Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Mainly Mysteries, But Other Books, Too

We had another enjoyable book club meeting in December 2005, writes Jeannine. It was a very informal end-of-the-year bash celebrating all kinds of books with lots of food and conversation. People brought what they were currently reading to share, or other books they especially enjoyed this year, and many brought a related food item for all of us to munch on. The Christmas tree was lit and poinsettias brightened the tables, various murderous implements were spread across the discussion table (rolling pin, cane, meat tenderizers…hmm, the poinsettias are poisonous too, aren’t they?), and the sign-up table had a retrospective of the books and themes we have discussed this last year.
On to the main course of our meetings, the books:
  • Our first title discussed was Absolute Friends by John Le Carré. The MM member had read long ago all of Le Carré’s early work and enjoyed them immensely, but with the end of the Cold War, found his later novels less interesting and not as well written. So she was hesitant to pick up his newest book, but at the recommendation of a friend she gave Absolute Friends a try and was thrilled to find Le Carré back in fine form. He has made the transition to a modern spy story with the feel of his original Cold War stories. She highly recommends it to all.
  • Our next member fell in love with the mystery series of Eliot Pattison that begins with The Skull Mantra and is currently on its fourth title (which she brought) Beautiful Ghost. It follows a Chinese detective who has been banished to a work camp in Tibet, and is full of cultural information about Tibet, Buddhism and modern China, as well as a good mystery and interesting character development. The series engendered an interest in Tibet, and the member bought a “free Tibet” sticker.
  • The next member moved to the world of nonfiction. She has had a long standing interest in birds and birding, so when The Wind Masters: The lives of North American Birds of Prey by Peter Dunne was recommended to her, she grabbed it. It is written in the form of “fictionalized fact,” using story form to tell the true story of the 33 species of birds of prey in North America, and our member says the author is a master of descriptive words.
  • Last year for the December bash, we read culinary fiction. One of the titles that had not been discussed then is Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray. It is a contemporary tale of a contemporary mildly dysfunctional family – stay at home mom, working husband, sullen teenage daughter, son in college, and mom’s mom living with them. Then dad loses his job. Then mom’s dad – thoroughly despised by his ex-wife, mom’s mom – breaks his wrists and can’t fend for himself, so he invites himself to live with the family. Mom is finding this a few too many people underfoot and at odds with each other and turns to her favorite therapy, baking cakes. And what wonderful cakes she cooks. And how everyone loves them. And how amazing that people want to buy them. And, well, you see where this is going, don’t you? Don’t read this book when you’re hungry unless you’re ready to tackle the recipes at the back of the book.
  • The year of our original December bash (2003), we read culinary mysteries. One of our members has continued to look for new authors we missed the first time around, and this year discovered Sharon Kahn. Fax Me a Bagel is part of the “Ruby, the Rabbi’s wife” series, and is stronger on character development than mystery plot. Our reader was impressed with how background information was introduced through emails between friends; she has read other examples of this method that did not work nearly as well. And she was inspired to make bagels through a book The Best Bagels are Made at Home by Dona Meilach, but her attempt literally fell flat, and, unfortunately, square (we did NOT have samples).
  • On to a member fascinated by historical mysteries. She had two authors to recommend – Karen Harper with her Elizabeth I series (The Queene’s Christmas, The Poyson Garden), and Sharan Newman and her Catherine Levendeur medieval France series (Heresy). Both series are extremely well-researched, but not overly stocked with historical facts, and combine well-developed fictional characters with factual ones. Both come highly recommended.
  • This brings us to a recommendation that is also the January selection for the Chili Pepper Readers romance book club (shameless plug!): Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. This is the first “Christian” (i.e. CBA/evangelical market) romance selected by CPR by one of the first and best authors of the relatively new genre. It is a retelling of the Bible story of Hosea set in Gold Rush California with skillful writing and character development.
  • For a change of pace we move on to a thriller author that was enthusiastically supported by several members – Michael Connolly and his Harry Bosch series. One member read her first by Connolly, The Closers, and considered it a page turner like John Grisham’s. She says that though it is a mystery, it is primarily a plot-driven thriller. Another member had read the entire series and said that the characters were well-developed over the course of the whole series, that each one builds well on top of one another. Both were impressed with Harry’s strong sense of ethics and the fact that it was often what got Harry into “trouble” in the first place.
  • Another mystery. And another one with food. In A Catered Christmas by Isis Crawford (very timely), there are various seasonal murders – death by oven, and death by Christmas tree – and a variety of recipes only somewhat related to the story (just filling up space?). Our member said it was okay, but you could tell she was just trying to be polite and not be the only one trashing a book. She said it was better than Tamar Myers series (which, excuse me, is NOT saying much), but not nearly as good as Diane Mott Davidson or Joanne Fluke.
  • Now from the ridiculous to the sublime – Torey Hayden’s Twilight Children: Three Voices No one Heard Until a Therapist Listened. In this true story, Hayden took a break from her teaching special ed children to work for a special hospital assessment team, and relates three cases of mutism. Each case unfolds like a detective story as Hayden tries to get to the cause of the silence. And our member was deeply proud of herself to read nonfiction of substance for a change.
  • Now once again back to mysteries. Our next member went back to one of the earliest mystery writers, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). In The Circular Staircase (full text available here) and others, the mystery itself is not outstanding, especially by more sophisticated modern standards, but the period detail and the attitudes of the time are fascinating. And she found it interesting that the mysteries are not exactly “solved,” they just sort of “play out” (arrests and trials are so vulgar after all).
  • More fun mysteries. We’ve mentioned her before and here she is again - Joanne Fluke, and in this case, The Fudge Cupcake Murder – a Hannah Swenson mystery. Hannah has a cookie shop in a small Minnesota town where she’s dating both a dentist and a police detective, and keeps embarrassing her mother by finding dead bodies (People will talk, dear). They are very light and have splendid recipes with lots of useful notes that actually make the recipe work (if I can pull it off, it’s a recipe with good instructions). And the story isn’t bad either. The member recommending her actually prefers her to Diane Mott Davidson, so give her a try.
  • Okay, switch gears again, we’re back to serious topics. Next we heard about two books by Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: on (not) getting by in America, and Bait and Switch: the (futile) pursuit of the American Dream. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich went undercover to see how blue-collar workers make ends meet – or not. She tried as a waitress, a cleaning woman, a nursing assistant and a Wal-Mart clerk, sometimes working two jobs seven days a week and still nearly ends up in a shelter. Her conclusion – hard work seldom if ever is a ticket out of poverty. In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich moves to the white-collar world, posing as a middle-aged professional trying to get work in corporate America. It is as much an expose of the job hunting “industry” as much as hiring practices within the corporate world. Our member found it fascinating and he recommends both books highly.
  • Our final title is Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach. In her first book, Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, she tackled the body. In Spook, she tackles the soul. She travels the world to find research and beliefs about the soul and the afterlife, and talks to researchers, mystics, psychics and straightforward kooks to find out how the soul has been studied and measured through history, and gives a very funny and entertaining spin to the entire experience. Sounds irresistible.
Next month we will discuss Evans Above by Rhys Bowen. Evan Evans is a constable in the small Welsh village of Llanfair where he is seeking peace and quiet after a major trauma in his life. When two hikers fall to their deaths on Mt. Snowden, Evan is sure that the deaths are not accidents – but are they linked to the mysterious destruction of Mrs. Powell-Jones’ prize winning tomatoes? The Evans series are pleasant village cozies with interesting Welsh cultural background, quirky characters and well-thought out mysteries.