Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom by Sarah Andrews

Rock Bottom is the latest book in the Em Hansen, geologist, mystery series that begins with Tensleep. The series is mainly set in the American West, except for visits to Florida and Antarctica, where the author spent two months. Rock Bottom is set in the Grand Canyon where Em, her new husband Fritz, and his teen son Brendan are white water rafting. Em is scared to go rafting but keeps quiet as Fritz was thrilled when his friend Tiny got a permit for a private three week rafting trip. Unfortunately Tiny is recovering from a motorcycle accident and sends geology graduate student/river rat Wink Oberley instead.

A nearby church group and 13-year-old Brendan’s absent mother are creationists, believing that the world is about 6,000 years old. Brendan has questions as they raft down that river that Em, a forensic geologist, tries her best to answer honestly. The scenery, geology, rafting, and camping along the river are vividly described. The reader learns early on from a park ranger’s notes that Wink Oberley is missing, presumed drowned. A womanizer and a troublemaker, many people disliked him. In this mystery, there is little violence, and the story is more about the river journey than about Wink’s death.


Garment of Shadows

Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King

On October 18, the Crime Readers will be discussing The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the first of twelve mysteries featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. Garment of Shadows, just published, is the twelfth book in the series. In 1924, the pair are in Morocco, where Russell has been working on a film. Holmes visits his fifth cousin, the French Resident General of Morocco. Russell is injured and has amnesia, so she misses their planned rendezvous. A mute boy named Idir, English turned Arab brothers Ali and Mahmoud, and the vibrant city of Fez all enliven this adventure. Russell and Holmes try to get the Resident General to meet with rebel leader Abd el-Krim, without getting either party killed. A kidnapping, spies, and betrayal are made more challenging as Russell slowly regains her memory. I had a hard time putting this book down, and really enjoyed the Moroccan setting. For photos of Morocco and some of the characters, visit the author’s Pinterest board. For more books featuring Sherlock Holmes, see this list.


John Saturnall’s Feast

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

John’s mother Susan is an herbalist, but a religious zealot stirs up a village mob to drive John and Susan from their village in 1625. They retreat to Buccla’s Wood, where Susan teaches John to read and he learns about herbs. Susan dies after a hard winter, and young John is sent to Buckland Manor to work as a kitchen boy. John works and sleeps in the kitchen, learning all the different work stations beginning in the scullery, catching occasional glimpses of Lady Lucretia, Lord William’s daughter. John, who has a real gift for cooking, works his way up to assistant cook. Lucretia has issues with food, and goes on a hunger strike when her father arranges her marriage to Piers Callock. John helps prepare dishes to tempt Lucy’s appetite, and is attracted to Lucy.

As Lucy’s marriage approaches, the English Civil War ensues. Sir William, Piers, and the men of the household, including the cooks, go off to war. When they return, John becomes Master Cook and the religious reformers have control of Buckland Manor.

I haven’t mentioned all the mouthwatering descriptions of food, including spectacular pastries, that are prepared in the vast kitchens of Buckland Manor. This is a real treat for foodies and Anglophiles. Learn about the author’s inspiration for the book here.


The Sword of Shannara

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Have you ever wondered if it’s worth your time to pick up an epic fantasy novel? If you’ve read other books by the author, you already know the answer. In my case, if the author is Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, or Elizabeth Moon the answer is definitely yes. But what if you’ve never read the author before? I decided to check out Terry Brooks. He’s been a bestselling fantasy author since 1977, but he’s new to me. I read the Sword of Shannara, which is his first novel, and begins over 20 books set in the Four Lands, in the far future. To begin with, if you’ve ever read The Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, you’re in familiar territory. The basic setup is very similar, as are the broad outlines of the story. Some readers call it derivative, others an homage to Tolkien.

Flick Ohlmsford and his adoptive brother Shea, who is half-elven, are sent on a quest by the mysterious Allanon. They flee a Skull Bearer and travel to the city of Leah, to meet Menion Leah, Shea’s friend. They are to meet Balinor and go on a quest to find the sword of Shannara, which only Shea can now wield in an attempt to finally defeat the Wizard Lord. Elves, a dwarf, a thief, and a rock troll accompany the companions along their journey. A beautiful woman is rescued, by accident. Flick becomes a hero by rescuing a king from the gnomes. The companions are bruised and weary so often, it’s amazing they can continue. But about a third of the way through the book, the pace picks up and you forget about the similarities to Tolkien. When the history lessons are over and the companions are separated, the book really takes off and the characters seem more real. This book was an immediate bestseller, and was worth my time to read, all 726 pages of it. I’d like to know what happens next, so I might read the next book, The Elfstones of Shannara.



Canada by Richard Ford

This novel is as bleak, austere, and desolate as the featureless plains that stretch between Great Falls, Montana and Port Royal, Saskatchewan, Canada, where most of the events in the book take place. The main character is Dell Parsons, a fifteen year old boy, an army brat who has moved all over America with his father, Bev Parsons, his mother Geneva, and his twin sister Berner. At the beginning we encounter Dell and family living in Great Falls, Montana where Bev is enlisted in the Air Force and works at the nearby air base. His mother Geneva (called Neeva) is a substitute teacher at a local school district.

Things really aren’t going very well for this family.  It was a shotgun wedding for the parents, and they don’t get along.  Dell tries to keep his wits while around him the family is disintegrating.  Bev, the father gets involved in some illegal activities with the local Indians, and from there events take a turn for the worse. The parents are involved in a botched robbery attempt and Dell and his sister find themselves cast out into a hostile world.  They separate and go to their quite different fates. With the parents in prison Dell is sent by family to live with a distant relative in Fort Royal, Saskatchewan.  This move is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. In Fort Royal, he meets Arthur Remlinger, a dark, foreboding, and slightly sinister hotel owner and raconteur.  Arthur has a lot of secrets that he wants to keep secret.  He takes a liking to Dell if only for sinister purposes.

The novel is written from the point of view of Dell after fifty years have passed, and the events in the story have faded into the haze of history.  As he puts it “what I know is, you have a better chance in life, –of surviving it—if you tolerate loss well; manage not to be cynical through it all, to subordinate as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves the good, even if admittedly good is often not simple to find.  We try, as my sister said.  We try. All of us. We try.”

I tried this book because the setting reminded me of books by Larry Watson, author of Montana 1948, which I had enjoyed. I actually finished this book which is a good sign, but it was a real downer. I agree with one of the reviewers on Amazon who stated: “While the basic story is very interesting, too much of the book is taken up with descriptions and un-necessary details.”


Happier at Home

Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin takes another look at happiness, after her 2009 book, The Happiness Project. When her younger daughter starts kindergarten, Gretchen decides to take the next nine months to focus on happiness within the home and family. She describes herself quite frankly: how she’s trying to use her “mean face” less often to her family, how a perfect day is one spent at home, that she doesn’t like to make phone calls, and dreads driving (not so surprising as she lives in New York City). Older daughter Eliza and Gretchen go on Wednesday afternoon adventures together, often to museums. Gretchen collaborates on a children’s book project with her sister, finally deals with the backlog of family photos, and asks her family to knock on her office door so she can greet them more pleasantly.

I like her suggestions to keep clearing clutter, focus on your family’s happiness, be yourself, and how spending fifteen minutes a day on something you’d rather put off can actually make you happier. I enjoyed her explorations of good scents, having a miniature landscape created for the family, and how she practiced under-reacting to problems. She decided to celebrate minor holidays with festive breakfasts, and make the family happier by emailing anecdotes and cute pictures of the girls, including young Eleanor’s first loose tooth. I suggest starting with her first book, The Happiness Project, but I enjoyed another visit with Gretchen and more ideas to make home a happy, peaceful place. Read more at the author’s website.


Sideways on a Scooter

Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India by Miranda Kennedy

National Public Radio reporter Miranda Kennedy has reported stories from New York City, Washington, Afghanistan, and tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka. Here she tells her story of living in Delhi, India for several years as a young, single woman. The story she tells is mainly about women; how they struggle with the clash of modern and traditional lifestyles in India, where marriage and children are every young woman’s duty. Miranda has so much difficulty renting an apartment as a single woman that her absent boyfriend is reinvented as her husband. She acquires and learns to interact with bossy servants, hire a driver, and makes friends with Indian women of varied backgrounds.

Slums, rural villages, a Punjabi wedding, and visits to Bangladesh enliven the story. Geeta, modern career girl, resists then longs to be married, her ideas heavily influenced by romantic Bollywood movies. Poor Brahmin Radha looks for a husband for her daughter. Women at her health club spend more time chatting then exercising, but Miranda recognizes this as a much needed social outlet. Parvati has a very modern relationship with writer Vijay, but they maintain separate apartments. Food, family, music, and friendships make for a very lively memoir as Miranda struggles, along with her friends, to figure out her future.


Medieval Mysteries

In compiling this booklist, I was thinking about why I find reading medieval mysteries so appealing. I think it’s the detailed settings and ways of life that are so different than life today, but with characters modern readers can relate to and revisit in further books in the series. Characterization, setting, and plot are all important in medieval mysteries, and all the books listed here are part of a series. 

Medieval Mysteries

Ash, Maureen. The Alehouse Murders introduces Knight Templar Bascot de Marins, recovering from injuries in Lincoln, England, and his young, mute servant, Gianni. 

Clare, Alys. Fortune Like the Moon begins the Hawkenlye series, with Helewise, Abbess of Hawkenlye and Josse d’Acquin, French knight. 

Clark, Cassandra. Hangman Blind introduces Abbess Hildegard. 

Franklin, Ariana. Mistress of the Art of Death begins the Adelia Aguilar series. Adelia is an Italian-trained medical examiner working for Henry II. Her Muslim bodyguard Mansur pretends to be the physician for Adelia. 

Frazer, Margaret. The Novice’s Tale is the first Sister Frevisse mystery, set at St. Frideswide Abbey in England. This is one of my favorite series, with excellent setting, story, and characters. Sister Frevisse gets to travel more than most medieval nuns, so there is also variety in the settings. There are 17 books so far. She has a related series as well. A Play of Isaac is the first book featuring Joliffe, an actor, playwright, and a spy. He travels with a small troupe of actors who are like a family, often struggling to make ends meet, but preferring travel to settling down in one place. 

Gellis, Roberta. A Mortal Bane introduces London madam Magdalene la Batarde and Sir Bellamy Itchen. 

Gordon, Alan. Thirteenth Night is the first Fool’s Guild mystery, featuring Theophilus or Feste, a jester and secret agent, and Viola, who becomes his wife and apprentice. The pair travel extensively, from Italy to Constantinople. 

Grace, C.L. A Shrine of Murders is the first book featuring Kathryn Swinbrooke, Canterbury physician. 

McIntosh, Pat. The Harper’s Quine is the first in the Gil Cunningham series. Gil is a young lawyer in Glasgow, who is assisted in his investigations by French mason Master Pierre and his daughter Alys. Strong female characters and vivid portrayal of village life add appeal. 

Newman, Sharan. Death Comes as Epiphany introduces Catherine LeVendeur, student of Heloise at the Paraclete in France and Edgar, her betrothed and student of Peter Abelard. 

Peters, Ellis. A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first in the classic twenty-one book Brother Cadfael series, set at a Benedictine Abbey in Shrewsbury, England, near the border of Wales. Brother Cadfael is a monk, herbalist, and former man at arms.  

Robb, Candace. The Apothecary Rose features soldier turned spy Owen Archer, and his wife Lucie, an apothecary in York. 

Roe, Caroline. A Remedy for Treason begins the Isaac of Girona series. Isaac is a blind Jewish physician in Spain.

Sedley, Kate. Death and the Chapman begins the Roger the Chapman Tales. Roger is a peddler, traveling around England, which he enjoys more than life at home in Bristol with his mother-in-law and young child.

Tremayne, Peter. Absolution by Murder is the first in the Sister Fidelma series. Fidelma is a dalaigh, or legal advocate, in 7th century Ireland, and is sister to Colgu, the King of Muman. She is assisted in her investigations by Brother Eadulf of Canterbury.