Friday, August 27, 2010

Reserving Judgement on Series

Forever it seems, I've been reading bloggers who love Alexander McCall Smith and his series which began with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Okay, if that many bloggers I usually depend on to recommend books I'll enjoy like them, I'll try the series. I got the first book from the library and read it while we were away earlier this week.

I can say that I found the book charming and the down-to-earth stories lovely little vignettes of human frailties. I liked the descriptions of the surrounding area and Precious Ramotswe's office and home. What I can't say is that this book would entice me to follow the series any further. The word that comes to mind is "fluff."

There is humor in Precious' approach to solving cases and her view of people she meets in her work, and I do like that part of it.

I think I'll try one or two more, hopefully I'll find the next books in the series, and then decide whether I like this type of book or not. I would appreciate some input from my friends at this point. Does the series get better as it goes along? Are his other books besides this series any more interesting? Should I just go on with other authors I really love and forget him?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Kathyrn Stockett has written her first novel based on her own experiences growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, and listening to stories her grandmother's maid told her as she snuggled on the woman's lap. The Help means, therefore, black maids in white households where they were treated as inferior beings who were dirty and carriers of disease. The story is set in the 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement was gradually changing things; it includes, for instance, the horrible murder of Medgar Evers.

Skeeter Phelan, the protagonist, is the character obviously based on the author. She is in her early 20s, a graduate of Old Miss with a degree in journalism, and her married friends and her mother pity her because she doesn't have a man. She doesn't spend her time on her hair and makeup, and she doesn't really care about finding a husband. Her best friend, Hilly, is married and thinks of herself as the leader of the young white married women, and Skeeter of course. She heads the Junior League, tells everyone what to do and what to wear, and they all follow like a bunch of sheep. Hateful is the word that comes to mind.

The other main character is Aibileen, maid to one of the sheep. This woman ignores her little daughter, and the girl turns to "Aibie" who loves her dearly. The stories of Aibileen, Minny and other maids breaks your heart, especially since we all know that's the way black servants were treated in white households. They are humiliated. For instance, Hilly's big campaign is to make everyone put in a toilet for the use of maids because God forbid they should use the white bathroom and contaminate the household.

Skeeter wants to be a writer and after speaking with an editor in New York, she comes up with the idea of writing what it's like to be Aibileen, Minny, or another maid who works for white folks. Her naivete is unbelievable at first but she catches on as she secretly writes her book. The maids who cooperate are putting themselves in serious danger but they've just had enough. When one of them is falsely accused of stealing, by Hilly of course, and ends up in prison, the maids tell Skeeter their stories.

Each of the characters has her own unique personality and character and this is what I love best about this book. I did worry about the dialect used when the maids talk, thinking that perhaps it belittled them. But in truth they did speak differently and it certainly helped separate the conversation without overuse of "Aibileen said" or "Hilly said". Skeeter is a character you can't help but love, but on the other hand I wanted to slap her silly at times.

I think the book drags in some places. It takes Skeeter the longest time to come around to a decision, even in her naive ignorance of the danger, but then she shows real backbone. There are side issues and exaggerated characterizations of a type. Minny's boss, Celia, is a hoot for instance. On the whole, I liked this book but didn't love it. It's a great story, one well worth your time, but it moves like people do in the South on a hot, humid day.

I'm an Amazon Associate.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Surprising Book Sale Find

At our recent book sale I think I got sort of carried away picking up books because I came home with one that I normally wouldn't even take a second look at, Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris. Perhaps it was the eye-catching cover that caught my fancy.

This is the fourth book in the Harper Connelly series and I hadn't read the first three, but it turned out not to matter. I may even go back and read the other ones because I actually liked this. Ordinarily anything paranormal just doesn't interest me at all. By the time I realized the paranormal aspect in this one though, I was hooked on the characters and Harris' writing style. She's very readable and her characters are fascinating and/or hilarious.

This story is complicated and I don't know how I would introduce you to it without giving things away. I'll just say that Connelly was struck by lightning years ago and ever since has been able to sense dead bodies. in the beginning of this story she has been hired by a Texas lady to discover the cause of the death of the woman's father. Connelly can stand on a grave barefoot and "know" how the person died. In doing so this time, because she hasn't been told exactly which grave is his, she discovers a dangerous secret that puts her and her step-brother/partner in harm's way.

Their background is also a story in itself since their parents were drug addicts, and neglected and abused all the children. Too, Connelly's older sister had disappeared years earlier. There has been nothing solid to go on about where she or her body ended up. Family strife is still working itself out in this book in fact.

I read this quickly over a couple days because I couldn't stay away from it. I was fooled time and again as the plot unfolded, but could go back and realize I had simply missed a clue. Never would have thought I would say this because of my dislike of paranormal plot lines, but I really do recommend this book.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Review: Faster Pastor by Sharyn McCrumb and Adam Edwards

Sharyn McCrumb teamed up with NASCAR/ARCA driver Adam Edwards to write this third book in her NASCAR series. Now don't let that keep you from reading Faster Pastor if you aren't a car racing fan. This is just a very funny book with a cast of quirky, sometimes hilarious characters that will keep you chuckling from first page to last. Car racing fans will find plenty to love in it too, but that part is sort of secondary to the story.

It begins with Cameron Berkley, nicknamed Camber, literally landing in the midst of a grave-side service for Jimmy Powell who had been a NASCAR fan and memorabilia collector. Camber, by the way, is a term which is a "factor in a car's steering and suspension." Anyway, Camber is thrown in the local pokey with a slight concussion, and when he learns about Powell's collection, he muses that it is probably worth at least $2 million. The village of Judas Grove is all atwitter. The town's name is yet another funny story.

The judge, taking all this into consideration, sentences Camber to a fine and two weeks' confinement in jail but, wearing an electronic ankle device, to spend those two weeks teaching the local clergy how to drive a race car. The judge's daughter, a very serious college educated young woman, is assigned to be Camber's minder. At the end of the two weeks, there will be a race and the fastest pastor will win the proceeds from the sale of the collection. Got it?

Now, think about the clergy in your own area. Quite an assortment of people, eh? All shapes and sizes. Now put them into a race car; chuckling yet? This is definitely a character-driven story, and admittedly I used to be an auto racing fan (not any more though), but I loved this book. It took me right out of my hazy, hot, humid summer doldrums and made me laugh out loud.

If you buy it from, I am an Amazon Associate.

Monday, August 9, 2010

What is it with Mel Gibson?

I had recorded the movie "Braveheart" starring Mel Gibson when it was shown on television several months ago. Saturday evening we finally got around to watching it. Since I'm of Scottish descent and know the William Wallace story, I thought I would enjoy it. And perhaps I would have, had it not been for Mel Gibson's more recent history which made me watch the movie with a jaundiced eye. I know his stern version of Roman Catholicism and his respect for his father's anti-semitic views too well.

What I'll call, for lack of a better term, his Jesus delusion was very much in evidence in "Braveheart." After the English killed his wife, for instance, here comes Gibson riding into the village on a donkey, excuse me, horse with his arms extended out to his sides. Sacrificing himself for his people he was. Right? Of course, it was an act and he and the villagers proceeded to attack the English after he had mesmerized them into complacency. Too bad, up to then it was a reenactment of Palm Sunday.

He kept putting this saintly look on his face as he stood in front of his men ready to attack the English army. Then, in the chaos that was war then (and now for that matter), he manages to kill everyone in sight and survive, bloodied but unbeaten.

Finally, after he was captured he refused to take something to dull the pain and prayed to be able to die well without crying out. Jesus pleading with God? When two partial hangings didn't get him to confess, they laid him out on a cross, for Pete's sake, and though they didn't stick a sword in his side, they did castrate and disembowel him but all he cried out was "Freedom!"

This was just too much for me; I burst out, "Oh, give it a rest, Gibson!"

The story wasn't exactly the truth of course; movies never are. However, the real history wasn't too far from what the movie showed, with the exception of Wallace's (Gibson's) love affair with the princess and his superhuman exploits. Wallace was certainly a hero to the Scots, a man who never in his life pledged allegiance to or entered into any agreements with the English. Robert (the) Bruce, Scotland's other hero did consort with the English until finally becoming the man Scotland needed him to be.

I do wish someone with the motive of telling the real story, which is dramatic enough, would have made this movie. Instead it was made as a form of worship to Mel Gibson and his holier-than-thou attitude toward everyone else. Predicting that he would make "The Passion" after "Braveheart" would have been a piece of cake.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Review: Sand Sharks by Margaret Maron

I started going to the library again, despite my growing TBR pile at home. First I'm catching up on authors I always enjoy, then I'll explore new ones. Anyway, Margaret Maron's books are so evocative of a time and place I think I would like to inhabit that I just settle in for a lovely read when I find a new one. The bonus is that the plot is usually interesting as well.

In this one, published last year, Judge Deborah Knott and her new husband will be apart for a few days while she goes to a judge's conference at Wrightsville Beach. He's taking his son up to clear out his ex-wife's house since she is dead now, and he will teach at a conference himself while a friend takes his son camping. He half-seriously tells Deborah to be in bed - alone - by 9 every night, and she worries about him and his son doing such an emotional job.

At her conference a judge who seems to be disliked by everyone, and probably is on the take, is murdered the first night. Suddenly judges are dropping like flies, the detective heading up the investigation welcomes Deborah's help partly because he's interested in her divorced friend, and she is deeply involved in the investigation. Someone from her past turns up which adds a complication for her, and there's a judge who would like to add her to his list of conquests.

As usual in Maron's novels, you see the restaurants, shopping, all the atmosphere of the area, and the food (soft shell crabs in this case). Since she is there early and has free time, you also see the beach. Deborah has lots of friends so the conversation flows, including lots of gossip.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it yet, but this is pure Margaret Maron. Judge Deborah Knott is one of my best loved characters of all time so I know I'll love the book whenever I see it's part of that series. She is down to earth, smart, loving, a good friend, and has the biggest, most interesting family you'll ever meet. Just don't call her Deb or Debbie! The Low Country is also a character in these novels; it almost makes me want to move there.

So, in short, if you haven't read Sand Sharks yet and like Margaret Maron, what are you waiting for? If you buy it, I'm an Amazon Associate.

Friday, August 6, 2010

It's Book Sale Day!

My computer has a bad case of the slows today and my back hurts sitting at my desk so instead of the review I intended to write, I'll tell you about my morning at our annual book sale.

We have a a Blueberry Festival on the Green in Montrose, PA every August. They sell chances on a handmade quilt (made by a quilting club in town), blueberry everything in food including blueberry pizza, blueberry ice cream, a blueberry pancake breakfast, and everything else blueberry you can think of. They'll even throw some berries in your lemonade for you.

The main attraction for many of us though is the book sale in a gigantic tent. They kept getting bigger and bigger tents, but starting last year they gave up and moved paperbacks, records, games, etc. down to an empty car dealer's building toward the edge of town. I always arrive on the Green the first morning of the two day festival carrying several tote bags and bringing along my husband to carry and/or hold books for me. I look forward to this day all year long.

Dave bought chances on the quilt and he also bought chances on gift baskets this year. While he waited for me, he enjoyed a piece of blueberry pie and a lemonade sans blueberries.

This morning I spent a total of $36.50 which bought 25 books! I have mysteries and classics and an assortment of nonfiction which will keep me happy for quite a while. Even so, I had to quit before I looked at everything because I just couldn't carry any more and it was getting crowded and hot in the tent. The building was even hotter but I got a stack of paperbacks anyway. If I had remembered to take along my list, I might have bought more.

Tomorrow around 2 p.m. they'll start selling books by the bag at reduced prices. Who knows, I may show up yet again. By the way, this all benefits the county library and historical society so any donations or money spent go to one of the best causes in town.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: A Little Death in Dixie by Lisa Turner

I've found a new favorite mystery writer. Lisa Turner lives part of the time in Memphis, the rest in Nova Scotia, and this book is real Memphis. From the first page you feel the molasses-like drowsiness of a hot afternoon in Memphis, and some of the characters are southern belles and some of there men are large and slightly or more corrupt. Croquet plays a part in the story, and there is always the lazy but dangerous Mississippi River. Actually as I read, I was thinking of that new summer TV series, "Memphis Beat," and picturing the detectives as the stars of that show.

Suddenly though all that sleepy southern drawl is overtaken by a fast-paced, exciting story. The cover includes a blurb from Mark Nykanen, author of The Bone Parade: "Riveting Southern suspense. The pages turned so fast they were smoking."

I agree. Yesterday and today I was engrossed every minute and when I had to tear myself away to do something, I couldn't wait to get back to this book. Detective Billy Able is the main character and this poor guy is pulled first one way and then the other. First his partner seems to crack up and then either he's murdered or commits suicide. There is a family involved that includes every stereotypical southern feature (I kept thinking "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof") but yet these characters are so much more than that. The story in fact begins as one of the women of this family goes missing. Since she's a drunk, self-centered, and has run off for a binge before, it's a while before people begin to worry.

As each character is revealed more fully, the several story lines are full of twists and unexpected turns. Turner manages to tell the story so that you are reading along thinking you've got some character's number, and then find that there is a deeper mystery to that person. Every time something new is revealed though, you realize that there was foreshadowing but you missed it in the midst of all the excitement. You figure out the villain long before Det. Able does and the villain is such a creep I guarantee you'll hate him, and love it when he gets what he deserves. The fact that you know about him does nothing to ruin the book; you are too wrapped up in following Able's path to discovery.

It's complicated and yet easy to follow, and everything begins to merge toward the end. Not one story line is left out in the ether somewhere, everything gets wrapped up. Dialogue is never forced; people talk just like we really talk. I hate mysteries where the dialogue is just too, too witty. Almost everything about this book is well done. Just a few scenes struck me as too much of a stretch. It's 288 pages and that's just right.

This is a super book. If you like mystery novels, please look for it.