Friday, June 16, 2017

The Cold Blue Blood, The Marx Sisters, and Unwelcome Guests

I have spent the past week fighting tiny ants in my kitchen. All of a sudden there was one, then two, then a swarm. (To me, any gathering of bugs over two is considered a swarm.) Mostly I was just smashing the one or two scurrying about, but recently I have had to resort to Bug Spray. 

In the mean time, I began two new mystery series. One by an author I already know and like — David Handler — and another by new-to-me author Barry Maitland.

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Mr. Handler, if you remember, is the creator of the Hoagy and Lulu series that I wrote about here. In The Cold Blue Blood he has created the unlikely duo of Mitch Berger, film critic, and Lieutenant Desiree Mitry of the Connecticut Major Crime Squad.

It is summer and Mitch, who is grieving the death of his young wife, has rented a cottage on a private island off the coast of Connecticut. Desiree enters the picture when Mitch unearths a body in the cottage garden plot. It turns out to be Niles, the man everyone thought had run off with his wealthy wife's money and his new girlfriend. Desiree is already investigating the murder of a woman who, as it turns out, is the girlfriend of the murdered Niles. 

I already like Mitch and his infinite knowledge of movies and actors. Desiree is a graduate of West Point and rescues and finds homes for feral cats. She also has a secret passion for rendering in charcoal crime scene photos. She doesn't show them to anyone. It is just her way of processing the gruesome sights she comes upon in her job. She is an intriguing character.

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The Marx Sisters introduces the team of Detective Sergeant Kathy Kolla and Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock. 

When the elderly Meredith Winterbottom is found dead in her apartment in London's Jerusalem Lane, it looks as if she simply died in her sleep - until DS Kolla discovers a plastic bag in the garbage that contains hair and saliva of the dead woman. Was Mrs. Winterbottom smothered because she was the last property owner on the historic lane who refused to sell to the development company? Or was she murdered for the collection of papers she had in her possession that were written by Karl Marx?

There is no shortage of suspects and this one gets more and more entertaining the further along I read.

Both series are most promising. I do love a good mystery.

Now, a third mystery. Where are those pesky ants coming from?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas

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I discovered Dragon's Green by Scarlett Thomas through a review in the Guardian

Dragon's Green sounds as if it could be a small city park or perhaps an herbal tea, but it turns out to be a book that was left to Effie by her maternal grandfather, Griffin Truelove. Effie, who is eleven, has long suspected that her grandfather had something to do with magic, but it's not until he dies and leaves her his pouch of magical objects, his library of powerful books, and his mystical silver ring that she comes to realize she was right. Although confused to have this magic life thrust on her, she bravely carries forth. 

We first meet Effie five years after the Worldquake, an event during which the earth shook for seven-and-a-half minutes. It is a strange world now. There is no internet although there is something called the dim net. There are no cell phones and people carry pagers and use two-way radios to communicate. There is an organization called the Guild and another one - an evil one - known as Diberi. 

Effie's mother went missing after the Worldquake and is presumed dead. Effie's father, who has become distant from his daughter, sells the grandfather's library to a sleazy character. Effie's quest, with the help of her friends, is to rescue the books.

I am enjoying Effie's adventures with her newfound friends, Lexy, Maximilian, Wolf, and Raven. The book holds lovely descriptions of food, books, and cabinets full of curiosities. I am just along for the ride and putting my practical mind on the shelf and letting myself fall under the spell of this tale. 

It makes me wish that someday someone would bequeath me a library full of magical books and a pouch of enchanted objects.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Man Who Died Laughing by David Handler

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This is an entertaining mystery series featuring ghostwriter Stewart (Hoagy) Hoag and his faithful Bassett Hound Lulu.  Hoagy has a fondness for single malt whiskey. Lulu has a fondness for seafood. Author David Handler has created the dapper Hoagy, a writer who had one bestselling novel and then crashed and burned. Along with the crash came divorce from his wife. He got custody of Lulu. Now, he has taken to ghostwriting the memoirs of the rich and famous. And, solving mysteries.

In the first tale, The Man Who Died Laughing, Hoagy's subject is Sonny Day, one time partner in the comedy duo of Knight and Day. Sonny and Gabe Knight had a splendid movie and stage career going for years until they had a big public brawl at a famous Hollywood restaurant. No one has ever said what the cause of the fight was. That was some years ago and now Sonny wants to set the record straight. If he only lives long enough.
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In the second, The Man Who Lived by Night, Hoagy is in London to work with T.S. Scarr, rock star extraordinaire now a whacked out recluse living on his country estate. Lulu is with him of course and both are happy to be reunited for a time with Hoagy's ex-wife Merilee Nash the famous actress. But, someone in Scarr's life is keeping secrets about the death long ago of one of the band members and Hoagy's interviews are stirring up some not-so-happy memories.

I read the first book and moved right on to the second. The setup of both books is similar. The reader is given access to the transcripts of the taped interviews that Hoagy conducts with the characters. This is a different way of getting to know the personalities of the main people in the story and to hearing the backstory in their own words. These interviews are interspersed with chapters furthering the story and the action.

The time period for both is the 1980s with references in the first to Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, and others of that Hollywood scene. In the second mystery, there is talk of the Beatles, the Stones, and the Mersey Beat. All these 'real' details drew me even further in the stories.

There are eight mysteries in the series with another one due out in August — The Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes

I am quite taken with Hoagy's wit and sleuthing skills - both in trying to get to know his subjects and in trying to solve the murders. I also like the time period and the references to real celebrities.  

I look forward to more 'ghostwriting' with Hoagy and Lulu.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Flirting with French by William Alexander

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As someone who has tried over the years to learn French, I can certainly empathize with the brain pain and heartbreak of William Alexander in his book Flirting with French. The subtitle says it all: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart.

This is his tale of not only wanting to learn French but really wanting to be French. Before a bike trip through Brittany and Provence with his wife Anne, Mr. Alexander decides to buckle down and learn les mots française. As he is 57 years old, this is not the easiest of tasks and his time spent studying using a Rosetta Stone language course has mixed results. 

Once back to America from his trip, he redoubles his efforts to learn his bonjours et bonsoirs. In addition to laughing at his comic struggles with this self-imposed task, I have been treated to, among other things: a brief history of the Battle of Hastings; the quirky workings of the Académie français, the official authority on the French language; and a chapter on his attempts to make croissants from Julia Child's recipe (they were délicieux).

I took two years of French in high school. I have bought and listened to numerous French language instruction tapes, have at least three French-English dictionaries on my bookshelves plus a variety of How to Learn French textbooks, and have taken adult education classes in the language. 

I have been twice to Paris on my own and was determined to at least speak a little of the native tongue. I think it paid off although my speaking to someone and my understanding of their response were two different things.

Alas. I am in the same boat (le bateau) as Mr. Alexander. The striving to be fluent in this beautiful language has been more of a dream (I wonder what it is like to dream in French?) than a reality. And yet, I persist.

I am reminded that there is no word in French for seventy, eighty, or ninety. No wonder numbers are so difficult. And don't even get me started on the wacky assignment of gender to words. For example, beard is feminine; chicken is masculine. Go figure.

This book is full of fun and fun facts and le français. Even if you don't speak a word of French (although you know you want to), I think you will find this witty book a treat.

Have you had any experience trying to learn a language as an adult? What were the results?

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree

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The Darling Dahlias and the Cucumber Tree is as Southern as sweet tea. It is a mystery full of flowers, food, and friendship.

The time is May 1930. The place is Darling, Alabama. The ladies of the town's garden club, The Darling Dahlias, have just inherited a new clubhouse upon the death of the club's founder Mrs. Dahlia Blackstone who died at the age of 82.

There is Miss Elizabeth Lacy the club's president who works for an attorney and writes a gardening column for the weekly newspaper. Eternal optimist Ophelia Snow is the wife of the mayor. Verna Tidwell is the clerk in the probate office, is naturally suspicious, and makes a splendid sleuth. Myra May is the phone operator which makes her privy to all sorts of information. Beulah Trivette is owner of the Beauty Bower, a hair and nail salon where much gossip and news is discussed.

Next to gardening, the Dahlia's love to eat. Here's a typical Sunday dinner: fried chicken with new potato salad, sliced tomatoes sprinkled with dill, and green beans and okra cooked up with onions and bacon. For dessert there might be ribbon cake with peach filling or thumbprint cookies filled with raspberry jam. All served up with cold rosemary lemonade. 

Are you hungry yet?

Author Susan Wittig Albert writes evocatively of the South, the attitudes of the time, and the close friendships of the women. And, she throws in lots of intriguing historic details. But know this, there is plenty of mystery here — was the death of Bunny Scott an accident or foul play? What about the convict who has escaped from the prison farm? And, who is that digging at night behind the garden club house?

Well, all will be revealed, including, I hope, the relevance of the cucumber tree. 

I am quite happy to spend time with the Dahlias in pleasant Darling, Alabama where white kitchen curtains are crisply starched, rockers on wide front porches gently squeak, and fireflies light up the warm Southern nights. 

Quick! Someone pour me a glass of sweet tea. And where are my pearls?