March 29

Twice Kissed by Lisa Jackson

And now for the other Lisa Jackson I read this month. Another crime novel, but this one a little heavier on the romance. A little more illogical, but a lot less killing.

Two twins, both of mature years, but estranged as their personalities grew more and more different. Mary Theresa has changed her name to Marquise (a la Madonna) and moves in minor celebrity circles. As she is getting older she is desperate to hang onto her fame and nothing is too far-fetched to keep her name in the media. Maggie is a single mother raising a 13 year old daughter on a farming property in Idaho. Isolation suits her just fine as she earns her money writing true crime books. But one day she hears MT’s call for help. A psychic link they have shared in times of extreme stress since they were teenagers.

Minutes later MT’s first husband drives up the drive and tells Maggie that her sister has disappeared. She hasn’t been seen for days and her car has been found wrecked. Thane is suspected of foul play, and he wants Maggie to vouch for his reliable character. But Maggie and Thane also have ‘history’. In spite of her misgivings, Maggie sends her daughter to her auntie’s for a visit and heads to Denver with Thane to find out from the police exactly what happened to her sister.

I think this book should really be considered a romance novel. Jackson spends at least as much time rekindling the romance between Maggie and Thane as she does revealing clues to MT’s kidnapping. In fact the solution to the crime is revealed so quickly that it loses all impact. It is as though Jackson wanted to get the plot over quick so she could write another love scene. 

The best bit of this whole story is the beautifully drawn character of Marquise. She is consistently selfish, arrogant and vain. Nothing in the whole world matters, except what she wants. Very rarely does an author take the opportunity to create such an unlovely character and then portray her through the eyes of those who may try to love her.

March 29

Malice by Lisa Jackson

It is not very often that I receive a book one week and get the review published by then next. But for some reason this Lisa Jackson book appealed to me, so I thought I would get it read and reviewed before the publication date for a change.

Detective Rick Bentz is back, or at least those who have managed to read her US backlist. But as he comes out of a coma, he is certain that he sees his ex-wife in the room. Ex-wife as in buried twelve years ago. As he goes through physio and tries to get back to work, the woman appears again and again, always on the edge of his vision. But then the photos arrive…

Bentz heads to California to get to the bottom of everything. Unfortunately he has history there. He was a cop caught in bad press and with the death of his wife, he sought comfort in the bottle. When a double murder investigation turned cold, Bentz was made a scapegoat for LAPD and left town. When he comes back, no one wants to know. 

So he starts off on his own investigation. He is a detective so he does what he knows best. But then the witnesses he interviews start turning up dead, and Bentz becomes a suspect. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this who-dun-it. I never picked the bad guy, right to the end. And the climax was riveting. Even when the baddie was revealed, there was good suspense as Bentz tried to rescue the last innocent victim. The motives for everybody were believable and the characters were well drawn. I was a little confused about Montoya’s involvement, but everything else was so good I can forgive that.

March 23

Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier

A few weeks ago I overheard a couple of students recommending books to each other with the comment, ‘You have to read this, it is so good.’ At about the same time it surfaced at the top of my reading list. A happy coincidence.

Cybele’s Secret is set in medieval Istanbul. Paula, a merchant’s daughter, has travelled with her father to the east to try to purchase an ancient statue for a buyer in Europe. Once there, Paula is determined to experience this foreign culture, in spite of the fact that as a woman she is not allowed to leave her ‘home’. But with the protection of her bodyguard, Paula befriends an older Greek woman, Irene, also strongly independent and unwilling to be restricted by the Muslim laws. Paula takes advantage of the Irene’s library of ancient writings to investigate the history of the statue of Cybele that is the whole purpose of her father’s trip. 

But then those interested in purchasing the statue start dying. Some beaten to death, others killed in the street. And a Portuguese pirate is showing a great deal of interest in both Paula and the statue. When Paula’s father is found alive, but beaten, Paula assumes her pirate friend is at fault and she thoughtlessly rushes off to confront him. From there the story launches into the most fantastic adventure.

I will admit that it took me ages to get started in this book. The early passages about life in Istanbul were nicely historical, but slow going. But once the adventure started the book took off. I was up until the early hours of the morning finishing, simply because I could not put it down.

A little investigation has shown me that this is the second book in a series. It certainly stood very well by itself, but maybe someday I will find the time to read book one.

March 23

Dead until Dark by Charlaine Harris

I actually finished this book a couple weeks ago, but since it has been made into a TV miniseries, I thought it best to wait to review it until I had seen at least some of the TV takeoff. Boy, am I sorry I did. The book is a great, fun read best described as an adventure story. The miniseries appears to be sensationalist skin flick with bad accents and worse acting.

Anyway the purpose of this blog is to review, so here goes.

The setting in the bayou country north of New Orleans is perfect for this tale of small town suspicion, racism, romantic murder mystery. Sookie is a simple country girl working as a barmaid, but otherwise stays home a lot because of her ‘disability’. You see, Sookie is telepathic. One night in the bar, Bill walks in, and Sookie is immediately attracted because she can’t read him. But Bill is a vampire (now legal in Louisiana), and quickly the attraction becomes much more. But girls are dying, murdered, garroted. The tension mounts as the reader is convinced that Sookie is next.

OK, so the plot is not original. Stephenie Meyer is making big money out of the same story, right down to the telepathic, or not, lovers. Harris puts a much more adult twist to the tale. The sex scenes are erotic, and certainly not for the tweens that have just finished Twilight. 

But Harris does not take herself seriously and neither should the reader. This book is pure entertainment, and so what! Sometimes everyone needs to read for the fun of it. Enjoy!

March 15

Red Rage by Brigitte Blobel

Anger management. This is a phrase we hear all the time in the media. Sportspeople, film stars, and even children are sent to psychologists to learn these important skills. Blobel has made her own contribution to this discussion with this unusual new novel.

Mara has endured times of uncontrollable rage since she was ten years old. She copes with these fits by running, as far and as fast as she can, in order to avoid destroying something. Her life is out of control, and she can see nothing positive on the horizon, that is until she meets Tibor on the late bus home. Through Tibor she finds something worth struggling for. He is friendly, positive and seems interested in getting to know her. That is until she sees him with another girl.

I found this book very disturbing. The story is told from Mara’s point of view, and in her mind her anger is not something to be concerned about. Everything is considered normal. The author doesn’t make an effort to inform the reader that the narrator is unreliable until the very last episode and it’s disastrous consequences. Perhaps it would have been better to indicate to the reader that this anger was a bad thing before Mara went over the edge.

However, I did appreciate the fact that the apology did not immediately restore all to rights. 

March 15

Bait by Nick Brownlee

I did say that I was going to prioritise crime fiction this month. Brownlee is a newcomer to the genre, and he has produced a page turner here.

The book opens with a murder, actually someone being gutted like a fish. And that is only the first of a string of murders, each trying to cover up the first. The setting is Kenya, and the investigation ends up the responsibility of the only honest cop in town. As his investigations continue, he mets an ex-London policeman who has retired to run a big game fishing charter. Jack and Jouma make a powerful team that eventually get to the bottom of the mess. But not before virtually the whole criminal organization gets trigger happy and kill each other off.

As you can see, this is a very bloody book. But the string of murders stayed within character and remained very logical. I have read many sillier plotlines from Agatha Christie, and she is supposedly an authority. However, there was one coincidence that I found hard to swallow. The overall big boss of the organization did not seem credible, it was just one too many neatly tied ends.

I will admit that this book kept me reading. I started and finished it within 24 hours. There was no way I could stop once I started.

March 14

Fat Tuesday by Sandra Brown

I have decided this month to clear the reading pile of all the crime fiction, so look out, Lowly is immersed in murder.

Fat Tuesday starts out in court, unusual. The crim that the cops know is guilty of multiple murders, walks again thanks to his crafty lawyer. But this time it is different. The victim was from the cops, and his partner Burke Basile will not let the killing go unpunished. Basile quits the force and plans his revenge. How to get to the fancy lawyer? He is always surrounded by henchmen, but his wife only has a single bodyguard. Basile figures that kidnapping the wife will be the most effective revenge possible. And he is right, except that once the wife is taken, she is considered damaged goods and her husband demands her death, as well as Basile’s.

Set in the lush richness of New Orleans, at least the idealised one pre-Katrina, and the surrounding bayou, this book is an excellent suspense thriller. No one is exactly as he appears. The twists and double twists keep the pages turning.

As usual, I don’t think much of the cover. It makes it look very chick lit. But wrap the book in plain paper and enjoy a good story.

March 14

The Black Dog Gang by Robert Newton

It is a popular idea to write books for young people in Australia that are set at about the time of federation. Not that politics enters into this story at all, but Australians lived very differently than they do now. This book carries the reader directly into the impoverished working class suburb of Sydney.

Frankie is from a close, loving family that includes Mum, Dad and his little sister Maggie. Frankie’s nickname is Bookie because he loves to read, even though books are very scarce. Then one day Mickey and his family move in next door. Mickey’s father is violent and abusive. Frankie feels for this new boy and they become unlikely friends. 

Then the plague arrives in Sydney. The government offers a bounty of sixpence for every dead rat that is delivered. Mickey and Frankie and a few other boys from school decide that it would be easier to breed rats than catch them. So each child begins a rat ‘farm’ under their house, with tragic consequences.

This was a short book with a simple storyline, but it certainly provides great opportunity for discussion and further thinking. All the characters are strong and consistent in their actions, and that always makes for a good story. This book will not set the world on fire, but it is certainly an entertaining read. 

March 1

The Amazing Mind of Alice Makin by Alan Shea

It would have been very difficult for children in England at the end of WWII. How many families were still intact? Talk about Post Traumatic Stress, what about those children who lived through the bombing raids? There were no counsellors available for them.

Alice Makin is one of these children. She has survived the war, but can she survive the peace. Her escape is her imagination, and there she can be really happy. But when a new boy joins her class at school, strange things start happening. Strange and fantastic things that used to just happen in her imagination. What is happening, and more importantly, when will it end?

This is a light-hearted fun novel about the power you have to control your own environment. In a time when children are continuously reminded of the bushfires, stranger danger and all the other disasters they may encounter, a happy positive book is a refreshing change.

March 1

The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies

Either the publicist sent me a large print edition (am I getting that old?) or this book is really more a novella. Regardless, this is certainly a very good, light read for those who enjoy historical fiction.

Most of us have heard of Marco Polo, and we are generally familiar with the fact that he travelled to China in the early 14th century. In The Unicorn Road Davies suggests that Europeans reached China well before Polo, but never publicized their achievements. One of these journeys of exploration was undertaken by Antioch, a scholar who specialized in unique animals and his entourage consisting of a military captain, a translator, a guide and a teenage boy working as a general gofur. They all arrived in China at the end of the Song dynasty, and just before Kublai Khan invades. It goes without saying this journey changes the course of all of their lives.

Davies crafts this book in a very interesting way. The reader maintains contact with European culture of the time through the eyes of the boy’s father who is waiting at a port in Spain for news of the expedition. The journey is described by the boy, but very quickly the narration shifts to the translator. And it is the translator who has the most interesting story to tell.

This book is really about the power of words. Communication is one of the most primitive skills learned by early man, but it is still the key to organised society today. In the days of early exploration in strange lands, language skills were very important for a peaceful relationship. China was simply to powerful at that stage to be conquered by the Europeans, so negotiation was the way to success. Venn, the interpreter, becomes the central figure in this exotic and dangerous adventure.

Believe me. this book won’t take very long to read, so spend a weekend in ancient China.