Review of The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean, by Alexander McCall Smith

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The Cowgirl Aunt of Harriet Bean, by Alexander McCall Smith

Performed by Charlotte Parry

Recorded Books, New York, 2007.  1 compact disc.  1.25 hours.

It’s always fun to listen to a British narrator, and it was a treat to listen to Charlotte Parry talking about the exploits of Harriet’s detective aunts, Aunt Thessalonika and Aunt Japonica.  In this book, Harriet learns that she has a sixth aunt she hadn’t known about, Aunt Formica.  Aunt Formica grew up on a ranch in America, and is a skilled cowgirl, but she has asked her detective sisters for help, and Harriet gets to come along.

The story is fun, reminding me of a traditional tall tale.  I love Alexander McCall Smith’s stories, but do think he does a little better when he writes about places where he has lived.  This story set in the American West struck me as highly stereotypical.  I certainly hope none of his readers would ever try to deal with a rattlesnake in the way that happens here!

All the same, this is a fun story and a quick read (or listen).  This could be an excellent choice for a child just ready to read chapter books on their own.  It’s not too long and daunting, but does have some excitement, as Harriet and her capable aunts deal with rustlers.

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/cowgirl_aunt.html

Review of Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

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Skulduggery Pleasant, by Derek Landy

Performed by Rupert Degas

Harper Audio, 2007.  7 1/2 hours.  6 compact discs.

I would love to meet a well-dressed detective with a voice like Skulduggery Pleasant.  The narrator does a magnificent job of making him sound tough and reliable and a hero to turn to when young Stephanie Edgely needs saving from deathly peril.  His Irish accent is irresistible.  When he turns out to be a living skeleton, we find we still want him on our side.

Stephanie is plunged into a world of magic and ancient evil after her uncle’s death.  She comes close to death countless times as she finds herself working with Skulduggery to try to save the world.

This book is full of action and narrow escapes.  The banter between Stephanie and Skulduggery is full of fun, wit, and affection.

The magic world Derek Landy creates — the one that ordinary people don’t know about but goes on around us — is much darker and more sinister than Harry Potter’s.  The villains here are truly evil, and there are some gruesome deaths.

But most of all, this is a fun and captivating adventure yarn.  The narration is completely magnificent, and found me wanting to linger in my car even after I’d reached my destination.

The things that happen to people (in the past of the story and its present) are horrible and gruesome enough that I would save this book for teens and up.  But for those who don’t mind a little grit in the story, I highly recommend this book.  Better yet, listen to the audio version and enjoy the Irish accents!

Find this review on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Teens/skulduggery_pleasant.html

Review of The Canterbury Papers, by Judith Koll Healey

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The Canterbury Papers 

A Novel of Suspense

by Judith Koll Healey

Reviewed December 17, 2006.
William Morrow, New York, 2004. 353 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, Romance Fiction

I loved this book! The subtitle says it’s a novel of suspense, but it’s also a historical mystery tale with romance, intrigue, and a smart, capable heroine.

The book features an actual historical character, Alaïs Capet, the daughter of Louis VII and his second wife, Constance of Castile. At a very young age, Alaïs and her sister Marguerite were sent to England to live with the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first wife of Louis VII.

Alaïs and Marguerite were betrothed to Henry II’s sons, Alaïs to Richard the Lionheart, and Marguerite to Henry Court Mantel. However, when Eleanor lost favor with Henry for plotting with her sons against him, he had her imprisoned in a tower and took Alaïs as his mistress. She never married Richard.

The book opens many years later. Richard and Henry are both dead and the younger brother John is ruling England, but doesn’t have a firm hold on the throne. Eleanor sends Alaïs to Canterbury to recover some letters which might hurt John’s power. Eleanor hints that she can give Alaïs information about a secret near to her heart, a secret she long thought was dead and buried.

The person in charge of Canterbury, William of Caen, once also lived in the court of Henry and Eleanor. He took his lessons with the royal children, including Alaïs, and was tormented by the princes, because he was their father’s favorite. Alaïs finds him quite changed since she last saw him. He also seems to know more than he lets on.

Alaïs is kidnapped just before she is able to recover the letters. She’s held in the same tower where Eleanor was once imprisoned. Now King John wants information from her—information she doesn’t have.

This story is full of action, suspense, and romance, and is highly enjoyable reading. I wouldn’t call it chick lit, because the historical background and political intrigue give it more weight than your typical light mystery. This is Judith Koll Healey’s first novel, but I hope there will be many, many more to follow!

This review is on the main site at www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/canterburypapers.html

 

Review of High Priestess, by David Skibbins

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High Priestess
by David Skibbins

Reviewed September 18, 2007.
Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Minotaur), New York, 2006. 280 pages.

I so enjoyed David Skibbins’ first book, Eight of Swords, I quickly snapped up his second Tarot Card Mystery.

This book also features the extremely quirky reluctant detective Warren Ritter. Even though he’s used to running from trouble or suspicion or intimacy, he’s sticking around Berkeley because of the new love in his life.

In this book, we again find Warren riding the heights and depths of his manic-depressive condition, and again getting unjustly suspected by the police. Like the first book, the story is fun, absorbing, and unpredictable. We learn about a series of mysterious deaths which might all be accidents. Or are they a determined pattern, with Warren’s old girlfriend on target to be the next victim?

I didn’t particularly like it that Warren was asked to investigate these deaths by the leader of “The Church of the Arising Night,” worshippers of Satan. The book includes a plausible sounding plea to join this cult, as well as the character of a sinister and threatening Christian minister. So if that would bother you in a novel, you should avoid this book.

As for me, I didn’t particularly like those details, but it’s not as if they suggest that all Christians are like this minister, or that joining the Church of Satan is a good idea. (Warren isn’t interested.) I wanted to know what happened to the character, so I read on. With all his quirks and weaknesses and shadowy past, he’s someone I find myself rooting for.

This review is on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/high_priestess.html

Review of The Oxford Murders, by Guillermo Martinez

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The Oxford Murders
by Guillermo Martinez
translated by Sonia Soto

Reviewed September 17, 2007.
MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco, 2005. 197 pages.

This delightfully philosophical murder mystery was written by a man from Buenos Aires with a PhD in Mathematics. Of course I liked it!

The character telling the story is a PhD student from Argentina studying at Oxford. He’s staying in an apartment owned by the widow of a great mathematician. One day, soon after he arrived at Oxford, he encounters an eminent logician and together they discover the old woman dead, murdered.

The murderer has left a note, apparently a challenge to Dr. Seldom, the logician. The note refers to the murder as the first of a series, and includes a symbol, a circle. Sure enough, there’s a second murder, along with the symbol of a fish, drawn from two curved lines.

Part of the fun is this book is the mathematical aspects of the case. Dr. Seldom explains that they still don’t have enough information to determine the next symbol in the series. In fact, they can never be absolutely sure they have found what the murderer is thinking of. But perhaps if they can figure out the next item in the series, they can solve the crime.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, a good mysterious puzzle, as well as some interesting things to think about.

This review is on the main site at:

www.sonderbooks.com/Fiction/oxford_murders.html

Review of The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, by M. T. Anderson

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M. T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales:
The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen
by M. T. Anderson

Reviewed September 9, 2007.
Harcourt, Orlando, 2006. 243 pages.

This book, another “Thrilling Tale” in the spirit of Whales on Stilts, is a delightful spoof of children’s series books. Both my sons, ages 18 and 12, read this book, and laughed so much and read bits aloud so often, I simply had to read it myself. It may not be great literature or a terribly compelling story, but it is hilariously clever.

Katie Mulligan, her friend Lily, and Jasper Dash, Boy Detective, are ready for a vacation, so they take advantage of a coupon for a free dinner at the Moose Tongue Lodge and Resort. Once there, they learn that the coupons are fake—and many other people, all stars of series books, have received them as well.

Then the Hooper Quints are kidnapped on their way to the hotel. Which of the dashing detectives will be able to solve the mystery? Then a valuable necklace is stolen while people are out searching for the quintuplets. Are the two mysteries tied together?

The story isn’t the point of this book. It’s got lovely unlikely plot twists, just like the series books they are spoofing would have.

Here’s the first section that my 12-year-old felt he HAD to read to me. It’s talking about how Jasper Dash’s books are somewhat out of date.

Often, if you go to a town library and under Keyword Search type “Jasper Dash,” you’ll come up with a list of his books—and beside each one, it says: “Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn. Withdrawn.” This means that they are no longer in circulation. Some librarian has taken them off the shelf, wiping away a tear, and has opened the book to the back, where there’s a pouch for a card dating back to the time of the Second World War, and she’ll crumple up the card, and then she and her fellow librarians will take special knives and slice away at the book and will eat the pages in big mouthfuls until the book is all gone, the whole time weeping, because they hate this duty—it is the worst part of their job—for here was a book that was once someone’s favorite, but which now is dead and empty. And the little cheerful face of Jasper Dash, heading off to fight a cattle-rustling ring in his biplane, will still be smiling pluckily as they take their Withdrawal Knives and scratch his book to pieces.

(How did he know?)

A section my 18-year-old was compelled to read to me was actually on the back flap:

M.T. Anderson is seven monkeys, six typewriters, and a Speak & Spell. It took them ten years to write The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen. Their previous books include Adf2yga^vvvv, WpolwOox.S Ppr2dgn shr Elssf, and The Riverside Edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Adf2yga^vvvv was a National Book Award finalist. The M. T. Anderson Monkey collective is located outside Boston. Its hobbies include flash cards, hopping, and grooming for lice. It divides its time between the parallel bars and the banana trough.

 

Who wouldn’t want to read a book with such a blurb?

Here is the review on the main site:  http://www.sonderbooks.com/Childrens_Fiction/linoleum_lederhosen.html

The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

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The Fourth Bear
by Jasper Fforde

Reviewed August 7, 2007.
Viking, New York, 2006. 378 pages.

Jasper Fforde’s books are impossible to satisfactorily classify. Perhaps I should start a new category for his books only. Let’s see—I could call it “humor for clever readers” or “fantasy-sci-fi-mystery-humor-with literary allusions.” I took the easy way out by calling the Thursday Next books “science fiction,” since they do involve alternate universes, and I called the first of the Nursery Crime series “mystery,” since it is a detective story. However, the fact that the detective is a character in a nursery rhyme investigating such people as the Gingerbreadman and Goldilocks and the Quangle-Wangle, does make it an extremely atypical detective story.

I could call this fantasy, but it’s very different from what people expect from that category. So I’ll stick with “mystery,” which scratches the surface of what this book is about.

In The Fourth Bear, the second book in the Nursery Crime series, Jack Spratt investigates the disappearance of Goldilocks. He’s currently in trouble for letting the wolf eat Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. Although they were saved by a woodsman, they’re traumatized and won’t speak.

Jack’s boss is after him to get a psychiatric evaluation and some time resting. What Jack’s critics don’t realize is that the wolf also ate Jack. He puts his life on the line, but doesn’t think he needs therapy. He’s used to such bizarre circumstances—They’re all in a day’s work. Besides, how can he rest when that homicidal maniac, the Gingerbreadman, has escaped from the asylum?

There’s great fun in this book, though you do have to tolerate a few groaners, like a waiter who seems familiar in the Déjà vu Hotel. In the Thursday Next books, we saw what it’s like to be in books from the characters’ perspectives, so that prepared me for passages like this one:

Jack and his partner Mary Mary had just been discussing at great length and alliteration the fact that “Pippa Piper picked Peck over Pickle or Pepper.” The text reads:

There was a pause.

“It seems a very laborious setup for a pretty lame joke, doesn’t it?” mused Jack.

“Yes,” agreed Mary, shaking her head sadly. “I really don’t know how he gets away with it.”

Well, Jasper Fforde, the man who successfully used eleven hads in a row in The Well of Lost Plots, has gotten away with it again!

Review of North by Northanger, by Carrie Bebris

North by Northanger

(Or, The Shades of Pemberley)

by Carrie Bebris

Reviewed July 5, 2007.
Forge, New York, 2006. 318 pages.

This is the third “Mr. and Mrs. Darcy” mystery by Carrie Bebris, extending the story begun by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice. This one was by far my favorite. In this book, Elizabeth is expecting a child, and she finds a letter from Mr. Darcy’s mother, who died giving birth to Mr. Darcy’s sister Georgiana.

This book is well done. We get a puzzling mystery, where Mr. Darcy himself is accused of stealing diamonds. We get a perplexing experience at Northanger Abbey and even a hidden treasure. We meet again some characters from Jane Austen’s book, Northanger Abbey.

But most fascinating of all is getting to know the earlier Mrs. Darcy through her letters, especially those exchanged with Mrs. Tilney, the mother of the hero of Northanger Abbey. It’s fun to think how Elizabeth would have been affected by the reputation of her predecessor—but then to see her come to peace with that memory as she learns the heart of her husband’s mother.

This book gives you the chance to spend more time with two delightful people. You get to experience two happy people in love, facing the birth of a child at a time when giving birth could be dangerous, with perplexing difficulties to untangle as well.

The first two books in the series went a little too far with supernatural explanations of puzzling events for my taste. But this book had only a hint of such things, and they added atmosphere with the loving spirit of the former Mrs. Darcy.

Thanks to my friend Stephanie for urging me to try the third book in the series!