Tag Archives: mystery

The Dresden Files (series) by Jim Butcher

So the reason I haven’t posted in forever is that I’ve been spending all of my free reading time reading children’s books and…confession time…I’ve been binging on the Dresden Files. For years I have looked up these books for patrons and silently judged these books by their covers – complete with pictures on the back of the author with Very Big Bad Hair. (He looks like the kind of guy who lives in his parent’s basement and plays too much D&D.) But then I heard that the audiobooks were read by actor James Marsters, who I have been mildly in love with since he appeared on Smallville and madly in love with since I binge-watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since the first book (Storm Front) I’ve been hooked. I get the ebooks along with the audio in case I stop driving at a cliffhanger moment or the CD skips and I miss something. It’s a sickness. I’m ashamed, but I still perennially have the next 2 on hold.

The premise of the series is that magic and the supernatural are real, but most people don’t believe. Harry Dresden is a wizard – the only practicing wizard in Chicago, with an ad in the phone book and everything. Of course, none but the most desperate or nutty clients would seek out his services, so he is constantly hungry for cash and takes on the most ridiculous cases to pay the bills. He serves as a consultant to the Special Investigations unit (Chicago’s vague equivalent to the X-Files team) and is called in on cases where the supernatural seems likely. His “straight man” on the force is Karrin Murphy, a 5-foot cop with overcompensation issues (she may be short, but she knows several martial arts and is an expert in all types of firearms). She kicks the mortal asses while Harry kicks the supernatural ones. It’s fun to watch (listen).

It sounds cheesy, I know. The covers look cheesy. The constant glowing descriptions of every female character (there are no ugly females as far as lonely Harry is concerned, and he lovingly details their every feature for you) are cheesy. The fight scenes are overly dramatic and the sex scenes are downright hilarious in their soap-opera-y way. But for some reason I am as powerless to stop reading these books as I am to stop eating potato chips once I start. They seem to be getting better and better as more characters are introduced and we find out more and more about Harry’s world. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Spike reading to me while I drive. It’s hard to say. Read one yourself (or better yet let Spike read it to you) and see. But beware – maybe the author really IS a wizard, and he’s put an addictive spell on them? Who can say?

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Utterly Heartless by Jan Underwood

heartless

Disclaimer: a friend of mine’s wife wrote this. But I promise you that even though I know her I wouldn’t tell you to read her book if it wasn’t worth it. Well, maybe if she was sharing the royalties, but she isn’t. So there’s nothing in it for me.

Utterly Heartless is about a college Latin professor named Linnea who is – well, heartless. She finds herself on a bus, but doesn’t remember leaving work or boarding the bus, and there is a large empty hole in her chest. Because she has no religious affiliation, but once published some essays about Ancient Rome, she finds that the Underworld Powers That Be have assigned her to Hades. She learns from her new dead friend, Vergil (yes, he turns out to be that Vergil) that she can apply for a transfer to some other afterlife, or if someone who loves her does some great deed for her within two weeks, she might be redeemed. She can’t even begin to decide what afterlife she should pick, so Linnea appears to her friend and office-mate Dori, and asks her to reunite her with her heart. This, she hopes, will be a great enough deed to redeem her.

Dori is overwhelmed. Her best friend has died, the college is trying to eliminate all of their jobs, and she’s expected to take on all of Linnea’s paperwork. Linnea’s temporary replacement is incompetent, and as a result his students come to Dori for advice and comfort. Plus she’s finally just met a guy. She wants to find the heart, but she also wants to find out who killed Linnea in the first place and not get killed herself. Was it the flunking student? The colleague who wanted her job? A higher-up who knew she was trying to work with a union?

Meanwhile, we also meet Alice, Linnea’s student, who lives with an assortment of housemates who all do ridiculous things for tuition money (Alice strips, Jillian is a surrogate mother, and Guppy takes drugs for medical trials, for example). Alice is hurt both personally and academically by Linnea’s death – not only was she her favorite professor, but Alice desperately needs the Latin credits. We follow Alice as she negotiates her personal financial, romantic, and work disasters – all while trying to figure out how she can help find the killer.

Don’t read this book for the plot – there isn’t a lot of whodunit to it, and while I fingered an accomplice the first time s/he (not giving away any spoilers here!) appeared, I never did figure out who actually did it or why until s/he was revealed. The suspense level isn’t terrible – it’s not the kind of book that leaves you in terror of the character’s safety so the anxiety keeps you awake and reading – it’s the LAUGHS that keep you awake and reading. The murder is sort of beside the point – the reason to read this book is to have a good giggle at the follies of academia (if you have ever been a student desperate for money, a professor desperate for respect or tenure, or a cog in any huge machine, you will say “amen” more than once) and of Portland, Oregon (the city in the book is called “Bridges”, but if you live in Portland, you will realize in the first chapter as Alice goes to her job at the strip club that it couldn’t possibly be anywhere else). There are also literary references aplenty for the book geek in all of us (Linnea’s various trips to the underworld are rife with mythological and historical characters), and enough pithy Latin and French quotes to make you sound smart at your next dinner party if you can only remember them. Oh, and the mental picture of Vergil squatting in a Portland (ahem, “Bridges”) apartment, collecting women’s shoes and struggling to finally finish the Aenid after all these years is well worth the cover price.

Read alikes – hmm, I don’t read a lot of mysteries because I frighten easily, but this sort of reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith’s books – fun and entertaining, but not too scary. Humor-wise, if you liked the TV series Dead Like Me, or have ever lived in the rainy Pacific Northwest, or have ever made great sacrifices for an education you’ll probably never use, you’ll identify with this. I read another review that said it was like Dead Like Me set in Portlandia, and that sounds about right to me.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (nudge, wink)

Hey! I made it through a J.K. Rowling book that wasn’t Harry Potter! I put this one on hold right after I found out who really wrote it, determined to try liking an adult book she wrote after my struggle with Casual Vacancy, which I admit with shame that I still have not finished. This one did not disappoint. It’s a standard mystery: a detective is hired by the brother of a dead girl to prove that her suicide was really murder. There are red herrings galore, and I admit freely that I had the villain picked twice – and was incorrect both times (she never fooled me with Severus Snape, but she fooled me twice with these people). The thing that takes this book a step above your standard mystery is the characters – the detective, Cormoran Strike, is a refreshingly complex hero who, if you heard his story secondhand, you would think was a total loser – but he isn’t, and in fact as you read and observe his methodical approach to the case, you start to admire his skills even as you shake your head at his poor life choices. His sidekick, temporary office help Robin, is also charming – she has the perfect life with a loving fiance and corporate job all lined up, but once she discovers the thrill of detective work…well, you get the feeling her life is going to follow Cormoran’s right off the cliff, but it’s going to be a hell of a trip. The various friends, family, and hangers-on of the dead girl are likewise fascinating creatures, even though most of them have few redeeming qualities. (The cast consists of fashion models, film executives, a law firm full of squabbling family members, and assorted drug addicts. These people aren’t exactly people I would choose to hang out with.)

If you like your mysteries action packed or very suspenseful (Harlan Coben, anyone?), this one probably will not be a favorite. But if you like mysteries that force you to figure out what makes a potential villain tick in order to solve the mystery (think Tana French or Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books), you will most likely be satisfied.