Friday, August 27, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel
by Helen Simonson
March 2010
Random House

Major Pettigrew is a very entertaining read. It is an English village comedy of manners in the style of Jane Austen. It is set in present day Britain but peopled with throwback characters. Major Pettigrew is a widowed Army officer who as the book opens has just heard of his brother’s death. Mrs. Ali is a first generation Brit of Pakistani descent who runs the local convenience store. They share a love of literature, tea and decorum in all things. The major is curmudgeonly and a bit arrogant but at heart a good soul. He has an uncaring, materialistic son; Mrs. Ali now widowed is subject to the oversight of an overbearing Pakistani family. The village in Sussex is full of charming characters - scheming greedy relatives, the requisite befuddled vicar, the intolerant ladies of the club, and the local lord of the manor. The story revolves around the developing love between the major and Mrs. Ali and the reactions of villagers and relatives to this couple. While this story would be described as a "gentle" read it is really well done and deals with the serious subjects of intergenerational conflicts, cultural clashes, the deadly effect of village gossip, class prejudice (among both the Brits and the Pakistanis) and racism. The writing is witty and often very funny. The characterizations are so well done you become invested in them, rooting for the Major and Mrs. Ali to triumph. You are reminded that love is ageless as this couple faces the obstacles before them.

I am not terribly tolerant of romance type novels as many seem very contrived to me but I did like this one I think because it seemed so genuine in both the people and the situations they experienced. This whimsical story is a perfect beach read, the antithesis of a page turner, certain to make you see the often underappreciated value of civility and kindness in all things.   This is a debut novel for Helen Simonson. The marvelous book cover is adapted from a March 1924 Life magazine cover.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Giveaway Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the giveaway for New Tricks by David Rosenfelt.  The winners were chosen using

Greg Z @ the new dork
Melanie L. (peacelilly)
Jane M

An email has been sent to the lucky people named above (first part of their email address in case my note ends up in spam). They have 48 hours to respond or a new winner will be chosen.

Thanks to all who entered.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Red Door

The Red Door: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery (An Ian Rutledge Mystery)
The Red Door: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery (An Ian Rutledge Mystery)
by Charles Todd
William Morrow

I am afraid I am becoming a cranky blogger. The Red Door was recommended by many people but I did not like it. It is the 12th in the Ian Rutledge series by Charles Todd. Let me count the ways…

I understand when you pick up a book in a series that you have not read before you have to be prepared to jump in and accept some character aspects that are not as richly understood as when you’ve read the books from the beginning. But I do expect the author to include a few sentences that brings me up to date on the characters and key elements of their back-story. Sue Grafton does this in every single Kinsey Millhone story, she does it in the first few pages, it is short enough not to bore regular readers and detailed enough to bring new readers up to date. The Red Door doesn’t do this at all. Ian Rutledge had horrific WWI trench experiences (I guess). There is a voice in his head named Hamish, I assume there is a back-story, it is never summarized. There is a woman Marion Channing, they have a history, I assume, it is never summarized. An author needs to be able to reintroduce characters in a nuanced way so that books work for readers. I think any book in a series should be able to stand alone as a story; this one doesn’t in my opinion.

Among my favorite mysteries are those that are set in a distinctive time or place. This story is set in the immediate post WWI period, but you would never know it. There are very few details given that are distinctive to that time period. Other than characters using a crank to start their automobiles nothing else jumps to mind. To contrast again, the Maisie Dobbs series is brimming over with detail of the same time and place.

The characters that form the center of the mystery – the Teller Family – were difficult to tell apart because they were not well developed. I could never form a mental picture of the three brothers or their spouses all of whom were prime suspects in the murder. If they had passions or even emotions I could not detect them. I ended up not relating to any of these characters and therefore not caring who dunnit!

I did think the basic plot was good enough; there were several twists that provided action and moved the narrative along. The secondary plot was believable and well integrated into the novel.

The author Charles Todd is actually a mother/son writing team who live on the east coast of the US. They have also written a new series – Duty to the Dead – which I read and liked. I guess the lesson is you cannot always come late to the party. Faithful readers will most probably like this one; all of the rest of us need to start at the beginning!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Rembrandt Affair

The Rembrandt Affair (Gabriel Allon)
by Daniel Silva
July, 2010
Putnan Adult

Silva is back with an excellent Gabriel Allon thriller. The Israeli agent/art restorer is again (how many times now?) lured from retirement to track down a lost Rembrandt painting with a history that is soaked in blood. The action takes place primarily in Europe with a short Nazi hunting trip to Argentina. No plot spoilers here but I think the Gabriel Allon books work because of a couple of things. Allon’s motivations are always pure – hunting down past murderers and current threats to the state of Israel, a group of supporting characters that are familiar and well developed (even though Sharom is a ringer for Ariel Sharon), and a plot that is always awash in history and current events. This story brings to light the matter of art stolen by the Nazis and how the issue of ownership of this art continues even today. The parts of the novel that involve the Dutch Holocaust survivor whose parents owned this Rembrandt are really well done and moving. The reader is left understanding the value of art both emotional and financial.

The bad guys in this novel are European capitalists who trade with and support Iran in its development of nuclear weapons. This section of the story has a ripped from the headlines feel to it. I can imagine the series of events happening today when we look back and try to decipher how Iran developed nuclear weapons. As is usual in a Silva novel there is no gratuitous violence, all the action advances the plot line. I found the ending of this story to be very satisfying.

To me Daniel Silva is the true heir to John LeCarre; nobody else writes spy stories with the emotional depth, plot twists, realism, suspense and philosophical thought as well as Silva.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Capitol Game

The Capitol Game
by Brian Haig
August, 2010
Grand Central Publishing

Brian Haig can write a thriller. This book moves along at a great pace to a not obvious conclusion. The book opens with a US soldier in Iraq killed by an IED while he is in an unarmored patrol vehicle. The main character, Jack Wiley is a new one for Haig. Wiley is a Wall St. corporate takeover artist who has discovered a small company that has a Holy Grail type product – a polymer that when painted on vehicles acts like 30 inches of steel. With the US at war in Afghanistan and Iraq this invention will make billions for the company that sells it to the government. Wiley engages The Capitol Group, one of the country’s most powerful corporations (read Halliburton) with much experience navigating the military procurement process. The Capitol Group with an assist from Wiley makes a hostile takeover of the small company and goes forward to threaten, bribe and strong-arm the product through the procurement process. A military special agent, Mia Jensen investigates the legalities of the deal and takes aim at the Capitol Group and the senior executives that run the company. The plot proceeds with the reader unable to quite decide if Jack Wiley is one of the good guys or one of the sleazebags who have been part of the military industrial complex cheating the tax payers and under serving the US soldier. You are treated to a stomach turning close up look at this process. I don’t want to write any spoilers into this review but the plot is believable and engrossing through the entire book. The character motivations are credible but I would have appreciated a little more of a back story for Wiley and Jensen.  

Haig is a 22 year US Army veteran and has the inside knowledge to make this story realistic and authentic. Unfortunately the theme of corruption among big business, politicians and the military has a real ring of truth to it! A very good read for those who enjoy the action thriller.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Finally a Giveaway!!

To be a real book blog, it seems you have to have book giveaways.  Thanks to the generosity of Hachette Book Group I have two copies of New Tricks by David Rosenfelt to give away.  Follow this link:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

In The Name of Honor

In the Name of Honor
In the Name of Honor

by Richard North Patterson
June, 2010
Henry Holt and Co.

This is a legal thriller that has adultery, murder, suicide, the Iraq war and the timely topic of post traumatic stress syndrome. The central character is a JAG captain, Paul Terry who defends an accused murderer, Lt. Brian McCarron, the scion of a storied military family. McCarron’s father is in line to be chairman of the joint chiefs. Brian is accused of murdering Joe D’Abruzzo, who in addition to being his superior officer is married to close family friend Kate Gallagher. The drama unfolds as each character contributes to the narrative and slowly a portrait of a deeply troubled family is revealed. The complexity of the relationships among the characters and the impact these relationships had on their motivations was excellent.

The author vividly shows how PTSD develops in soldiers who have been in violent combat and how it impacts a soldier returning to civilian life. Patterson uses the intricacies of a military trail and court marshal to differentiate this story from the run of the mill courtroom drama. Additionally the development of a love story between Paul Terry and the accused murderer’s sister Meg was well done and believable. The character development is very good and at the end of the account I cared about most of the main characters. There was an inconsistency in the action of Paul Terry at the end of the book that bothered me as it did not seem in character, but for that minor complaint I really enjoyed this book. Richard North Patterson is yet another author who had excellent early novels (Eyes of a Child, No Safe Place) followed by weak efforts and now has returned to fine form.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Echo Park/ What makes a good mystery?

Echo Park (Harry Bosch)
Echo Park (Harry Bosch)
by Michael Connelly
July, 2001
Grand Central Publishing

This is the third Harry Bosch mystery I’ve read in the last three months and while I’ve enjoyed each of them I don’t think I can bear to write another review (or you can bear to read one that is if anyone is reading). Let me just say if you read the Michael Connelly detective series that features Harry Bosch you will find Echo Park as good as any book in the series. If you haven’t read any of these mysteries take a look at my reviews of The Black Echo and A Darkness More Than Night for a representative sample of Connelly’s work.

So instead of a review, I thought I’d write a little about what makes a good mystery or at least what aspects of the mystery genre appeal to me. I’ve been reading mysteries my whole life, I started out reading Nancy Drew and then went onto Agatha Christie (there are 82 of them!) and continue today.  It's not the only genre I read but I do read a lot of mysteries.   I have some favorite mystery writers – in no particular order - Michael Connelly, Tami Hoag, Steve Martini, Nelson DeMille, Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Daniel Silva, Brian Haig, Harlan Coben whose work I read faithfully. There are other best selling mystery writers that I have a problem reading - Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, W.E.B. Griffin, Iris Johansen, Robert Parker, Clive Cussler and Nora Roberts. So what makes a good mystery? If good writing is a given then the short answers are great suspense, good plotting, and sympathetic characterizations  but exactly what do those aspects mean?

1. Puzzles and Suspense - I like a mystery that is puzzling enough that the suspense continues throughout most of the story. Plots that are one dimensional and easily solved don’t work for me even if other story elements are strong. A good mystery drops clues along the way so a reasonably intelligent reader can hazard a guess at the murderer. Well integrated red herrings are particularly appreciated and add to the enjoyment. I really don’t like humor mixed in with suspense (r/o Janet Evanovich) or mysteries where the love story supersedes the mystery (r/o Nora Roberts and Iris Johansen).

2. Connecting to The Protagonist – The detective, amateur or professional, needs to be multi dimensional - hard boiled monosyllabic detectives ala Jack Webb are not for me. Protagonists who have families, love interests, friends, quirky sidekicks, interesting hobbies and other emotional connections all add to the depth of the character and enjoyment of the story. It’s ok for the character to be flawed (Harry Bosch) but total disregard for law and authority doesn’t work for me.  I am not looking for a cozy mystery but then again  I am not looking for a Dirty Harry type character. Same thing for gratuitous violence, not my cup of tea to be reading a detective story that includes numerous killings or intensely described crime scenes. Lastly I don’t like dark and introverted characters, I have always been unable to read the very popular Robert Parker’s work I think because I can’t find any common ground with Spenser, just can’t make the connection. Continual development of the detective persona over sequels is also a plus; I like the way Elizabeth George has done this over the early books in the Inspector Linley series.

3. Minor characters that are interesting and recognizable – Nothing is more annoying that a multitude of characters that are not well defined, confusion reigns and it is easy to lose interest when this happens. I’ve always thought that the minor characters in the W.E.B. Griffin novels are fairly one dimensional, particularly his development of the women who appear to only be present as sex objects for the men in the story. I do like the depth of description given to recurring characters in PD James novels - Emma Lavenham, Adam Dagliesh’s recently married wife in that series I think is well drawn. My favorite minor character though was Inspector Linley’s wife Helen, whose death in With No One as Witness was devastating as I had grown to know her over her courtship and marriage to Linley in several earlier books in the series.

4. Good openings, confusing stories and implausible endings – I am hooked from the beginning with a strong opening chapter.  An intense scene with action that has some mystery and creates cognitive dissonace works for me in that it promises more drama to come. Plots that are too complicated or too confusing (see my review of Strong Justice) leave me continually trying to get my bearings in the story and detract from the enjoyment. Two or at the most three plots going on at once is surely enough for most readers (and authors) to keep straight. 

I think the ending must be the toughest part to write. Tying up all of the loose ends without creating unbelievable events is a real talent and I believe separates the really good writers from the pack. I am often disappointed when the murderer comes out of left field, all of the clues dropped throughout the book are ignored and we are asked to accept some outrageous conclusion.

So I have gone on a bit long here, but what do you think? What makes a mystery work for you? Who are your favorite authors and why?