New Releases to Complain About | New Releases to Grump About

Vi Agra Falls is the latest entry in Mary Daheim’s Bed-and-Breakfast Mystery series.

It’s well within the realm of possibility that I’ve just been grumpy lately. That would explain my dislike for a recent slew of books that has crossed my desk of late.

Of course—and I prefer this explanation—it’s also possible that said slew has contained a high percentage of pretty bad books.

For example, Lisa Black’s first novel, Takeover (William Morris, $24.95), is a bad book. It has all the necessary trappings of a hostage novel—a grand setting (the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland), two cagey criminals with (allegedly) complex motives, an unflappable negotiator with a perfect record on the line, and a couple torn apart but committed to both love and duty.

Black’s execution, however, leaves much to be desired. One suspects a portion of the trouble comes from something Black, a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, readily admits in her “Acknowledgements and Notes” at book’s end: “I have no idea what the FBI’s or the Federal Reserve’s response to such a situation would be and only a general idea what the city police would do.” If this text appeared at the beginning of the book it would, no doubt, warn off a fair number of potential readers.

A bibliography suggests Black did some reading on hostage negotiation and perhaps relied on an “FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin” for a key plot point. Her own expertise in forensic science plays a role in the book, but is perhaps not as central as one might expect.

Exacerbating matters, Black tends to be a bit sloppy with the writing itself. To cite but one irksome example, she names a key character Frank Patrick and then spends the book alternating between “Frank” and “Patrick” when referring to the character in the narration.  Bad enough to give a character two first names without going out of one’s way to cause confusion.

Equally confusing is the question of why a second book in this fledgling series is scheduled for release in 2009.

“We don’t like [music] because it is beautiful,” writes Daniel J. Levitin in The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature (Dutton, $25.95), “we find it beautiful because those early humans who made good use of it were those who were most likely to be successful at living and reproduction.”

If you, like me, find that to be a particularly displeasing way to think about music, then you, like me, won’t much like The World in Six Songs. Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and the James McGill Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Music at McGill University, takes pains to avoid stripping the musical world of all its beauty and wonder, but largely fails in that effort.

Dividing songs into six categories—friendship (which, oddly enough, includes protest songs), joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love—Levitin argues that each represents or reveals an evolutionary adaptation in humans. It’s a largely soulless argument (which, of course, does not disqualify it from being true however much one might wish it not to be), filled with science and lacking aesthetic pleasures of its own while seeming to devalue those of music itself.

Levitin also has a pronounced tendency to wander off topic (he spends some time on psychic research, for example), and often he mistakes his book for a memoir (and a not terribly engaging one). When he reproduces conversations with his friends and colleagues, including folks like Sting, Joni Mitchell, and David Byrne, he does so in a stilted style that tends to be off putting.

The science may be right (or wrong), but the book is terribly out of tune.

On page 149 of Mary Daheim’s Vi Agra Falls (William Morrow, $23.95), the 24th pun-titled entry in her “Bed-and-Breakfast Mystery” series, one of her characters says exactly what I was thinking just about then: “These lengthy preludes to your adventures drive me nuts.”

Frankly, the pace doesn’t pick up from there. And Daheim’s prose remains clunky and choppy from endpaper to endpaper. I can’t even muster enough enthusiasm to provide a plot synopsis.

But herein lies the difficulty of reviewing a book in a long-established series when one hasn’t been along for the whole ride. The fact that Daheim is asked to keep pumping out books in this series suggests that a good number of folks like these stories of innkeeper Judith McMonigle Flynn’s amateur sleuthing.

So were these books better early on when Just Desserts and Fowl Prey hit the shelves? Maybe so. If they were, it’s perfectly understandable that readers who have come to know and enjoy the company of Daheim’s recurring characters might forgive an occasional weaker effort. Indeed, I would gladly make allowances for lesser entries in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series or Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum adventures.

I, of course, am not in a position to make this judgment call about Daheim’s series. I can say this, however: If you’re thinking of visiting this particular bed and breakfast, I suggest you make a reservation with an earlier date. If you like your first stay, you might be on your way to a series of pleasurable visits. For myself, I’ll be checking in elsewhere.  

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