Installment Plan

Book series – they are both a boon and bane to readers. A boon because they can allow readers a richer connection to favorite characters and have the capacity to explore long, subtle plot arcs. A bane, perhaps, because sometimes when the well goes a little dry for the author, we tend to hang on because we’ve already made the “investment” in reading the series. Mostly, I read books from a series because they’re like comfort-food reading to me:  familiar characters and feel that are easy to digest.

This last aspect can make it a bit daunting when it comes to reviewing books from a series though, because much of the review can depend on whether you’ve read any of the previous books. So, in this post, I wanted to offer some mini-reviews for books from series that I’ve read recently.

Tilt-A-Whirl by Chris Grabenstein. This is the first book in the John Ceepak mysteries (of which there are now seven). Ceepak is a former soldier who’s returned from Iraq and taken a job as a cop in small tourist town along the Jersey Shore. The story is told from the viewpoint of his slacker-ish summer-hire assistant Danny Boyle. Often mystery series will seek out more sophisticated and intriguing locations than the Jersey Shore, but as someone born and raised in the Garden State, I thought Grabenstein had a good feel for the towns that dot the shore. Given the premise, I had fairly low expectations going in, but I ended up enjoying this book, which entails the murder of a Donald Trump-like mogul and kidnapping of his heiress daughter. This series might be a good choice for fans of Stephanie Plum-type mysteries. Fun summer read. I will likely give the next book a shot at some point. 3 stars.

A Cat Was Involved by Spencer Quinn. This ebook short story is part of the Chet & Bernie Mystery series which has been a favorite of mine for the past couple of years. Bernie Little is a private detective in Phoenix and his cases are described from the viewpoint of his right-hand dog, Chet. I’ve posted about them before and before and before. These books are definitely targeted towards dog-lovers that like light mysteries. This short fills in the backstory of how Chet and Bernie first met and is a lead-in to this fall’s upcoming release, A Fistful of Collars. 3 stars.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. This book is the first book of the Mistborn fantasy series, which begins with one of the best dust-jacket lead-ins I’ve read in a while:

Once, a hero arose to save the world. A young man with a mysterious heritage courageously challenged the darkness that strangled the land.
He failed.

Turning a fantasy trope on its head is always a good idea and Sanderson starts off in a world centuries after the Big Bad won. Somewhat unfortunately, a whole host of other fantasy cliches are still hanging around: the urchin with untapped potential, the chaotic good trickster/scoundrel teacher, the rogues gallery of support, etc. In the end, this was a pretty good story, but will probably only appeal strongly to fantasy devotees. I’ve had the second one for a while, but haven’t read it. That might say something. 3-ish stars.
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo. After The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Scandinavian mysteries are most definitely “in” and I certainly have enjoyed both Steig Larsson’s books and the Icelandic Detective Erlandur series by Arnaldur Indriðason. I saw several friends on Goodreads point out that they also like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, the first of which (in English translation) is The Redbreast. Harry is a bit like a Norwegian Erlandur, cynical and a little beaten down, though he’s a more iconoclastic than the Icelandic detective. In The Redbreast, Harry is called upon to investigate a murder that possibly has ties to a neo-Nazi group in Norway. The murder leads to a much deeper story involving Norwegian activity on the Eastern Front during World War II and the narrative crisply moves back and forth from the war to the present day. Hole is a good protagonist who makes mistakes, sometimes with dire consequences. Really enjoyed this well put-together mystery and am looking forward to reading more Nesbo. 3 solid stars.

Faithful Place and Broken Harbor by Tana French. Tana French has carved out a fascinating middlebrow niche as a writer who produces crime novels that are more than a standard whodunnit, but are still approachable to a wide portion of readers. In these two books, French continues to explore crime in and around Dublin, Ireland, while focusing each book on a character that appeared in a smaller role in one of her previous stories.

In Faithful Place, the discovery of an old suitcase causes Frank Mackey (head of the undercover group that was featured in French’s The Likeness) to realize that the girl he loved, who he thought left him in his youth for greener pastures, may have actually met with foul play. The story follows Frank as he tries to piece together events from decades before and understand who might have harmed the girl that he loved. One problem for Frank is that it isn’t his case and as the former boyfriend he’s a prime suspect. In many ways, Frank should feel like a cliche’ — a hard-working, hard-drinking, wise-cracking Irish rule-breaker that’s gotten ahead by bluster and guile and it’s a testament to French’s writing how fully realized he is as a character. More than just dealing with a murder mystery, we see Frank have to deal with his family, his memories, his guilt over not realizing what happened to his love, and the acidic longing for the life he might have had if things had gone differently. Faithful Place is a well-executed mystery with subtle layering and is my favorite book by French so far. Four stars.

Broken Harbor follows Mike “Scorcher” Kennedy, who was actually the investigating homicide detective in Faithful Place. Like Frank Mackey, Scorcher’s been around a long time, but unlike Frank, Scorcher is a strict rule-follower and has the best solve-rate in the department. He and his new, young, idealistic partner Richie are called in to investigate the brutal attack on a family in a seaside gone-bust housing development, in which only the mother barely survives.

If Faithful Place was about loss and regret, Broken Harbor focuses on psychosis. The investigation finds out how the deceased father started down a descent into mental illness after he lost his job and ended up underwater on their lemon of a house. He’d become obsessed with capturing an animal that seemed to have gotten into their attic, which affected all parts of his family’s lives. As it turns out, Scorcher is no stranger to mental illness — his mother was a depressive that committed suicide and he barely keeps control of his batshit sister (who is a great character). As you might imagine, his experiences shape his approach to the case. Broken Harbor benefits from getting out of Dublin and is probably the creepiest of French’s novels — she abandons the ever-so-slightly supernatural feel of her early first novels– and settles in for a reality that is much more disturbing. Four stars.

Those are my installments for now, though I’m currently working on finishing off The Hunger Games books and enjoying another Bernie Gunther mystery, so there will be more to follow, I’m sure.

What are your favorite “comfort food” series??

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41 thoughts on “Installment Plan

  1. I have decided (for now) that my very favorite “comfort food” series is the three books by Terry Pratchett about Tiffany Aching, a little girl who is a witch. The first book, “The Wee Free Men” introduces us to the Nac Mac Feegle. Feisty little blue men who are extremely entertaining and help Tiffany out through her adventures and ordeals. The next two books “A Hat Full of Sky” and “I Shall Wear Midnight” continue Tiffany’s growing up as she battles evil powers and goes about the daily drudge of “witching” which mainly involves dealing with sick, needy and often difficult people.
    I’ve read and reread these three books several times so far. A wonderful trip!
    5 stars from me!

  2. I agree with you on the drawbacks of the series format, but overall, I really enjoy watching a favorite character grow over an extended period of time. My favorite way to read a series is to wait for all of the books to be released, then go through the entire thing back to back. Thanks for these reviews. You’ve given me some good ideas for my To Be Read file, particularly Tilt-A-Whirl. Mistborn looks interesting, too, especially with that gorgeous Chris McGrath cover, but I don’t often do pure fantasy. Still, I’m open to anything well done, so I’m adding it to my list, too.

    I see you used the review formula you posted about on my blog. It works very well. Great post!

    • Thanks Marcia! Even though i recognize some of their drawbacks, I really like series and always try to parse out my favorites from time to time — they’re like a treat I give myself! :)

      • Yeah, it’s kind of like making dessert last a long, long time. And if the series is ongoing, you always have something to look forward to. I mark my calendar MONTHS in advance, and keep a countdown ticker on my computer. My favorites are just that hard to wait for.

  3. I am a serial kind of girl There are a lot of series I eagerly await installments in, and re-read over and over again. The Holmes/Russell series by Laurie R. King bring new and intelligent life to Sherlock Holmes in later life. Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series is one of the few modern crime series that I love. It doesn’t hurt that it is set in Alaska among the Aleutian peoples. Amelia Peabody Emerson and her archaeological family keep me enjoying her series that explores Egypt both ancient and modern-ish, since it is set around the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Lindsey Davis’s Falco mysteries bring ancient Roman life alive in a witty and engaging way. Any and every of Alexander McCall Smith’s series, from Precious Ramotswe’s Botswana, to life in Edinburgh Scotland, to the pedantic and obtuse German Professor Von Igelfeld. All make me feel like I’m visiting a friend. I also love visiting and revisiting the book world with Thursday Next in the series penned by Jasper Fforde. Inventive, and obscure, while at the same time giving us a new look at the fiction we love, Fforde keeps me reading. Like Cori says. His brain is basically made of cookies. The final series that I have read and re-read and am eagerly anticipating the final two books, is the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card. I love these books, and how they are crafted. Science, faith, philosophy, and a life-sized game of Risk all combine to make an engaging and delicious story.

    I know there are lesser series that I love dearly, but these are the top ones.

    • Oh and because I put it up above, I neglected to mention the Discworld series here. Let it be known that I am currently working my way through all 40 some odd books, and would love to own them all. They would have a special shelf all to themselves. Terry Prachett is nothing less than a genius.

      • I have read all of Pratchett, and I believe I have read each book at least three times by now.
        Laurie R. King is a favorite! Also, Jason Fforde. Lol at his brain is made of cookies!
        The Ender’s Game series is wonderful, too. I am just finishing up “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest”….those books are a lot of fun, too. Thrilling and chilling!

        • Have you read the Ender’s Shadow Series too? I’m all excited because the two books OS C is working on right now are going to tie the two series together again. I’m not a little excited.
          Pratchett is wonderful I have really enjoyed his few featuring Moist von Lipwig as well. He just cracks me up and tickles my brain into thinking. All at the same time.

          • I have not read any of the Ender’s Shadow Series. I didn’t realize it was out there! I’ll have to check it out and let my daughter know, too!

            Pratchett can make me laugh in almost every sentence he writes. He’s a genius.

            Have you read “Folly” and “Keeping Watch” by Laurie R. King? A “series” of two that are my two favorite LRK books!

          • Lauri: I have read everything that Laurie R King has put out. Folly was especially poignant to my mother and myself when she found herself dealing with severe depression in her 50’s. King is deep and imaginative, without ever forgetting to be completely real.

        • Okay, I have now added Terry Pratchett and Laurie R King to my Wish List. I read the opening pages of The Wee Free Men, and love it already. And all of the King books sounded like fun. Can’t wait to see for myself! Thanks for mentioning them.

    • Is this where I mention that I’ve never read any Jasper Fforde?

      The Kate Shugak series sounds like something I might really enjoy. I also have liked the Ender series, but haven’t picked up any of the more recent ones. I think that that “Speaker For The Dead” is one of the finest novels (SF or otherwise) that I’ve read.

      • I would agree with you. I currently have a group of boys in lock up that have so fallen for Ender’s game. They want to read more of the series. Makes me want to do a dance of joy. I think you would like the Kate Shugak series too. It is such a unique world, and yet with the same longings and struggles we have every day.
        Jasper Fforde is completely unique. I’ve not read anything else like him. Every book is an adventure.

    • BD — I’m looking forward to reading the next one in that series. Do you thinks Hole (and in Harry’s last name) is “hole” “holl” “holle” or “hole'” — I have no clue.

  4. It’s very unusual for me to not finish a book or a series. But, three series that I gave up on with great disappointment were “Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan, “Game of Thrones” George Martin, and the Sookie Stackhouse vampire books by Charlene Harris. All three series started out great. By the time I gave up on each they were muddled, plotless, practically characterless…..huge disappointments. It’s as much an art to successfully end a series as to begin and write one.

    • Laurie, I agree completely on Sookie Stackhouse. I adored these books when they first started. They were funny. And scary. And charming. And then…well, Charlaine Harris seems to me to have lost her mojo, and I don’t recognized any of the characters any more. I blame some of it on True Blood, the alternate Sookie-verse. But perhaps it would have happened, regardless. It’s a shame, really. Have not read the others yet. Game of Thrones is SO intimidating with those HUGE tomes weighing down the shelves. Maybe someday.

      • I loved the first three books of Game of Thrones. But, by the end of the third the momentum was gone, the characters gone….it was awful, and my daughter bravely read books 4 and 5 and told me not to bother and I took her at her word.
        Wheel of Time is even more monstrous than Game of Thrones. I managed to read nine of those books….gave up then. My daughter has batttled on through .,,,,maybe 14 of them!

        • Well, assuming your daughter is not just a glutton for punishment, she must have liked them enough to keep going. My neighbors have read all of GOT, and keep asking me to check it out. And I keep picking it up, and thinking…I dunno…I’m already 68. Will I live to finish this???? *grin* Even Volume One is huge. Weighs more than either of my dogs!

          • You joke about passing away before finishing, but the author of the Wheel of Time books (Robert Jordan) DIED before he finished them. They had to be finished off by another writer based on his notes. The author that finished them off? None other than Mistborn’s Brandon Sanderson. How’s that for coming full circle in a comment thread???

    • I also gave up on “Wheel of Time”! — about eight books in. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I’m going to wait until Martin is finished with the GoT books before re-reading them. Like you (again!), I loved the first three and was very meh about the 4th (especially after waiting so long) — because of that I decided just to wait until the end is in sight.

      • Okay, well while I’m tickled to find new authors in this thread that I want to check out, thanks, nothing is making me feel better about starting Game of Thrones. And forget Wheel of Time. If it ran out for the writer, how will I, a mere READER, manage to finish it? Eeek.

    • No, I wouldn’t call the Discworld books children’s books at all. I would think mid-teens with a good vocabulary and a well developed sense of humor would love them!

  5. Series really are both good and bad! My favorite comfort food series is the Roderick Alleyn series by Ngaio Marsh — love myself a little mystery every now and then!

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  7. hell, I’m not sure I’ll live long enough to finish The Hunger Games trilogy. But if I do, I’ve bookmarked this comment thread in case I become bedridden LOL…

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