The Jasmine Moon Murder

When I reread Death by Darjeeling I mentioned that I flew through the first few books right in a row (much like I did now). The fifth book, The Jasmine Moon Murder, was the first one I had to wait for; I received it for Christmas and took it back to college to read.

The latest Charleston society event is a Civil War-themed  ghost crawl through the historic Jasmine Cemetery. The spooky tableaux are meant to raise money for charities earmarked by the Medical Triad, and Theodosia and her friends are catering as a favor to her boyfriend Jory’s Uncle Jasper, vice president at Cardiotech. Unfortunately, not everyone is as kind; Jasper Davis had at least one enemy because he is killed with a fatal injection before the end of the night.

Dr. Davis was in the process of developing the Novalaser, a device meant to improve angioplasty by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, he recently disagreed with his boss about the release timeline, arguing that the equipment should go through more testing before becoming available for general use. This was not the news the struggling company wanted to hear. It also upset a local PR firm that has staked a lot on covering the story. Rivals at the two other major medical research companies also have potential motive, if they fear the device’s success. To top it off, Jasper also has an angry ex.

Theodosia was one of the first to realize the dying man was poisoned, and feels a responsibility to investigate his death for Jory’s sake. Not everyone wants her on the case, though. This is the first time I’ve really seen Detective Tidwell tell Theo seriously to stop investigating. It’s likely because he feels she is too close to the crime, and also that her past record of success will make others more anxious to stop her. He’s half right, because she faces several dangerous situations even before her final showdown with the culprit; someone takes pot shots at her when she’s riding in the fox hunt, and a man she is supposed to meet for information is killed shortly before the assignation. She even receives a threatening note. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so much), this book is the first time Theodosia’s amateur sleuthing is officially compared to Nancy Drew’s.

I thought the plot was interesting, and I appreciate that the author’s corporate experience allows her to bring fresh motives to the cozy mystery genre. My only complaint was with one of the conclusions Theo draws. She finds is particularly incriminating that someone at the riding stables had access to a syringe, and considers this a major clue. However, most of her suspects work at medical tech companies, where syringes are not exactly unheard of. Besides, couldn’t the culprit have swiped one from wherever s/he obtained the drug.

Also, I’m pretty sure Laura Childs has a system for who the guilty person is. I had a guess after the first few books, and the fourth and fifth confirmed my hunch. I’m anxious to test it out in the next book; I almost hope it doesn’t work!

I’ve mentioned before how I love seeing “antiquated” technological references in books that are otherwise relatively contemporary. This was written in 2004, and Theodosia is fascinated that her new phone has text messaging and can also take and send photos. It even turns out to be a helpful feature in the case. I was smirking a little bit at all of this compared to Siri, until I remembered that my own cell phone is seven years old, from 2005. I was also really excited when I got it that it had text messages and a camera. I guess this means it’s time to shop for a new phone…

Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 1:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Something Wicked

I’m back at it with Annie Laurance and Max Darling. Sometimes I see a long series and am excited at how much time I’ll get to spend with characters; at other times I feel like I’ll never get through them all. This is only number three of twenty-two, so I guess I’ll be reading Carolyn Hart’s books for years to come.

The title of Something Wicked suggests a connection to Macbeth, but the plot revolves around a very different play. Annie and Max, with their Broadway past, are starring as the young lovers in the summer theater’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace. The show starts in a week, but the production is plagued with two problems. First, aged Hollywood beach-movie star Shane Petree is a horrible fit for the part of Teddy and would rather chase skirts than learn his lines. His wife Sheridan is backing the play, however, so the cast is stuck with him. Even worse, however, are the slight incidents occurring on and off stage. Props are sabotaged, a stink bomb is set off, and a cast member’s cat is found dead in the window seat.

Soon, however, the production has a bigger corpse and bigger problem when Shane himself turns up dead from a bullet wound in the middle of rehearsal.The circuit solicitor seems determined to pin this on Max because of his blase attitude, and because Shane made a pass at Annie. Finding the murder weapon in his bedroom doesn’t help either. Annie and Chief Saulter will have to use all their wits to clear his name, and come up with a culprit when everyone else has either a solid alibi or no motive.

First things first: don’t pick up this book if you’re not familiar with Arsenic. I though I’d be okay because I knew the premise and had seen about fifteen minutes, but I could tell early on that that didn’t cut it. Parts of the book depend on what roles the characters play, and who is or isn’t onstage at certain times. I ended up watching the movie last weekend, and when I reread the first chapter (and continued the rest of the book) everything made so much more sense. I recommend Arsenic and Old Lace even if you’re not reading this! It’s a comic gem, and Cary Grant is wonderful as always.

Carolyn Hart tries to provide her own humor in this book as well. Henny Brawley, the persistent customer and wannabe sleuth from previous books, has become more tolerable to Annie since they are costars. She’s the first one to smell a rat in the current production, and spends most of her time snooping around–but she does so by channeling fictional sleuths, down to speech and costume. Miss Marple is a particular favorite.

On the personal front, Annie’s soon-to-be mother-in-law Laurel is determined to take the reins of the upcoming wedding. She has a very broad mind and plans to incorporate random elements from wedding traditions around the world into the ceremony. Annie spends half the book freaking out about this and trying to avoid her. I wouldn’t peg Annie as a character afraid to speak his mind, but maybe she’s finally met her match. What makes it worse is that Max is totally on bard with his mother.

Some elements of the series are getting a bit stale. While I initially found Annie and Max’s use of lists to sum up suspect profiles and key information refreshing, it felt a little bit overdone in this book. Also, I’d like a slightly different impetus for the couple’s involvement in the crime, please. The last two books had Annie falsely accused of a crime, so clearly now it was Max’s turn. It’s also sometimes hard to keep track of everyone (which is why Carolyn Hart includes the lists, I guess). Her standard method seems to be to provide a large cast, and keep you going in circles among them until the big reveal at the end.

I have to admit that the ending surprised me; I’m not sure how I feel about it. I do know, however, that my biggest complaint by far with the book is typographical. It’s neat when books start each chapter with a script capital letter, or italics. But putting the first three words in a sans serif font when the rest isn’t? Not cool, Bantam. That random jump from Arial to Times New Roman threw me off every single chapter, and I’m not exaggerating.

One of the highlights of the series is still the constant reference to other mysteries. Lady Molly of Scotland Yard is most definitely going on my reading list! Each book also always features five painting of book scenes Annie has hanging in the store for customers to try to identify as part of a contest. I wish I could remember books with that level of detail! I was so pleased when I recognized one of the books this time around, but it turned to disappointment at the big reveal when I realized I own the other four books as well and have read at least one. Oh well, maybe I’ll get more next time!

Published in: on April 17, 2012 at 1:31 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I’ve been trying to mix up my reading a bit and wanted to include a book in translation, I believe my first of the year. Plus, I’m always inexplicably drawn to Penguin classics. This was originally written in 1906 by Natsume Soseki, who is apparently sometimes called the father of modern Japanese fiction.

kusamakuraKusamakura (literally “The Grass Pillow”) is written from the perspective of a young artist traveling alone to the hot springs in the village of Nakoi. Once there, he is fascinated by the daughter of his host. It’s not actually a book where anything really happens, though; the author himself calls it a “haiku novel.” It consists primarily of the protagonist’s observations, impressions, and musings, reminding me almost in a way of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

It is interesting to see life the way this artist (and the author does). Unlike when reading novels with plot, I had to remind myself from time to time to stay focused and actually acknowledge what I was reading. At one point I needed to go back a page and a half to find the last thing I remembered. I also had a bit of trouble with placing the book in context, since I don’t have much knowledge of that historical setting, but there are reference to Western works of art and poetry as well as traditional Japanese ones.

My introduction to Japanese culture, if it qualifies, was manga and anime when I was in middle school. Later on, some of my college courses touched on elements such as kabuki theater, love-suicides, and musical traditions. Even so, I always end up feeling ignorant and impressed by the lyric simplicity in Japanese writings.

Random connection: The book mentioned aronia blossoms a few times, a plant I had never heard of before. Then, while looking at shirts online for my dad, Kohl’s had named one of the colors for it’s polo aronia. It was blue.

Published in: on April 12, 2012 at 7:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The English Breakfast Murder

The English Breakfast Murderis the fourth Tea Shop Mystery by Laura Childs, and though probably not my favorite in the series it’s still a good read (or reread). Theodosia and Haley are thrilled to join the Charleston Sea Turtle Protection League to help baby loggerheads make it from shell to sea. Even Drayton in his tweeds and loafers can’t deny the cuteness of the hatchlings scuttling across the sand. The fun abates when the trio spy a dark shape fifty yards out in the water. Haley’s convinced it’s a dolphin in trouble, and Theo’s getting a pretty strong vibe herself, so she swims out to take a look. (And of course she’s a certified lifeguard–there’s that Nancy Drew streak again.)

She almost wishes she hadn’t when she realizes the object is a dead body–and the body of one of Drayton’s friends, no less. Harper Fisk was a local antiques dealer and also a member with Drayton of the English Breakfast Club, a group of historians who got together every week. The official verdict is death by drowning, but to Theodosia and Detective Tidwell that seems a far-fetched about a sea dog.

Theo is able to enlist the help of her boyfriend Jory, and avid yachtsman like herself, to help track down the boat, and along the way they find plenty of motive. Harper Fisk’s antique store was extremely successful; perhaps his young assistant wanted a bigger share, or perhaps his friends and fellow store owners were getting jealous. In addition, Fisk was an amateur treasure hunter intent on locating a valuable wreck rumored to be just offshore. If his theories were valid, someone may have wanted to claim the treasure for him or herself.

Whenever I feel overwhelmed with all the work I do teaching, tutoring, and chaperoning, I just think of Theodosia. Talk about a full calendar! She’s running her own store with all that entails, helping Delaine organize a fashion show luncheon for her clothing boutique, visiting with Earl Grey is his capacity as service dog, attending functions about town, and trying to solve a mystery on the side. I have to admit, I’m a little envious of all the society events she gets to go to, especially with her connection to the Historical Society. I would love to attend art galleries, concerts, exhibits, and luncheons, but it seems like no one really dresses up and goes out at more.

Laura Childs (aka Gerry Schmitt) is a former marketing CEO just like Theodosia, and she’s put her expertise to good work in the series. So far, as a small business owner, Theo has started a website/online store front (which was a big deal in 2001 when that book first came out), expanded to outdoor seating, developed a line on T-bath products, hosted several themed teas (like a mystery tea), called on Drayton to create new tea blends each holiday season, as well as various iced teas, and given Haley free range to perfect the use of tea as a flavor when cooking. To me this aspect is just as intriguing as the actual mystery. I used to work part time in an artisan’s cooperative and was constantly around people with creative ideas for products and marketing, so perhaps that’s why this appeals to me so.

Fun tidbit #1: Theodosia and Drayton decide to start stocking Rooibos (Redbush) tea because it has been getting a lot of media buzz lately. Perhaps this is a nod to the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series?

Fun tidbit #2: In the previous book, the teaser called this volume “The Last English Breakfast.” I wonder who decided to change it, and why?

Published in: on April 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Evening of Long Goodbyes

Before a week-long spring break this year I stocked up at the library on a variety of books (three of which went back unread). There just wasn’t enough time to get to them all before work and due dates took over.Paul Murray’s  An Evening of Long Goodbyes, with its quirky title and charming cover, was one of the lucky ones, though it was a random find while browsing the shelves.

Twenty-four-year-old Charles Hythloday is back at home in the family manor Amaurot (in Ireland) after an unsuccessful stint in college and his father’s death the year before. Under the care of the Bosnian housekeeper Mrs. P, since his mother is still in rehab for alcoholism, he lives a life of indolence and luxury, jolly lord rather than swinging playboy. He is content to spend his days drinking, watching old black-and-white films, and looking up girls in his younger sister Bel’s old yearbooks. Bel, meanwhile, has her heart set on the theater. Charles loves her dearly and protectively and believes she is wasting herself dating lower-class men like Frank, a junk man who goes to dog races and only drinks beer.

Unfortunately, Charles soon realizes that his neglect of trivial things likes bills and loans might have dire consequences; because much of his father’s finances were unclear, they might very well lose everything. Charles decides that he must maintain Amaurot at all costs, and comes up with a scheme to fake his own death. Nothing goes quite as he plans, however, and through a very long and circuitous chain of events that I shan’t spoil, he winds up rooming with Frank in a rough Dublin neighborhood. Frank supports him for a little while out of the goodness of his heart (and love for Bel), but eventually Charles must find a job, a task that he believes he is entirely unsuited for. He thinks that he is above the jobs available, when really he has no marketable skills whatsoever. It seems like everyone and everything, even fate itself, is conspiring against him.

This is a very difficult book to summarize, and the Amazon listing does a slightly better job, but the reality is that the book is a bit all over the place. The reviews are mixed, and so is my own reaction. [Update: three months later, I still can’t decide whether I would recommend this book.] This felt like it had all the ambition and scope of a first novel even before I read the author blurb on the jacket. It’s as if Paul Murray wasn’t sure he would have a second shot at writing a book, so he threw in everything but the kitchen sink. The result is often inconsistent in both tone and purpose over the 432 good-sized pages, especially in the second half.

At times I grew frustrated with how clueless Charles is. He is locked into his own problems and imaginary world, egocentrically oblivious to the ups and downs of those around him. He has that little-kid desire and trust that everything can be magically fixed. His father was a famous cosmetics developer, so he grew up amidst his parents’ lavish lifestyle and parties with make-up models. He honestly believes that he and his family can still have this to-the-manor-born lifestyle, even in modern-day Ireland, but is so out-of-touch with everyday life. Luckily Bel and their mother are more realistic. In a small, surprising way, Charles reminded me a bit of Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, simply because his way of life is changing beyond his control. Can you have a coming-of-age novel about a twenty-four-year-old?

The book starts off with the air of a PG Wodehouse story, like something out of another decade. In retrospect this makes sense because that’s what Charles wants his life to be like.  Over the course of the novel it maintains some elements of farce in the death plots and theater companies, but gradually the reality of Frank’s way of life takes over.

The second half of the book is much grittier. Charles is surrounded by poverty, desperation, drug addicts, and the struggles of blue-collar workers.Some elements were even a bit shocking, not in a bodice-ripper euphemism way but in a crude literal way. Unfortunately I knew just enough slang to get some bad mental images of what Frank and his friends were discussing.

One of the subplots is Charles’ fascination with the Hollywood actress Gene Tierney. I knew nothing about her except that she stars in one of my favorite movies, Laura. In reality, her life was glamour on the surface and heartbreak beneath. The pressure that public figures are put under makes me so sad sometimes.

I love authors who can successfully intertwine lots of themes, like John Green or Charles Dickens, but the many elements Paul Murray introduces here are never quite given the chance to crystallize, other than the fish-out-of-water idea. For example, all of the following are present: Charles’ fixation with Gene Tierney, who may or may not be a parallelism with Bel, the honesty of Frank’s life versus the facade of Charles’, his father’s career with makeup as a mask, all of Bel’s inner demons, Charles’ obsession with his sister that almost borders on incestuous, political conflict in Eastern Europe, and the Irish economy. There are also small subplots with a racing job and Charles trying to write a thinly veiled autobiographical novel.

To be fair, some of my negative reaction may be because this was not necessarily the novel I wanted it to be. I was on a work-related trip with long stretches of nothing to do but read, and had been looking forward to a light-hearted romp. Instead I could only read for so long before needing to take a break. The ending is also ambiguous rather than a clear-cut happy resolution.

Though the book falls short of making it as either a comedy or a social commentary, at least to me, I will agree that Paul Murray has much promise as a writer. [Update: and I guess it’s a good thing that I’m still thinking about the book three months later! Charles is a very haunting character, though I don’t know that he was intended to be.]

Published in: on April 5, 2012 at 5:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Shades of Earl Grey

Delaine’s pleading eyes bore into Theodosia. “Oh please, you’re so terribly good at this kind of thing.”

I have to start out by saying that whenever I mentioned what I was reading, people would respond with “oh, that book…” and I’d have to tell them it was a different Shades of Grey!

You come to expect that a dead bodies will crop up in a mystery, but some cases are sadder than others. In this book, Theodosia and company are at the engagement party for her friend Delaine’s niece Camille. Unfortunately, the storm raging outside causes the roof of the glass-enclosed room to collapse, killing the young groom-to-be. To top it off, the couple’s priceless heirloom wedding disappeared from its display in the aftermath of the accident. Theodosia has a hunch that the collapsing roof could be the symptom of a theft gone wrong, and Delaine begs her to do a little investigating.

Since a cat burglar would likely strike again, Theodosia and Drayton urge their friend Timothy to take extra precautions at the Heritage Society’s upcoming display of antique European jewels. Unfortunately, their simple security system is not enough. Soon shops and homes all over the Historic District are victimized. The case is out of Burt Tidwell’s hands because it is not officially murder, but Theodosia and her friends will need all the help they can get to trap a cat.

I don’t know why I never thought of it before, but maybe one of the reasons I love these books so much is Theodosia’s uncanny similarity to Nancy Drew. She’s fairly tall, with blue eyes and curly auburn hair. She lost her mother at a young age (eight), and her father was a lawyer. She has a pair of trusted friends always ready to help with the case, and a loyal boyfriend who stays offstage unless needed. She even has a brave and intelligent dog (and Earl Grey helps plenty with this case especially).

Beyond outward similarities, Theo has both a strong desire to help people and a true talent for investigating, just like Nancy. Her mind tends to pick up on clues and see all possible hidden meanings in ordinary scenarios. She is calm and collected at all times, even when in dangerous situations. And if at thirty-five she’s a little bit older than the teen sleuth, we can overlook that difference. Laura Childs is a self-professed Nancy Drew fan, so I wonder if that really was part of the inspiration behind Theodosia’s character.

Published in: on April 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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