Saturday, July 25, 2009

Crewel World: Cozies Ain't For Sissies

There are those that say certain kinds of mystery books are cozy. I think they categorize cozies, by having amateur sleuths, lovely little towns, and having folks getting murdered "off stage". So what happens when you have a series that has a little Minnesota town, the main character owns a needlework/craft shop, solves mysteries on the side, but the killings are not necessarily pretty. How's getting tossed off a balcony (Crewel Yule), cut by the throat (Cutwork), and having a knitting needle pushed into your brain (Sins and Needles)? Cozy? I think not.

Monica Ferris has created a great character in Betsy Devonshire. And she has given her a interesting group of friends and neighbors. Betsy has a talent for figuring out the little things that solve cases. And she is not so sure she likes this talent. It does bother her that some of these killers are people in the community. Folks that she knows. (Now, that is why I always find these "malice domestic" books creepier - these are not strangers doing the killing!)

She's embarked on this path by accident. She really was just intending to stay with her sister and help her in the store, while she was getting over her divorce. And then her sister was murdered. And she inherited the store and estate. So she stuck around for awhile. And got more involved with her employees and her customers.

Ferris does a nice job fleshing out the secondary characters throughout the series; it is a rare "cozy" that has a regular character that is gay. But Godwin grows and develops through the series. He becomes more than the guy who can match the right thread colors. Various members of the store's regulars - the Monday Bunch - get their own spotlight in the books in the series.

And then there is the needlework. Cozy? Maybe. It has been considered an art form for years. This series is a great way to see how Ferris mixes it in with the mystery. One book has Betsy trying to identify a certain bobbin lace pattern, the next has her researching symbols on a church tapestry. And the store is used as a place where folks in the community can gather. Actually, I wish we had a store like Crewel World locally. These books make me want to take up my cross-stitching again! So do yourself a favor - start with the first three books in order, and then you can mix them around a bit. And discover the world of Excelsior, Minnesota. A fun series.

Monica Ferris' mystery series featuring Betsy Devonshire:

Thai Die (2008)
Knitting Bones (2007)
Sins and Needles (2006)
Embroidered Truths (2005)
Crewel Yule (2004)
Cutwork (2004)
Hanging by a Thread (2003)
A Murderous Yarn (2002)
Unraveled Sleeve (2001)
A Stitch in Time (2000)
Framed in Lace (1999)
Crewel World (1999)

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett captures the reader with its profiles of black household help and the white women who relinquished the care of homes and children to them in the early 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi. The novel relates story after story of both careless cruelty and careful concern in a time that is not too long gone.

Three strong women are the backbones of the novel. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is home from college without a marriage proposal and hopes to be a writer. Coping with the loss of her own son, Aibileen is a black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend who has no trouble saying what she feels and therefore is searching for a new job. Skeeter decides to write a series of interviews of black maids and entangles Aibileen and Minny in her work. The author draws the reader in with careful characterization. These three women have flaws but this only increases their believability and humanity.

The author writes from her experience since she was cherished by a black housekeeper, Demetrie, after her mother deserted the family. Born and raised in Jackson, Stockett loves her home state with true grit. She has lived this life and authenticity shines throughout its pages.

There is so much to this book to reflect upon. Book discussion groups will dissect it with piercing analysis. First of course is the civil rights movement that provides the core of the novel. It’s all here - separate toilets, lunch room sit-ins, King’s march on Washington and the murder of Medgar Evans. What mothers want from their daughters and what daughters really need is prominent. Skeeter is tall and has frizzy hair and her mother frets and worries that she will never have a ring on her finger. Body image, the need for the approval of men and the southern belle mentality of women all are present. The men adore their woman and are courteous and respectful but are easily manipulated. Lots of good old boy hunting trips keep the men sane.

Differences in the friendship of silver spoon white woman and the church going black women also become apparent. The white women have so much time to plot against one another with full radiant smiles. Cooking and cleaning is too much for them and the reader becomes exhausted just reading about the daily chores of the household help. The setting is southern and vivid descriptions of pies, cakes and fried chicken are present in mouth watering glory. The black maids seem to be there for one another and the warmth of their relationships lessens the tense tone. Amid the seriousness of the novel hopeful optimism prevails. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are strong and smart women but they are also capable of providing light moments and laughter.

I confidently recommend this inviting historical fiction novel for its thoughtful portrayal of the triumph of heart over hate.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell

A wonderful new thriller by a debut author who has a background in both literature and Germany history. Well-written and filled with real characters of the time, Cantrell’s book is set in 1930s Berlin at the beginning of the rise of Hitler’s power. Her main character, Hannah Vogel, is a reporter who writes for a Berlin newspaper under a male alias. At the beginning of the story, Hannah finds out her brother has been murdered, but no one else seems to know this…everyone else (expect for the murderer, of course) just assumes he’s missing. Her brother is a nightclub performer in one of Berlin’s more famous gay clubs…this is 1930s Berlin after-all…rich with a very flamboyant side. Hannah takes it upon herself to do the digging into his “disappearance” and soon finds herself in danger…especially since her brother had personal ties to the Nazi Party. An excellent thriller that remains strong to the very end. Hopefully, Cantrell will keep writing…maybe even making Hannah Vogel a continuing character.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Murder in the Marais

Cara Black starts off her series with lead character Aimee Leduc in the book Murder in the Marais. What starts out as a simple and overpaid job of hunting down a encripted website, ends up becoming a case of murder. Aimee finds the body and sets in motion an investigation that goes all the way up to the top level of French politics.

The Marais is the traditionally Jewish section of Paris. And this is where the French Jews were rounded up during the occupation. Memories are long for injustices, and Aimee finds she is sifting through the history of the occupation in order to find out who would want an elderly Jewish woman murdered and who wants her to stop investigating.

This is a fast paced story but Black gives the reader enough time to get to know Aimee and her unusal background. Black hints at the fact that Aimee has secrets of her own that will be revealed in later books. Aimee is a tough character who has been trained by her recently deceased father in the art of detection. And it does not take the reader long to admire her tenacity and skill at going undercover to figure out the case. I'm looking forward to reading the next one in the series. A good mystery and a very good read.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg

Berg’s latest is a great, strong piece on not only loss, but on coming to terms with oneself. We meet the main character, Helen, months after she has lost her husband of many years from a sudden heart attack. Her daughter Tessa is on her own and Helen has to find a way to come to terms with being alone. I found the way Berg constructed Helen to be very believable of what a recent widow might go through. I didn’t think Helen’s reactions were too over the top or corny. This is a good summer beach read…it’s short, well-written and uncomplicated.