Sunday, November 17, 2019

Les Misérables: Victor Hugo

This book was quite a challenge to read in its entirety–1230ish pages in my edition–but it was a journey worth taking. The translator, Norman Denny, has written an introduction to the book, explaining the liberties that he has taken in translating the text. Two appendixes (one about convents, one about argot) were removed from the text and banished to the end of the book but they are not that long, so I read them too.

Description from the edition I read:
Victor Hugo’s tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged policeman Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty.
A compelling and compassionate view of the victims of early nineteenth-century French society, Les Misérables is a novel on an epic scale, moving inexorably from the eve of the battle of Waterloo to the July Revolution of 1830.
Les Misérables is more than a story about Jean Valjean and the orphan girl he takes on as his responsibility; it also functions as a history of those times and a look at the social issues that concerned Hugo. And for me, both aspects of the book succeeded. I did not mind at all the side excursions into the Battle of Waterloo and convent life, etc.

However, the book is very long and it was hard to stay focused on it. I started reading it on January 1, 2018, as part of a chapter a day challenge. The book in its long version has 365 chapters, many of them quite short. But that approach did not work well for me and I was reading it in e-book format. About a third of the way through I switched to a paperback copy, but that still did not keep me from reading in fits and starts. I will admit that parts of the book were a slog to read. Worth it in the end, of course. By the beginning of December 2018 I still had only read 800 pages. At that point I could not give up so I read the remaining 400 pages and finished at the end of January 2019.

Some parts of the story just flew by, and I was emotionally gripped by the story. The parts that diverted from the story and showed us a picture of France at the time were there for a reason and sometimes provided necessary background for the story. Yet they were slower to read and broke the momentum.

The last 150 pages of the book was a very emotional section of the book, pulling it all together, and I am glad I read the book. I don't recommend it to everyone, for the reasons I have mentioned above, but I will say that if you are interested, the book is worth trying and it has a lot to offer.

There are different translations of the unabridged book, and if you are interested in the differences, Brona's overview covers that very well.


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 1982 (orig. pub. 1862). 
Length:     1232 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     France
Genre:      Fiction, Classic
Source:    I purchased this book.
Translation from French by Norman Denny.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Death After Breakfast: Hugh Pentecost

I read the Pierre Chambrun novels by Hugh Pentecost years ago, and remember them fondly. Chambrun is the manager of a luxury hotel in New York. The narrator of the stories is Mark Haskell, the hotel’s public relations director.  He is devoted to Chambrun, as is the rest of the upper level staff.

Summary from the back cover of my paperback edition:
Something was terribly wrong. Pierre Chambrun, manager of the elegant Beaumont Hotel, was late for breakfast–an ominous sign for a man whose schedule ran with the precision of a fine Swiss watch. What's more, he was nowhere to be found.
But that was just the start. Suddenly a beautiful socialite is found dead in her suite. Suddenly the most prominent guests are under suspicion. Chambrun's loyal staff must find him and the missing piece in a deadly puzzle before ... a sadistic killer strikes again.
The problem with reading this particular story as my re-introduction to the series is that Chambrun is missing for a good bit of the story. Thus this is not typical of the series. Although Pierre Chambrun usually does the sleuthing in this series, in this story, Mark Haskell and the hotel's security chief, Jerry Dodd, are in the spotlight.

There really is not a lot of tension about whether Chambrun will be rescued, but there is the mystery as to who would abduct him and why. I actually did begin to suspect the reason as the plot progressed but that did not spoil the fun for me. And there is the complication of the murder of the hotel guest to solve.

I do think it is the setting of a luxury hotel, and the behind the scenes look at how it runs, that appeals the most to me.  Of course if the characters were not interesting, that might not be enough. I enjoyed reading this book, it was very nostalgic for me. I will read one or two more to see if the quality holds overall in the series and continues to entertain.

About the author:

Hugh Pentecost was a pseudonym used by Judson Philips. Philips wrote many, many mystery novels (over 100?), including standalone books and series about John Jericho, Uncle George Crowder, Luke Bradley, Pierre Chambrun, Julian Quist, Grant Simon, Dr. John Smith, and Peter Styles. But it is only his Pierre Chambrun series that I have read. Twenty two books in that series were published between 1962 and 1988.


Publisher: Dell, 1980 (orig. pub. 1978).
Length:    208 pages 
Format:    Paperback 
Series:     Pierre Chambrun
Setting:    New York City
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2019.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Woman in White: Wilkie Collins

This book is one of the first sensation novels. First published in 1859, it tells the story of a young woman  (Laura Fairlie) who marries unwisely and the man (Walter Hartright) who loves her and tries to rescue her from the clutches of an evil man.

First sentence:
This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.
And a few paragraphs later, the author tells us how the story will be told:
When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator; and his task will be continued, from the point at which he has left it off, by other persons who can speak to the circumstances under notice from their own knowledge, just as clearly and positively as he has spoken before them.
Thus, the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness...

Walter Hartwright is seeking a job, and his good friend Pesco suggests a position that will fit him perfectly – drawing instructor to two young women. He seeks and gets this position. The two women he will be tutoring are half-sisters, Laura Fairlie and Marian Halcombe; they live with Frederick Fairlie, Laura's uncle and owner of Limmeridge House in Cumberlands.

One night before he leaves for his new position, Walter meets a mysterious woman in white who has a strange connection to Limmeridge House.  Once he arrives at his new home, he seeks more information about this woman, with little initial success.

That is the set up for the story and I did not even know that much when I started reading the book. I liked going into the story with little knowledge, so I will not elaborate on the plot any further.

I enjoyed this novel, very much more than I expected to. I had resisted reading The Woman in White for years. Even though it is a well-known crime fiction classic, I did not think I would enjoy the old-fashioned story (how wrong I was!). Even then I might have tried it if it had not been so long (in various editions, 600-700 pages).  Finally I overcame my prejudice when Judith at Reading in the Wilderness blogged about how much she enjoyed it.

As noted above, the story is told from various points of view, and that includes some incidents described in diary entries. I liked that approach. William Hartright starts out the tale and is one of the major players, but at times he is only on the fringes of the story.

My favorite character was Count Fosco, an Italian man with a mysterious past, and a close associate of Laura Fairlie's fiancé. Marian Halcombe is a very strong character, determined and loyal. I really hated Laura's uncle, Frederick Fairlie, who lived in his own private world and cared only for his own wants and needs. The author was successful at evoking strong reactions to the characters and their actions.

I liked the edition that I read, published by The Modern Library. There was an introduction by Anne Perry, which I read after I finished the book. The notes by Chris Willis were very useful to me.


Publisher:   Modern Library, 2002 (orig. pub. 1859)
Length:      643 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      England
Genre:       Classic Mystery; Sensation novel
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Manual of Detection: Jedediah Berry

My son bought this book at the book sale last year. We both read it recently, and we both enjoyed it. But it is very hard to describe. It is very, very odd.

Charles Unwin works in a large organization, each department having one function (detecting, clerking, watching, archives, etc.). Unwin is a clerk to a detective, Travis Sivart, that he has never met. He reads the detective's reports on cases, researches them, and edits them before filing them away. Two of the well-known cases are titled "The Oldest Murdered Man" and "The Man Who Stole November Twelfth." One day, out of the blue, Unwin is promoted and he discovers that Sivart is missing. He begins pursuing the case of the missing detective, and finds out more about the huge detective agency he works for than he ever wanted to know.

In many ways this book was perfect for me. It mixes both mystery and fantasy, the story is dark but with a good bit of humor, and I liked the ending. I also liked the plethora of female characters. Some were evil, some were good, and some were a mix, and I never was sure which was which and what their motivations were. At times it seemed like an espionage story, where you never know who to trust.

There were a few detractions. At times I was frustrated with this book, at times I had trouble keeping track of the characters, and most if the time I had no idea where the book was going, but at all times I enjoyed reading it. So it was a winner for me.

Other resources:


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 2009). 
Length:     278 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     An unnamed city
Genre:      Mystery / Fantasy
Source:     Borrowed from my son.

Monday, November 4, 2019

What did I read in October 2019?

Another good month for reading. Mostly crime fiction, but I also read some non-fiction and a classic novella. And eight of the books were from my TBR piles, so that is good too.

Mystery Reference

American Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to US Crime Fiction, Film & TV (2017)
by Barry Forshaw
I have read several mystery reference books by Barry Forshaw in the last few months, and this is my least favorite. There are some decent overviews of some very well-known authors, and the TV and movie coverage is good, but the other books he authored provided better coverage for specific geographical locations (the UK and Scandinavia) or types of mysteries (historical). Most of his mystery reference books, including this one, focus on contemporary, living crime writers.

Nonfiction / Self-help

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning (2017) by Margareta Magnusson
The subtitle of this book is: How to Free Yourself and your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. The book is full of humor and useful hints on how to cut down on possessions. I enjoyed it, and it is brief and not cutesy.


Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) by Truman Capote
Read for the Back to the Classics challenge and for the Classics Club Spin #21. See my thoughts here.

Crime Fiction

Dissolution (2003) by C.J. Sansom
I don't usually read historical mysteries just to learn about the time period. But in this case I could, the time period in this book is so interesting and I know so little about it. King Henry VIII is in power and is working to eliminate Roman Catholic monasteries in England. Matthew Shardlake, an attorney who works for Thomas Cromwell, is sent to look into, and resolve, a murder at a monastery in Scarnsea. Luckily the writing is very good, the characters are engaging, and the merging of historical facts and characters blends well into the story, so this is a good read all around.

Killer's Choice (1957) Ed McBain
I finally got back to reading the 87th Precinct series after four years. This is the 5th in the series. See my thoughts here.

Wicked Uncle (1947) by Patricia Wentworth
#12 in the Miss Silver series, also published as Spotlight. Many of the novels in this series feature a romance, to some extent. This one is heavy on the romantic aspect, and Miss Silver shows up only briefly toward the beginning and then comes in to help with the solution to the crime towards the end of the story. Actually I  liked these aspects of the story, but somehow this one did not impress me as much at the two previous Miss Silver books I had read. The post-war setting was very good, though.

Killed in the Ratings (1978) by William L. DeAndrea
This is an author I have been planning to read for years, and I finally did it. I have several of his books, from different series. Killed in the Ratings was DeAndrea's first novel, and he won the Edgar for Best First Novel. The novel's protagonist is Matt Cobb, who works in the TV industry as a troubleshooter. I will be reading more books by this author.

Bitter Recoil (1992) by Steven F. Havill
I read my first book in Steven F. Havill's 24-book series about Undersheriff Bill Gastner in September. I loved it so I promptly found a copy of this second book in the series, and I enjoyed it just as much. So now I am looking for book #3. This is definitely a series I recommend. 

Charlie M (1977) by Brian Freemantle
This is the first book in the Charlie Muffin espionage series, and I have been wanting to read it for years. It did not disappoint, and I already have the 2nd one so I will continue the series. 
The Hypnotist (2009) by Lars Kepler
#1 in the Joona Linna police procedural series. This book has many elements I don't care for: tons of violence and gore, much above the level I find acceptable; very long, 503 pages; characters behaving in ways I don't understand. But I did enjoy reading the book, and that is what counts. I will read another from this series when I happen upon a copy. Translated from the Swedish by Ann Long.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Some Favorite Authors from the Book Sale

Between September 20 - 28th of this year, we attended the Planned Parenthood book sale four times. I always get too many books, and you would think I would slow down. Not this year. Again I bought an insane amount of books, but I am happy with all that I bought.

Today I am featuring some books by forgotten authors that I found at the book sale.

I have become enamored with Anthony Price's David Audley espionage series and have had difficulties finding decent copies at a reasonable price. On the very last day of the sale I found five paperbacks by Anthony Price. What a treasure trove!

The  books in the series (19 in all) were written during the Cold War and are about an intelligence organization functioning at that time. A New Kind of War (1987) takes the reader back to a younger David Audley in Greece in 1945.

The other four books in this series that I bought are:
October Men (1973)
Our Man in Camelot (1975)
Sion Crossing (1984)
Here Be Monsters (1985)

Blood and Judgment (1959) by Michael Gilbert is the first novel featuring Patrick Petrella. He was also in a good number of short stories and one other novel. I have been looking for this novel for a while, so it was another wonderful find.

I have only read 4 novels by Michael Gilbert, but I liked them all. Plus one book of short stories about Calder and Behrens, British counter-intelligence agents (Game Without Rules). So I am thinking I will like the Patrick Petrella series also.

Other books by Michael Gilbert that I found:
Be Shot for Sixpence (1956)
After the Fine Weather (1963)
Flashpoint (1974)
The Killing of Katie Steelstock (1980)

And a short story collection:
Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens (1982)

Hugh Pentecost was a pseudonym used by Judson Philips. Philips wrote many, many mystery novels, including standalone books and series about John Jericho, Uncle George Crowder, Luke Bradley, Pierre Chambrun, Julian Quist, Grant Simon, Dr. John Smith, and Peter Styles. But it is only his Pierre Chambrun series that I have read. Twenty two books were published between 1962 and 1988, although I am sure I did not read all of them. Chambrun is a hotel manager and I think it was that setting that was so fascinating when I read them years ago.

This year at the book sale I found Death after Breakfast (1978), Murder in High Places (1983), and Nightmare Time (1986) by Pentecost.

Another favorite author is Victor Canning, I discovered his books, especially the Birdcage series, at Existential Ennui. (Nick Jones also introduced me to Anthony Powell's series.) I found this lovely paperback copy of The Mask of Memory (1974), which is the next book in the series that I have been waiting to read.