Friday, December 30, 2011

2012 Resolution: Become a Serial Killer

Hold on, hold on. You don't have to leap up and start checking your window and door locks; it's not what you think. This is a reading challenge. But first, a little story about how I got the idea.

My brother-in-law, Jeff, is thorough by long habit and practice. He is the designated pot scrubber among all his family and friends, because nobody else is so single-minded in ensuring that every tiny mark is scoured away.

Jeff's approach to the arts is similar. Back when he was a teenager living in what's called "Chicagoland," he listened to radio superstation WLS religiously and collected and kept (to this day) each week's "Silver Dollar Survey" of the most popular songs.

Jeff used his allowance judiciously, carefully choosing which 45s to spend his money on, and giving careful attention to both the A and B sides. He made sure to get his money's worth, playing each new acquisition over and over––and over again. My husband, who is terrible at remembering song lyrics, can still remember every word and note of Neil Sedaka's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" (and its followup hit, "I'm Living Right Next Door to an Angel"), after Jeff kept it spinning on the turntable for a few weeks. I will not go into the incident of near-homicide at Jeff's house a few years back, when he had "La Vida Loca" on his CD player's infinite repeat.

But enough about music and on to books. Not surprisingly, Jeff's thoroughness carries through to his book-reading habits. When he likes a mystery, he often chain-reads through the whole series. Last year, he read (re-read in some cases) all of Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn series and all of Earl Derr Biggers's Charlie Chan books. (See Jeff's review of Yunte Huang's Charlie Chan here.) This year, it was Lindsey Davis's Marcus Didius Falco series. (Jeff plans to write a guest post for us about the Falco series, which I hope we'll see soon.)

I've never read an entire series over the course of a few months. The idea interests me, though, because it seems to me that it would allow for a better view of how a protagonist evolves over the course of the series and how the writer's skills develop and, maybe, wane.

Inspired by Jeff's example, then, I propose a reading challenge for 2012: Choose a mystery series and read (or re-read) every book in the series during the course of the year.

I will set up a new page here on Read Me Deadly where we can discuss the challenge, give each other suggestions about what series to choose, report on what we've chosen to tackle, and write in from time to time to report on progress and observations. To visit the page, please click on the "Challenges" link near the top of the home page.

See you there!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dog Days

The first Canadian book to sell over a million copies, Beautiful Joe, by Margaret Marshall Saunders, was the fictionalized autobiography of a real abused dog that had been rescued by friends of the author. Despite its dated style and sermonizing, it has rarely been out of print since its first publication in 1893. It and Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, the fictionalized autobiography of a mistreated horse, have probably been responsible for passage of many of the (still grossly inadequate) humane animal treatment laws throughout the United States and Canada. Many thousands of animal rescue workers and volunteers have been influenced and inspired by these books. I wept copiously over both of them in my childhood, and I still have a strong interest in both rescue work and authentically portrayed animals in my reading.

Donna Ball has written a series of interesting and informative dog mysteries about a Search and Rescue tracker in the lovely North Carolina mountains. In the first, Smoky Mountain Tracks, Raine Stockton had resigned from the S&R Service after the painful loss of her beloved and reliable tracking dog Cassidy. When her ex-husband Deputy Sheriff Buck Lawson asks for her help in tracking a missing child and mother, she takes the young half-trained Cisco, who finds not the missing pair, but the body of a drug dealer who may have kidnapped them. While the characters could use more development, the plot, setting, and training details make this series of novellas worth following.

Rottweiler Rescue is an easy reading one-off cozy by author Ellen O'Connell, who has rescued these fearsome looking but usually gentle giants for many years. When rescuer Dianne Brennan takes one of her fostered rotties to meet a potential adopter, she literally runs into the adopter's murderer on the back steps of the house, thereby becoming his next target.

The plot and pacing are good, and Dianne's handling of her rescued animals and their problems is a realistic and respectful presentation of rescue work. The dogs, while central to the story, thankfully do not talk or solve the mystery, as happens in many of the uber-cutesy animal cozies. I would enjoy reading more of these intelligent adventures.

Into Darkness, the maiden novel of award-winning screenwriter and director Jonathan Lewis, may be the most stunning and disturbing dog mystery I have read. Months later, the story still haunts me. Sir Tommy Best was a legend––both a world-famous actor and a blind man; as noted for his philanthropies as his superb acting skills. He went nowhere without his devoted and intelligent guide dog, Suzy. One morning Sir Tommy is found drowned in the stinking mud at the bottom of a dock, having fallen or been pushed through a gap in the walkway above, and Suzy is nowhere nearby. She is finally found several miles away in obvious shock, her harness torn and dragging. Sir Tommy's wife, a famous actress, is sure that he was murdered––Suzy's skill and fidelity would never have let him come to harm.

The only witness is the mute and traumatized guide dog. What happened to the thousand pounds that Sir Tommy had withdrawn from the bank that afternoon, and how is the burnt match with a bit of strange blood at the tip connected to the crime? DCI Ned "the Yid" and WPC Kate "the Dog Tart" Baker have a puzzling and horrifying case to solve in this semi-noir, occasionally darkly humorous procedural. The author's film background is apparent in the tight writing and the highly visual, sometimes claustrophobic scenes.

Rescue Rage is a potent and terrible condition that affects almost all animal rescuers at one time or another. When compassion has been wrung into harrowed and quivering exhaustion, sometimes that righteous fury is the only thing that drags one out of the house to minister to the never-ending parade of neglected, abandoned, and abused creatures. Behind that serene demeanor, your average rescue worker sometimes crafts and relishes fantasies of mayhem and murder that would appall practitioners of the Spanish Inquisition.

At such times, Rebecca Stroud's short e-book Do Unto Others is a highly gratifying read. Homicide detective Amanda Silver, engaged to Kevin Monroe, the lead investigator of the newly formed Animal Cop unit, is investigating a series of murders that seem to have nothing in common except the use of veterinary drugs and the, um, very creative torture of certain of the victims. Stroud has worked in animal rescue for many years, and understands both the inadequacy of most humane protection laws and their lackadaisical enforcement very well. This gory well-written little gem is not for the weak of heart or stomach.

So what have you done this holiday season for the voiceless misused and abused creatures who share our world? There's still time to take food or old linens to a local shelter, or volunteer to walk a few dogs or clean some cages. The Humane Society and Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are desperate for funds that can be donated at their websites or by check. When times are tough and money tight, most often the pets go first––to shelters if their owners are responsible, or just tossed out and abandoned to fend for themselves. "Every man is a hero to his dog." Would that every pet owner were worthy of that devotion. Peace and prosperity enough to share to all in the coming year!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Not Everybody Wishes You Well

I've been wringing my hands, racking my brain, and ransacking my books since Sister Mary Murderous posted her list of favorite 2011 reads. I'm not the organized person she is, and trying to figure out which the heck books I read in 2011, let alone which were my favorites, is a Sisyphean chore. These questions will require more mental and physical excavations over the next few weeks, but not completing this task is inconceivable. The guilt I'm already feeling at my lateness allowed me to eat pumpkin pie for breakfast this morning while my brain smoldered. Compiling my best-of-2011 list is a tough job, but others in fiction had tougher lives than I do. Let me point out a few of them in these books I read in 2011.

Oh Lordy. An incredibly brutal world, religious passion, and bizarre characters. Themes of destruction, creation, and redemption. Last year I read about Francis Tarwater, a 14-year-old boy who struggles with his destiny as a prophet in Flannery O'Connor's ironic southern gothic The Violent Bear It Away. Last night I read Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All the Time, a 2011 book its publisher states "marr[ies] the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers with the religious and gothic overtones of Flannery O'Connor at her most haunting." Doubleday got that right. The Devil All the Time has a three-story plotline involving Arvis Eugene Russell, an orphaned 9-year-old boy, whose beautiful mother Charlotte dies of cancer despite her husband Willard's blood sacrifices on his prayer log in the woods; a traveling preacher named Roy and his wheelchair-bound friend Theodore; and a young married couple who use their summer vacations to pick up and kill hitchhikers. This account takes place from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s in the hardscrabble world of Knockemstiff, a town in rural southern Ohio, and West Virginia. Lovers of noir should read no more about this powerful book; they should just read it.

The fictional world of Daniel Woodrell contains less religious fervor than Pollock's but no less brutality. His three hardboiled novels have been collected into the 2011 omnibus The Bayou Trilogy. These bold and gritty tales are set in St. Bruno, in Louisiana's bayou country north of New Orleans. They feature Cajun ex-prizefighter-turned-cop Rene Shade, who lives above his mother's pool hall and maintains complicated relationships with his two brothers, bar-owner Tip and prosecutor Francois. The first novel in the Trilogy, Under the Bright Lights, concerns the killing of a black member of the city council. Despite the mayor's desire that the police investigation calls it a robbery, Shade's digging leads to a festering mess of corruption and betrayal. In Muscle for the Wing, some ex-cons try to take over St. Bruno's gambling scene, and Rene becomes involved. The Ones You Do finds Shade's long-gone father, pro gambler John X., returning to St. Bruno.

Woodrell grew up on the Mississippi River and currently lives in the Ozarks. He is a masterful storyteller and his characters––desperate losers anxious to escape their fates and more sophisticated bad guys who prey on them––are unforgettable. Woodrell is author of four standalone novels, including the wonderful Winter's Bone (16-year-old Ree Dolly has one week to find her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father before losing the family home), which was made into the 2010 movie of the same name.

The life of Elmore Leonard's Mickey Dawson, wife of real-estate developer Frank Dawson, doesn't seem too tough. She lives in a big brown and white Tudor house in a wealthy suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Tennis and drinks at the country club make up her life in The Switch. Suddenly, her life becomes very tough when she is kidnapped and held for ransom. The ransom collecting is complicated by the facts that (1) both Mickey and her husband are having affairs, and (2) the thugs can't trust each other. As usual, Leonard's ear for dialog and his plotting are first-rate. This caper, complicated for its participants, is an uncomplicated and fun time for its readers.

Half the world away, life is not easy for characters in Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon. The Wandering Falcon of the title is born near the book's beginning, and the reader catches glimpses of him as he moves from childhood to adulthood. The chapters are like pop beads strung together––neither completely independent stories nor a flowing narrative from one chapter to the next. This memorable nonmystery fiction features lyrical writing by an 80-year-old man who well knows the people and region of plains and mountains in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where tribesmen have moved their families and animals according to the season for centuries. Now, governmental regulations and pressures of modernity are changing their lives. The slim 2011 book is a glimpse at an area of the world that's in the news but still mysterious to many of us. After reading it, I have a better understanding, and I highly recommend it.

Well, back to the difficult job of pondering my favorite books from this past year. I hope you have read some books recently that would qualify for your own best reads, because we would love to hear about them. There aren't many days left in 2011. I'm not going to think about how quickly we'll be amassing our best-books-of-2012 lists. Hmmm....

Friday, December 23, 2011

Book Christmas Trees

These days, the word "green" is being bandied about in all sorts of ways. When Kermit sang "It's Not Easy Being Green," he was referring to the color of his skin. Now it could be mistaken for a lament on the difficulties of recycling and saving resources of all kinds for the betterment of the earth. I hear phrases like "my office is green" and no longer assume that the worker is envious of the office next door. But if you are following the latest library trend of book Christmas trees, you would not help but be envious of the creativity used by librarians around the world.

Many libraries are suffering from the lack of a budget for holiday decorations and have found more than one use for their books. They have created trees that require absolutely no water and can be taken apart and reused. The tree above is from Gleeson Library in San Francisco.

From the Old World comes this picture from the University Library of UWM (University of Warmia and Mazury) in Olsztyn, Poland.

Janet Randolph in her Mystery Fanfare blog shows some excellent examples of trees created in this way. I thought I would take a leaf from her book and think about what kind of tree my favorite characters would build.

Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor loves and cherishes his books. He only owns a few due to his somewhat peripatetic lifestyle, but he would honor them with a star. The tree at left is a mixture of tipsy and balance just like Jack himself.

Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff created by Craig Johnson, wouldn't spend the time or effort looking for a tree unless his daughter Cady would be home for the holidays. But I can just see him putting together this collection from his shelf of books because it looks outdoorsy and rustic.

Neil Hamel, a lawyer in Albuquerque, New Mexico spends more time solving her (yes "her," despite the name) cases in novels written by Judith Van Gieson than she does doing housework. After settling down in the evening with a glass of tequila, she would look up at the books on her shelf, realize that there was a method to her collection and she would top it off with a star.

Margaret Maron's Sigrid Harald, a lieutenant in the NYPD, has learned a little color sense from the time she spent with her artist lover Oscar Nauman. Rather than brave the jam-packed New York City crowded streets she would wile away her down time by creating the tree at right. A tall woman, she has considered herself plain, but there is beauty for those with discerning eyes.

Kathy Mallory is another New York City Police lieutenant who has little free time. Those moments of leisure are usually filled with her somewhat nefarious hacking skills. In Carol O'Connell's novels, she is very methodical and precise in both her private and professional life. She might own only a few books because she lives a minimalist lifestyle. She would definitely spend the time it would take to create this tree with its precision corners.

Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse is quite traditional and would like the red and green displayed in this bright tree. She would have her roommate witch do a spell to get the right number of books in the appropriate colors. Sookie herself has to watch her dollars and would enjoy having a double-use tree.

Peaches Dann is a sleuth created by Elizabeth Daniels Squire. Peaches is getting older and, while she has always had some problems with her memory, she has learned ways to cope. Of all her methods, the endless stream of post-it notes can come in most handy. But how do you handle the little pieces of paper when they have outlived their usefulness? By morphing them back into a tree, of course.

This last tree is one that I might like in my office.

I couldn't find a tree made out of Kindles, Nooks or iPads, but they wouldn't be green anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Traditions

Even though the world is felt to be getting smaller all the time, it still can be said that variety is the spice of life. I always enjoy reading mysteries that take place in December while December is swirling all about me. Many countries and cultures celebrate similar events and holidays in a variety of ways, with customs and ancient rites that have settled in over time. I thought I might compare the rituals of December as seen in the four corners of the world–– where murder is always in season.

Rei Shimura is a Japanese-American who has been living in Japan for several years. When she is introduced in The Salaryman’s Wife, by Sujata Massey, she is on her way to the Japanese Alps, having worked for two years to save the money for this holiday trip. She is going to a 200-year-old castle town, looking for antiques and a break from her dull gray life in North Tokyo. This is the time that all of Japan is celebrating New Year’s, the biggest party week in the year, but Rei wanted to escape all that and she heads into an adventure that will change her life. There is a Japanese belief that there are no coincidences; that everything is part of a cosmic plan, so before she even gets to Shiroyama she meets the main players who set in motion the events that are to determine her destiny.

Although Rei is part American, she celebrates the holidays Japanese style. Christmas is not celebrated, nor is there giving of gifts. New Year’s is family time in Japan. You spend time with the people you are close to and dine on New Year’s lucky foods, which are symbolic. Long noodles celebrate the changing of the year, vegetables and fruits represent harvest, and roe symbolizes fertility.

Far to the south in the Pacific Ocean, there lies Australia and a different approach to Christmas. In Kerry Greenwood’s Forbidden Fruit, Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman detests Christmas. There are frantic shoppers everywhere and the heat is oppressive at this time of year. Corinna gave up her job in the city for a chance to be her own boss. The hours are long and hard but she works with people she and the readers enjoy quite a bit. There are two wannabe near-anorexic actors; an ex-junkie master muffin maker and a handsome ex-Israeli commando filling out the cast of characters.

Christmas Cake

All this normalcy and carol singing are hiding a sinister religious cult with a subversive agenda, and a vengeful vegan cult with a mission. The story includes two teenage runaways, one of whom is large with child. Her time is near and we don’t know what mode of transportation she is using. It does not appear to be a donkey, although there is one in the story.

Behind all the mystery solving there is the theme of baking for the holidays, which is described in mouth-watering detail. One can almost smell the aromas coming from Chapman’s Bakery, aptly named Earthly Delights. Traditional Australian Christmas foods include Christmas cake with small treats baked inside. There is also a Christmas damper (a scone-like bread), shaped into a star or wreath and served with butter jam or honey, which originated in the Outback.

Christmas Day in Iceland
It is also the food that I recall in the most detail after reading Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices, which takes place at this time of year. Christmas in Iceland––which is in close proximity to Santa’s home––has many interesting traditions, one of which is that there are 13 Icelandic Santas, each of whom has his own mythology. Iceland's winter holiday goes from early December to January 6, which makes a season of 26 days. Some of the traditions are quite similar to European and North American celebrations and include gift giving on December 24. On New Year’s Eve, there are community bonfires and widespread fireworks.

Inspector Erlendur is another character who feels great personal apathy at this time of the year, but professionally is aggressively investigating the murder of a part-time department-store Santa. There are many themes in this book, but the main one is giving a voice to the victim of murder, a voice for a badly beaten boy whose mother is mentally ill, and finally a voice for his own feelings of despair. This story is one of Indridason’s best.

But as I said I was taken by the food––or I could say taken aback. Inspector Erlendur checks out a room in which a holiday party had taken place. He found the remains of a boiled sheep’s head that the guests had been enjoying. At first I assumed this was possibly a euphemism for something like a head of cauliflower, but was amazed to find it is a usual dish in Iceland and there are even drive-in restaurants where this boiled sheep’s head, which is exactly that, is served with mashed potatoes and vegetables. I will stick with a quarter pounder, thank you.

Christmas in Rio
Another detective close to my heart is the lonely Inspector Espinosa in Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s December Heat. For him, Christmas is pretty much another day in Rio de Janeiro and he spends the days leading up to it trying to solve the murder of a prostitute who was the girlfriend of a retired policeman friend of Espinosa’s. The case is complicated by the faulty memory of this old cop, Vieira. Vieira is an alcoholic who wakes up next to his murdered mistress and finds himself in a peck of trouble. Espinosa knows that open-and-shut cases are never straightforward. Inspector Espinosa will probably spend both Christmas and New Year's reading his books and looking for more to add to his collection. He might eat the traditional pork loin and farofa, which is raw manioc flour, roasted with butter, salt and bacon. On New Year’s Day Brazilians eat lentils to increase their good luck.

A bowl of black-eyed peas on January first is essential for good luck, health and good fortune in my neck of the woods. I tend to cast my fate to the winds and leave this tradition to others in the family who wouldn’t miss this lucky charm for anything.

I would be interested in any holiday traditions that you readers feel are essential to help circumvent bad luck.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Top Reads of 2011

There are certain subjects you know you shouldn't raise in company if you want to avoid unpleasantness. Politics, religion, how to raise children, just for starters. Among the Material Witnesses, one subject is guaranteed to prompt pained howls from Georgette Spelvin: best-books lists. For some reason, she just hates making lists of favorite authors and reads.

I enjoy looking back over the year and thinking about the books I've read and how they stacked up. I keep a notebook of the books I've read, but all I do is write down the author and title. If I really liked it, I put an asterisk next to it. One of my book club friends has a card file and has a comment card in it for every book she's read for the last 30 years or so. I'm not that organized, but I wish I did have a record of every book I'd ever read, except for the part where people would look at me like I was some kind of compulsive nutcase.

But back to the subject at hand. This is the time of year when the newspapers, magazines and websites tell us what were the best books published in the past year. I always look at those lists and consider myself lucky if I've read 20% of them. It makes me feel like a cultural deadbeat, but that somehow doesn't ever seem to result in my rushing out to get the books they rate the highest.

I'm going to list my top reads of this year, more or less in order, and ask our readers to do the same in comments. They don't have to be 2011 publications; just books you read this year and particularly enjoyed. I think I can guarantee nobody will feel like a cultural deadbeat after reading my list.

Top Mystery Reads

Louise Penny: A Trick of the Light (Maybe not quite as good as Bury Your Dead, but still terrific. Of course, the Armand Gamache series is my weakness.)

Kate Atkinson: Started Early, Took My Dog (This entry in the Jackson Brodie series picks up shortly after the Masterpiece Mystery! dramatization left off. Atkinson is one of the best writers out there.)

Cyril Hare: An English Murder (A classic British country house murder mystery, but with incisive commentary on British attitudes about class, ethnicity and religion.)

Fred Vargas: An Uncertain Place (Yet another quirky title in the Inspector Adamsberg series.)

Jill Paton-Walsh: The Attenbury Emeralds (A continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey series.)

Peter Lovesey: Stagestruck (This book about murder in a theater in Bath is part of the Peter Diamond series.)

G. M. Malliet: Wicked Autumn (This is the first in a new series featuring a former MI-5 agent who is now an English country vicar.)

Robert Barnard: A Stranger in the Family (There's nobody like Barnard. This is his 28th standalone mystery and he's already published another one this year. Not to mention his three series and his four books written as Bernard Bastable.)

Alan Bradley: I Am Half Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce at Christmastime.)

Top Non-Mystery Fiction Reads

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (Four big volumes telling the story of British society and the empire from the 1930s to the 1970s.  I was mesmerized by it and didn't know what to do with myself for weeks after I finished it.)

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry From Kensington (One of the most mordantly witty books ever.)

Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son (An tour-de-force about contemporary life in North Korea.)

Jane Gardam: Old Filth (Funny, sad, touching tale of the life of Sir Edward Feathers. Like A Dance to the Music of Time, it's as much about the British Empire as it is about the characters' lives.)

Stephen King: 11/22/63 (On one level, a time-travel book about trying to prevent the JFK assassination. On a deeper level, about connectedness.)

Chad Harbach: The Art of Fielding (A coming-of-age story about baseball and much more.)

Fannie Flagg: I Still Dream About You (Fannie Flagg is one of my guilty pleasures and this book was just as satisfying as the rest.)

D. E. Stevenson: Miss Buncle's Book (A real find.  Set in England in the 1950s and about a spinster who decides to write a book to make some much-needed money. She can only write what she knows, so she writes a thinly-disguised book about the people in the village. Complications ensue. This title has been issued by Persephone Books, which reprints neglected classics of 20th-century authors, usually women.)

Top Nonfiction Reads

Erik Larson: In the Garden of Beasts (Novelistic story of a college professor made ambassador to Germany in the 1930s Nazi era, and his adult daughter who accompanied him to Berlin, along with his wife and adult son.)

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies (A compellingly readable biography of cancer.)

Laura Hillenbrand: Unbroken (Astonishing story of Louis Zamperini, who went from juvenile delinquent to Olympic runner, to POW of the Japanese in World War II.)

Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich (You'd think there isn't any more that can be said on the subject, but Evans proves that wrong.)

Nella Last's War (Just before the outbreak of World War II, Britain established the Mass Observation Project, in which ordinary people were asked to write diaries and answer questionnaires about their views on contemporary events.  Nella Last, an ordinary housewife in a seacoast town, wrote a diary that is full of everyday detail, but also reveals her deepest feelings about married life, her children, the war, her country, her neighbors, the role of women and more.)

Now it's your turn . . .