Review of The Man With a Load of Mischief by Martha Grimes (1981) (Richard Jury Series)

 Bottom line: A pleasant and intriguing read with a few murders thrown in for good measure.

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

At the Man with a Load of Mischief, they found the dead body stuck in a keg of beer. At the Jack and Hammer, another body was stuck out on the beam of the pub’s sign, replacing the mechanical man who kept the time. Two pubs. Two murders. One Scotland Yard inspector called in to help. Detective Chief Inspector Richard Jury arrives in Long Piddleton and finds everyone in the postcard village looking outside of town for the killer. Except for one Melrose Plant. A keen observer of human nature, he points Jury in the right direction: into the darkest parts of his neighbors’ hearts…

Review:

Just a few weeks ago I was complaining about not being able to find new-to-me cozy mystery series to get lost in. Well, of course the next day I picked up an older book that I had gotten last year at my neighborhood’s community book swap, and found just that. The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes has about two dozen books, and I’m looking forward to working my way through them. Some may quibble with my including this as a cozy, since the lead character works for the police, but the setting, atmosphere, and lack of CSI type talk make me feel ok about sticking this in with the cozies.

I had a few minor complaints, as I usually do, the biggest one being that I didn’t feel like the partnership between Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, who are being established as the crime fighting duo who go on to work together throughout the series, was explained or explored very well. The men seemed almost to be the same person. I would have like to see more differentiation, and a more solid foundation of their relationship established.

That being said, that was my main complaint. It met all my other criteria for a good cozy mystery, and the characters were well drawn and intriguing enough that I’m hoping to learn more about them as the series progresses.

One thing I will say is that I found this to be a fairly light read – the best way I can explain this is to compare it to something like Louise Penny’s mystery series, which always leaves me a touch hesitant to get into the next book. Not because I am afraid the quality will be lacking, but because reading those books is an emotional investment. There are some deep tragedies and pain explored (not even necessarily related to the crime being investigated) that, frankly, I just don’t always have the energy to tackle. I can’t speak to the rest of thisseries, since I’ve only read the first (though I have the second waitlisted at the library), but The Man With a Load of Mischief was exactly what I was looking for when I started searching for new cozies a few weeks ago – an entertaining read that wasn’t too draining mentally.

PS – this was set around Christmastime in a small English village (though the Christmas parts are very minor), so it may be fun to earmark to read around then.

I know I’m late to the party since this was first published in 1981, so have any of you read the Richard Jury series? What did you think?

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Bottom line: Meh.

Rating: Recommended if: you’re doing a tour of classic sci fi authors.

Blurb:

When the human ambassador Genly Ai is sent to Gethen, the planet known as Winter by those outsiders who have experienced its arctic climate, he thinks that his mission will be a standard one of making peace between warring factions. Instead the ambassador finds himself wildly unprepared. For Gethen is inhabited by a society with a rich, ancient culture full of strange beauty and deadly intrigue—a society of people who are both male and female in one, and neither. This lack of fixed gender, and the resulting lack of gender-based discrimination, is the very cornerstone of Gethen life. But Genly is all too human. Unless he can overcome his ingrained prejudices about the significance of “male” and “female,” he may destroy both his mission and himself.

Review:

I was really excited to read this book, as I’ve heard really great things of Le Guin, the book is generally really highly reviewed, and it won a Hugo AND a Nebula award. I ended up being really disappointed. I think overall, if I hadn’t had such high expectations, I might have enjoyed it more than I did, but not by much.

Basically, the entire book was a heav-handed exploration of the question “what would society be like if there were no gender?” The world she created was quite interesting, and the basic conflict set up was how cultural differences impact communication, which is something I’ve always found fascinating. Even the action/survival part of the story – once we finally got there – was enjoyable. However, everything came back to how sex works in this society, and its impact on the culture.

It’s a book that’s supposed to make you stop and think about gender and sexuality in our own society, but being a naturally stubborn person, the more you hit me over the head with something, the less likely I am to want to acquiesce. I think this book would have been much more impactful, to me at least, if the themes were more subtly woven through the story. I wanted the world and the two different cultures we met with to be more fleshed out. I wanted to get a better view of the relationships between the main characters. I wanted the action to be better paced (instead of people sitting around talking or walking through the snow for half of the book, then suddenly a bomb goes off and Stuff Starts To Happen).

There was so much going for this book that I wanted to like, but for me it just never managed to come together. I felt like it was trying too hard to be Intellectual. Obviously, millions of people (including the voters of the Hugo and Nebula panels) disagree with me. It was a book I felt to be worth the read, especially if you’re interested in exploring some of the early-contemporary sci fi authors, but it wasn’t a book that I could ever get totally immersed in, or couldn’t wait to pick up again when I put it down.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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Review of A Fine Romance (2013) by Susan Branch

Bottom line: A peaceful armchair journey for a rainy afternoon.

Rating: Recommended If you’re in the mood for a vicarious wander through southern England.

Review:

The full title of this book is, “A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside” and you will do just that, I promise you. For anyone who has been to England, this book is like one long nostalgic sigh. You get to travel along with the author through her handwritten and illustrated journal, enjoying the English countryside. Of course, it will stoke your wanderlust, if you are of that type, and you may have to remind yourself, “Self, if you went to England, it would NOT be via the Queen Mary 2, and you would be taking a toddler and an infant on at least two plane rides of 12 hours, and would most likely be staying in hostels with said young children.” But it’s nice to dream anyways, and A Fine Romance is a lovely dream. Best read with a nice cuppa and a biscuit or two.

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Book Review: Matt Archer: Monster Hunter by Kendra Highley

Bottom Line: A gritty YA fantasy definitely worth the read.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

Fourteen-year-old Matt Archer spends his days studying Algebra, hanging out with his best friend and crushing on the Goddess of Greenhill High, Ella Mitchell. To be honest, he thinks his life is pretty lame until he discovers something terrifying on a weekend camping trip at the local state park.

Monsters are real. And living in his backyard.

But that’s not the half of it. After Matt is forced to kill a strange creature to save his uncle, he finds out that the weird knife he took from his uncle’s bag has a secret, one that will change Matt’s life. The knife was designed with one purpose: to hunt monsters. And it’s chosen Matt as its wielder.

Now Matt’s part of a world he didn’t know existed, working with a covert military unit dedicated to eliminating walking nightmares. Faced with a prophecy about a looming dark war, Matt soon realizes his upcoming Algebra test is the least of his worries.

His new double life leaves Matt wondering which is tougher: hunting monsters or asking Ella Mitchell for a date?

Review:

This is one of those books that languished on my Kindle for a very long time. I’d grabbed it on sale, but just didn’t get started on it for one reason or another. Then I found myself stranded in an airport for several hours one Saturday morning – WITHOUT my toddler – and I have to say, those were pretty much the most relaxing hours I’ve had since December 2012, when said toddler entered my life. I sat in an airport restaurant, drank my weight in tea, and read Matt Archer: Monster Hunter.

It was very, very good. It’s the classic YA tale of a normal teenager finding out he has powers, and must use them to fight for his family and his world. However, there were a few things done differently that I thought elevated it above the general YA fantasy offering. I loved that adults are fighting the evil as well, and they are mostly skeptical of bringing this kid into the mix. It seemed much more realistic than say, the Percy Jackson books, where the issue of “but where are all the adult demigods and why aren’t they doing anything?” is pretty much glossed over. I also loved its international outlook. Matt’s an American kid, and the story is based in America, but instead of everything happening in the states, there are incidents popping up all over the world.

Another issue I have with some YA fantasy series is that so often it feels like watching an old school video game. Each book is a level, and you have to make it to the end of the level to fight the boss, and then you start a new level with its boss,  then at the end of the whole game, you fight the big boss. Each book neatly wraps up one year of school or a summer between school years, with the bad guys conveniently making their move during finals or right before school starts up again, depending on the series. And while I understand authors wanting to contribute to the overarching series plot, while giving readers closure during the individual books as well, it so often just feels contrived. Matt Archer’s plot moved along in a very natural progression. He’s fighting monsters, and he’s also going to school, but it didn’t feel like the monsters were timing their attacks around the school year.

Ranting aside, Matt feels like a very realistic teenage boy. He’s likeable, has character flaws, and reacts in a very believable way to all the weird stuff that has now become his life. I loved his family and friends and hope we get to know them better.

The author, Kendra Highley (who I can claim to know slightly through the power of social media – and is a lovely person as well as talented author), was in the process of releasing the fifth and last book in the series while I was reading the first, so I’m excited to have a completed series to plow through as time, energy, and budget allows. I am a little nervous to do so because this book started off grittier and more intense (and with an older protagonist) than many YA series, and I’m guessing it follows the pattern of becoming darker as the story progresses. I don’t handle stress all that well in general, and definitely not when I’m pregnant. I mostly want everything to be rainbows and sunshine and unicorns. I’m pretty sure people are going to die in this series…people I like. Oh well.

If you like YA fantasy, this is a book that must not be missed!

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Review of The Martian by Andy Weir (2012)

Bottom line: Highly recommended for sci-fi fans and/or survivalists.

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.

Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Review:

Wow, that’s a long blurb. I won’t say much about the story, since it’s all pretty much covered. I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s sci-fi meets the good old-fashioned survival story. The character of Mark is completely realistic and charming, and I like that in this survival story, it’s actually believable how the main character has the knowledge and skills needed to survive.

There are a lot of f-bombs in here, but frankly, it fits his character and the man has been stranded on Mars. Some interesting stylistic choices are that it’s mostly told through Mark’s official NASA log/journal, which works much better than I would have thought, and Weir gives a LOT of detail and numbers on how exactly Mark is going about survival, including oxygen input, water consumption, etc. I kind of loved those things since it gave a realistic feel to the proceedings, and I’m a numbers nerd anyways. I asked my husband (NOT a numbers nerd) who’d liked and recommended the book to me and he said he just kind of ignored them.

There are a lot of secondary characters, and at first I had a hard time keeping track of who was who. However, as the story progressed, I became impressed at how he was able to fill out the characters in just the few quick strokes we get from Mark’s journal, or the glimpses we get as we watch them try to bring Mark home.

This is a really fun book, and the best contemporary sci-fi I’ve read recently.

Get it: Amazon, Barnes and Noble

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Review of Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews (2007) (Kate Daniels #1)

Bottom line: Good, but gruesome

Rating: Recommended

Blurb:

Earning a living cleaning up magical messes, mercenary Kate Daniels is drawn into a power struggle between two factions–necromancers and shapeshifters–within Atlanta’s magic circles when her guardian is murdered.

Review:

This is one of those books that makes me wish I were WAY more desensitized to violence. I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the unique setting (magical power comes and goes, alternating with technology – and her take on vampires was really interesting, and far more believable than sparkling demi-god-like figures). It is sort of a murder mystery/urban fantasy mashup, with the emphasis on the urban fantasy: both of which I love.

However, and this is a big however, it was really gruesome. There was a lot of violence, particularly sexual violence against women. The worst of it takes place “off screen”, but is no less present for that.

I’ve heard that the rest of the books in the series aren’t quite as awful in this particular way, so I stepped out on a limb and reserved the second one (Magic Burns) at the library. I’m hoping it’s less graphic, as there were many things I liked about the first book. The author nicely balanced the tension of wrapping up the story arc at the end of the first book, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions about the characters that make you want to keep reading.

Have you read the book or series? What did you think?

P.S. One of the things I loved about the character is that she dresses for practicality, not to be sexy. How could you not love a character who wears “jeans loose enough to let me kick a man taller than me in the throat”?

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Reading List: Pipe Dream Edition

One of my pipe dreams is to get to travel to all of the continents. And not just the easy ones, either. Nope, I want to make it to Antarctica. I often get asked why. Why wouldn’t you want to go to Antarctica? Penguins! Icebergs! Whales! Unspoiled nature! Etc.!

Since it’s somewhat unlikely I’ll actually make it down there (it’s really, REALLY expensive), I read about it instead. My favorite is The Last Place on Earth (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) by Roland Huntford, though it is very hard to read in places (spoiler alert: people die). Next up on my to-be-read list is The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, which I’ve heard is very good, and is a nice balance to The Last Place on Earth.

I just read Blue Latitudes (Amazon, Barnes and Noble) by Tony Horwitz. The tagline is boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before. Captain Cook never actually made it to Antarctica, but he was one of the first to cross the Arctic Circle, and his exploration and charting made possible much of what was to come later. The basic premise of the book is that Horwitz chronicles Captain Cook’s life and voyages, and then visits the same places he did to get an idea of Cook’s lasting legacy.

I had a hard time getting into the book, since the beginning jumps around a lot and was very difficult to follow where in time and place you are. Once he hits his stride though, it was very interesting. It’s almost impossible to imagine how vast the scope of Cook’s charting and discoveries are, especially when you consider the equipment and navigational tools of the day (mid 1700s). I thought Horwitz painted Cook in a very fair light, paying homage to the monumental tasks the man achieved, while also examining the legacy the Cook and the other European discoverers/colonialists/conquerors left for the native peoples (spoiler: it generally hasn’t worked out very well for them). I was less interested in hearing about the author smoking pot and drinking himself silly in every stop (including some implied drunk driving), but I guess that’s just me being an old stick in the mud.

Overall, I found it very readable, and loved learning more about Cook, who seems to be far less well known than Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen, and many others. I might have to tackle Shackleton next in my explorer’s reading.

What’s your pipe dream? Would you go to Antarctica?

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Review of Thyme of Death by Susan Wittig Albert (1992) (China Bayles Series)

Bottom line: Okay

Rating: Recommended if: you’re looking for a light mystery, or have a connection to the Texas Hill Country

Blurb:

China Bayles has it all – a prestigious Houston law practice, money, power – but it’s not enough. She’s smart, she’s tough, she’s confident, and she knows she wants something more out of life than the fast track offers. Something like the Thyme and Seasons herb shop in Pecan Springs, Texas. Realizing that her career is turning her into somebody she doesn’t like, China does what many people only dream of doing: She relocates to a small town to begin a new and, she hopes, a gentler, more fulfilling life.

But even in Pecan Springs, evil can occur among ordinary people living everyday lives. China soon learns that while she can move from the city, she can’t escape the world of moral choice. When China’s good friend, Jo Gilbert, apparently commits suicide, China is more than puzzled. Jo had been suffering from a terminal disease, but wasn’t the type to take her own life. And, to a lawyer like China, some revealing letters that Jo leaves behind shout blackmail and murder, not suicide.

But why would anybody want to kill a woman who will die soon anyway? And what about the scent of perfume in Jo’s house? When another mysterious death occurs, China is sure she’s dealing with homicide. Helped by her best friend, New-Ager Ruby Wilcox, and with support from lover Mike McQuaid, a former-cop-turned-professor, China follows a trail of greed and fear to discover some unsettling answers. Thyme of Death marks the memorable debut of one of the most original and appealing new female sleuths to come along in years. Readers will identify with China Bayles as she makes the kind of tough decisions that confront us all.

Review:

I was excited to read this, as it seemed like a neat setup – I love the Texas Hill Country, and the former-lawyer-turned-herb-shop-owner premise seemed intriguing. However, I had to really push myself through the first fifty or so pages before I started to get into it. I found the writing to be clunky and distracting. The characters were ok, and the plot was good, but the not-so-subtle themes and meticulous character descriptions kept pulling me out of the story. Surely there is a happy medium between not being told anything about what a character looks like and having to know, down to the shoes, exactly what every single person is wearing, even random once-off characters we’re never going to see again.

I did start enjoying it more once we got into the investigation parts of the story, and if I happened across the next in the series while at the library I’ll probably pick it up, but I won’t be rushing out to grab it. I felt mildly curious about the lead’s past, but I didn’t feel connected enough to her to need to know more about her. It is worth a read if you’re headed to the Texas Hill Country and are looking for a light, throw away read for an afternoon.

Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

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Review of Sorcery and Cecelia

Sorcery and Cecelia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot (1988) (Cecelia and Kate #1) by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

Bottom line: Delightful

Rating: Strongly Recommended

Blurb:

In 1817 in England, two young cousins, Cecilia living in the country and Kate in London, write letters to keep each other informed of their exploits, which take a sinister turn when they find themselves confronted by evil wizards.

Review:

I try not to use the word “delightful” too much (or any other word that I don’t use in real life), but with this book, I just can’t escape it. It simply is delightful: think Jane Austen with magic, mysteries, and mayhem. The entire book is told in the form of letters written between the two cousins, and the adventures they find themselves in are a fun way to explore the characters.

One of the things I loved the most about this book, apart from the introduction of magic and wizards into a traditional Regency setting, is that it is all about relationships: the girls’ relationship with each other, their siblings, their families, the men in their lives, and how all of those people interact. The plot keeps things moving along, and the humor is a very nice touch. I love Kate, who is clumsy and generally unlucky, despite being an intelligent and capable person. She’s just the sort of person who would manage to accidentally stumble into a not-quite-real garden in the middle of a ceremony and embarrass everyone.

If you like the occasional (clean) Regency romance, but sometimes find them a bit, well, boring, this is definitely a book to check out. I read it with a smile on my face, and was delighted (if I’m going to use it, I may as well over use it) to find that it was the first in a series. 

Confess: do you read Regency romances?

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Review of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy

Review:

C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strengthh) is the most disjointed trilogy I have ever read. That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading, or even good, but it feels more like a very loosely related collection of books than a trilogy. What makes it feel so disjointed is the tone, rather than any major plot or character devices. To me, Out of the Silent Planet feels like Lewis is exploring the idea of what life on another planet might look like. Perelandra takes that concept and builds upon a Christianity-compatible philosophic framework introduced at the end of Out of the Silent Planet. That Hideous Strength is, quite frankly, very weird. It seems to be the next step in Lewis’s thinking about philosophy, and planets, and angels and demons, but with more science AND more fantasy thrown in.

I’m still recommending these books, as they are such classic science fiction reads, and I found the first two enjoyable. I didn’t necessarily “enjoy” the last book, but I’m still glad I finished the trilogy. Lewis is, as always, a very skilled writer, and it’s incredibly interesting to get a glimpse into the way his mind worked as his characters interact with each other and explore other planets and our own.

Hard-core Tolkien fans will enjoy glimpses of his influence in this work, both in the languages and some of the names, and the character of Ransom, who was modeled after Tolkien. There are also a couple of references to Numenor.

Get it: Amazon (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), Barnes & Noble (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength),

Blurbs:

Out of the Silent Planet

Out of the Silent Planet is the first novel in C. S. Lewis’s classic science fiction trilogy. It tells the adventure of Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge academic, who is abducted and taken on a spaceship to the red planet of Malacandra, which he knows as Mars. His captors are plotting to plunder the planet’s treasures and plan to offer Ransom as a sacrifice to the creatures who live there. Ransom discovers he has come from the “silent planet”—Earth—whose tragic story is known throughout the universe!

Perelandra

Perelandra, the second novel in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, tells of Dr. Ransom’s voyage to the paradise planet of Perelandra, or Venus, which turns out to be a beautiful Eden-like world. He is horrified to find that his old enemy, Dr. Weston, has also arrived and is putting him in grave peril once more. As the mad Weston’s body is taken over by the forces of evil, Ransom engages in a desperate struggle to save the innocence of Perelandra!

That Hideous Strength

That Hideous Strength is the third novel in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. Set on Earth, it tells of a terrifying conspiracy against humanity. The story surrounds Mark and Jane Studdock, a newly married couple. Mark is a sociologist who is enticed to join an organization called N.I.C.E., which aims to control all human life. Jane, meanwhile, has bizarre prophetic dreams about a decapitated scientist, Alcasan. As Mark is drawn inextricably into the sinister organization, he discovers the truth of his wife’s dreams when he meets the literal head of Alcasan, which is being kept alive by infusions of blood. Jane seeks help concerning her dreams at a community called St. Anne’s, where she meets their leader—Dr. Ransom. The story ends in a final spectacular scene at the N.I.C.E. headquarters where Merlin appears to confront the powers of Hell.

What did you think?

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