Sunday, April 6, 2014

March Mystery Madness: Survey Says

March is over.  It’s been a solid month filled with icky weather, but some outstanding books to pull me through the storm.  As you know I dedicated the month of March to catching up and clearing the mystery books/series off my shelf--the majority of them at least.  I want to move up at least one book in each series, and for the most part, I succeeded.  Cleanly I might add.  I stuck to my commitment book by book, except for an unfortunate few that I'll name later.  Now it’s time for me to reveal the verdicts on my readings, considering most of my progress with these series were stalled between 5-2 years.  Included in the verdicts is my version of ratings--in the form of "Brooklyn Heads" for that extra creative juice.  I want to thank those who have commented on my March Mystery Madness video, shared their favorite mysteries, and etc.  Much, much appreciated.  If you've read any of these books, also share your opinions below.

The Flower Master by Sujata Massey

“Life in Japan for a transplanted Californian with a fledgling antiques business and a nonexistent love life isn't always fun, but when the flower arranging class Rei Shimura’s aunt cajoles her into taking turns into a stage for murder, Rei finds plenty of [the] excitement she’s been missing.

Unfortunately too many people have a reason for committing the crime--her aunt included.  While struggling to adjust to the nuances of Japanese propriety, trying to keep her business afloat, and dealing with veiled messages left under her door, Rei sifts the bones of old skeletons to keep her family name clear--and her own life safe from an enemy with a mysterious agenda.  If Rei doesn't want to be crushed like fallen cherry blossoms, she's going to have to walk a perilous line and uncover a killer with a dramatic flare for deadly arrangements." ~ The Flower Master blurb

I breezed through this book; hooked the second I got through the first chapter.  However, I remained upset that I didn't continue the series two years ago, having been burnt by the second book in Massy‘s series, Zen Attitude.  Seriously, The Flower Master sat on my shelf for two years!  I could’ve been at least seven books deep into the series by now, had I continued.  Nonetheless, now that I'm done with The Flower Master my commitment to Massey’s series is so real.  And so strong as I browse Amazon for The Floating Girl--book four in the series.  I wouldn't say that Massey’s mystery set-up is out of this world in The Flower Master.  It was certainly stronger here than in the previous book.  Nonetheless, it’s not necessarily the mystery that causes this series to glow.  No, it’s Massey’s system of introducing and acknowledging traditions centered within Japanese culture that makes this series stand out; and the un-bustled parts of Tokyo in which she explores her murders.  

Nonetheless, The Flower Master took the histrionics behind Japanese flower arrangement, as well as today's modern approach, and wrapped a cryptic revenge murder around it.  And the pages are thick with the entrapping details--expressed between characters and lite exposition--that unfold throughout the reading.  Now, I will mention that sometimes Massey's scenes and character choreography were off.  That might seem trivial to some, but when I read I put my trust into the author and her ability to carefully paint and direct a scene.  Nevertheless, some online reviewers’ complain of Massey’s knowledgeable understanding of Japan and Japanese culture alongside their personal definition of the subject.  Forget all of that, I say.  I held on to Massey's words on the subject and flew through Rei Shimura’s third mystery with glee.  I couldn't be contained.

Deadlock by Sara Paretsky

"Deadlock, V I Warshawski's second case, involves the huge Great Lakes shipping industry.  Once again the subject is murder--this time the "accidental death" of Boom-Boom Warshawski, an ex-hockey star and V I's beloved cousin, who fell--or was pushed--off a rain-slicked pier on Chicago's busy waterfront.  Convinced that Boom-Boom was in fact killed because of information he had uncovered about criminal doings on the shipping lines, V I begins a long and frustrating search for her cousin's murderer.  In the course of an investigation that takes her to a remote Canadian port city and a calamitous trip on a sabotaged freighter, V I finds all too many possible candidates for the killer, including a grain company executive involved in extortion; and rivals heads of two shippers, one of whom is being blackmailed for his criminal past; a hockey player whose specialty is graft; and Boom-Boom's lover, an icily beautiful dancer with expenstive taste in men and merchandise."

Let me be real in stating that Deadlock’s themes of freighters and shipments spread itself just as convoluted as the insurance scam in V. I.’s previous book/case, Indemnity Only.  And while that is all somewhat insufferable to the reading experience, what I will also frankly state is that I'm a step above becoming enamored by V.I. herself.  She pulled no punches in Deadlock, reaffirming that she’s a strongly-crafted and capable character.  She definitely goes a lot harder than her counterpart in hard-boiled detective fiction, Kinsey Millhone.  So whether V.I. is struggling to control a wire-snipped runaway car, or holding on for her life as explosives detonate in the engine room of an occupied freighter, she recapitulates that women P.I.s can go a tab or two above men.  Naturally, I love all of femme maven excitement, enough so to move into Paresky’s third V.I. book, Killing Orders.  Nonetheless, as I mentioned earlier, the problem I had with this book is that I didn't understand a damn thing surrounding its setting and theme.  Consisting of freighters, wafts, and the elevator lay of the Port of Chicago, I was mostly lost Deadlock's set-up.  Paretsky's system just wasn't clear to me.  Had I lived in Chicago I may have struggled less to absorbed Paretsky’s detailing--but I don’t.  Never even seen the Port of Chicago until I had to pause my reading to do a quick Google Image search on my phone.  So while all that screamed for a proper visual, Paretsky’s run down on shipping rates, private papers, and contracts between suspects kept me further in the clouds.  

Additionally, it didn't help that I found myself mostly confused between the numerous introduction and motivations of the men involved in this business, particularly when one is a killer worth concentrating on.  I still pushed through for the gold, mostly driven by the murder mystery and action scenes.  A splash of softhearted scenes related to the victims also encouraged me to move forward.  Nevertheless, it was only toward the end that all of the convoluted set-up finally began to make some sense.  Once I shut the last page, that’s when I exclaimed, “I GET IT NOW!”  I will be continuing this series after that year long hiatus between the first and second book.  On the third go-round I'll try harder to "get it" in the early quarter of the book.  Especially now that I have a better grasp on Paretsky's style.

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

"Lawrenceton, Georgia, may be a growing suburb of Atlanta, but it's still a small town at heart.  Librarian Aurora "Roe" Teagarden grew up there and knows more than enough about her fellow townsfolk, including which ones share her interest in the darker side of human nature.  With those fellow crime buffs, Roe belongs to a club called Real Murders, which meets once a month to analyze famous cases.  It's a harmless pastime--until the night she finds a member dead, killed in a manner that eerily resembles the crime the club was about to discuss.  And as other brutal 'copycat' killings follow, Roe will have to uncover the person behind the terrifying game, one that casts all the members of Real Murders, herself included, as prime suspects--or potential victims..." ~ Real Murder blurb

Let me go ahead and get this part out of the way: I did/do not like Aurora Teagarden.  Unfortunately, you can't get away from her, considering the books are told through the first person via her snarky perspective.  I can't pinpoint the gradient in which I did not take to her character.  Maybe it was because her mother owned the apartment complex that housed a number of the supporting characters--giving Aurora reason to look down on the cast Harris created.  I just know that my dislike of her had a lot to do with how she viewed the supporting characters.  Her view of them had this unpleasant, impatience taste to it.  For a character described as plain looking--of an extreme librarian quality--Aurora housed a high opinion of herself.  Especially in concerns to others.  

Furthermore, she took it upon herself to snoop into everyone else’s business, granted she's an amateur sleuth solving a murder.  However, with that snooping lie more of this hint of self-righteousness she sometimes exuded.  I remember reading Aurora’s antics and aloof disposition toward others, wondering to myself “just who the hell are you to think that way.”  I saw this to a degree in Harris’s other first person protagonists from her numerous series.  However, something about Aurora, with her plain clothes and large glasses, just rubbed me the wrong way.  At least that’s what I was left feeling, which consequently takes a chunk out of my verdict for the actual mystery.  

Oh, and I wasn't exactly won over by the fake charm Aurora shined over her younger brother from her father’s current marriage (her parents divorced; her father re-married).  Aurora's attitude was as if the boy was a burden to look after.  However, later he became the catalyst to the events that took place (in watered-down fashion) toward the final reveal.  As for the mystery element, it was cozy with a touch of bloody, but nothing outstanding or even witty.  I know that's not much, but it was hardly what I was left with the minute I closed the book.  There's a wonder why it took me from January 2010 till now to start this series.  Seeing that I already own the first four books, I'll give the series a further go in the hopes that maybe Aurora will chill on the subtle bitch-mobile.  Insecure much?

Concourse by S. J. Rozan

"Bill Smith has been hired by an old friend to investigate the killing of a security guard at the Bronx Home for the Aged.  Going undercover, Smith wades out into a sea of violence and lies washing up against the old brick building.  When a second murder is committed, Smith knows that there's a method to the madness.  With the help of bright, young Chinese-American investigator Lydia Chin, Smith uncovers a web of corruption that's found a home in the Bronx.  Now he has to figure out who will die next." ~ Concourse blurb

Certainly one of my favorite reads of the month of March.  Concourse delivered.  For the sake of sounding cliché… it did so in spades.  I sit back and wonder why was I really so hesitate to read the second book in the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery, after devouring the first book two years ago.  It wasn't so bad uncovering a mystery in Bill Smith’s perspective, partly because Rozan did (but at the same time did not) paint Bill Smith underneath the gossamer of your average male P.I.  His voice had a very reasonable ting to it, that I liked instantly.  He wasn't overtly cynical or a masculine brute.  

The mystery was packed, and somewhat twisted, but the delivery was nowhere near as convoluted as what I experienced in the two Paretsky books I've read.  I think most of that is in part to Rozan’s writing, which is very clear and succinct.  Each measure and beat of her words and sentence all seemed to fall right into place.  I barely stumbled over the text to devour her point.  This helped in the immersion, in turn guiding me through the offering of her mystery.  Tie those elements to the emotionally driven motivations of her characters (between justice and greed) and here I was closing the last page with a grin plastered all over my face.  Needless to say, I'm anxious for the next book, Mandarin Plaid.  Concise is the magic word here.  Concise with all the right ingredients for a great mystery.  I'm only sorry that it took me so long to warm up to Bill Smith.

Takeover by Lisa Black

"In the tradition of Kathy Reichs and Jeffery Deaver, a talented novelist introduces a gutsy forensic investigator caught in the middle of an explosive crisis.
Early one Thursday morning, forensic scientist Theresa MacLean is called to the scene of a gruesome murder. The body of a man has been found on the front lawn of a house in suburban Cleveland, the back of his head bashed in. Although it's not the best start to her day, Theresa has been through worse. What unfolds during the next eight hours, though, is nothing she could ever have imagined.
Downtown at the Federal Reserve Bank, her police detective fiancé is taken hostage with six others in a robbery masterminded by two clever criminals. When she arrives at the scene, Theresa discovers that the police have brought in the city's best hostage negotiator: handsome, high-profile Chris Cavanaugh. He hasn't lost a victim yet, but Theresa wonders if he might be too arrogant to save the day this time around.
When her fiancé is injured, she seizes the opportunity to trade places with him. Once on the inside, she will use all her wiles, experience, and technical skills to gain control of the situation. But what initially appears to be a bank heist turns into something far more complex and deadly, and Theresa must decide how much more she is willing to sacrifice in order to save the lives of innocent people as well as her own." ~ Goodreads
In all and total fairness, I should not be providing a verdict for my experience with Takeover by Lisa Black.  Why?  Because I only made it to page 30 before I knew--deep in the craw of my reading spirit--that it wasn’t going to work.  However, since I plugged it as a book involved with my March reading, I feel the next to explain why.  It was boring.  The main character, Theresa, was uninteresting and detached.  Within those 30 pages I never gathered exactly why I should stick by her.  The set-up involving a murder and a bank robbery was kind of sped, while monotonous in its delivery.  Black's speeding pace could have been spent fleshing Theresa out a little more.  Also, the writing was without color to me.  Heck, I would even stay to a startling degree.  I was four mystery books deep when I realized Black’s voice/syntax read like an a-type narrative.  Every word seemed meticulous and in place.  No banter.  No wit.  No clever passages.  No sense of creative abandon and risk.  I’m more than positive that a little more color will come out of the next book.  But concerning Takeover, I just didn’t feel inspired to finish it.

Wish You Were Here by Rita Mae Brown

"Small towns are like families:  Everyone lives very close together... and everyone keeps secrets.  Crozet, Virginia, is a typical small town--until its secrets explode into murder.  Crozet's thirty-something postmistress, Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen, has a tiger cat (Mrs. Murphy) and a Welsh corgi (Tee Tucker), a pending divorce, and a bad habit of reading postcards not addressed to her.  When Crozet's citizens start turning up murdered, Harry remembers that each received a card with a tombstone on the front and the message "Wish you were here" on the back.  Intent on protecting their human friends, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker begin to scent out clues.  Meanwhile, Harry is conducting her own investigation, unaware her pets are one step ahead of her.  If only Mrs. Murphy could alert her somehow, Harry could uncover the culprit before another murder occurs--and before Harry finds herself on the killer's mailing list." ~ Wish You Were Here blurb

I knew like I knew like I knew that this was going to be a good, cozy mystery.  The receipt says I bought it 7/2/2012 and here I am finally giving this book the chance it deserves.  I’ve turned my back on a lot of books, but this one was destined to be read and enjoyed.  It’s almost spiritual in its explanation.  Nonetheless, I’ll first admit to what halted me from diving into my first Rita Mae Brown mystery back in 2012.  See, Wish You Were Here introduced too many characters too quickly; and it didn’t help that each and every one of them had off-beat names, causing you to pause and recount what name matched what character.  Yes, Brown's name-game can work instantly for the rapt reader, or a reader familiar with Brown’s technique (through her non-mysteries) of employing unique character names in her books.  

However, it didn't seem worth the trouble when the narrative is tied to the first person, and that a sliced portion of this off-beat named cast was destined to die any way.  Essentially, these names probably deserved a proxy name come publication, while letting the author indulge in her cleverness from the desk.  But that’s neither here nor there considering Brown’s been publishing since the 70s.  Nevertheless, after 100 pages or so, I got the hang of it.  With all that aside, I loved this book because of Brown’s “creamy” writing.  No, seriously.  That’s how I envisioned her use of words and language.  She has a certain je ne sais quoi with words and their unfolding in concerns to her plot.  This made for a comfortable and alluring read.  Aside from the revealing narrative between the cat and dog duo, Mrs. Murphy and Tucker, Brown’s ability to knock sleeves of information about characters without the reader really knowing it had me in wonder.  In wonder as in I sometimes wanted to put the mystery aside to explore a full on character portrait instead.  Let me provide an example from page 33:

“Did Susan do this for Ned?  In the beginning of the marriage, yes.  After five years and two kids she had felt she was losing her mind.  She balked.  Ned was rip-shot mad.  Then they got to talking, really talking.  She was fortunate.  So was he.  They found common ground.  They learned to do with less so they could hire help.  Susan took a part-time job to bring in some money and get out of the house.  But Susan and Ned were meant for each other, and Harry and Fair were not.  Sex brought them together and left them together for a while, but they weren't really connected emotionally and they certainly weren't connected intellectually.  They were two reasonably good people who needed to free themselves to do what came next, and sadly, they weren't going to free themselves without anger, recrimination, and dragging their friends into it.”

Like, I’m sorry.  But that was one amazing passage to me.  That’s how you bring just enough information to provide a background for a character and disguise him/her from the rest of the crowd.  And it’s just enough information--as I mentioned--to leave you wanting to explore it elsewhere, while remembering that it just might provide itself as a hint to the mystery.  The second Mrs. Murphy book, Rest in Pieces, is shipping my way as we speak.

Sadly, my reading of Frankie Y. Bailey's Death's Favorite Child did not proceed forward.  Unlike Takeover, I have even less to say about it at this point.  The fact is that after Rita Mae Brown's Wish You Were Here, I developed a taste for something else in the mystery genre.  So I ended up with Elizabeth Peter's Crocodile on the Sandbank and will share my verdict on it later.  Nevertheless, the month of March made for a huge success.  I've caught up on mystery series that I stopped reading years ago--and enjoyed them all.  I've come to realize that some stayed on my shelf too long, and some needed to be remove long, long ago.

So what is your take?  Read any of these books?  Liked them?  Hated them?  Would you like me to provide clarity if necessary on my verdicts?  What did you read in the month of March?  Share you responses below!

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