical “detective issues,” for one, including a drinking problem, an estranged wife and daughter, a crazy parent, and a thoroughly random obsession for opera. (Perhaps the specificity of “opera” isn’t quite a stereotype, but I have definitely encountered several detectives who randomly groove to classical music while on the job.) The vast majority of the policemen in the background are utterly indistinguishable from one another, with the exception of one guy who might not be around in subsequent installments. Wallander’s personal issues miraculously resolve themselves off-camera in a fast-forward that happens towards the end of the book. Occasionally, characters engage in pointless debates/rants about immigration policy. And after much plodding around, the case is ultimately solved thanks to the conveniently (and implausibly) amazing memory of one witness.

It took me ages to get through the first half of the book, but things did pick up a little bit towards the end. Wallander’s transformation into someone more positive doesn’t feel earned, as it mostly happens during that fast-forwarded period, but it does make him a character that I’d have more interest in revisiting. Until the point he got over the wife and made up with the daughter and father, I was pretty sure I would not be coming back, but if he can shed at least some of the clichéd personal baggage, there may be hope.

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann

From the back cover:
On a hillside near the cozy Irish village of Glennkill, the members of the flock gather around their shepherd, George, whose body lies pinned to the ground with a spade. George has cared for the sheep, reading them a plethora of books every night. The daily exposure to literature has made them far savvier about the workings of the human mind than your average sheep. Led by Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill (and possibly the world), they set out to find George’s killer.

The A-team of investigators includes Othello, the “bad boy” black ram; Mopple the Whale, a Merino who eats a lot and remembers everything; and Zora, a pensive black-faced ewe with a weakness for abysses. Joined by other members of the talented flock, they engage in nightlong discussions about the crime and embark on reconnaissance missions into the village, where they encounter some likely suspects. Along the way, the sheep confront their own struggles with guilt, misdeeds, and unrequited love.

Review:
I’m not sure where I first heard about Three Bags Full, but the promise of a mystery with a team of sheepy sleuths on the case guaranteed that I had to read it. Originally published in German as Glennkill, this English edition has been translated by Anthea Bell.

Despite its bucolic setting, things are not very peaceful in the Irish village of Glennkill. One morning, George the shepherd is found dead in his pasture and his sheep, particularly several whose intelligence has been greatly increased due to George’s habit of reading aloud to them, set out to find justice. What ensues are various scenes of the sheep surreptitiously observing humans—“It was the first time Othello had been to a funeral, but the ram behaved beautifully.”—and filtering the information they glean through a sheepy lens. Usually, they get things a bit wrong, but the logic of their reasoning is quite endearing. They still manage to behave like sheep and often, certain of the flock complain about all the thinking and learning and must be cajoled from backsliding into blissful ignorance. Metaphor, much?

This was Swann’s first novel—a sequel, Garou came out in 2010 but no English translation is yet available—so perhaps it’s not surprising that, while the sheep are charming, the mystery itself is not as well-developed. George had apparently discovered a dirty secret of some of the villagers years before, but nothing much actually comes of this. Then, we also learn George was a drug dealer—with a rather clever method of transporting his goods—but nothing much actually comes of this, either. That said, the way in which the sheep encourage the truth to come out—though they’re convinced that what needs to “come out” is some kind of tangible thing lurking in the shepherd’s caravan—is pretty cute to envision, so I can’t complain too much.

Lastly, a couple of compliments! I applaud the English translation by Anthea Bell, which is so well done—and retains so much wit—that one would never guess it wasn’t the original text. Also, I happened to “read” Three Bags Full in unabridged audio format and the narrator, Josephine Bailey, was simply superb. Each sheep had their own easily recognizable voice, and the lambs were nothing short of adorable.

Here’s hoping Garou eventually makes its way to our shores!

Point of Hopes by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett

pointofhopesFrom the back cover:
It is the time of the annual Midsummer Fair in the royal city of Astreiant, and the time of the conjunction of the spheres approaches, heralding the death of the monarch. Each year a few youngsters run away from home to go on the road with traders, but this year a far larger number of children than usual have gone missing during the Fair. Someone is stealing them away without a trace, and the populace is angry.

Nicolas Rathe, a city guard, must find the children and stop whatever dark plan is being hatched before the city explodes into chaos.

Review:
It took me nearly three years to finish reading Point of Hopes, and two months to write this review after I finally completed it. Those facts should give you a good indication of just how riveting this mystery isn’t.

Nicolas Rathe is a “pointsman” (basically a policeman) in the city of Astreiant. When dozens of children suddenly go missing, Rathe is on the case. He enlists a few friends to help—Philip Eslingen, a foreign mercenary to whom Rathe seems to be attracted, and a necromancer buddy from the local university who was, for some reason, played in my head by Paul Bettany. Primarily, Rathe’s investigation consists of visiting various parts of the city and talking to people to no avail, until finally a bit of evidence turns up on page 279. The three guys collectively put the pieces together, and I really liked the bits where they were working in concert. Too bad they were only together in the final 70 pages!

Thankfully, the setting of Point of Hopes is more intriguing than its central mystery. For one, gender equality is absolutely the norm. Just as many women as men participate in professions seen as traditionally male in our society, and many women are in positions of power. In the fantasy setting of Astreiant, your occupation is determined by the alignment of the stars at your birth, which reads to me as a metaphor for objectively selecting people for a job based solely on their abilities. Equality of sexual preference is also a facet of life in Astreiant—it’s not that same-sex relationships are merely tolerated: they’re commonplace. No one would think of considering them invalid or sinful.

Aside from not being very exciting, the most irritating aspect of Point of Hopes for me was the dire need for better editing. There were many, many, many instances where a comma was used in a spot that needed a semicolon and many pages that suffered from wall o’ text syndrome. I can’t help but feel like it would’ve read faster if it weren’t so dense-looking. Lastly, I wonder at some of the names. I tend to think characters’ names “aloud” in my head, and while this is obviously not a problem for the lead characters, I was stymied by names like “Cijntien.” Plus, it’s weird to have fantasy names like that alongside such normal ones.

Anyway, there is a sequel to this entitled Point of Dreams. I own it, so will likely read it someday, but at the rate I’ve gone with this story thus far, I wouldn’t expect a review until at least 2015!

Additional reviews of Point of Hopes can be found at Triple Take.

A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Review:
Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.

-A

Review:
This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard that are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.