Friday, May 20, 2005

The benefits of insomnia

I couldn't sleep on Wednesday night, so I spent the night reading (always a good thing in this corner of the blogosphere). The good news: I read the Cassandra James mysteries (only two so far) by Christine Poulson. The bad news: after a night of no sleep and then teaching five courses and driving two hours, I collapsed when I arrived home last night, so no blogging for me on Thursday night...

But I'm back now, well-rested and ready to blog!

The first Cassandra James mystery, Murder is Academic (original UK title Dead Letters -- why can't they keep original titles in the US? It just makes things confusing for readers...) introduces our non-sleuthing academic, Dr. Cassandra James, a lecturer on nineteenth-century literature at the English Department of the fictional St. Ethelreda's College in Cambridge, England. The book opens with Cassandra's discovery of the body of her boss floating in a pool (you can read an excerpt here). Was Margaret's death a suicide? An accident? Murder? No one is sure, but Cassandra needs to get her act together, because she has been put in charge of St. Ethelreda's struggling English Department. If Cassandra cannot cajole/threaten/push and otherwise prod her colleagues to produce publishable work by the end of the year, the department will cease to exist and Cassandra and her colleagues will be out on the street. When Margaret's husband names Cassandra the literary executrix of the dead woman's estate, Cassandra finds --and destroys-- shocking letters that reveal Margaret's life is not what it seemed... and which link her to another mysterious death involving the college. As Cassandra deals with an excentric colleague who claims Conan Doyle is coauthoring his long-overdue academic treatise, a supportive boyfriend who is pushing for more, and a student who has plagiarized Cassandra's own work, she must also ponder what to reveal about Margaret's secret life and to whom...

The second Cassandra James mystery, Stage Fright, finds Dr. James on maternity leave and attending rehearsals for a play based on a nineteenth-century novel she adapted for the stage. Her neighbors, Melissa and Kevin, are also involved in the production of the play; Melissa, a well-known actress, is the star, and husband Kevin, a former tv star, is the director. But when Melissa disappears just a few days before opening night --leaving her six-month old daughter home alone-- Cassandra knows something must be very wrong. Cassandra struggles to take care of Melissa's baby while juggling her own daughter (who has the temperament of a diva), fielding calls from her boyfriend Stephen, a lawyer who is away on business in California, and seeing her first husband for the first time in fourteen years...

Poulson writes engaging academic mysteries that make for enjoyable light reading. These books cover no new ground, either in style or content, but they are full of interesting, quirky characters who provide wonderful company to wile away a few pleasant hours.

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