A few short reviews

>> Wednesday, July 02, 2008

TITLE: Birds of a Feather
AUTHOR: Jacqueline Winspear

In this second book in the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie investigates the disappearance of the daughter of a rich grocery-story tycoon. Maisie suspects Charlotte Waite left of her own accord, but when her friends and former friends start turning up murdered, it becomes urgent to find her and discover just what is hiding in her past.

I'm finding the Maisie Dobbs mysteries fascinating, both because of the settings and because of Maisie's unique investigative techniques. It's not just that the 1920s make a rich, vivid backdrop to the stories, it's that Winspear chooses to tell stories that couldn't have been set in any other period. So far both of her plots that I've read have had some essential ties to the First World War, and this makes them even more interesting to me.

I also like Maisie's approach to solving her cases, with such huge emphasis on the responsibility of the investigator to consider the impact of what she turns up on everyone involved, and Maisie's reliance on the new field of psychology to make her deductions.

What I'm not liking all that much is the tinge of the paranormal in the series. I think in a way it devalues the investigative method, which is really interesting enough that it deserves to shine alone. As it is, it's a bit devalued by the cheap psychic tricks of Maisie sensing auras and having physical reactions that show her when she's near a clue.

Also, I dislike it when the author is coy and plain hides things from her reader, and that's what Winspear does here. Maisie finds something in the houses of the murdered women, and we're told only that she found something she believes is significant, but doesn't tell us what. And then someone tells her something about Charlotte and her friends, and same thing. Well, I cry foul! I hate to be kept in the dark, told she found something that made her think hard and not be told what it was. Why do it? Maybe because the reason for the murders would have been obvious to us -as it REALLY should have been to Maise, much sooner than it actually was.

Still, other than this (which really, really irritated me, clearly), I enjoyed the book and thought the mystery a good one.


TITLE: I'll Be Seeing You
AUTHOR: Beverly Bird

I picked this one up from the 10p bin at the library. I can't seem to pass it up without buying something *sigh*. It's about Kate, a caterer who finds one of her clients murdered in his soup (well, it wasn't soup, but you know what I mean). Turns out the client was part of the Irish mob, and it soon becomes clear that whoever ordered the hit thinks Kate might have witnessed something. This lands her with around-the-clock protection, in the person of Det. Rafe Montiel.

I developed an antipathy for Rafe from the beginning. Basically, I thought he was a total asshole and a disgusting slob (hot-button for me, living with 6 flatmates, some of whom don't seem to understand that it might be the right thing to do to wipe the table after you use it and not leave it all sticky and disgusting for the next person). For all that she was annoying, Kate was just trying to keep things going to save her livelihood. I do understand that it was more important to preserve her life and that this might not permit her to keep going as normal with her engagements, but the way Rafe did it, constantly mocking her and sabotaging her at every turn made me want to hit him. And so what if she's a control freak? It's her house and her kitchen, she can do what she likes. It gives you no right to leave everything a mess. Damn, I'm like Kate!

On the whole, this was a very run-of-the-mill category romantic suspense, with a slightly preposterous plot and characters with cookie-cutter issues... Kate's former fiancée left her for a beautiful bimbo so she's all woe-is-me, no man will ever want me, Rafe fears getting close to any woman because she might be in danger. Oh, he *does* have a reason for feeling this way, because a killer he was after murdered a woman he was seeing, just because he was seeing her, but it's a bit irrational to think it will definitely happen again and, er, not very interesting.

Oh, and there's this huge WTF thing, with a dog who is actually an angel and protects Kate. Clearly just a left-over from an earlier, related book, which might have been relevant and fun in that book, but which was just silly and useless in this one.


TITLE: The World Cup's Strangest Moments
AUTHOR: Peter Seddon

I happened upon this one at random, just caught sight of it in my library. It's from a local-ish author (from Derby), apparently. Being a big football fan, I couldn't pass it up. And I had a blast reading it. I meant to make it last, read a couple here, a couple there, but I couldn't stop. I'd think "just one more", and keep reading. I was done in 2 days.

I'm going to have to quote the back cover blurb, because it gives an excellent idea of what this collection of World Cup anecdotes feels like:

Among the dodgy refs, eccentric mascots and manic managers that appear in this end-to-end collection of amusing, bizarre and shocking true stories is a dog who saved the Football Association's blushes, shameful fixes, outrageous cheats, bespectacled strikers, gangland disputes, tragic hairstyles and the most unpronounceable team of all time. Not to mention the odd assassination attempt, an excitable witch doctor and the minnows who didn't quite make the finals after losing 31-0.

Why was an England captain arrested by Colombian police? Which team stole a bus? Where did the Mexican wave really start? Was a defender really shot for scoring an own goal? Do robots have good vision? Why do the Germans taunt the Dutch with cheesy insults? How did a firework cause a Brazilian woman to bare all? And who was the fan who cycled over 4,000 miles to see his beloved team?

Football expert and author Peter Seddon introduces the man who played in two countries on the same day, the deceased official appointed by FIFA, the fan who committed suicide to help his team, and the England mascot who tried to prevent World War II by running round the deck of an ocean liner. If 90 minutes plus extra time and penalties is just the sort of entertainment you like, The World Cup's Strangest Moments is guaranteed to score -unlike singer Diana Ross, whose supreme penalty-miss at USA '94 has never been bettered.
Clearly, there's a bit of everything here. I'd say it's a great balance of on- and off-the-pitch antics and weirdness, all written in bite-size pieces. It never feels repetitive. You might say English football is over-represented given its World Cup performance (hah! take that!), but hey, it makes sense. English writer, book written for the Brit market, what can you expect? I didn't particularly mind, those stories were good. There were lots of stories I didn't know (and I've no idea why they're not better known, they're so jaw-dropping), but as they became more recent, I loved that many concerned episodes I actually remember (the ones from Mexico '86 onwards, that is).

Strangely enough, I even loved the writing. I say "strangely" because Seddon is fond of tortured metaphors and painful puns, but the thing is, that made it feel just like listening to a football radio commentator, at least the ones in Uruguay. The tone felt perfectly appropriate to the subject matter, and only added to the charming feel of the book. And even if he did make me wince a couple of times, Seddon IS funny.

MY GRADE: A B+. It just hit the spot.

TITLE: Untouched
AUTHOR: Anna Campbell

Anna Cambpell's debut, Claiming the Courtesan wasn't to my taste, at least not as a romance. But I was very impressed by her writing, and when I saw what her latest was about, and realised that the hero sounded like the complete opposite of the spoiled-little-boy rapist "hero" of CTC, I decided to read it.

The hero of Untouched is Matthew Lansdowne, Marquess Sheene. Matthew had the misfortune of inheriting his title while very young and under the tutelage of his eeeeevil uncle. When Matthew contracted brain fever at 14, evil uncle took his chance and had him declared insane (while he was recovering from the fever, Matthew had some fits, which actually made him doubt his own sanity), in order to take control of his estates. So Matthew's been imprisoned and under the control of violent, sadistic guards ever since.

But Matthew has been getting a bit restless, and to minimise chances of an escape attempt, his uncle decides he should have a woman to keep him happy and pliant. He orders the guards to get him a prostitute, but the guards are not only violent and sadistic but dumb as rocks. Instead of a prostitute, they snatch Grace Paget, an impoverished widow who happened to be lost and wandering around a dangerous area of town. Still, a woman is a woman, and evil uncle decides Grace will do. She must seduce Matthew (who is much more aware than his uncle thinks, and refuses to be manipulated in such a way), or die.

Matthew is a sweetie, a true hero, doing the impossible to protect his lady even from a position of practically no power. As the book starts, he's at a stage where he's pretty much lost all hope of ever being free. He doesn't dare try to escape any more, not after the reprisals his uncle took when he last tried it. What's more, he's not even 100% sure that he's not insane. It's got to the point where he's seriously contemplating dying, as a way to wrest control away from his uncle. That all changes when Grace arrives and gives him a reason to keep fighting. So basically, great, great hero.

Unfortunately, Grace wasn't such an appealing character. She's of the brown cow variety Mrs. Giggles used to love to hate: in short, tedious, self-martyring and a total ninny. Yeah, yeah, poor woman, she lands in a horrible situation and she handles it as well as could be expected, I suppose, but her constant bleating irritated me. I would have liked a better heroine for someone like Matthew.

All in all, this wasn't as good as I was hoping for, or as good as it could have been. Most of the book was all right, but for such a dramatic, larger-than-life plot, there sure were some boring parts, especially around the middle. Also, just as in CTC, the villains were seriously over-the-top. No subtlety at all there, which just made them feel a bit cartoonish.

MY GRADE: I'm giving this extra points for a lovely hero, so a B-.


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