Kerry Greenwood – Murder on the Ballarat Train (2007, Poisoned Pen Press, Arizona)
When a fellow passenger is murdered and nearly everyone else is poisoned while on a train voyage, Phryne Fisher doesn’t hesitate to take on the case with her usual smarts, skill, and style. In between tracking down suspects, Phryne manages to seduce a member of the local rowing club and attempts to suss out the mysterious appearance of a traumatized, amnesiac young girl – who may or may not be connected to the murder on the train. With this, the third installment in the series, Greenwood shows more polish than the first two books, as Phryne and her supporting cast become a bit less caricature and take on fuller lives. An entertaining, quick read!
Red Planet Blues – Robert J. Sawyer (2013, Viking, Toronto)
Life in the Martian city of New Klondike is a bit akin to the wild west, gritty and shady (albeit with some serious tech). When exiled private eye Alex Lomax is called upon to work a case of a missing man who has recently undergone a body transfer, he is quickly embroiled in a complicated mystery involving fossilized treasure, a secret diary, and the long-buried facts behind a historical planetary landing. When people truly aren’t who they appear to be and the body count begins to mount, Lomax has to use all of his street smarts, charm, and brute force to save his own skin and solve the case. This is crafty science fiction noir with a generous side of humour and a few deft, creative turns. The occasionally annoying first-person narrative may rankle some readers, and Lomax’ sexist opinions are a turn off (remember, however, that this is an homage to classic noir, where that type of attitude prevailed), but the actual storytelling is entertaining and the pacing is appropriately speedy. A fun book to kick back with in the lawn chair this summer.
Eoin Colfer – Plugged (2011, The Overlook Press, New York)
This over-the-top, darkly comedic and (at times) savagely raunchy novel from Eoin Colfer (yes, that’s the same guy that wrote the famous YA series, Artemis Fowl) is not for everyone. If you can stomach it, however, it’s pretty fun and entertaining, even while you’re shaking your head in disbelief. After his girlfriend is murdered, Daniel McEvoy, an Irish ex-military officer turned bouncer in a rundown New Jersey nightclub finds himself embroiled in a deadly plot involving plenty of drugs, dead bodies, weird sexual exploits…and hair transplants. It’s as bizarre and unhinged as it sounds. The voice of McEvoy is the best part of the book – first person narratives don’t always work, but this is a character who can be as self-deprecating, witty, and hilarious as he is tortured and complex. I enjoyed that. There is a sequel, Screwed, but I’m in no hurry to read it…too much of this kind of crazy could prove hard on the brain (and the digestive tract).
James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge – Zoo (2012, Little, Brown and Company, New York)
All of the animals on the planet Earth have suddenly and inexplicably turned into bloodthirsty monsters out for human flesh in this fast, furrious (see what I did there?), and frequently gratuitously gory read from James Patterson. This is actually the first Patterson book I’ve read (he has about a trillion titles so I don’t know how I managed to miss him so far) and I admit, I chose it because the plotline reminded me of something Michael Crichton would have come up with. The story is largely formulaic, which I anticipated: we have our wisecracking, slightly irritating (first person) narrator-hero, Jackson Oz, a young biologist possessing a simultaneous lack of credibility and insight no one else seems to possess…that is, until he rescues beautiful ecologist Chloe Tousignant in Africa and the two band together to try to warn mankind. When things go very, very sideways, it’s up to Oz to try to save the world. The conclusion might be disappointing to some, but offers an interesting commentary on our high-tech society. Zoo is an easy, quick read and reasonably entertaining, as long as your expectations are not too high.
There is, of course, a television show based on this book, and no, I haven’t had a chance to watch any episodes yet. (If you have and you enjoy it – or if you can’t stand it! – let me know in the comments).
Homer Hickam – The Dinosaur Hunter (Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2010)
What looks like just another busy summer wrangling cattle at the Square C Ranch for former-homicide-cop-turned-cowboy Mike Wire becomes decidedly more bloody and interesting when a paleontologist and his team discover that the ranch is the site of a cache of dinosaur bones – and someone is willing to kill to get at the extremely valuable fossils. Sounds like a fascinating read, right? – I was totally sold on the promising combination of murder mystery and dinosaur bones. And, indeed, the paleontology was the best – and strongest – part of the book. Unfortunately, Mike’s character grated on me; old enough to have participated in the decimation of two marriages, he spends most of the book alternately chasing after every woman who enters his periphery and pouting when they don’t return his advances (or expansively congratulating himself when they do). His shenanigans seriously cut into the time where he could be solving the case, which you’d expect an ex-police officer to tackle with a bit more aplomb. Furthermore, his cheeky wink-wink first person narrative only solidifies his immaturity and damages his credibility with the reader – at some (very early) point, it’s easy just to stop caring about Mike and his sassy thoughts. (And how many times do we have to be reminded that he’s a vegetarian living on a cattle ranch?). Most of the other characters are poorly-drawn caricatures and stereotypes (especially the poor women!), and don’t get me started with the whole Russian mob angle. There is, however, some interesting stuff here with the discussion of land rights and the struggles faced by ranchers in Montana, and the controversy of the recovery and preservation of dinosaur fossils for historical value or to sell for big bucks. Although this book proved a disappointment (for me), I’ll give Hickam another chance and try some of his YA SF novels when I have a spot for them in the TBR pile.
Samantha Silva – Mr. Dickens and His Carol (2017 Flatiron Books, New York)
Just in time for Christmas comes this heartwarming, exquisitely-told story from Samantha Silva. A fictionalized account of Charles Dickens’ struggle to write A Christmas Carol under extreme pressure, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is just the sort of sweet holiday tale perfect for cuddling up with during an hour of two of quiet over the festive season. (Don’t forget the hot chocolate and Bailey’s, the warm cat nestled at your feet, and the crackling fire in the hearth). I think I smiled from the first sentence until I reluctantly closed the covers at its conclusion. Holiday cheer in book form – who could ask for more?
*Project Gutenberg has archived a digital copy of a first edition of A Christmas Carol from December 1843. It includes some fabulous illustrations and a marvelous scan of the front cover – click over to enjoy it here.
Dragon Teeth – Michael Crichton (2017, HarperLuxe, New York)
Published nearly a decade after his death, Michael Crichton’s “undiscovered” novel Dragon Teeth is a decent mash-up of history, science, and good old-fashioned storytelling, inspired by the outlandish, well-documented, and sometimes extremely violent rivalry between late 19th century American paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope. Their quests (competition?) to find and document fossilized dinosaurs and other creatures of the distant past in a cultural climate that was struggling to wrap its collective noggin around evolutionary theory is fascinating – especially when you consider that they did most of their bone-hunting and collecting in the wild west, where, if you weren’t bit by a rattlesnake or died of exposure or illness, you could suffer death, injury, or at the very least, be swindled out of all your worldly possessions by any number of unsavory characters. A quick, (at times overly) simple, entertaining read.