Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mysteries Good Enough to Eat

I've mentioned before that my library offers downloadable audiobooks and I have become quite enamored of them. I finished the Max Allan Collins disaster series (the ones that were available, at least) and have moved on to the Joanne Fluke Hannah Swensen mysteries.

Hannah Swensen is a 30-something small business owner (she owns a cookie/coffee shop) in the small town of Lake Eden, Minnesota. Her mother Dolores is urging her to marry before it's too late, and keeps setting her up on dates. One of these is Norman Rhodes, the town's dentist, who is a very nice man and one of the few who really gets Hannah's sense of humor.

On the other hand, the new sherrif's deputy, Mike Kingston, gets Hannah's heart racing. If Norman is a warm, comfortable log fire on a winter's night, Mike is a wildfire racing through the woods. Mike's kisses make Hannah melt, but sometimes he can make Hannah's temper really flare.

Norman and Mike are friendly rivals for Hannah' attentions--they can be comfortable with each other, even to the point of excluding Hannah from a guys' conversation during a 4th of July picnic. This is good, because in a town this small, it would be hard for them to avoid each other.

Hannah's family also includes her sister Andrea (a "real estate professional"), Andrea's husband Bill (elected sheriff a few books in), their daughters Tracy and Bethany, plus people close enough to be family such as Lisa, Hannah's partner at the Cookie Jarp. Beyond that is a host of wonderful characters that make Lake Eden come alive and sound like a wonderful place to visit.

This is one of those mystery series where the mysteries themselves are not the most important thing; what keep me reading is the characters and their relationships (no, not just romantic relationships.) In such a small town, everyone knows everyone else; Joanne Fluke should be complimented on how she handles the murders, the victims, and the perpetrators. Many times, the victim is someone that has been encountered (or at least mentioned) in a previous book; the very first victim is someone that Hannah knew well, and her main reason for solving the crime is her need seek justice--not vengeance.

I have mentioned before that I am on Team Jacob in the Twilight series, and Team Simon in the Mortal Instruments series. Here, I am on Team Norman. He is not as good-looking or as exciting as Mike, but I believe he is a better in the long run. After all, Hannah's cat, Moishe, loves Norman where he merely likes Mike. I just don't like the way Mike treats Hannah; he's always objecting to her helping out with the investigation and urges her to "leave it to the professionals" without acknowledging that she and her team (including Norman) are many times able to learn things that the police can't.

One of the great things about listening to books is that you can multi-task. I find myself listening while walking, while cooking, and while doing laundry--times when I would otherwise have to put a book down. I have even taken to listening before bedtime--the danger is that I tend to fall asleep before turning off the MP3 player. Fortunately, it has a rechargeable battery.

The main disadvantage of listening to this series instead of reading the printed version is that there are wonderful recipes scattered throughout. It would be a lot easier to copy them from a page than to have to listen, pause, scribble, listen, pause, scribble. Yummy!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sequels and Shakespeare

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
Main character: Todd and Viola
Location: New Prentisstown on New Earth
Time period: Sometime in the future
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Dystopian Fiction
Series: Chaos Walking #2

When I read The Knife of Never Letting Go this spring, I was reduced to babbling incoherency. What an incredible, brain-exploding book that was. It laid out the rules of the world and then turned them over again and again, keeping you (and Todd) off-balance.

This book doesn't have the mind-blowing aspects of the first one, but there are parts that are heart-rending. Todd is captured by Mayor Prestiss--actually newly self-styled President Prentiss, but Todd still thinks of him as the Mayor. Viola is taken to a house of healing and falls under the sway of Mistress Coyle. It is so tempting to see Mistress Coyle as a good guy; as the one saying goes "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and Mayor Prentiss is definitely Todd's enemy. But the other saying is "war makes monsters of me" and it makes monsters of women, too.

In the midst of all the chaos and carnage, Todd is the one bright spot. He has a core of goodness, of innocence, that remains despite what is done to him and what he is forced to do. The Mayor recognizes this and knows that it makes Todd a natural leader; he even puts Todd and Davy together, hoping that their characters will influence each other. Who would expect that I would actually feel some sympathy for Davy, and even see in him a faint echo of Manchee? Todd is only broken when he believes that Viola has abandoned him.

I would recommend this series highly for more mature readers--the depictions of terrorist activities, torture, and the genocide of the Spackles are not pleasant to read, but neither are they gratuitous. I cannot wait for the third book and the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan
Main character: Will, Horace, and Alyss
Location: The Castle Macindaw, near the Scotti border
Time period: Medieval-like period
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy
Series: The Ranger's Apprentice #6

Book #5, The Sorcerer of the North, ended on an almost literal cliffhanger. Okay, so Will was hanging off of a castle wall, not a cliff, and he did get down before the last page, but it was awfully close. Now Alyss is a prisoner in a tower room and Will is hiding out with Malcolm and his refugees in the woods outside the castle. But hope comes in the form of Horace, as well as a band of shipwrecked Skandians.

This series has gotten to the point, for me at least, where the adventures are not as important as the central characters an their relationships with each other. I especially enjoy that Will and Horace are such close friends--Horace was a bit of a bully in the first book and they could have so easily have fallen into a cliched antagonism. Instead, they have a true respect for each other and for each other's talents. Horace is a straight-forward warrior, Will is a devious Ranger. When they work together, combining their styles, they are unbeatable. I especially loved (spoiler alert!) when Will was agonizing over his feelings for Alyss, and Horace's advice is to stop thinking and just tell her!

I've just seen that the next book will come out next year. I wonder if it will follow the established pattern of taking two books to complete the adventure.

Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Main character: Jonah, Katherine, Chip and Alex
Location: London
Time period: Fifteenth century
Genre: YA Fiction, Time Travel, Historical Fiction
Series: The Missing #2

In the first volume, Found, Jonah, chip and Alex, along with a group of other adopted children, learned that they had been snatched from various points in history and now to heal the rifts in time that resulted, they must be restored. When Chip and Alex are sent back, Jonah and Katherine jump along with them back to 1400s England. It turns out that Chip and Alex are the two Princes in the Tower, the sons of King Edward IV who, according to Shakespeare, were murdered by their usurping uncle, Richard III.

Shakespeare's Richard III is the wickedest villain in English Literature, but historians have debated whether the historical Richard really was guilty of all the murders laid at his feet. It is true that the "Princes in the Tower" were never seen after Richard's coronation--at least not in recorded history. But there are accounts that Richard was an able administrator, a loving husband, and a doting father--a good man and a good king.

Haddix plays with the gaps in history and comes up with a plot that does not villify Richard--though it doesn't exonerate him completely. Jonah and Katherine are able to allow history to play out the way it should without sacrificing Chip and Alex. Because of this, JD admits that they have an ability which the other time agents are lacking. It looks like they will be crucial in helping the other children restore time.

In a set-up for the next volume, JD tells them that they will next be helping Andrea Crowell, the "quiet girl with braids" as Jonah calls her. They will also be taking a dog with them; his name is "Dare." Are we going to find out what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?

Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston
Main character: 17-year old Kelley, an aspiring actress
Location: Manhattan
Time period: Contemporary
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy, Faerie Tale

Sent has a slight Shakespeare connection, but Wondrous Strange dives right in to one of his most popular romantic comedies, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Kelley has been cast as an understudy in a production of Midsummer in a small, shabby, off-Broadway theater. She is happy to do a lot of work backstage, little dreaming that the lead actress will literally break a leg and that Kelley will be required to step into the role of Titania, Queen of the Faeries.

What Kelley does not know--what most mortals do not know--is that there is a lot of truth in the Shakespeare play. The worlds of mortals and of faerie used to intermingle until Auberon closed the gates and forbid any travel between the worlds. But he left a gap, a gate in Central Park where faeries can slip through around Halloween. To guard the gap, he created the Janus Guard, made up of changeling children--children who had been born mortal but had been stolen by faeries before the worlds were sealed.

Sonny is the newest of the Janus Guards and is patrolling in Central Park when he hears Kelley rehearing her lines. He recognizes the spell she is advertantly casting and knows that she is not all that she appears to be. He falls in love with her and tries to watch over her; she decides he is a stalker.

I don't think that it is necessary to be familiar with A Midsummer Night's Dream in order to enjoy this book, but it does help. I especially liked the fact that Puck is now an actor and goes by the name "Bob." The kelpie that takes up residence in her bathtub is quite fun, too.