Friday, January 29, 2010

C Is for Cain: Mildred Pierce by James Cain

No murder, not even a crime; yet this mystery was filled with suspense and tension throughout. So glad I read this bit of L.A. noir because it wasn't what I expected. I had no problem getting Joan Crawford out of my head because the real Mildred Pierce (well, the fictional Mildred Pierce, but the one in the novel)  is much younger and complex than Crawford's onscreen character -- and the story is rawer. Still, this played out in my head in black and white. Plot: Mildred starts a chicken-and-waffle (!) restaurant that grows into a successful chain, but throughout the many stages of her business and life she remains at the mercy of her manipulative, demanding daughter Veda. You can find Veda on our library blog's list of evil scary children.

And speaking of chicken and waffles (we were talking about that, right?), I did not know that such places existed, nor had I ever used those two words in the same sentence. Ever.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why I missed my bus today

Every workday morning I play this crazy fun little game ,“What made me miss my bus today?” It’s loads of fun, with answers ranging from “I thought it more important to make sure my only child got to school in a safe, happy, and well-nourished manner, even though he’s in high school and can fend for himself” to “I can’t decide if v-neck t-shirts are as douchey for a female as a male.” There are a lot of specifics associated with this game, and all the variables keep my math skills sharp. You see, I keep a running total in my head of how long things are taking me during those crucial last 10 minutes before I leave the house. For instance, making myself a lunch that involves pasta and vegetables will take about 2 minutes and 13 seconds longer than making a turkey sandwich (because of the veggie chopping), yet 17 seconds less time than making an egg salad sandwich. (Note that turkey sandwich is the most time efficient, and so I never select that option.) Changing shoes can be a major time suck, adding as much as three minutes. No single task takes THAT much time, but add the indecisiveness and disorganization together and you’ve got a good wasted eight minutes.

 Knowing that I might miss a bus doesn’t mean that I’ll skip the tasks. Instead, I keep it all in my head. Then, as I approach the stop and watch as the bus pulls away, I think back to which exact task kept me from being punctual.

Today, it was this.

THREE SPACES! That's right, this jackass is taking up three spaces in a crowded urban transit center parking lot. Stopping to take the photo cost me about 12 seconds; driving through the parking lot and realizing there were no spaces and that I needed to go somewhere else took six more minutes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Meeting up with Mildred Pierce

I was so excited to come across Mildred Pierce on the shelf because I remember reading this Slate article by Laura Lippman. "Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction," she said, "a noir novel with no murder and very little crime."  Of course I know the movie, but the pulp novel by James Cain is new to me. Lucky for me I'm looking for a C author to read next, but can I read it without seeing/hearing Joan Crawford?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

B is for Balzo: Bean There, Done That by Sandra Balzo

A barista and coffee shop owner stars as our amateur sleuth in this cozy series (Bean There, Done That is the third). Maggy Thorsen is a forty-something newly single woman who left a PR job to open Uncommon Grounds in an upscale bedroom community (Brookhills) outside of Milwaukee. In this installment, Rachel Thorsen (the new “Mrs. Thorsen,” married to Maggy’s ex, Ted) asks for Maggy’s help proving that Ted was cheating on Rachel at the same time he was cheating on Maggy. Soon Rachel disappears and a solid puzzle of a plot keeps things moving along Kirkus said, in a starred review: “Balzo gives an old formula new life with crisp dialogue, complex characters and a puzzle that can’t be beat.” I like this character and the series,
Books in the series so far: Uncommon Grounds; Grounds for Murder; Bean There, Done That; Brewed, Crude and Tattooed, From the Grounds Up.
Recommend to fans of Jill Churchill, Mary Daheim, M.C. Beaton and maybe to some who like Evanovitch (but not if they say they like Evanovitch because she's wacky).
Another cozy author in the B'sMaggie Barbieri (academic setting, English prof)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A is for Andrews: Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews

A couple of months ago I put dozens of award-winning mysteries on display at our library, organizing them by the awards they'd won: The Edgars (general mysteries), the Shamus (best private eye stories) and the Agathas (commonly thought of as the best "cozies").  I made bookmarks for each category showcasing recent prize winners. I kept coming across Donna Andrews' name on the list for the Agathas, the awards that honor mysteries most representative of the style of Agatha Christie (amateur detective, closed setting).  I placed a few copies of Six Geese a-Slaying face-out -- and they got snatched up. In fact, the Agathas were the books that were picked up --and checked out -- most often.  That's not at all what I would have expected at our downtown library, especially since many have kind of corny covers and our paperbacks are pretty beat up. Perhaps the Agathas had the best spot in the display area? We rearranged the mysteries, giving the Agathas a less prominent placement, not making a judgment but just experimenting. And still they flew, including the Donna Andrews' bird titles (Cockatiels at Seven, We'll Always Have Parrots, Murder with Puffins and Murder with Peacocks). What was up?

I have a couple of theories. The Edgar winners are often authors whose names are more familiar and are often bestsellers, such as Ian Rankin, Jess Walter, S.J. Rozan, John Hart. Book browsers know where to look for them on the shelves. Cozies, on the other hand, are rarely on display (see above about corny covers) and the authors' names are (usually) not well known. Or maybe readers wanted something like a cozy, but didn't know it because they think that all that's available are the ones starring cat detectives. In any event, what this experiment showed me is that there are a lot of readers looking for light and/or amusing mysteries. And this brought me to Donna Andrews. Her Meg Langslow series (with the bird titles) are definitely light and/or amusing (although not my favorite kind of amusing). Small town, an amateur detective (Meg is an artist/craftswoman/blacksmith), a little love (but no sex), and the murder always takes place off camera. They're kind of like watching Murder, She Wrote, which I always found immensely soothing and soporific. Also, I will never admit that I have a soft spot for Murder, She Wrote.
Another cozy author in the A's: Susan Wittig Albert. I used to read her China Bayles series (high powered Houston attorney quits law and opens an herb shop) and I enjoyed revisiting her this time around.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2010: The year of reading alphabetically

I had this really great idea last summer to read my way through some of the mysteries that are on the shelf at the library where I work. I was going to read one author for each letter. I made a whole bunch of rules for myself, like: Had to be a book on the shelf, should be a book I might at some point recommend to a library reader, had to be an author I hadn't already read, I had to stretch myself a little, and blah blah blah. One a week. I figured I'd get through the alphabet by the end of the year.

Well, listen to this: I made it to D! Wow, right? Actually, the good news is that the little experiment was immensely helpful to me already as I regularly recommend my B and C and D authors (Rhys Bowen for her historical mysteries set in 1900s New York; Robert Crais for being almost as good as Michael Connelly and being in L.A.; Lindsay Davis for the two people in the universe who like historical mysteries but haven't already read all of hers) to voracious readers at our library. Gosh, that parenthetical phrase seems all twisted when I mentioned Lindsay Davis. Let me try again: When it comes to detectives sleuthing the mean streets of Rome (circa 70 A.D.), there's no beating Marcus Didius Falco, the unforgettable lead character in 19 of Davis's novels.

Back to 2010 A.D. ... and the reason I'm blogging again: I'm going to do it all over again. And this time it doesn't have to be one a week (because that little rule will have me looking for short books). There is no time limit. And I can read whatever I want, although it will be good to stretch a little bit. And just to prove I'm not a slacker, I'm starting all over again. That's right. I'm in the A's.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Top Ten Favorite Books Read in 2009

1.       These are my top ten books read in 2009. I have some riveting commentary about the selections, but first the list, in reverse author alpha order:
  1. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  2. The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter
  3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  4. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  5. Stitches by David Small
  6. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
  7. The Family Man by Elinor Lipman
  8. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  9. The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly
  10. Little Bee by Chris Cleave
I'm often excited about a book right after I read it, and in the past my Top Ten lists have leaned toward most recently-read loves. But this year I was diligent about putting my books on goodreads (although I was a total slacker about writing real reviews and my tags aren't all that helpful -- yet). I kept a Favorites of 2009 "book shelf" and just threw things on there when I was particularly blown away. Out of the 95 books I read, 23 made it to that shelf. Getting it down to ten was hard, and Little Bee and Stitches were often in jeopardy of being bumped (by Jonathan Tropper and Richard Russo; two worthy authors if you're going to be edged out).  Oh, and The Oxford Project, my favorite nonfiction book of the year, didn't make it to the final top ten. I think I'd better hit "publish post" before I monkey with this some more.