Monday, January 12, 2009

Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death (book) by Jo Dereske

When this book begins, Helma Zukas is trying to figure out a way to convince the director of her library that allowing children to sleep over at the library is a bad idea. It's too late, however, and she and several other of her fellow librarians are assigned to different nights as chaperones. The library is also dealing with a relay race and a grief-stricken librarian whose poodle has died. In order to get out of her night as a chaperone to sugar-hyper children, Helma agrees to take part in the canoeing portion of the relay race. Even as she trains for this, she tries to help out her friend Ruth, a flamboyant artist who is considered a "person of interest" by the police after a dead man is found by her home. The night before the man was found dead, Ruth saw him at a local bar and rejected him when he made a pass at her. Helma is convinced that her friend had nothing to do with his death, but, despite the fact that he was generally disliked, it's hard to find evidence pointing to a better suspect.

I admit, for the most part this book bored me. This is the first book in this series that I've read, but it didn't particularly feel like it was necessary to have read the previous books to understand what was going on. My problem was that the murder itself wasn't really that interesting to me, and Helma seemed like such a stereotypical librarian. She has a very traditional view about how and what things should be done at a library. In her opinion, professional librarians demean themselves and their degrees by watching out for children after-hours and taking part in relay races. While I agree with Helma that having the children in the library after-hours was not necessarily the best thought out plan, the way Dereske wrote Helma just made her seem stiff, strict, and at least a decade or two older than her 39 years. Dereske did reveal a few interesting aspects of her character, however - for instance, she enjoys cutting out things in magazines, she's kind to her elderly neighbor, and, as much as she says she wants Boy Cat Zukas (a stray cat that adopted her) to go away, there are signs that she may thaw enough in future books to let the cat into her house.

This is the first book I've ever read in which the author mentions librarians doing things that aren't reference work, research, or finding or re-shelving books. This felt like a real library to me, albeit with more professional librarians than I think many public libraries in a town of this size would have. I guess that's part of what made it so boring - as far as day-to-day work goes, library work isn't exactly action-packed. Still, it's a different view of library work than I imagine many people have, so it's possible that those who don't actually do this stuff every day might find it more interesting than I did.

The main thing I enjoyed about this book was the way Helma related to other characters. Her life is pretty quiet, and she has a very orderly and somewhat stiff personality, but she seems to be a basically kind person. As I already mentioned, she's kind to an elderly neighbor, and she tries her best to help her friend Ruth. She's also got at least one guy who's interested in her, maybe two. The chief of police, Chief Gallant, definitely seems to be interested in her, and there's a really great, but brief, scene at an amusement park that's almost like an unplanned date. Walter David, the manager of her apartment complex, may also be interested in her, although I think Chief Gallant is the more likely future love interest. Walter David blushes a lot when he's around her and offers his help whenever he can, but it doesn't seem like Helma really notices any signs of interest and I don't think they've got much in common.

I also liked reading about Helma's colleagues at the library. George Melville, the cataloger, seemed particularly interesting - and I'm not just saying that because I'm a cataloger. Apparently, George is a bit closed-mouthed about his past, so maybe he's hiding a big secret that will be the focus of a future book. Other than Patrice, the social science librarian (a public library with a social science librarian??) whose poodle died, and the fluffy-brained director, there weren't really any other librarians with really distinguishing characteristics.

The canoeing bits were also fascinating, more so than I expected them to be. I'm not really very interested in canoeing, or in physical activities in general. However, the canoeing parts were so nicely and lovingly written that I couldn't help but enjoy them. They also made Helma seem like a much more human character, since this was obviously an activity that she enjoyed and that brought her a lot of satisfaction. In addition, because Helma's canoe was made by her now-deceased Uncle Tony, writing about canoeing and the canoe gave Dereske lots of opportunities to tell readers more about Helma's youth.

Overall, I'm not really sure that I like this book, but I didn't hate it either. I might pick up another book in the series, just to see if a somewhat different storyline would attract me to the series more - as I mentioned, I didn't really find the murder mystery in this book to be all that interesting. If you're the sort who likes to be able to put clues together and try to figure out the mystery before any of the characters do, you might end up liking this book even less than I did, because I don't think there's really any way to figure out who the killer is before Dereske reveals who did it. However, readers looking for a cozy mystery starring a librarian as an amateur detective might enjoy this book or something else in this series.

  • The Quiche of Death (book) by M. C. Beaton - This is the first in Beaton's Agatha Raisin series. Agatha Raisin has decided to retire from her London public relations job and live a quiet life in the Cotswold village of Carsely. Hoping to gain acceptance from the villagers, Agatha enters a local bake-off, undeterred by her inability to cook or bake. When Agatha's quiche turns out to be poisoned and kills the bake-off judge, she's determined to prove on her own that the judge was murdered (by someone other than her) in order to avoid having to admit that the quiche was store-bought. Those who'd like another cozy mystery set in a small town and starring a female character who could stand to unbend a little might like this book.
  • The Case of the Missing Books (book) by Ian Sansom - Awkward and socially-challenged Israel Armstrong has just gotten his first full-time, long-term job as a librarian. Unfortunately, Israel gets to his new workplace and home only to discover that the library he was supposed to work at has been closed down. If he wants work, he'll have to become the new "Outreach Support Officer" (aka, Bookmobile driver and staffer). He'll also have to figure out, without alienating all the townspeople, where all the books have gone, since every one of the library's 15,000 books has gone missing. Those who'd like another mystery starring a librarian may enjoy this book.
  • Quiet, Please: Dispatches From a Public Librarian (non-fiction book) by Scott Douglas - Douglas writes about his experiences working in libraries. He began working in a small public library in Anaheim and eventually decided to get a degree in library science, after which he got other jobs at public libraries in Anaheim, ones with more responsibility. This description makes this book sound dry, but Douglas' humor and his anecdotes about his co-workers and library patrons makes this an entertaining read - you don't necessarily have to have worked at a library to enjoy this book. Those who found the library work portions of Dereske's book interesting might enjoy this book.
  • The Cat Who Could Read Backwards (book) by Lilian Jackson Braun - This is the first book in Braun's possibly unending Cat Who series. Jim Qwilleran is a prize-winning reporter who's just gotten a job as a feature writer for the Daily Fluxion. He takes a tiny apartment in a building owned by the paper's art critic, who happens to own a spoiled and eerily intelligent cat named Koko. When a gallery owner and the art critic end up dead, Qwilleran tries to solve the mystery (and gets a little help from Koko along the way). Those who'd like another cozy mystery with a varied cast of characters might enjoy this book. In addition, those who found themselves cheering for Boy Cat Zukas will probably love Koko.

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