Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Laughter of Dead Kings (Elizabeth Peters)

With all the negative connotations that come with being stereotypically tall, buxom, blue-eyed and blonde, it's a wonder that Elizabeth Peters can still turn her Dr. Vicky Bliss into a charming character. I guess it's the reason why I've been patiently following her Vicky Bliss series for years now. Vicky is smart and self-deprecating (her biggest gripe is that no one takes her seriously, looking like she does), practical yet given to fits of emotion, and generally the kind of person I'd want with me on an adventure. She's an American working for the National Museum in Munich and her specialization in medieval art often finds her poking her nose into some art forgery investigation or a smuggling ring. The series began in the seventies, with Borrower of the Night and the most recent title, The Laughter of Dead Kings, was published more than twenty years after.

Dead Kings rounds up familiar faces: Vicky's lover, the now-reformed art thief John Smythe/Tregarth, and her boss Anton Schmidt. This time, the mummy of King Tut has been stolen and being held for ransom, and John is everyone's prime suspect. When the couple's friend Faisal asks for help in finding the missing mummy, Vicky and John can't resist, especially since they get to clear John's name while doing it. For the first time since reading the series, I became very aware of the time period. Most of the Vicky Bliss books have been set (at least in my mind) during some generic, almost indistinguishable, time frame. This really helped me to view the work as timeless instead of dated. In Vicky's latest adventure though, modern technology has come into play. It's not exactly unwelcome especially since it would have been difficult for the characters to communicate in a contemporary setting without a mobile phone, but it did make me realize that Vicky Bliss is changing with the times.

The mystery in The Laughter of Dead Kings was a bit predictable, but I don't know if it was because I've been so accustomed to Ms Peters' writing that it was easy for me to put two and two together. There was a dearth of suspects for me so there were no surprises for me at the end. But despite that, I still greatly enjoyed reading about Vicky and her friends. They're part of my literary family, characters I've grown so used to and have loved and admired all these years. The Laughter of Dead Kings may not be for readers who are unfamiliar with Vicky Bliss, but longtime fans will find that there is still a lot to be enjoyed in this installment.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Grace Under Pressure (Julie Hyzy)

Part of me wanted to start on Julie Hyzy's White House Chef mystery series, especially since one of the titles, State of the Onion, won the Anthony Award for mysteries in 2009. But somehow the charming description of Grace Under Pressure won out, maybe because I felt I was getting enough of my spy-and-state-secrets stuff with TV shows Chuck and Covert Affairs. So goodbye, White House; hello, Manor of Murder.

Was it everything I expected? Well, yes and no. It wasn't the quaint and charming small-town whodunit I had in mind but one thing I enjoyed about it immensely was its pacing. It might be strange to describe a mystery as leisurely, but that's what I felt from reading this book. Things happen, don't get me wrong, but it is Grace's patient sleuthing that wins the day. As the (former) assistant curator of the Marshfield Manor, Grace is tasked with keeping the museum/inn property running after head curator Abe is murdered in a case of mistaken identity. When she realizes that the local PD isn't quite up to the task of solving such a case, Grace's best recourse is to do as much as she can to help put things back on track. Clues don't just drop into her lap; she has to go through files and folders and work on her day job in between! I thought that this was a welcome break from the action-packed mystery route. I also enjoyed how there was more to discover aside from the main whodunit, and I have to admit that I was more hooked on Grace's family mystery. While this particular plot line isn't exactly rocket science, it still paves the way for future conflicts that might arise in the succeeding titles.

Ms Hyzy doesn't give up all of Grace's stories in just one book. She certainly knows how to whet a reader's appetite: introduced is a hint of a romance (blink-and-you'll-miss-it) between Grace and landscape architect Jack, as well as some unresolved issues between Grace and her sister Liza. I just wish Ms Hyzy had remembered to include Terrence (the manor's head of security) during the last bits; for someone who was very important in the beginning, he all but disappeared towards the end. I do hope to read more about him, as well as the other characters in Grace's life. Yes, even the infuriating ones.

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books.

The Satellite.

My first astrophoto. Not exactly the best shot since it's too bright but I can't help but feel so pleased that I had the opportunity to learn from a talented, patient, and generous group of astronomers.

Dance me to the end of love, Leonard Cohen sings for me tonight. We're still finding out how.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

World Without End (Ken Follet)

To say that I found Ken Follet's World Without End rather disappointing would be an understatement. As someone who was really hooked on his Pillars of the Earth, chronicling the lives and the legacy of medieval lovers Jack and Aliena, I was really looking forward to reading World Without End because it was about their descendants and set in a similar tone, a familiar world.

Too similar and too familiar, I soon found out.

World starts as four young children witness a knight with a secret kill the men who are running after him. The children are from different worlds, unaware how the events of that day would have far-reaching effects that would shape who they would become. On paper, it sounds different from Pillars but somehow, this still echoes the previous work in characterization and plot so much that it feels like a mere rehash, and even then, falls short of its predecessor.

The characters seemed shopworn to me. They have no moral ambiguity that would have helped create tension or generate more sympathy: good characters are 'good,' bad characters are inexplicable driven by narrow-minded malice and evil. Merthin is the talented descendant of Jack Builder, so anything he touches turns to gold. He even survives the Black Plague in Italy, where he has established his fortune after years of struggling as an unrecognized builder in Kingsbridge. Stepping into Aliena's shoes is Caris, the intelligent daughter of a wealthy merchant and the love of Merthin's life. Like Merthin, Caris is written as if she has a halo around her head. Of course you know she is going to triumph against all adversity. There is no thrill here that suggests otherwise. Against these two would parade all sorts of envious, greedy characters, all cut from the same cloth, none coming remotely close to any sense or reason.

The only characters whom I thought might still surprise me were Gwenda, a thief's daughter and Caris' friend, and Thomas, the mysterious knight, but instead they are given such paper-thin existences. Gwenda, shrewd and capable but still of largely uninformed peasant stock, does an inexplicable job of sounding like a lawyer in one of the confrontations in this book. Sir Thomas is all but forgotten towards the end. There were so many times that I wanted to put this book down but I felt the need to finish it because I felt as if I owed it to the Mr Follet who wrote Pillars of the Earth.

I could go on and on about the things that I did not appreciate in this voluminous story (I haven't even started on the logical lapses in the plot) but I know I have to stop at some point. I still think Mr Follet is talented enough in bringing out the rich, even minute, details of medieval life and anyone interested in that might be persuaded to give this a try. I urge you to check out reviews from other readers, because I think this averages four stars on Amazon and GoodReads. But in the end, World Without End is not for everyone, and it was certainly not for me.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Case of the Missing Servant (Tarquin Hall)

Murder and humor meet in this exotic gem of a mystery. Tarquin Hall's The Case of the Missing Servant takes place in the heart of India and serves up a sharp and entertaining whodunit through its array of colorful, memorable characters.

Vish Puri is a middle-aged private eye with a quick mind and an enterprising team (one that includes eyes and ears with nicknames like Facecream and Tubelight, plus a woman who answers nine undercover phone lines with a variety of voices). He prides himself on being a disciple of statesman Chanakaya and continues the ancient tradition of espionage and investigation that his guru has established. His bread and butter lies in investigating marriages, from doing background checks for couples who opt to marry for love instead of doing it the old-fashioned, arranged way to shadowing spouses accused of adultery. Since he trumpets that 'confidentiality is our watchword,' he also finds himself in some high-profile cases.

Such is his latest one: a female servant has disappeared from the employ of controversial lawyer Ajay Kasliwal under mysterious circumstances. The lawyer pleads his innocence and instructs Puri to help him. But with the servant's first name being his only lead, Puri must use all his resources to uncover the truth. It sounds almost impossible to solve at first but I admire how Mr Hall created a character who is smart enough to recognize opportunities and make India's red tape and complex systems work for the benefit of truth -- all in a light and very believable manner.

According to his biography, Mr Hall has worked and lived in India for quite some time and his familiarity with its way of life, language, and quirks definitely show in this novel. He has a very descriptive eye that he uses to establish the setting: 'Beneath faded, dusty awnings, cobblers crouched, sewing sequins and gold thread onto leather slippers with curled-up toes. Spice merchants sat surrounded by heaps of lal mirch, haldi and ground jeera, their colors as clean and sharp as new watercolor paints (p54-55).' As someone who is not at all that familiar with the Indian culture, I enjoy how passages like this create what Anne Shirley would call 'scope for the imagination.' Even though there is a part of me that wonders if Western authors writing about Eastern subjects tend to romanticize things, in the end, I think whatever traces of Orientalism there may be in the text still made the story come alive. I thought it made the setting such a delicious addition to the whole reading experience.

I enjoyed that there are three different plots going on at once. Aside from the main mystery, Vish Puri also has to a) dodge bullets from a mysterious party who wants him dead; and b) investigate the prospective groom of the granddaughter of a respected and decorated war veteran. What I liked most is how these sub-plots could hold their own against the main story without taking the focus away from it. I thought Mystery A was handled with panache (thanks to the presence of Puri's fascinating Mum) and was resolved so that it could still be revisited in latter adventures. On the other hand, there was Mystery B which involved a nice heartwarming twist that I admired. To some degree, I had guessed the outcome of the main mystery but there was still an element there that I didn't anticipate, which made the whole puzzle satisfying for me.

Mr Hall has created memorable characters that feel very authentic and I am intrigued to follow each one of them. The Case of the Missing Servant is a very enjoyable start to a promising series. It certainly made me want to read more of Vish Puri's India!

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Want Books? (The Duff)

Want Books? is a weekly meme hosted at Chachic’s Book Nook and features released books that you want but you can’t have for some reason. It can be because it’s not available in your country, in your library or you don’t have the money for it right now.
Reading the premise of Kody Keplinger's The Duff was enough to make it skyrocket to my Want Books? List. Duff stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a persona I've definitely come to identify with over the years. I'm actually pretty okay with who I am and how I look, so I can honestly accept that I am not the most attractive-looking one among my friends. In this YA novel, Bianca is witty and outspoken, and she also happens to be the least attractive one in her group of best friends. What's nice is that their circle of friends appears to be loyal and genuinely caring towards each other. But not everyone has a good opinion of Bianca, especially Wesley, who insults her but with whom she starts to develop an intriguing love/hate relationship. I'm not doing a good job of summarizing this, I know. I could just be pretty excited to read it.

In other news, I truly enjoy doing Want Books? posts. I don't add to the list regularly, but I've already acquired the two books that I've previously listed (although one of them will still be shipped at a later date). I guess having a list like this is a good motivator for me to pick up titles that I'm interested in, instead of abandoning them by the wayside once a different title catches my eye.