Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Murdered My Library: Linda Grant

From the book description at Amazon:
What happens when you begin to build a library in childhood and then find you have too many books? From a small collection held together by a pair of plaster of Paris horse-head bookends to books piled on stairs, and in front of each other on shelves, books cease to furnish a room and begin to overwhelm it. At the end of 2013, novelist Linda Grant moved from a rambling maisonette over four floors to a two bedroom flat with a tiny corridor-shaped study. The trauma of getting rid of thousands of books raises the question of what purpose personal libraries serve in contemporary life and the seductive lure of the Kindle. ...
Linda Grant is an award-winning novelist and non-fiction writer. Her novel WHEN I LIVED IN MODERN TIMES won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000 and THE CLOTHES ON THEIR BACKS was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008 and won the South Bank Show Award.

In May 2014, Moira at Clothes in Books featured this Kindle Single on her blog. In July, Col at Col's Criminal Library read and reviewed the essay also, sharing his thoughts about keeping books and culling books.

Then my husband read it and here is his review at Goodreads:
Fascinating account of growing up shy and in love with books, of building a library and mercilessly purging it, of patronizing favorite book stores and seeing them vanish, of moving from printed books to e-books in a world that reads less and less. This eloquent work - at less than 30 pages - is really much too brief.
Knitters and crocheters have their yarn stash, I have my book stash. The majority of the books I own are unread -- my TBR books on bookshelves, in stacks, or even in boxes in the garage. I have kept some books that are special to me. Specific authors that are favorites or authors that I can see rereading some year, and these two sets of authors may overlap. I also hold on to books with great covers that I cannot bear to part with. I even collect books with certain covers to a limited extent, but they are only a small fraction of the books I own. (My husband owns more books than I do, and more of his books are already read, so we have no arguments about the validity of owning a lots of books or hanging on to them.)

Linda Grant's essay was an enjoyable read. As I went through highlighting the parts I liked or that spoke to me especially, it was interesting to find the highlights that my husband had added. I am an indiscriminate highlighter when reading Kindle books, but as in other areas, my husband is much more restrained. We both highlighted this area:
I am the adult outcome of the shy, awkward only child who, instead of running around in the garden or clambering on slides and swings or slapping bats against balls or skipping down muddy lanes, preferred, above all else, as I still do, to stay indoors and read. Only children are no good socially.
I do take issue with this statement about small houses:
Now, in an apartment on the Mediterranean, the same authors were being dumped because no one wanted to read them. They are the detritus not just of the digital revolution but of disposable living and small houses.
I have lived in small houses and apartments and condos all of my life. The only time I lived in a large house, I had few books and was very unhappy. Since then, I have amassed books in the small places I have lived, with husband and son. Every room except the kitchen is filled with books. All of the walls of the small dining room are covered with book cases. I have books in stacks on the floor, on tables, even in place of plants on plant stands. And the overflow is in boxes in the garage.

I have no objection to culling books. My culling is gradual and voluntary, not forced. If we compare my culling and Linda Grant's ... she is talking about getting rid of a lot of books she has read and treasured and kept as a kind of legacy. Now she hits a point in her life where she has to cut back drastically and it hurts. It is painful to make decisions like this.

Grant also talks about bookstores, and getting books as a child. My family could not afford to buy books when I was a child. Almost everything I read came from the library. It wasn't until I had a job in my late teens that I could afford to go to a bookstore and purchase a book. And I did not do it much then. It was not until I met my husband that I changed from borrowing books from the library to buying books to keep. So, although Linda Grant and I are around the same age, she has been acquiring books for a couple of decades longer than I have.

I do love bookstores, and if I could turn back time, that is what I would want to return to. The area I live in has never had loads of bookstores, either independent or chains. The population does not support them. We used to have a Barnes & Noble and a Borders, but both were closed. We used to have more independent bookstores and some that were specifically for children's books and even one bookstore that specialized in crime fiction. The one bookstore that has always been my favorite is Chaucer's Books; it has been at different locations over the years, but is still in existence, in a great location. And it has a wonderful crime fiction selection.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Frozen Dead: Bernard Minier

Excerpt from summary at the publisher's website:
Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a small town nestled in the French Pyrenees. The kind of place where winters are harsh and unforgiving and where nothing ever happens.
Until the winter morning when a group of workers discover the headless, flayed body of a horse, hanging suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff.
On the same day the gruesome discovery takes place, Diane Berg, a young psychiatrist starts her first job at a high-security asylum for the criminally insane, just a few miles away. 
From the beginning, this book had two strikes against it. It starts with the gruesome death of an animal and it is nearly 500 pages long. I have been doing better with very long books lately, but I would never choose to read one on an e-reader. As my son reminded me, I didn't do proper research before choosing this book to review through NetGalley. Now I am glad I did not, because I did enjoy reading the book. Had I known more about it in advance, I probably would have rejected it.

The action switches back and forth between the investigation, mostly taking place in town and in the surrounding areas, and the asylum. The story is told mostly from the point of view of Commandant Martin Servaz from the nearby town of Toulouse and the new psychologist at the asylum, Diane Berg. Diane serves as a clever way to provide the reader with information on the asylum, but some of her activities in an institution full of very scary criminals are a tad unbelievable. Yet, many stories of this type depend on the curious, intrepid character to move things along.

It was interesting getting a look at how French investigative departments work. In this case, the civilian police  force and the gendarmerie are cooperating, with a primary investigator from each group. The investigators feel that their time is being wasted. They think they should be working on homicides, not the death of an animal; they are only assigned to the case because the animal belongs to a rich and powerful man.

Soon enough there are equally gruesome murders of humans to be dealt with. Although the crimes are violent and depraved, they are not dwelled upon too much. Partly due to the types of inmates at the asylum, partly due to evidence found at the crime scenes, there is a distinct possibility that someone at the asylum is involved, either inmate or employee.

The main investigator, Servaz, is divorced and has a teen-aged daughter that he is worried about. Throughout the book there are hints of potential romances but for various reasons those do not go anywhere, which I liked because I don't usually care for romances in mysteries. There were many well defined secondary characters, and the author kept me guessing as to what the solution to the crimes was. The plot is complex, with more than one mystery to be solved, and I was surprised with the ending.

This book was almost too thrillerish for me, but I found the action to be believable and the twists and turns of the plot kept me interested through all 497 pages. I even stayed up late to finish the book. As far as the level of gritty, graphic depictions of crimes (after the fact), the book did not exceed my threshold in that area.

Marina Sofia has reviewed this book at Crime Fiction Lover. I first read about this book at Marina Sofia's blog, findingtimetowrite.

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Publisher:  Macmillan, 2014 (orig. pub. as Glacé, 2011)
Length:  497 pages
Format:  e-book
Series:  1st book in a new series
Setting:  France, Pyrenees
Genre:   Mystery, Thriller
Translated:  From the French by Alison Anderson
Source:  Provided a copy for review by publisher, via NetGalley.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Loot: Aaron Elkins

Extract from summary at Goodreads:
April 1945: In the last convulsive days of World War II a convoy of Nazi trucks loaded with Europe's greatest art treasures winds its way through the Alps toward a cavernous Austrian salt mine. With the Allies closing in and chaos erupting, a single truck silently disappears into a mountain snowstorm with its cargo of stolen masterpieces.
Fifty years later, in a seedy Boston pawnshop, one of the truck's paintings surfaces at last, pawned for $100 by a smalltime Russian thug. The next day, the shop owner, Simeon Pawlovsky, himself a Nazi death camp survivor, is dead, the life brutally beaten out of him. The painting is gone.
Once he examined the painting, Simeon suspected that it was a masterpiece, and called in art historian Benjamin Revere for advice on how to proceed. After Simeon's death, Ben ends up on an international hunt for the rightful owner of the painting and along the way runs into the Russian mafia. He is just a regular guy who knows a lot about art and especially the plundering of art during World War II. He isn't a hero but he doesn't give up easily, and he has a conscience. He feels responsible for Simeon's death, and feels he must do what he can to find out who murdered him.

I am currently reading Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel.  (And previously had watched the movie by the same name and the documentary The Rape of Europa.) So this topic is very much in my mind right now. I have had this book for about eight years and this was the perfect time for me to finally read it.

It is a shame I waited this long to read the book because it was highly entertaining. The characterization is great; Ben is sharply drawn, and this is also true of many of the lesser characters. There is a romantic interest, and that is well done. The story is told in an entertaining way with just the right amount of humor. The eventual resolution is not obvious at all.

In the acknowledgments, Aaron Elkins thanks Lane Faison, "a young lieutenant in the three-man OSS Art Looting Investigation Team" for answering questions about the German looting of art objects. Although Faison does not feature heavily in Monuments Men, the author of that book tells a moving story about inteviewing Faison at the age of 98 in the Author's Note.

Yvette, at In So Many Words, is a big fan of Aaron Elkins, and especially this book. She goes into a lot of detail about the book and its background here.

Aaron Elkins has written other series, and I have read a few of the ones about forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver. The current covers of the books for this series all feature skeletons, so I have copies of almost all of the books, and will read more eventually. My son has read more of those books than I have, and enjoyed them a lot.

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Publisher:   Avon, 1999.
Length:       376 pages
Format:       paperback
Setting:       Boston, Massachusetts; St. Petersburg, Russia; Budapest, Hungary
Genre:         Mystery, art history

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Motherhunt (Nero Wolfe Mystery TV series)


It has taken me a while to write up a book to movie post on Motherhunt for many reasons. I love the Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout and The Mother Hunt is one of my favorite books in the series. I enjoyed every episode in the Nero Wolfe Mystery series shown on A&E in 2000-2001. Thus it is hard for me to step away from the experience of watching them and evaluate them.

The Nero Wolfe series was written between 1934 and 1976 and each book was set in the time that the book was written. The characters did not age over the time the series was written. Each of the episodes of the Nero Wolfe Mystery series is set in the 1950's, so some of the adaptations in this series may be a bit different from the book just because of the time setting. In the case of The Mother Hunt, this probably makes no difference, since the year of publication was 1963. I have given an overview of the Nero Wolfe mysteries in book format and the TV series in this post, so I won't repeat all of that here.

It may be that this series would be most enjoyed by those who already are familiar with the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Each episode emphasizes the quirks of Wolfe's household, especially the adaptations of the full-length books. The orchids that Wolfe spends many of his waking hours tending, Fritz's cooking and Wolfe's obsession with food, Wolfe's reluctance to leave the house or, for that matter, to even work on a case.

In The Mother Hunt, Wolfe's client is Lucy Valdon. She has been caring, temporarily, for a baby that has been left in her vestibule. She has approached Wolfe to find the identity of the mother and determine if her husband was the father of the child. The hunt for the mother starts a series of events leading to a murder that Wolfe must solve.

For some reason, The Mother Hunt was given the title Motherhunt in the TV series. This adaptation was shown as two parts on TV, but is combined into one long episode on DVD. I had missed watching it the first time we viewed the episodes on DVD because the disc it was on was damaged. After reading the book in June, we rented the disc from Netflix and watched the episode. It was a faithful adaptation, although I felt that Penelope Ann Miller played the Lucy Valdon part a bit frothier than she was in the book. I will note that my husband (who has not read the books) liked her in the role. She was very appealing, and the overall mood of the adaptation was appropriate.

Here is a good example of how the TV series picks up some of the quirky behavior of the novels. This is a quote from the book:
"Do you like eggs?"
She laughed. She looked at me, so I laughed too.
Wolfe scowled. "Confound it, are eggs comical? Do you know how to scramble eggs, Mrs. Valdon?"
"Yes, of course."
"To use Mr. Goodwin's favorite locution, one will get you ten that you don't. I'll scramble eggs for your breakfast and we'll see. Tell me forty minutes before you're ready."
Her eyes widened. "Forty minutes?"
"Yes. I knew you didn't know."
The TV adaptation includes this scene where Wolfe cooks breakfast for Lucy and Archie and shows her how eggs should be scrambled. Maybe boring to some, but absolutely enchanting to me.  (I actually learned how to cook scrambled eggs this way in a Home Economics class in elementary school and they are delicious.)

In addition to Penelope Ann Miller, there were other roles I enjoyed. Of course, Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie are wonderful. Chaykin may overplay his role a bit, but Wolfe is larger than life and he puts that over well. Bill Smitrovich plays the recurring role of Inspector Cramer. Saul Rubinek, one of my favorite actors, plays Lon Cohen (a newspaperman) in this episode and others. Griffin Dunne and Carrie Fisher play smaller but crucial roles.

This movie review is submitted for the 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey.

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Motherhunt (2002), A&E Network
Cast: Maury Chaykin, Timothy Hutton, Bill Smitrovich, Colin Fox, Saul Rubinek
Director:  (as Alan Smithee)
Adapted by:  

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Countdown City: Ben H. Winters

In July, I read three books that I borrowed from my husband, and two of them dealt with apocalyptic events. Countdown City deals with how people react when an asteroid is hurtling toward the earth and certain to do a lot of damage. The other one was World War Z, which was about the world after it has been overrun by zombies. Both lead to equally horrific consequences, although in Countdown City the reader witnesses the impending doom of the approaching asteroid and its very negative consequences.

This was the second book in a trilogy, following the activities of a former policeman, Hank Palace, pursuing a missing person case in a pre-apocalyptic world. In the first book of this trilogy, Hank was still a detective with the police force. He was new to the job, and enjoying having attained his dream job before the discovery of the asteroid. Now, three months later, like almost everyone else on earth, he has no job and no prospects.

This is a thought-provoking novel. It is impossible not to think about what you would do in similar circumstances. Or even think about how life can change in just a moment. And along with this intelligent story of the destruction of the civilization that we take for granted we get a mystery story. Not a police procedural like the first one. This one is more similar to a private detective novel.


My husband's excellent review at Goodreads:
In this, the second volume of "The Last Policeman" trilogy, Hank Palace has been asked to locate the missing husband of an old friend. The unraveling of a world rather than the search is really the point here and Palace, no longer even a police detective, seems to be running on sheer hard-wired devotion to the job.
I found this volume different in tone from the first (very fatalistic vs. somewhat hopeful). More people have purposely gone away or simply vanished. Of those that remain some seem to be planning for a rescue from the end of the world and others are just carrying on. Here we also see a shadowy and brutal military presence.
Overall, an excellent continuation of the story. Can't wait to see how this concludes in the third volume.
Other reviews:
At In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.
At Crimepieces.

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Publisher:  Quirk Books, 2013
Length:       316 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:        Last Policeman Book II
Setting:       New Hampshire, USA
Genre:         Mystery
Source:       Borrowed from my husband

Monday, August 4, 2014

World War Z: Max Brooks


I do not like zombies. I do not like books or movies about zombies. So why did I read World War Z? Mainly because my husband recommended it, and based on his description, I was curious. The subtitle is "An Oral History of the Zombie War," and that describes the book pretty well.

This is the first paragraph in the book, which introduces us to the catastrophic events that have happened:
It goes by many names: “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” as well as newer and more “hip” titles such as “World War Z” or “Z War One.”  I personally dislike this last moniker as it implies an inevitable “Z War Two.”  For me, it will always be “The Zombie War,” and while many may protest the scientific accuracy of the word zombie, they will be hard pressed to discover a more globally accepted term for the creatures that almost caused our extinction. Zombie remains a devastating word, unrivaled in its power to conjure up so many memories or emotions, and it is these memories, and emotions, that are the subject of this book.
The book is presented as a compilation of interviews with survivors of the Zombie War. It is divided into sections covering different time periods in the conflict, starting with Warnings. That section has interviews with people from China, Tibet, Greece, Brazil, the West Indies, Israel and Palestine, all talking about first occurrences or encounters with the zombies.

Although each section covers some time frame in the Zombie War, what the reader really sees is what life is like in the present, ten years after the population of earth has been largely destroyed. It is clear that the threat is not totally gone, just under control enough to allow people to return to some semblance of a normal life.

Some reviewers found this book unsatisfactory because there is no continuing story, with characters that you can get to know. That is a valid point, but my take was that was what made the book so fresh and engrossing. It is true that each section was fairly short and just as you were getting into the story, it was over and I wanted to know more, to hang around.

This is my husband's review from Goodreads:
Zombies are the perfect nightmare villain. They are relentless, they can't be influenced, and in the case of this book, they number in the tens of millions.
This work, consisting entirely of interviews with survivors of the Zombie War, is so engrossing that it could have gone on for twice its length and never lost my interest.
Maps would have been a welcome addition (as in any history of any war) but that is a very minor quibble.
You can see that we both enjoyed the book, even though he likes zombies and I don't.

I haven't included many facts about the book other than the structure. I prefer to let the reader discover for themselves the good and the bad. However, I will point you to a good review at SF Site, if you want more details.  Also, another useful review at Atomic Spud.

And how was the movie?

The movie adaptation of World War Z stars Brad Pitt as a former employee of the United Nations who gets called back to his old job when the world is overrun with zombies. The movie bears little resemblance to the book. The movie is an action thriller, with zombies invading all countries of the world. In the movie, the zombies move very fast (different from most zombie movies I have seen, although I am far from an expert). In the book, the zombies are slow. That does not prevent them from overrunning the world, however. There are many, many other differences between book and movie and it is pretty safe to say that they basically just used the same title.

Brad Pitt's character, Gerry Lane, is a reluctant hero; he has left his job to spend time with his family and has no desire to go on expeditions to find a cure for the zombie problem. When it is clear that he and his family will lose their protected status if he does not cooperate, he gives in. And a plus is that he is not a superhero with no vulnerabilities. He is pretty much a normal guy, just clever and motivated to find some solution to the problem.

We watched the movie twice. The first time was before I had read the book, the second was after. The movie was enjoyable both times, but I liked it even better the second time. It has its flaws, but whether you will like it or not depends on what you are looking for. It is not a typical zombie movie, and that is what the viewer wants, it could be disappointing. It is a decent action flick.

I said at the beginning that I don't like zombie movies. I have watched and enjoyed two silly, humorous takes on zombie movies, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. I don't like the blood and gore in those movies, but they are fun movies if you can get beyond that. I did appreciate in this movie that there was no blood and little gore. The concept of zombies with no blood does agree with the book.

In this interview, Max Brooks talks about the book and the film.

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Publisher:  Crown Publishers, 2006
Length:      342 pages
Format:      hardcover
Setting:       worldwide
Genre:        science fiction, apocalyptic
Source:       Borrowed from my husband

Max Brooks wrote an earlier book about zombies in 2003, The Zombie Survival Guide. I have not read that book, but I understand that it is a parody of survival guides. He is the son of director and producer Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft. I did not know this until after I read the book and watched the movie twice, so it had no bearing on my decision to give the book a try.  The author only mentions his father in the acknowledgments to World War Z in this way: "and Dad, for 'the human factor'." His website does not mention his parents, so he is not trading on their fame. The acknowledgments also include "a final thank-you to the three men whose inspiration made this book possible: Studs Terkel, the late General Sir John Hackett, and, of course, the genius and terror of George A. Romero."