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    Book Club in a Bag

    Off the Shelf: No Time Like the Present by Nadine Gordimer

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    The liberation of South Africa was a fundamental aspiration for people in the 1960s through the 1980s. In No Time Like the Present, Nadine Gordimer, the preeminent South African writer, brings us into the lives of Steve and Jabu, children of the struggle and travellers into the present. They married when it was illegal for a mixed-race couple, they moved to a suburb with their comrades from the struggle, they had children, and they developed “ordinary” careers. Is this not the life they desired?

    The present has been disillusioning for Steve and Jabu. As the novel evolves they have to overlook many compromises, for everyone must understand that reality is never as good as the country of their dreams. Yes, voting is a right for all, and it was well exercised. But after Mandela, Mbeki was a disappointment. And after him, Zuma is frightening. Or are they being too demanding of their politicians. Are these leaders worse than those in other countries?

    Social problems abound. Jabu is a lawyer in the Justice Centre. Daily she sees the destitute suffer from lack of services, work and family. AIDS is a scourge. The increasing number of refugees from Zimbabwe is blamed for much disorder, a blame made violent by impoverished locals who seek a focus for their frustration. Steve is a university instructor who seeks to interpret and implement the principles of freedom in the classes of his institution. He recognizes that young people taught so poorly under apartheid cannot quickly become viable university students. Unfortunately, education is one of the lower priorities of successive governments with too many priorities; thus, educational standards are not improving. When will they, if ever?

    Rising above this litany of disasters is the loving marriage of Steve and Jabu. Nadine Gordimer has accomplished one of the most difficult feats in literature – evoking the steady, warm, supportive joy of a good marriage.

    Their children are anchored by a good family life, allowing them to pursue their individual interests and friends. However, as their children grow through their teen years, Steve and Jabu are forced to confront the staggering difference between the society they wanted for their family and the society outside the doors of their home.

    -Judith Umbach

    How to Find a Great Mystery Series (Part III)

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    In this final installment in a series of posts dedicated to great mystery series, we have arrived at the dark end of the mystery spectrum. Here you'll find more violence, blood, gore, and disturbing characters and situations that may have you losing sleep, so beware!


    You were promised vampires... and with Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series, you'll get vampires galore and many more supernatural creatures. If you like to read the whole of a series without interruption, now is the perfect time for this one! The last book has recently been released, and it's also just been announced that the upcoming season of True Blood (the popular HBO show based on the books) will be the final one. Before you get hooked (on either the books or the show), be warned: as the series progresses, the gore factor increases.

    Charlaine Harris

    Harris's immensely popular Sookie Stackhouse series has a Southern flavour that seems to go down smoothly with its dark mix of vampires, murder, romance, and small-town gossip. Start at the beginning with Dead Until Dark. The main character, Sookie Stackhouse, has been dealing with the curse (in her opinion) of being able to read people's minds her whole life. This makes living in a small town very nearly unbearable, and many of the locals aren't too keen on having her in their midst, either. Then one day, she meets her first-ever vampire. And is fascinated that instead of the constant flow of noise from hearing people's inner thoughts while trying to ignore them, this vampire sounds like... silence. Having been labelled a freak herself, she is inclined to find out for herself what she thinks of vampires, who have recently revealed their existence to the world, rather than being hasty to judge. And so it begins.

    Crime & Detectives:

    The world of crime and crime-fighters has always been the mainstay of the mystery tradition, from police procedurals to hardboiled detectives and ruthless criminals. These authors present a dark vision of this world.

    Giles Blunt

    Here's another Canadian mystery author who is also an award winner. (Of three posts on mystery series, each one has featured an award-winning Canadian author!) Blunt has just won the Crime Writers of Canada 2013 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel for Until the Night, which is the latest installment in his series featuring John Cardinal. This author comes highly recommended, and is next on my "must-read" list. Here's a little more detail from Novelist:

    The novels of Canadian writer Giles Blunt are known for their potent combination of eloquent language, piercing psychology, and strong sense of place. This is well-evidenced in both his literary novels and the books for which he is best known, the John Cardinal series of police procedurals. Set in rural Ontario, these meditative novels capture a small, hardscrabble town's foreboding atmosphere and follow the hero's troubled personal life and investigations of gruesome homicides. Blunt balances effectively and informatively-written police work with deeper contemplations of the human condition and the nature of evil. Start with: Forty Words for Sorrow.

    Jo Nes

    I've just finished one of Jo Nesbø's standalone crime thrillers, Headhunters, which was compelling, fast-paced, and well-written (also a good translation by Don Bartlett). It was an absorbing novel with satisfyingly twisted plots and characters--the only thing stopping me from picking up his mystery series, featuring detective Harry Hole, is that the level of violence and the gritty tone are a bit beyond my reading preference at the moment. If you've enjoyed Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (which kept me riveted, despite the gruesome and violent aspects of the plot) and are not put off by its disturbing content, you should try Jo Nesbø. If you're looking for a series to read, start with The Bat. The English translations are by the same translator who did Headhunters, so these should be excellent, and it looks like the second volume in the series, The Cockroaches, will soon be available, completing the series for English-speaking world! Read a little more:

    Norwegian author Jo Nesbo is best known for his intricately plotted, gritty, and thrilling mystery fiction. His twist-filled, fast-paced crime stories frequently feature the personally troubled and substance-abusing Detective Harry Hole as he wades through the seedy underbelly of Oslo to solve brutal murders. While Nesbo's haunting stories contain explicit depictions of disturbing violence, his gripping page-turners also demonstrate a keen and sensitive understanding of the social realities of poverty, drug addiction, and organized crime in urban environments. (Novelist)

    Kathy Reichs

    Because I generally avoid anything that gets too violent or disturbing, I've only read a few of Kathy Reichs's novels featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan. The gruesome details of crime scenes and autopsies combined with the threat of imminent violence in the plots proved to be a bit too much for me, but the novels are complex, very readable, and introduce a fascinating cast of characters. If gory details do not put you off, you'll likely enjoy this series, which is the inspiration for the popular show Bones, although not really similar in tone or plot. (Both feature a forensic anthropologist named Temperance Brennan, although on the show she's much younger and writes a hit series of thrillers featuring a fictional character named, of course, Kathy Reichs.) The first novel in the series is Déjà Dead. Read more from the catalogue summary:

    A born storyteller, Dr. Kathy Reichs walks in the steps of her heroine, Dr. Temperance Brennan. She spends her days in the autopsy suite, the courtroom, the crime lab, with cops, and at exhumation sites. Often her long days turn into harrowing nights. It's June in Montreal, and Tempe, who has left a shaky marriage back home in North Carolina to take on the challenging assignment of director of forensic anthropology for the province of Quebec, looks forward to a relaxing weekend. First, though, she must stop at a newly uncovered burial site in the heart of the city. One look at the decomposed and decapitated corpse, stored neatly in plastic bags, tells her she'll spend the weekend in the crime lab. This is homicide of the worst kind. To begin to find some answers, Tempe must first identify the victim. Who is this person with the reddish hair and a small bone structure?

    Fans of dark and disturbing mysteries: what are your favourites? Leave a suggestion in the comments!

    How to Find a Great Mystery Series (Part II)

    by Sonya - 1 Comment(s)

    Our last post featured lighter mysteries; this time we move toward the middle of the mystery spectrum... these are not light mysteries, but are still miles away from the disturbing, gritty streets on the "darker" side of the mystery genre. You'll find there is some violence described and some darker issues are raised, but we avoid nightmare territory. From this week's list, you can satisfy your craving for a literary novel at the same time as you feed your mystery bug!


    Historical mysteries can bring the past to life while keeping you riveted to the page as you follow the mystery plot. Although the historical setting forms the backdrop, it also sets the mood and perhaps educates as well.

    Charles Todd

    This pen name represents the mother and son writing team of Caroline and Charles Todd, who write two great historical mystery series. The longest-running series features Inspector Ian Rutledge and is set in post-World War I England. The first book in the series, A Test of Wills, introduces the troubled past of our main character:

    ...It's 1919, and the "War to End All Wars" has been won. But there is no peace for Scotland Yard inspector Ian Rutledge, recently returned from the battlefields of France shell-shocked and tormented by the ever-present voice of the young Scot he had executed for refusing an order. Escaping into his work to save his sanity, Rutledge investigates the murder of a popular colonel in Warwickshire and his alleged killer, a decorated war hero and close friend of the Prince of Wales. The case is a political minefield, and its resolution could mean the end of Rutledge's career. Win or lose, the cost may be more than the damaged investigator can bear. For the one witness who can break the case open is, like Rutledge, a war-ravaged victim . . . and his grim, shattered fate could well prove to be the haunted investigator's own. (from the CPL catalogue summary)

    If you're already a fan of the Inspector Rutledge series, you might like to try the other historical mystery series from this writing duo, featuring World War I nurse Bess Crawford. The first book in the series is A Duty to the Dead. Read the catalogue summary:

    The daughter of a distinguished soldier, Bess Crawford follows in his footsteps and signs up to go overseas as a nurse during the Great War, helping to deal with the many wounded. There, serving on a hospital ship, she makes a promise to a dying young lieutenant to take a message to his brother, Jonathan Graham: "Tell Jonathan that I lied. I did it for Mother′s sake. But it has to be set right." Later, when her ship is sunk by a mine and she′s sidelined by a broken arm, Bess returns home to England, determined to fulfill her promise. It′s her own duty to the dead.

    Don't forget to use Novelist, a fantastic resource in your E-Library, to help find your next favourite author in any genre! As a relative newcomer to historical mysteries, that's how I found these next two...

    Anne Perry

    Anne Perry is acclaimed for her two well-researched, detail-rich, atmospheric Mystery series that probe the social and political injustices found in the underside of Victorian London society. The crimes that fill these novels are brutal and Perry provides plenty of details of these crimes, as well as the society that produced them. Her introspective character studies provide depth and psychological insights that please fans. Pacing in both series is slow, due to the wealth of historical information, character details, and social commentary. Start with: The Cater Street Hangman. (Novelist)

    Laura Joh Rowland

    Laura Joh Rowland's historical crime novels have a strong sense of place and are steeped in Japanese history. Set in the Japanese court in the 17th century, the stories center around Sano Ichiro, the shogun's Most Honorable Investigator of Events, Situations, and People. Rowland captures the sense of honor and service that form the foundation of the shogunate, and the political scheming in the court is well-depicted. The addition of Sano's wife in the later series titles gives additional depth to the stories, as Rowland explores the role of women in 17th century Japan. Start with: Shinju. (Novelist)


    The next two series stand out for their character development. Although all aspects of these series are fully satisfying, including the settings and the intricately woven plots, it is the cast of characters and their relationships that really pull me in. When the characters feel like real people making their way through real lives, with all the expected and unexpected ups and downs to deal with, and internal dialogues and struggles that are true to life, the experience of reading is like being absorbed into another world.

    Louise Penny

    Another Canadian award-winner, Louise Penny's writing is a treat! Penny writes the Inspector Armand Gamache series set mainly in rural Quebec. Her characters fly off the page and into your memory, as if they're people you've met, and part of the joy of reading her series is getting to know them better with every installment. Read these in order starting with Still Life, which introduces the tiny village of Three Pines.

    Gamache and his team are called in when a well-loved resident is found murdered in the woods. It is interesting to see the idyllic setting and warm, kind characters juxtaposed with the horrific crime that has brought in the authorities. Inspector Gamache knows he must uncover the darkest secrets of each of the inhabitants if he is to solve the crime.

    Arnaldur Indridason

    Icelander Arnaldur writes the Reykjavik mysteries, featuring the moody, introspective Detective Erlendur. Unfortunately for the English-speaking world, the first novel in this series that has been translated into English is actually the third in the series. Nonetheless, Jar City introduces the detective as something of a mysterious figure, poorly understood by his closest colleagues and estranged family. As the novel and the series progresses, more snippets of Erlendur's life come to light, each bit of information gradually illuminating his character and revealing the past behind his withdrawn personality and way of life.

    From the catalogue's summary, here's a little about the plot:

    A man is found murdered in his Reykjavik flat. There are no obvious clues apart from a cryptic note left on the body and a photograph of a young girl's grave. Delving into the dead man's life Detective Erlendur discovers that forty years ago he was accused of an appalling crime, but never convicted. Had his past come back to haunt him? As Erlendur struggles to build a relationship with his unhappy daughter, his investigation takes him to Iceland's Genetic Research Centre, where he uncovers disturbing secrets that are even darker than the murder of an old man.

    What have I missed? Leave your favourite author or series in the comments.

    How to Find a Great Mystery Series (Part I)

    by Sonya - 8 Comment(s)

    Sometimes life is all about change. Whether you encounter good changes in your life or difficult ones, it takes a certain amount of energy just to adapt. So, if you're looking for a measure of stability, why not escape into a great mystery series? I enjoy reading novels across many genres, and when I'm in the mood for something comfortable and familiar I reach for a favourite series.

    In the next few weeks I'll be featuring a few great mystery series from all ends of the genre, and to start it off this week, I'll highlight mystery series from the lighter end of the spectrum.


    This genre is a staple of the mystery tradition, along the lines of Agatha Christie: the murder (if there is one) takes place off-stage, and the focus is on solving the puzzle. Often featuring a cast of characters in a small village or equally pastoral setting, the fun of these mysteries is in getting to know and love the characters better with each installment while trying to solve the mystery before the author reveals all.

    M. C. Beaton

    This author, whose style is described by a fan as "coziest of the cozy," has two popular mystery series that will keep you engaged without risk of blood spatter.

    If you like Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series, The Agatha Raisin mysteries are a good bet. Start with the first book in the series, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death (part of the volume Introducing Agatha Raisin). If you prefer to try audio for this title, now is your chance to get into the ebook revolution! It is available as an audio ebook from Overdrive. Here's a brief summary from Overdrive:

    After years of bullying and cajoling others as a high-flying public relations boss, Agatha Raisin's early retirement to the picture-postcard village of Carsley in the Cotswolds is a dream come true. And how better to begin making herself a local leading light than by entering the village quiche-making competition? Unburdened by old-fashioned ideas of fair play, the ruthless Agatha decides to ensure she wins by buying her entry from a London delicatessen. Alas, Agatha's perfect product is soon exposed—as not only store-bought but poisoned. The contest judge succumbs after eating it, and with him go Agatha's reputation and her chances of rural bliss—unless she can expose the poisoner...

    The other series from Beaton is the Hamish MacBeth mystery series--up to 29 books and counting! Hamish MacBeth is a police officer. In fact, his person makes up the entire police force of Lachdubh in northern Scotland. In the first title in the series, available as an ebook, Death of a Gossip, we meet a group of eight people who are there to relax, enjoy the Highland scenery, and take in the fishing. Unfortunately, when one among them is found murdered, nobody is too upset (in fact, as she found a way to alienate them all, they are secretly a bit relieved). From our catalogue summary:

    Jane Winters--Lady Jane--was a noted gossip columnist enrolled in the Lachdubh School of Casting (fish casting, that is). She had something on everyone in class--and so, bobby Hamish Macbeth figured, any one of them could have killed her.

    If you're already familiar with M. C. Beaton's books, here is an award-winning Canadian author you might be interested in:

    Alan C. Bradley

    Bradley writes the Flavia de Luce series, featuring the unforgettable 11-year-old chemist (specialty: poisons) and amateur sleuth, set in the English countryside post-World War II. Start with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which Flavia comes upon a stranger on the grounds of Buckshaw, the family estate, as he takes his last breath:

    "I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life." Did the stranger die of poisoning? There was a piece missing from Mrs. Mullet's custard pie, and none of the de Luces would have dared to eat the awful thing. Or could he have been killed by the family's loyal handyman, Dogger... or by the Colonel himself! At that moment, Flavia commits herself to solving the crime -- even if it means keeping information from the village police, in order to protect her family. But then her father confesses to the crime, for the same reason, and it's up to Flavia to free him of suspicion. Only she has the ingenuity to follow the clues that reveal the victim's identity, and a conspiracy that reaches back into the de Luces' murky past. A thoroughly entertaining romp of a novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is inventive and quick-witted, with tongue-in-cheek humour that transcends the macabre seriousness of its subject.


    There are many great series which combine a mystery framework with offbeat characters and farcical situations. The real key with humour is whether the author's particular brand of hilarity and rhythm of delivery "clicks" with your own sense of humour--then you have a winner! Here are a few I'd recommend:

    Janet Evanovich

    Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series offers wacky characters in... let's say unlikely scenarios, with a splash of romance thrown in to the mix--as far as I can tell, the combination works! She's up to 19 novels in this series, and judging by the hold lists, I'm not the only one who waits in line for the next installment. Start with One for the Money (part of the omnibus of volumes 1-3, Three Plums in One) and see if this series can make you chuckle. From our catalogue summary:

    Stephanie's all grown up and out on her own, living five miles from Mom and Dad and doing her best to sever the world's longest umbilical cord. Her mother is a meddler and her grandmother is a few cans short of a case. Out of work and out of money, Stephanie blackmails her bail-bondsman cousin Vinnie into giving her a try as an apprehension agent. Stephanie knows zilch about the job requirements, but she figures her new pal, el-primo bounty hunter Ranger, can teach her what it takes to catch a crook. Her first assignment: nail Joe Morelli, a former vice cop on the run from a charge of murder one. Morelli's the inamorato who charmed Stephanie out of her virginity at age sixteen. There's still powerful chemistry between them, so the chase is interesting.

    Lisa Lutz

    One thing I really love about Lutz's writing is her perfect timing for dialogue--it's unsurprising that the author has written screenplays as well as novels. In The Spellman Files, you'll get to know Izzy Spellman and her eccentric family of PIs. Izzy is the resident underachiever, working in the family business, and trying to keep her nosy family out of her private life--no easy feat when practically every member of the family is busy investigating (and blackmailing) each other! The wry humour, plot twists and quirky but realistic characters will pull you in, but as the series progresses, you'll find there's also a well-hidden warm heart at the core.

    From the catalogue summary:

    Meet Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors -- but the upshot is she's good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family's firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people's privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman. Part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry, Izzy walks an indistinguishable line between Spellman family member and Spellman employee. The Spellman Files is the first novel in a winning and hilarious new series featuring the Spellman family in all its lovable chaos.

    Spencer Quinn

    The fabulous Chet and Bernie mystery series is published under this pseudonym of author Peter Abrahams. Chet is the narrator of our series, the canine half of the PI team with retired cop Bernie Little. If you've ever had or known a dog, you really shouldn't miss this series! While avoiding trite fluffiness, Quinn perfectly captures the canine inner voice while crafting fast-paced mysteries full of plot twists and interesting characters. Start with Dog On It, and get ready to recommend it to all your friends!

    From our catalogue summary:

    In this irresistible new detective series featuring a canine narrator, Quinn speaks two languages--suspense and dog--fluently. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, and in a few places terrifying . . . [a] one-of-a-kind novel (Stephen King).

    Do you have a favourite light mystery series? We always love to get recommendations--leave yours in the comments.