Sunday, February 1, 2015

Series-ously Good Mysteries - February 2015

Have the winter doldrums got you down? Why not check out the titles being published this month in your favorite mystery series.

Jenn McKinlay has book number three of the Hat Shop mystery series, entitled At the Drop of a Hat coming out this month, and it follows Death of a Mad Hatter. Cousins Scarlett Parker and Vivian Tremont’s fashionable London hat shop, Mim’s Whims, is visited by a new customer bearing an old hat box. Ariana Jackson is getting married and wants to restore her mother’s bridal hat and veil for the occasion. The elegant item was made by Scarlett and Vivian’s grandmother over thirty years ago, so Viv is delighted to take the job. When Scarlett goes to Ariana's office to consult about the restoration cost, she finds her outside, standing over her boss’s dead body. Though Ariana claims to know nothing about his demise, the investigation unveils a motive for murder. Now, with the bride-to-be in custody and the wedding on hold, Scarlett and Viv must find the real killer.

Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King is the thirteenth title in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery series following Garment of Shadows. After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan. The cruising steamer Thomas Carlyle is leaving Bombay, bound for Kobe. Though they’re not the vacationing types, Russell is looking forward to a change of focus—not to mention a chance to travel to a location Holmes has not visited before. The idea of the pair being on equal footing is enticing to a woman who often must race to catch up with her older, highly skilled husband. Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer: not an unlikely career choice for a man richer in social connections than in pounds sterling. And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be. Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.

On of my favorite authors, M.C. Beaton is publishing Death of a Liar this month. It is the thirtieth titles in the Hamish Macbeth series and follows Death of a Policeman. Sergeant Hamish Macbeth is alarmed to receive a report from a woman in the small village of Cronish in the Scottish Highlands. She has been brutally attacked and the criminal is on the loose. But upon further investigation, Hamish discovers that she was lying about the crime. So when the same woman calls him back about an intruder, he simply marvels at her compulsion to lie. This time, though, she is telling the truth. Her body is found in her home and Hamish must sort through all of her lies to solve the crime.

The third title in the County Cork mystery series is An Early Wake by Sheila Connolly. It follows Scandal in Skibbereen. Summer is ending in County Cork, Ireland, and with it the tourist season. Expat Maura Donovan is determined to keep Sullivan's Pub in the black as the days grow shorter—but how? When she hears that the place was once a hot spot for Irish musicians who'd come play in the back room, she wonders if bringing back live music might be Sullivan's salvation. As word gets out, legendary musicians begin to appear at the pub, and the first impromptu jam session brings in scores of music lovers. But things hit a sour note when Maura finds a dead musician in the back room the next morning. With a slew of potential suspects, it's going to take more than a pint and a good think to force a murderer to face the music.

Town in a Sweet Pickle by B.B. Haywood is the sixth title in the Candy Holliday mystery series. It follows Town in a Strawberry Swirl. When Candy Holiday, a local farmer in the quiet coastal community of Cape Willington, Maine, organizes a cooking event for her local newspaper, the town's most prominent citizens turn out to witness the popular cookbook author Julia von Fleming serve as a guest judge. But when Julia comes close to consuming a poisoned pickle, she begins to suspect someone in Cape Willington is trying to kill her—and Candy is completely jarred to be among the suspects.  But the first taste was just a sample, and soon more jars of poisoned pickles begin to pop up around town. In the face of a pickled poisoning spree, Candy will have to track down the culprit to clear her own name.

The sixteenth title in Kate Collins' Flower Shop Mystery series is A Root Awakening. It follows Throw in the Trowel. Now that they’ve tied the knot, flower shop owner Abby Knight and her husband, Marco, want to put down roots. When it comes to picking a house, Marco can’t wait to get his hands dirty, while Abby isn’t ready for a fixer-upper. But conflict really sprouts when they’re checking out a dilapidated Victorian and watch a construction worker take a life-threatening tumble. Since witnesses claim the man shouted for help, suggesting that the fall was no accident, the victim’s flamboyant wife hires Marco to find the person responsible. Meanwhile, Abby keeps secret from Marco her own investigation into the home’s inhabitants, a family whose off-kilter behavior has aroused her suspicions. If only Abby’s very pregnant cousin, Jillian, will stop distracting Abby with false labor pains, she can conclude her own inquiries before Marco finds out…and her case blossoms into a disaster. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam - Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough was passed away at the age of 77.

McCullough will be remembered first and foremost as author of The Thorn Birds - a dramatic and moving story of multiple generations of the Cleary family set in the Australian outback in the early twentieth century. A classic during McCullough's lifetime, The Thorn Birds continues to delight new readers who enjoy absorbing characters, dramatic family tension and romance.

Articles in memory of Colleen McCullough also speak of her work in neuroscience. This Quill and Quire piece tells us of her outstanding reputation as a researcher and of her time at Yale University where she taught neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and neurological electronics.

All this and a bestselling novelist as well. She wrote more than 20 novels, including the Masters of Rome series - seven novels which detail the final days of the Roman Empire, written over 20 years and rich with political and historical detail.

Her most recent novel, entitled Bittersweet was published in 2013 and fans of Thorn Birds were delighted with the her storytelling once again.

"Because they are two sets of twins, the four Latimer sisters are as close as can be. Yet these vivacious young women each have their own dreams for themselves: Edda wants to be a doctor, Tufts wants to organize everything, Grace won’t be told what to do, and Kitty wishes to be known for something other than her beauty. They are famous throughout New South Wales for their beauty, wit, and ambition, but as they step into womanhood, they are not enthusiastic about the limited prospects life holds for them. Together they decide to enroll in a training program for nurses—a new option for women of their time, who have previously been largely limited to the role of wives, and preferably mothers. ... Rendered with McCullough’s trademark historical accuracy, this dramatic coming of age tale is wise in the ways of the human heart, one that will transport readers to a time in history that feels at once exotic and yet not so very distant from our own." publisher

I will always remember The Thorn Birds, along with other sagas by Sidney Sheldon and  Fred Mustard Stewart (and of course Agatha Christie mysteries) as the first "grown up" books I ever read.

Friday, January 30, 2015

2015 Edgar Nominees

Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre. They are the sponsors of the prestigious .
First awarded in 1955, and named after Edgar Allan Poe, these awards are presented every year by the Mystery Writers of America to honour the best in mystery fiction published in the past year.

Here is a selection of this year's nominees. Check out the website for the full list.

Best Novel

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash
Wolf by Mo Hayder
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The Final Silence by Stuart Neville
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

Best First Novel

Dry Bones in the Valley by Tom Bouman
Invisible City by Julia Dahl
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Bad Country by C.B. McKenzie
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh

Best Paperback Original

The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani

Stay With Me by Alison Gaylin

The Gone Dead Train by Lisa Turner

World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters

Best Fact Crime

Kitty Genovese: the murder, the bystanders, the crime that changed America by Kevin Cook
The Savage Harvest: a tale of cannibals, colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's tragic quest for primitive art by Carl Hoffman
The Other Side: a memoir by Lacy M. Johnson
Tinseltown: murder, morphine, and madness at the dawn of Hollywood by William Mann
The Mad Sculptor: the maniac, the model and the murder that shook the nation by Harold Schechter

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cozy Mysteries to Get You Through the Winter

Winter is truly the best season to cuddle up with a good book ... set in Florida. Here is a list of books that take place in the sunshine state to keep you warm until spring:

McNally's secret by Lawrence Sanders (Archy McNally novels)

“Although he doesn't usually handle burglaries, playboy/sleuth Archy McNally agrees to handle a "discrete" case for a society matron. And his search for stolen property leads Archy into a maze of sex, lies, and blackmail, uncovering a secret that's much too close to home. LG, Doubleday, and Mystery Guild Selections."--Fantastic Fiction website.

An appetite for murder by Lucy Burdette (Key West food critic mystery)

"When her potential new boss at "Key Zest" magazine--Kristen Faulkner, the woman who stole her boyfriend--is murdered, aspiring food critic Hayley Snow becomes the prime suspect in the investigation and works to clear her name."

Shop till you drop by Elaine Viets (Dead-end job mysteries)

"Helen Hawthorne is on the run, jumping from city to city and dead-end job to dead-end job, trying to stay one step ahead of her past... After two weeks as the new salesclerk at Juliana's, Fort Lauderdale's ultra-exclusive clothing boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. And since the only crime likely to be committed around here is being old-or worse, looking old-Helen figures she's safe. Until she discovers the manager has been embezzling money and selling designer drugs along with the designer clothes. Add murder to the mix-and Helen's dead-end job is downright deadly."

Curiosity killed the cat sitter by Blaize Clement (Dixie Hemingway mystery)

"Dixie Hemingway is a professional pet-sitter in Sarasota, Florida. When Dixie goes to feed the cat of a vacationing client and discovers the animal hiding from a very dead intruder, she is led to investigate the whereabouts of her now suspicious-looking client, who has vanished."

Permed to death by Nancy J. Cohen (Bad hair day mysteries)

"Meet Marla Shore, a Florida beauty salon owner with a knack for creating dazzling 'dos-and solving mysteries... Marla was already having a bad day, but when one of her clients dies while getting a perm in her salon, her day just can't get any worse...until the smugly competent Detective Vail accuses her of poisoning the wealthy widow's coffee creamer! Now it's up to the savvy stylist to find out just who did."

Getting old is murder by Rita Lakin (Gladdy Gold mysteries)

"75-year-old Gladdy Gold and her gang of eccentric Fort Lauderdale retirees are out, about, and hunting down a killer-one who is silently stalking them. Selma Beller was the first to go-but Gladdy and her neighbors never suspected murder until another of their friends died in an eerily similar way. Now a handsome young detective won't listen to them, and crazy old Greta Kronk is doing everything humanly possible to make herself into a suspect."

Well read, then dead by Terrie Farley Moran (Read’ em and eat mystery)

"Read'Em and Eat is known for its delicious breakfast and lunch treats, along with quite a colorful clientele. Augusta's cousin and best friend Delia is painfully shy - which makes the news of her murder all the more shocking. Augusta doesn't have time for sympathy. She wants Delia's killer found - and she's not taking no for an answer. Now Sassy is on the case, and she'd better act fast before there's any more trouble in paradise."

Woof at the door by Laura Morrigan (Call of the Wilde mystery)

"Animal behaviorist Grace Wilde keeps her ability to psychically communicate with furry and feathered critters under wraps. But when a Doberman turns out to be the only witness to a crime, Grace will have to let the cat out of the bag in order to catch a killer. Grace's life gets even more complicated, though, when the cops summon her to a crime scene to help deal with the murder victim's terrified Doberman. Grace will have to follow the pup's lead to track down the killer.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

RBC Taylor Prize for Nonfiction

For fans of non-fiction, it doesn't get much better than the RBC Talyor Prize for Non-fiction.  These titles represent the best of Canadian non-fiction writing in the previous year.

The nominees for the 2015 prize are:

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

"After almost twenty years of caring for elderly parents—first for their senile father, and then for their cantankerous ninety-three-year-old mother—author Plum Johnson and her three younger brothers experience conflicted feelings of grief and relief when their mother, the surviving parent, dies. Now they must empty and sell the beloved family home, which hasn’t been de-cluttered in more than half a century. Twenty-three rooms bulge with history, antiques, and oxygen tanks. Plum remembers her loving but difficult parents who could not have been more different: the British father, a handsome, disciplined patriarch who nonetheless could not control his opinionated, extroverted Southern-belle wife who loved tennis and gin gimlets." publisher

One Day in August: the untold story behind Canada's tragedy at Dieppe by David O'Keefe

"Magnificent and engrossing, One Day in August reveals in full for the first time the “Ultra Secret” story behind one of WW2’s most controversial mysteries—and one of Canada’s most sorrowful moments. In a narrative as powerful and moving as it is authoritative, David O’Keefe rewrites history, connecting Canada’s tragedy at Dieppe with an extraordinary and colourful cast of characters—from the young Commander Ian Fleming, later to become the creator of the James Bond novels, and his team of crack commandos to the code-breaking scientists of Bletchley Park (the closely guarded heart of Britain’s wartime Intelligence and code-breaking work) to those responsible for the planning and conduct of the Dieppe Raid—Admiral John Godfrey, Lord Louis Mountbatten, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others." publisher

The Last Asylum: a memoir of madness in our times by Barbara Taylor

"In July 1988, Canadian-born historian Barbara Taylor was admitted to Friern Hospital, a once-notorious asylum for the insane. Her journey there began when, overwhelmed by anxiety as she completed her doctoral studies in London, England, she found relief by dosing herself with alcohol and tranquillizers. She then embarked on what would turn out to be a decades-long psychoanalysis. The analysis dredged up acutely painful memories of an unhappy and confusing childhood back in Saskatoon. As Taylor struggled to cope with these, she would twice be re-admitted to Friern. She took refuge in day-care institutions and a psychiatric hostel, all the while continuing her therapy, which eventually put her on the road to recovery. This searingly honest, beautifully written memoir is the narrative of the author’s madness years, set inside the wider story of our treatment of psychiatric illness: from the great age of asylums to the current era of community care, ‘Big Pharma’, and quick fixes." publisher

And Home was Kariakoo: a memoir of East Africa by M.G. Vassanji

"From M.G. Vassanji, two-time Giller Prize winner and a GG winner for nonfiction, comes a poignant love letter to his birthplace and homeland, East Africa--a powerful and surprising portrait that only an insider could write. Part travelogue, part memoir, and part history-rarely-told, here is a powerful and timely portrait of a constantly evolving land. From a description of Zanzibar and its evolution to a visit to a slave-market town at Lake Tanganyika; from an encounter with a witchdoctor in an old coastal village to memories of his own childhood in the streets of Dar es Salaam and the suburbs of Nairobi, Vassanji combines brilliant prose, thoughtful and candid observation, and a lifetime of revisiting and reassessing the continent that molded him--and, as we discover when we follow the journeys that became this book, shapes him still." publisher

Boundless: tracing land and dream in a Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter

"The long-awaited follow up to Annabel and Kathleen Winter's first work of narrative nonfiction. In 2010, bestselling author Kathleen Winter took a journey across the storied Northwest Passage, among marine scientists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and curious passengers. From Greenland to Baffin Island and all along the passage, Winter bears witness to the new math of the melting North -- where polar bears mate with grizzlies, creating a new hybrid species; where the earth is on the cusp of yielding so much buried treasure that five nations stand poised to claim sovereignty of the land; and where the local Inuit population struggles to navigate the tension between taking part in the new global economy and defending their traditional way of life." publisher

The winner will be announced on March 2.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cultural connections

Right from birth, I believe I have been fascinated with different cultures; perhaps because my mother is a war bride from Glasgow, Scotland and my father is French-Acadian from Rogersville, New Brunswick. Can you imagine coming from a huge European city to a small village in Canada in January and not speaking the language? These two cultures influenced me, but in the city where I grew up the culture was either French or English without any variety. I never met a person of a different race until I was 14! That fact did not stop me from having a crush on Michael Jackson and Donny Osmond at the same time! In college, I was the secretary for the International Students Club, and often was the only white person present at an event. I have roomed in a flat with a Jamaican, a German and a Chinese student, all at the same time. The kitchen smells were out of this world. It’s no wonder that I enjoyed the following books:

Big Little Man: in search of my Asian Self by Alex Tizon. Have you realized I don’t know enough about a subject to ask questions. Well, that is the way I felt about this book and had a few “really! That’s interesting!” moments while reading this memoir. I have wondered about what countries celebrate “Chinese New Year” or which ones to include in an Asian Heritage Month display. But, I have never thought about the issue of calling someone Asian vs. Oriental, or the difficulties experienced due to Asian stereotypes. I admit that while I am very conscious of separating each African country, I have been less aware of doing so with Asian nationalities. Tizon is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist whose family came from the Philippines to the U.S. in 1964. Besides being a memoir this book presents historical and cultural lessons. From the title, you can guess that Tizon does spend some time reflecting on physical size, including that of the penis. Tizon experienced difficulties with dating. I am not sure if this is a fact or not, but it appears that Asian males are picked last in the dating world. He also presents the issue of people asking “what are you?’ At different times in his life he has “passed” as native, Mexican, and a variety of other Asian cultures. All in all, I found his memoir fascinating.

With Black History Month approaching, there are lots of displays and events planned to mark this occasion. I have read widely on black history and culture. The most recent book I read is Dear White People: a guide to inter-racial harmony in “post racial” America by Justin Simien. This satire is based upon the Sundance award winning film and Tumblr page of the same name. The film presents the experiences of four black students on a predominately white campus. But don’t worry; you don’t have to see the film to enjoy this book. This tongue in cheek guide helps white people navigate the post-Obama world with decision making flow charts, like when is it okay to wear blackface (hint: probably never), etc. Another related book you might consider reading is the New York Times bestseller How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston. This guide book offers advice on “How to be the black friend”, “How to speak for all black people” to “How to celebrate Black History month” amongst others.

I want to include the YA novel, Like No Other by Una LeMarche in this blog. I am neither a romance reader nor a YA reader, but this one caught my eye. This novel is highly praised with a “Publishers Weekly Best Book of Summer 2014” ; a “ 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection,” and an “Entertainment Weekly YA Novel to Watch For” , amongst others. This re-working of Romeo and Juliet features a young black nerd and “unfailingly obedient” Hasidic girl. The Hasidic community is a strict, almost closeted Jewish community that keeps to itself. Through a twist of fate (or Mother Nature), Devorah and Jaxon meet trapped in an elevator. LaMarche expertly writes about how high risk this relationship is by writing alternatively from each character’s point of view. I love the realistic ending of the novel. I wish more novels, YA or otherwise, would be the same. Don’t get me wrong. It is nice when there is a happy ending but I don’t like happy endings if they don’t make sense. I guess I have always wondered about the ending of the movie “The Graduate.” What does happen next? But that is good book club question for another day.

I hope that you, Dear Reader, keep your heart and mind open to reading and learning about others in our world. I believe the world would be better for it!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Reading Diaries and Letters

Technology and our ever-shrinking attention spans may be changing the way we keep personal records, but our desire to understand the thoughts and impressions of others is growing. Blogs have replaced diaries. Emails, texts and tweets have replaced letters. Replaced or displaced? Just when you might start to worry about the permanence of social media, there is My Shorts R Bunching. Thoughts: the tweets of Roland Hedley preserved in old fashioned print for all time.

I suppose the difference is that blogs and tweets are meant for indiscriminate public consumption immediately rather than private reflection.

Collections of diaries and letters continue to be published and we continue to enjoy them. Diaries and letters tend to be open candid records of events which haven't been blurred by time and perspective. They may be accounts of significant events or the minutiae of daily life.

Periodically we are lucky to stumble upon a diary written by someone who might never have suspected that their life would be of enduring interest. Of course the classic example is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne was a young girl who recorded her life during exceptional circumstances. Thomas Cairns Livingstone (Tommy's War: A First World War Diary 1913-1918) was a middle class, ordinary Glaswegian who did us the favour of recording his impressions of daily life in Glasgow in the beginning of the 20th century. A Victorian Lady's Album: Kate Shannon's Halifax and Boston Diary of 1892 is the beautifully illustrated diary of a young articulate woman living in Halifax at the end of the 19th century. A fascinating glimpse of domestic life through the eyes of a woman at the start of her unfortunately short life.

Collections of correspondence may not be as candid (or perhaps they might, depending on the author!) as diaries. What they do offer is a view of a relationship as it grows and changes over time. The Mitfords: letters between six sisters covers the correspondence of the Mitford sisters between 1925 and 2002. The sisters were highly connected, from a young age, with the political and literary world. Their politics were varied (fascist, Nazi sympathizer, communist) and their relationships often strained. The letters provide a fascinating look at 20th century history. Considering the company the Mitford sisters kept, they would certainly have expected that their letters would be published one day.

Several of the Mitford sisters were successful writers. Not surprisingly, writers make excellent correspondents. Novelist Elizabeth Bowen (Love's Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries, 1941-1973 ) and Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie were star crossed lovers. Each married to another, they engaged in a lifelong love affair, at a distance most of the time, described in their letters and journals.

Lifelong friendships can be cultivated and maintained through correspondence as found in Selected Letters by May Sarton. Sarton pursued friendships with many other well-known 20th century writers through letters. Sarton was free with her emotions and ideas in her letters making them a welcome event for their recipients.