Sunday, March 17, 2019

The 74th Annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

The 74th annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show started Friday, March 15. We visited Saturday morning. I believe this was the third time we attended in all our years in Santa Barbara, and it has been several years since our last visit.  The show is extremely popular and there were crowds of people to contend with. My husband and I and our son all took pictures and here are a few of my favorites.

From the SB Orchid Show site:
Nestled on a narrow plain between the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains on the north and the calm, blue seas of the Pacific Ocean on the south, Santa Barbara enjoys a mild, Mediterranean climate with temperate nights and soft, ocean breezes. 
From this splendid setting has sprung an orchid industry that now produces more orchids than any other region in the country. Many of the growers introduce their finest blooms at the Santa Barbara International Show before sending them out as potted plants, cut-flower sprays and individual corsages to orchid enthusiasts throughout the world.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

2019 World at War Reading Challenge

Today I am joining in on the World at War Reading Challenge, hosted by Becky's Book Reviews.

Duration: January - December 2019
Goal: Get at least one bingo! (more are welcome, of course!)
There are more rules and information at the signup post.  Sign up in the comments!

Here are some books I have already read this year that fit the challenge:

Turncoat by Aaron Elkins (fiction, World War II)
The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy
        (fiction, World War II, set in Canada)
Dead Wake by Erik Larson (nonfiction, World War I)

The categories:

_ Any book published 1914-1918
_ Any book published 1918-1924
_ Any book published 1925-1930
_ Any book published 1931-1938
_ Any book published 1939-1945
_ A nonfiction book about World War I
_ A nonfiction book about 1910s and 20s
_ A nonfiction book about 1920s and 30s
_ A nonfiction book about 1930s
_ A nonfiction book about World War II
_ A fiction book set during World War I
_ A fiction book set 1918-1924
_ A fiction book set in the 1920s
_ A fiction book set in the 1930s
_ A fiction book set during World War II
_ A book set in the United States or Canada
_ A book set in England, Ireland, or Scotland
_ A book set in Europe
_ A book set in Asia or Middle East
_ A book set elsewhere (a country/continent not already read for the challenge)
_ A book focused on "the war"
_ A book focused on "the homefront"
_ Watch any movie released in 1940s
_ Watch any movie released in the 1930s
_ Watch any movie about either war

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Turncoat: Aaron Elkins

I have a shelf of books that I call the "three year" shelf. A book can sit on the shelf for three years and if I don't read it before then it goes (to the donation stack). I figure that for most of the books, I can give them the 50 page test before deciding to continue reading them or giving up on them. And in a few cases it has only taken a page or three to realize that I can pass the book on to someone else. This has been moderately successful.

Turncoat by Aaron Elkins was on this shelf, but as soon as I read a couple of pages from the book, I knew I was going to keep reading.  The story, the premise, and the writing grabbed me immediately. It is set in November 1963 and begins on the day John F. Kennedy died.

The book begins with this sentence:
"For everybody else in America it was the day JFK was killed in Dallas. For me it would always be the day Lily's father turned up on our doorstep."

The narrator is Peter Simon, currently a professor of history at Brooklyn college, formerly a waist gunner in a B-17 towards the end of World War II. Lily is his wife of 17 years, a counselor in a local high school. The unusual thing about his father-in-law turning up on his doorstep is that Peter had always thought that he had died during the war. Thus, Lily's father's sudden appearance and her refusal to talk to her father confuses him. Days later her father is dead, his savagely beaten body found in southern Brooklyn.

Both Peter and Lily have roots in France. Peter was born there but moved to the US at a young age with his parents. Lily lived in France until 1945, when she was 17 and met Peter in London towards the end of the war. They married and moved to the US. So when Lily disappears after the discovery of her father's body, Peter starts the search for her in Europe, first in Spain where her father had been living, then moving on to France and the town where Lily grew up.

For me the joy of reading this book was taking Peter's journey of discovery with him, thus I don't want to reveal more of the plot. I will say that the focus is on the French who collaborated with the Germans in World War II and the lasting effects that the German occupation had in France after the war.

This is a suspenseful story, cleverly told, and a page turner. New pieces of information about Lily and her father and their past are gradually revealed, in a realistic way. Peter Simon is resourceful and determined, although he finds it difficult to move outside of his comfort zone while hunting down the truth and his wife.

The story is very believable, partly because Peter knows enough French to get along well in France. We get to know him very well, and there are some great secondary characters. Two policemen are favorites of mine, one in New York (Detective Sergeant Ivan Kovalski of the 61st Precinct), one in Veaudry, France (Alphonse Juneaux of the Police Nationale's Provincial Department of Criminal Investigation).

In 2014 I read Loot (my review here), another book by Aaron Elkins about events related to World War II and its aftermath. That one is on a different subject, the looting of art treasures during the war. Elkins is better known for his series about Gideon Oliver, a forensic anthropologist whose nickname is "The Skeleton Detective".


Publisher:  William Morrow, 2002.
Length:     298 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     New York, Spain, France
Genre:      Historical mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Monthly Reading in February 2019

In February, I read ten books. Four of the books were not crime fiction, although one was a reference book about classic crime ficton. And I read six crime fiction books, published between 1941 and 2015.

Mystery reference

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017) by Martin Edwards
From the introduction by Martin Edwards: "This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. I see it as a tale of the unexpected. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, I have chosen one hundred examples of books which highlight the achievements, and sometimes the limitations, of popular fiction of that era." 
The book is comprised of chapters discussing various types of Golden Age mysteries, with several examples of each type examined in detail. My favorite part was the introduction to each group of books, where many other books and authors are briefly discussed.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015) by Erik Larson
In telling this story of the events leading to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, Erik Larson focuses on the Lusitania, the U-boat that attacked the ship, and governmental groups in the US and the UK. This was a very entertaining book and I raced through it. Of course, I knew the basic story, but there was so much I did not know, so there were many surprises.

Graphic novel

Descender, Vol. 1, Tin Stars (2015) by Jeff Lemire (Writer),  Dustin Nguyen (Artist)
One of my reading goals in 2019 is to read more of the graphic novels I have. In this science fiction story, TIM-21 is a robot designed to be a companion to a child. He wakes up from a 10-year long sleep to find that everyone on his world is dead and robots have sort of been outlawed. I will be continuing with this series; this was an intriguing start to the story.


The Tin Flute (1945) by Gabrielle Roy
This is a classic Canadian novel, first published in French as Bonheur d'occasion. The book tells the story of the Lacasse family in the St. Henri area in Montreal, during World War II. They are poor, and only the oldest daughter, Florentine, is working. Eugene, the oldest brother, has joined the military. The father, Azarius, is usually unemployed, a dreamer, always leaving one job for a "better" opportunity. It took me a while to get into the story, but about halfway into the book it gripped me and I could not stop reading.

Crime Fiction

Murder in Mykonos (2010) by Jeffrey Siger
This is the first book that features Inspector Andreas Kaldis. In this book he is Police Chief on the island of Mykonos, but in later books he works in other parts of Greece. I am looking forward to reading more of the series. Reviewed here.

A Chill Rain in January (1990) by L.R. Wright
This is the third book in the Karl Alberg series by L. R. Wright. Alberg is a Sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The novel is set in Sechelt, which is on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada. I have read books 1 and 2 and will be continuing on with the series. Reviewed here.

A Killing in Quail County (1996) by Jameson Cole
This is a perfect story of growing up in the 1950's in rural Oklahoma. Fifteen-year-old Mark Stoddart lives with his older brother Jess, a deputy sheriff in the small town of Bob White. Mark plans to spend his summer looking for evidence of a local bootlegger, to help out his brother. This turns out to be very complicated and more dangerous than he expected. The teenage characters are depicted especially well.

Evil Under the Sun (1941) by Agatha Christie
A while ago we purchased a set of three films based on mystery novels by Agatha Christie, and one of them was Evil Under the Sun. So I skipped ahead to read this book in the Hercule Poirot series out of order. The setting is the Jolly Rogers Hotel, on Smugglers’ Island, off the coast of Devon. A beautiful woman is killed and the murderer must be one of the guests on the island. As usual for an Agatha Christie novel, this is a clever and entertaining story.

The Shanghai Factor (2013) by Charles McCarry
Charles McCarry is one of my favorite writers of spy fiction and this novel did not disappoint. It is narrated by a young male American spy, working as a sleeper agent for an unnamed US agency, who is living in Shanghai to learn Mandarin. Many of the spy novels I have read have an underlying theme of betrayal and mistrust, and this one is no different.  Reviewed here.

All the Old Knives (2015) by Olen Steinhauer
Olen Steinhauer is another of my favorite authors of spy fiction. This book has an unusual format, taking place during a dinner between two people who used to work together at the CIA station in Vienna. Henry is following up on an investigation into the hijacking of an airliner that occurred when Henry and Carol worked together. During the dinner they both think back to that event and we gradually learn how it turned out. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Tears of Autumn: Charles McCarry

Following my post on The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry two days ago, here are my thoughts on another book by that author, probably his most well-known book, The Tears of Autumn. I read that book for the first time in June of 2009.

After I heard of Charles McCarry's recent passing, I began re-reading The Tears of Autumn, the second book in the Paul Christopher series. Christopher is a CIA agent, and this book takes place in a few weeks before and after John F. Kennedy's death in 1963.

In this story, McCarry proposes a solution for the Kennedy assassination.

From the dust jacket of my hardback edition:
Christopher, at the height of his powers, believes he knows who arranged the assassination, and why. His theory is so destructive of the legend of the dead president, though, and so dangerous to the survival of foreign policy that he is ordered to desist from investigating. But he is a man who lives by, and for, the truth--and his internal compunctions force him to the heart of the matter. Christopher resigns from the Agency and embarks on a tour of investigation that takes him from Paris to Rome, Zurich, the Congo, and Saigon.
I will introduce this book to you with a quote from Patrick Anderson's review at The Washington Post, following the release of the Overlook Press reprint edition in 2005. (The book was originally published in 1974.)
I approached this handsome new edition of Charles McCarry's masterpiece, "The Tears of Autumn," with trepidation. The novel was first published in 1974, and it has been more than 20 years since I last read it. I had only a hazy memory that (1) it was beautifully written, (2) it offered a plausible theory of the Kennedy assassination and (3) it was a classic. My concern was that, given a new reading, the novel might not hold up, but my fear was groundless. "The Tears of Autumn" is beautifully written, its conspiracy theory still intrigues and it most assuredly is a classic.

I wholeheartedly agree with Patrick Anderson. This is a fantastic book by an underappreciated novelist. It is hard for me to explain what I like so much about his books. I don't even know that this is my favorite in the Paul Christopher series. I read all of the books in the series in 2009 and I loved the series overall.

The first book, The Miernik Dossier, is very different from the rest of the books, telling the story through transcripts of conversations, memos, diary entries and such. The series skips around in time, and each book is a bit different, so it probably doesn't even matter what order they are read in, but I read them in order of publication. I give a brief overview of the series and the author in this post on the blog.

One complaint about Paul Christopher's character is that he is too perfect, noted by the reviewer above and others. I never noticed that. He is intelligent and determined, he believes in finding the truth and exposing it, but he also risks other people's lives to get at the truth, so I did not see him as a paragon.

If you like spy fiction and you haven't tried Charles McCarry's books, they are worth a try.


Publisher:   Overlook Press, 2005 (orig. publ. 1974)
Length:       276 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Paul Christopher, #2
Setting:      US, Vietnam, Rome, Switzerland, and more
Genre:       Spy fiction
Source:      I purchased this book.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Shanghai Factor: Charles McCarry

I was saddened to hear that Charles McCarry has died, on February 26th, at the age of 88. He wrote seven novels about CIA agent Paul Christopher, and several standalone novels. He is one of my top three authors of espionage fiction (the other two are John le Carre and Len Deighton).

I had just finished reading The Shanghai Factor, McCarry's next to last novel, on February 22nd. So it seems appropriate to review that novel at this time.

The story is told by an unnamed spy, working for an unnamed US agency, who is living in Shanghai to learn Mandarin. (And the weird thing is I did not even realize that he was not named until I read it in a summary after finishing the book.)

So for two years (or more?) this American spy lives in China as a sleeper agent, learning Mandarin from a Chinese woman, Mei, that he meets accidentally. Because the meeting is accidental he often wonders if Mei is also an agent, assigned to keep an eye on him. During this time, he is recruited to work for a rich and powerful Chinese CEO, whom he suspects is part of a Chinese intelligence group. Eventually, his life is threatened and he is ordered back to the US, where his handler has new plans for him, using his knowledge acquired while in China.

Most spy novels I read have an underlying theme of betrayal and mistrust, and this one is no different. So I have often wondered why anyone would become a spy or remain in that field. Of course these are fictional spies, but many of the best authors of spy fiction had previous experience in espionage, including Charles McCarry. The protagonist of this novel explains his reasoning: “the truth was that I had become a secret agent because I could not bear for another minute the pointlessness of life in the real world.”

The Shanghai Factor was a wonderful read, suspenseful, and has a wow ending, but what I really loved is the protagonist's asides about his life before spying, his relationship with his mother, and his philosophy of life. I was immersed in this novel while reading it, and I will certainly read it again, but nothing else McCarry has written will top the Paul Christopher novels for me.

A possible negative for some readers: This book focuses a lot on sex, and especially the sex life of the protagonist.

This is what Mike Ripley had to say at Shots Crime and Thriller Ezine:
This is a fascinating read, with insights into the world of young, rich Chinese ‘princelings’ who are at heart ‘secret Americans’ rather than die-hard communist party members and a restrained, non-judgemental character study of an intelligent, patriotic, but painfully lonely young man caught up in the spider’s web of spying.
See also:


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 2013.
Length:      292 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     Shanghai, China; US
Genre:      Spy fiction
Source:     I purchased my copy.