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!
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.
Peter Lovesey – The Last Detective (1991, Soho Press, Inc., United Kingdom)
Not to be confused with the “other” Last Detective, “Dangerous” Davies of the novels by Leslie Thomas (perhaps more familiar to many as a TV series), this is Peter Lovesey’s Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, who shuns late-Eighties/early-Nineties’ computer technology and developments in forensic science in favour of kicking it old-school by knocking on doors and relentless questioning. When a woman is found dead in a lake near the city of Bath, Diamond leads the investigation with characteristic (and occasionally humorous) aplomb, bulldozing his way through clues, suspects, and his subordinates alike. Initially, I wasn’t certain about the character of Diamond – quite frankly, he came across as a total boor and I prefer that even the most unlikeable characters should have some redeeming quality – but over the course of the novel, the development of this tough, flawed gumshoe gave me more than enough reason to keep reading. The POV switches in the novel’s six parts also gave me pause, at first, but they are actually quite effective when all is said and done. I’m curious to see what Lovesey has done with the other novels in this lengthy series (16 books so far).
Laurie Graves – Maya and the Book of Everything (2016, Hinterlands Press)
A mysterious library, magical books, and unexpected journeys to new lands and times? A resourceful, intelligent, and thoughtful teenaged protagonist that we can relate to and love and root for? A clever, fresh (and extremely relevant) take on the classic battle between good and evil? Creative plotting, beautifully realized characterization, precisely detailed world building, and perfect pacing? I’m all in. Laurie’s book really is everything!
As it is the season of gift giving, if you’re having a difficult time buying for the young teenagers in your life, well, have I got a suggestion for you. And while you’re at it, click an extra copy into your cart for yourself. Because we could all use a Book of Everything in our lives. 🙂
(I’m sure glad she’s already working on the sequel because I’m not certain how long I can wait, given that juicy wallop set up at the end…).