17 August 2008

In the spirit of Jasper Fforde

At the Printers' Row Book Fair in Chicago this summer, Daivd discovered the Sisters Grimm books by Michael Buckley [right]. He read his way through half a dozen of them. When he came back from Chicago, he handed me the first in the series, Fairy Tale Detectives, and said, "You might like these, even though they're written for kids. I liked them and I'm not much of a kid anymore."

So when I ran off to Sdietrack one Saturday, I took the book along and read it. And it was fun to read and I'm trying to compare it to adult mysteries I've read recently. That's difficult since it's a variation on the world created by Jasper Fforde. (See also Fford Grand Central.) There are also elements of Men in Black.

According to Buckley, the Enlightenment was hard on magical creatures with supernatural powers. So they migrated to a little spot upriver on the Hudson called Ferryport Landing (originally Fairyport). There were led there by one of the Brothers Grimm, whose role in life was to record the history of these magical beings. Eventually, the Brothers Grimm had to get a cooperative witch to cast a spell on the area around Ferryport Landing to keep the magicals in and require them to assume human form. The Grimm family's occupation is passed down from generation to generation.

The Sisters Grimm (aged 11 and 7) inherited the family duty when their parents disappeared. They don't know it though, since their father was a rebel who ran away from Ferryport Landing and told his daughters that their grandparents were dead.

A wicked stepmother social worker finds their grandmother and drops the girls at Granny's door. Granny has to win them over and teach them their trade.

It just so happens that as they arrive in Ferryport Landing, it seems that Prince Charming is plotting to buy up all the Ferryport refuge and recreate his kingdom. And a giant has been seen.

What is really going on? Where did the giant come from? Why is Glenda the good witch helping Charming? And why is Jack the giant killer in jail?

It's a well-written and well-plotted little novel. I read it quickly and it was fun to read. And I never once gave a thought to incredible things since the whole thing is fantasy. Ferryport Landing is like Hogwarts. Anything can be real and anything can happen. So nothing is incredible. It was as enjoyable as some of the mysteries I've read in the past year.

Don't be put off by the "juvenile" label. David was right. I enjoyed reading Fairy Tale Detectives, and I might just read some others from the series.

If you read any of these books, let us know what you think.

14 August 2008

Older Stabenow stories

In an effort to transfer some of the contents of the old ReadingOnTheWeb to the new blog and since I refered to earlier Stabenow books, here are my comment on 5 of Stabenow's books I've written about in the past.

From August 2001: So Sure of Death and Nothing Gold Can Stay

On a cloudy, rainy April weekend, we headed up to Sidetrack, our escape from normal life. We were planning some major maintenance and wanted to do some work in preparation for the "guys with big trucks" who would show up soon.

  • We moved some furniture out of the mini-loft in preparation for the installation of a skylight.
  • We moved over a ton of sidewalk paving blocks and landscaping rocks in preparation for the installation of some drainage tiles.
  • I also worked hard to relax.

My vehicle for sitting down and relaxing was a book from the top of the pile next to the bed: So Sure of Death by Dana Stabenow.

Stabenow is an Alaskan writer whose early books have been diversionary treats. She does a fine job of recreating the Alaskan landscapes for those of us who have never been there. She has a skillful way with comedy, romance, and danger. The plots of the mysteries are not too complex, but the characters and the dialogue are great for entertainment.

The main characters in this book are Alaskan State Trooper Liam Campbell and bush pilot Wyanet Chouinard. The stories in this novel revolve around father-son relationships, an archaeological dig, hazardous waste, and hazardous relationships. A well-told tale. It made me thankful for the cloudy, cool weather at Little Blake Lake.

If you like mysteries and haven't read any by Stabenow yet, give one of hers a try. So Sure of Death is a good sample. Breakup is superb for comedy. Hunter's Moon is memorable for threats and adventure. Any and all of them contain a bit of romance. There must be some in the library near you. Check one out.

While on the topic of Dana Stabenow's books, let me add an approving nod to another.

During the early summer I picked up Nothing Gold Can Stay, another book about Liam Campbell and Wyanet Chouinard.

A plot with greater-than-usual complexity and a larger-than-usual passel of characters distinguishes this book from Stabenow's earlier writing. It's a multi-threaded story that drew me in with vignettes of life in the bush and then kept me reading with fascinating connections between people and events. A decade-old disappearance of a back country hiker, a native teenager who never returned from a fish camp, a bureaucrat with gold fever and his long suffering wife, and a serial killer in the bush are some of the features of this book. It's all as unlikely as real life sometimes. (A news article in the August 6, 2001 Star Tribune about a woman who disappeared in Yosemite National Park and an FBI agent's comments about serial killers eerily parallel part of the novel's plot.)

From October 2003: Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow, Better to Rest.

Stabenow writes about people on the edge of Alaska's wilderness: Alaska state cops, bush pilots, bar keepers, salmon and crab harvesters, and native people. I have enjoyed her books a great deal. She has written funny stories and hair-raising adventures. Some of her mysteries are convoluted and some are merely tales unwinding.

This book is mostly character study. It's not funny. It's not really a mystery. And, as a character study it's superficial.

The book was decent entertainment. I needed a break from more serious stuff when I read it. It's almost a step above romance novels, but I can't be sure. I've only skimmed through one of those. I've read several of Stabenow's books. The others are better. Look in the library for them before you pick up this one.

A couple weeks later, Nancy came home from the library with a new mystery by Dana Stabenow. This one was called A Fine and Bitter Snow.

In spite of my earlier experience, I picked it up. Unlike some of her earlier books, I didn't feel any urgency to finish this one. The first half of the book is background. After I was lulled into quiet reflection about the kind of people who live on the outskirts of what passes for civilization in Alaska's outback, there was a horrific murder. Isn't that how those things happen? The event is unexpected and not foreshadowed. It's not part of normal life. That shock is part of the horror.

Stabenow's characters don't so much find the murderer as they are found by the killer. Spinning out the yarn takes the second half of the book. It's pretty well done, though I thought there were too many details glossed over.

Once again, Stabenow was practicing writing romance fiction in the midst of this book. (At least the romance novel sections didn't overwhelm this book.) She didn't gloss over the details of the sex scenes, but she did gloss over the motivations. (Method actors would have trouble with some of the scenes.)

There are many references to scenes from previous "Kate Shugak novels." If you're new to the series, it might be off putting. Even I, who has read most of these books, had trouble figuring out what some of the references meant. (Then again, I have no great memory for what I decide are non-essentials.)

A Fine and Bitter Snow is better than Better to Rest. But, if you want to sample Stabenow's books, begin with some of the earlier ones. They were better yet.

From August 2004: Nancy checked out Dana Stabenow's newest Kate Shugak mystery from the library and brought it up to Sidetrack on a wonderful July weekend. She stayed up late and woke up early to finish it. That was a good recommendation for me.

I was writing about Nigeria and taking breaks by pulling weeds in the patio, walking up and down the road, and reading some non-fiction. On one of my breaks, I picked up A Grave Denied.

I never know quite what to expect from one of Stabenow's books. She's written mysteries, thrillers, adventure stories, a romance novel, and at least one mystery full of comedy. This one's definitely a mystery. The regular cast of characters from Niniltna, Alaska is there. The hint of romance and sexual tension (and relief) are there as are the reminders that the Alaskan "outback" is a place where people can disappear. (Although I'd think the residents of Niniltna would be as wary of Kate Shugak as those people of Cabot Cove, Maine should be of Jessica Fletcher. (I know, I know: suspend disbelief!)

Kate Shugak was an investigator for the Anchorage DA before burning out and returning to the home she grew up in. Now when the local Alaskan trooper needs help asking questions about the murder of someone who had disappeared in plain sight in the "outback," Kate gets hired. Instead of eliminating suspects as she asks questions, she finds more and more of them. Then someone tries to kill her.

There are secondary stories about family and romance, but the main story is well told. This was one of those books I was really sorry to see the last page of. I still have writing to do tomorrow, and I'll have to go back to the road or the garden or the non-fiction for my breaks. None of them -- well maybe the road through the woods -- will be as good as Stabenow's book. It's been in the Northfield library since November, so it's probably in yours. Go for it.

Use these links to purchase books from Amazon.com.

A shoot 'em down

I've mostly enjoyed Dana Stabenow's mysteries. Some are a lot better than others, but I haven't paid enough attention to tell you offhand which ones were better.

I read Prepared for Rage, her newest, last spring. (You can see I'm catching up with my old reading.) This one takes place mostly in Texas, Florida, and the waters east of Florida, not in Alaska, where most of Stabenow's stories are set.

USCG cutter Munro on which Stabenow spent a month learning about shipboard life and Coast Guard SOP. Climactic action in the book takes place in and near the forward gun turret.

Instead of a setting in a rural native community, this story is set at NASA, on a Coast Guard cutter, and along the trail of a terrorist sleeper cell. The main characters are a shuttle astronaut, a Coast Guard commander, and the seemingly unstoppable leader of the terrorists. The shuttle is about to launch, the cutter is part of security for the launch, and... Well, you can figure out the rest.

The plot is obvious from early in the book. The questions are how Stabenow will describe the action and whether the bad guys will be successful. Well, maybe the last one is not a question. Maybe the question is how close to success will the bad guys get before the good guy thwarts their evil schemes.

A 2006 launch of the shuttle Atlantis.

Yes, this is that much of a melodrama. Add in a love affair between the commander and the astronaut, the presence of the astronaut's parents and the commander's father on the cutter the day of the launch, and the absolutely incredible skills of the terrorist leader. Yes, he's really that talented, smart, and prescient. How will we protect ourselves from these evil doers. (Hint: in this story Homeland Security is no help.)

Does that tell you that Prepared for Rage was not one of Stabenow's best for me? She may enjoy the warm ocean breezes more than the blizzards of Alaska, but I prefer the stories she's written about Kate Shugak, Liam Campbell, and the crew up north.

10 August 2008

Two from Mr. Kellerman

Mary passed on Jonathan Kellerman's latest murder mystery, Compulsion awhile back. It's one of nearly two dozen "Alex Delaware Novels." (Alex Delaware is an LA psychologist, like Kellerman. But the author's alter ego works with an LAPD detective to resolve murder cases.)

Compulsion begins with a few seemingly unrelated random murders. But Delaware recognizes a pattern, and when his LAPD "partner" digs into the cold case files, they extend the pattern in time and space.

Alex Delaware is in the Nick Charles class of mystery solvers: rich, sophisticated, insightful, active, and dogged. Unlike the movie Thin Man, Delaware remains sober.

Kellerman tells a good story. He doesn't hint at things to come since his characters tell the story in the present tense. And the sequence of discovery is believable and rational. I liked this book because of the story telling.

So, when I was in the Bookworm in West Yellowstone, MT, looking for a vacation book, I picked up Obsession, the "Alex Delaware Novel" that preceded Compulsion.

This story begins with questions about a cold case raised by one of Delaware's patients. As he and his LAPD buddy Milo Sturgis poke around in the old case, murder in the present rears its ugly head. And there are, of course, connections between the old deaths and the new ones.

Once again Kellerman's story telling is great. The convoluted plot might be a little too clever. As I finished reading this while sitting next to the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park, I had an image of Kellerman and a large chart diagraming all the links between main character Patty Bigelow and all the seemingly unrelated people and events in this book. Then I imagined him making a list of which links to describe in what order and dreaming up ways that Delaware and Sturgis learn about the links.

It's almost as if the formula for writing the book is too obvious. Almost. Because I liked this book too, although it was complemented by noisy rivers, tall moutains, twenty years of forest regrowth in the burned over areas of Yellowstone, and chance sightings of elk, bison, a bear, a coyote, and a variety of birds and rodents. I probably would have liked the book in more mundane settings, so I recommend it. You don't have to visit West Yellowstone to find a copy. Your local bookstore or library probably has one for you.

09 August 2008

Montana 1910

So my experience with Ivan Doig's Mountain Time was delightful enough that I bought another of his books at one of West Yellowstone, Montana's premier bookstores.

(By the way, one of those bookstores, the Book Peddler, a book store and coffee bar, is for sale.)

The book I bought was The Whistling Season. Like Mountain Time, The Whistling Season is character driven. There are only two or three real events in the story and they won't take your breath away.

But the people, from narrator Paul Milliron, to whistling Rose Llewellyn, to University of Chicago-trained teacher Morris Morgan, all residents of Marias Coulee, Montana in 1910, are fascinating.

The narrator is recalling his 6th grade year from the vantage of 1957, mostly in the first person. But everyone gets speaking roles in this story. (Unlike the narration in Disobedience which is monopolized by 17-year-old Henry.)

Since everyone is on stage and not just a shadow puppet in another's memory, I was interested in all of them. I found young Damon's scrapbooking interesting. I found younger Tobey's twitchy excitement about nearly everything interesting. I found the aura of mystery around Morris Morgan and his sister Rose interesting. Heck, I even thought learning a bit about dry land farming in early 20th century Montana interesting. (But luckily, Doig doesn't go on too much about that.)

There's even an interesting connection between the mid-20th century and the setting of most of the story. Narrator Paul, now superintendent of schools for Montana is reflecting, in part, on his experience in the one-room school in Marias Coulee while trying to figure out how to carry out a legislative mandate to close Montana's remaining one-room schools in the face of the threat represented in '57 by Sputnik.

There's a bit of a soap opera as well about how Oliver and his sons, Paul, Damon, and Tobey, make their way in the world after the death of Mrs. Milliron. There's a bit of a romance story here too between the housekeeper, widow Rose Llewellyn and the widower Oliver Milliron. There's a bit of a mystery about how the dapper Morris Morgan ended up cutting wood, cleaning chicken coops, and teaching school among homesteaders on the Montana frontier. And there's a wonderful escape into a century-old world where Halley's comet could still be brilliant enough to cause awe and consternation. (In 1986, I was very disappointed by Halley's appearance. Then again, I never made a great effort to get away from the lights of civilization to look.)

If you want an antidote to the cliched cowboy-dominated image of the western frontier in America, this is the book for you.

I really liked this book. I recommend it highly. I'm headed back to the Northfield library to see which other Ivan Doig books they have on the shelves.

If you've read a book or two by Doig, please let us know what you think.