Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske

zukasI caught a few minutes of a radio interview with a local author, but I never caught her name. She apparently writes library-themed mysteries set in a fictional version of my new hometown; I heard one of her titles, and a tiny bit of research later, had the first book in her series from the local library: she is Jo Dereske, and this is Miss Zukas and the Library Murders.

Miss Zukas is an extreme, ridiculous stereotype of a librarian. She favors color-coordinated cardigans and sensible shoes, still wears her hair in the style her mother gifted her on her sixteenth birthday, and keeps her apartment obnoxiously, antiseptically clean. “She blanched at the idea of stray thoughts popping about.” I thought of a librarian girlfriend of mine, who was offended by the opposing, counterculture librarian-stereotype in NOS4A2 (purple hair, funny hats, obscenities and Henry Rollins) – she felt it was too trendy, too over-the-top. Well, I was tickled by the purple-haired librarian, and for a moment thought I was offended by Miss Zukas. But it’s pretty clear that this is meant in good fun, that Dereske is laughing with us, so on we go. (It helped when she ironically quoted Socrates at her boss; I could almost believe that Miss Zukas herself was in on the joke.)

The mystery itself – the “library murders” – qualifies as a cozy; the blood is off-stage. Even the references to sex (Miss Zukas has a friend who might be termed, by our prim heroine, as promiscuous) are oblique. And yes, you guessed it, Miss Zukas is the amateur sleuth who helps save the day. Her girlfriend Ruth, a free-spirited and often drunk artist, makes a fine sidekick; there is even a little romance along the way. I think the least believable element (in a book not trying too hard for realism, I should point out) was the friendship between these two women: it didn’t quite ring true for me that a woman as OCD and repressed as our Miss Zukas could really maintain a relationship with the outrageous Ruth. But so be it.

I was a little doubtful once or twice early on, but quickly found myself involved in and amused by the story as well as silly Miss Zukas. The book itself is a little silly; certainly light-hearted; but in the end, entertaining. I zipped right through it. And you know I don’t usually find much to occupy me in a cozy, but I may just have to go find book two in this series. A diverting, easy-reading cozy mystery set in a totally wonderful little town (of course), starring a surprisingly endearing librarian of the shushing sort.


Rating: 6 cards in the card catalog.

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story by J. Jefferson Farjeon

A captivating puzzle mystery involving strangers thrown together by chance in a nearly snowbound British country house.

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British crime novelist J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White was first published in 1937 and receives a brief introduction to accompany this new release. It’s a classic puzzle, timeless even in its charming historic setting. A group of strangers gather in a third-class train compartment a few days before Christmas: an “elderly bore”; a young chorus girl; a clerk who “did not have spots, but looked as though he ought to have had”; a brother and sister; and an elderly scion of the Royal Psychical Society. When relentless snow shuts down the tracks, they flee an apparent murder on the train into the “strange fairyland” of whiteness outside. They happen upon a fine country estate, but the danger only mounts.

The door is unlocked, fires lit and tea set out; though no one appears to be home, the kettle is boiling over. This setting is not the closed environment it seems: in their investigations, members of the party tramp about in the snow only to find their footprints fade quickly and paths are obscured. The danger of losing oneself in the blizzard is added to the danger of knife-wielding lurkers.

Farjeon increases the pace and plays out suspense with an expert hand. His characters are appealing, their plight both picturesque and distressing; there is just a hint of the ghost story to this whodunit. Mystery in White is, in short, an elegantly, enchantingly entertaining tale to be enjoyed on a chilly evening while safely indoors.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 windows.

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Harry Bosch delves into a cold case–which might be his last–with an appealing new partner.

burning room

Michael Connelly’s 27th novel, The Burning Room, features the return of the much-loved, authority-averse LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, now in his final year with the Open-Unsolved Unit. As the senior detective in the unit, he has been paired with the youngest, freshest rookie: Lucia Soto, or “Lucky Lucy,” who has survived gunfights to become a Los Angeles hero but has zero experience solving homicides, fresh or cold. Their first case together is an apparently random 10-year-old shooting, whose victim has only recently died of his wound–unusually, a cold case with a warm body. Bosch’s concerns about his partner’s abilities are laid to rest quickly as he observes her work, but the case is increasingly fraught with political intrigue (and, as his fans know, politics are an especially difficult arena for Bosch). Complicating matters is an older cold case with personal ties for Soto. The latter connection is somewhat improbable, perhaps, but thrilling nonetheless.

Bosch is everything his fans have loved for decades: grouchy yet soft-hearted, an outstanding detective who can’t seem to get along with his superiors and a fine mentor to his new partner. Detective Soto is an intriguing new character in her own right, with a storied past that begs for further exploration. The satisfying, shocking denouement leaves Bosch’s future–and the continuation of the series–in question, although surely Connelly (The Gods of Guilt) will not disappoint the detective’s many fans just yet.


This review originally ran in the November 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 paper clips.

book beginnings on Friday: Mystery in White by J. Jefferson Farjeon

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

mystery

I have for you today a charming, classically styled mystery, republished any day now from a 1937 original. It begins innocuously, even innocently:

The Great Snow began on the evening of December 19th. Shoppers smiled as they hurried home, speculating on the chances of a White Christmas. Their hopes were dampened when they turn on their wireless to learn from the smooth impersonal voice of the B.B.C. announcer that an anticyclone was callously wending its way from the North-West of Ireland; and on the 20th the warmth arrived, turning the snow to drizzle and the thin white crust to muddy brown.

But oh, it won’t stay so!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

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As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

gretel

This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Beautifully composed and tragic, James Lee Burke’s 35th novel is a sweeping historical epic of war and the American dream.

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James Lee Burke is famous for a long-running mystery series starring detective Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel; two series centered on Billy Bob and Hackberry Holland; and stand-alone novels and story collections that all evoke the beauty, heartache and social injustice of Louisiana and Texas (among other locales). His 35th book, Wayfaring Stranger, tells a historical and sometimes fantastical story of the birth of Big Oil, the legacy of World War II and the far-reaching influences of Bonnie and Clyde.

In the opening pages, young Weldon Holland fumes at his grandfather, Hackberry, who was a poor parent to Weldon’s mother and is now poised to have her locked away and electroshocked. It’s the early 1930s, and Weldon’s father is gone, looking for work. Four trespassers in a 1932 Chevrolet Confederate challenge Weldon and Grandfather on their ranch, and the confrontation ends with Weldon firing a shot through the back windshield at Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and two of their associates. This interaction casts a long shadow over the rest of Weldon’s life.

His story resumes in 1944 when he ships out for England as a second lieutenant. Weldon sees action in Normandy, particularly Saint-Lô, and the Ardennes; he digs Sergeant Hershel Pine out of a collapsed foxhole in the snow after an attack, and together they rescue a beautiful Spanish Jew named Rosita from an abandoned death camp. The three walk across enemy territory, lose toes to frostbite, fight tuberculosis, and are eventually separated. After the war, Weldon finds and marries Rosita, and Hershel turns up on Grandfather’s Texas ranch.

Together they establish the Dixie Belle Pipeline Company, using Nazi tank technology, Hershel’s welding skills and nose for oil, and Weldon’s family connections to build a minor empire. But the old money in Houston’s exclusive River Oaks neighborhood is offended–by their success and their humble upbringings, and particularly by Rosita’s heritage. And thus enter two of Burke’s favorite subjects: the evil lurking in the everyday, and the hero’s struggle to repress the evil within himself. Hershel’s wife, Linda Gail, creates more conflict: her actions endanger both business and family success, especially when she gets “discovered” and shipped out to Hollywood.

Burke’s fans will recognize his lyrical strengths regarding the themes of social justice and class struggle, violence set to a stunning backdrop of natural beauty and destruction, and a Gulf Coast region that includes historically accurate details to delight Texas and Louisiana natives. He creates strong and convincing characters on the sides of both right and wrong, and through them writes a compelling American history. Weldon investigates his father’s disappearance, Linda Gail’s unfaithfulness, and the evil forces that have targeted the well-being of his and Hershel’s families; but this is not a mystery. In fact, perhaps more than any of Burke’s previous work, Wayfaring Stranger is a tender love story, proving yet again his versatility and skill in creating gorgeous, luscious, painful stories of the American experience.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pipe joints.
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