Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Cutter and Bone: Newton Thornburg

I needed help describing this novel so I borrowed this introduction from Peter Boxnall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
A lost masterpiece of the Vietnam era, Thornburg's novel traces the domestic fallout of a period that promised social and political revolution but ultimately produced little or no change. At its center is the relationship between Alex Cutter, an alcoholic, disillusioned, crippled Vietnam veteran, and Bone, a self-interested gigolo.
Richard Bone is heading back to Cutter's house, where he lives when he is not free-loading off of some woman, when he  witnesses a body being dumped. It is raining and he isn't sure what he is seeing and he doesn't get a clear look at person who drops the body  off. When an acquaintance mentions that the body has been found in the neighborhood, Bone realizes what he saw, and he is later picked up by the police. So begins the quest of Cutter and Bone to determine who the murderer is, although Bone is a reluctant participant.

I have three things to say about this novel:
1) It was a fantastic read!
2) It was the most bleak book I have ever read.
3) The depiction of Santa Barbara is spot-on and fits in well with the telling of the story.

This is a crime novel and and there is a whodunit of sorts, but Cutter and Bone is much more about the characters and the experiences that have led them to where they are. At points in the book this is a buddy-drama / road trip. The last portion of this book is a mostly unpleasant drive to the Ozarks, in this case southern Missouri.

The characterizations are very well done. Every character, primary or secondary, comes alive. Many of them are damaged and dysfunctional, and not really sympathetic, but they are interesting.

About two-thirds of the book is set in Santa Barbara and surrounding areas. The depiction of the landscape, the landmarks, and the attitudes were almost perfect. Although the novel was written in and set in the 1970's, Santa Barbara today is not that different.

I found the book to be compulsively readable. There were nights I just could not stop reading. Other nights, I skipped reading it at all because I wasn't in the mood for more bleakness. I will definitely read it again.

The Film Adaptation...

The book was filmed as Cutter's Way, directed by Ivan Passer, with Jeff Bridges as Bone and John Heard as Cutter.  I saw the movie several years before I read the book, and then we watched it again recently. It was a very enjoyable experience, with good acting and even more scenes set in recognizable Santa Barbara locales. But I can see why Newton Thornburg would not have cared for the movie, and the film did not do the book justice.

I think the movie handled the characters well, although Cutter and Bone were diluted versions of the characters in the book. Several important or interesting secondary characters were omitted. But, all in all, well worth viewing, with or without reading the book.

See these resources...



Author Remembers Cutter's Way, interview from the Santa Barbara Independent, August 19, 2008.

From a film review at On Second Look:
Passer gets the atmosphere of Santa Barbara and that Central Coast feel just right. There is a juxtaposition of big money and hippie bohemia that makes it the perfect setting for this story. ...he also gets career defining performances out of his leads.
The Book You Have to Read at the Rap Sheet


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Serpent's Tail, 2001 (orig. publ. 1976)
Length:      313 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Santa Barbara, CA; the Ozarks.
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.
Introduction by George Pelecanos 


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Reading Summary for May 2018

May was another good reading month, all of the books were winners. Most of them came from my TBR piles, although two were borrowed from my husband. Mostly crime fiction, as usual.


This time I only read one book outside of the crime fiction genre. It was nonfiction, and it was a great choice.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014) by Ben Macintyre
I was about to read Young Philby by Robert Littell but decided that I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fiction related to that group. My husband had this book in his stacks and very kindly let me read it. It was perfect. The focus is on the longtime friendship of Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. They were both officers in MI6 for many years. The story is very interesting, the writing is fantastic, and there is an afterword by John le Carré. I still want to read more in-depth about other spies in that group but this was a great introduction.

And the list of crime fiction read:

Downfall (2018) by Margot Kinberg
This is the fourth book in the Joel Williams series. Joel is a former policeman who has left that job to teach criminal justice at Tilton University. I enjoyed visiting with Joel again, and this time he moves outside of his university environment. See my full review.
The Victoria Vanishes (2008) by Christopher Fowler
The Bryant and May mysteries star two elderly detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May, members of the fictional Peculiar Crimes Unit. The series is set primarily in London. Bryant witnesses a drunk woman coming out of a pub in a London backstreet and the next he learns she is dead. But when he goes back to the scene, the pub has vanished and the street is different. Thus this is obviously an homage to Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop
Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith
First sentence: "Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931." So we know at the beginning who will die, and not too long after that we learn who did it. An inverted mystery, a format I generally enjoy. My husband read this in April and encouraged me to read it. I enjoyed it immensely.
The House at Sea's End (2011) by Elly Griffiths
This is the third book in the series featuring forensics archaeologist Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives in Norfolk in an isolated cottage on the saltmarsh. She is often used by the police as an expert when unidentified bones are discovered. This time the bones date from World War II, and this leads to very interesting story from that time that ties in with the present.
Cutter and Bone (1976) by Newton Thornburg
Why did I wait this long to read this book? It is a very well-written thriller, although extremely bleak. But best of all for me, it is like a tour through Santa Barbara and surrounding areas in the mid-70's and the author obviously knew the area. The book was adapted to film with the title Cutter's Way.
Unorthodox Practices (1989) by Marissa Piesman
And here is another novel that I should have read long ago. It has been on the TBR piles for nearly 12 years. Nina Fischman is a Housing Court attorney, Jewish, single, and a little bit worried about that. It was a lot of fun, humorous, I found myself laughing out loud (very unusual when I read a book). The first half was better than the second half and the mystery was slight, although interesting. 

Traitor's Purse (1940) by Margery Allingham
This 11th in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, is entirely different from the preceding books. Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He leaves the hospital with the help of Amanda Fitton, who is his fiancée but it takes him a while to realize that. I loved it. See my full review.

The List (2015) by Mick Herron
A novella in the Slough House series, set between Dead Lions and Real Tigers. I haven't Real Tigers yet, so thought I would read this one first. Very good, mostly about a spy who handles older, retired spies, but featuring some of the characters in the books.



Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Traitor's Purse: Margery Allingham

Albert Campion awakens in a hospital bed with amnesia; he doesn't know who he is but he knows he was on a very important assignment. He overhears a conversation between two policemen that indicates that he has killed someone, and he knows he must escape and search for the truth.

This was a reread but I remembered very little of the plot, and it was a very entertaining read. So far I consider this my favorite in the series, but then I haven't gotten to Tiger in the Smoke, which is the favorite of most Allingham fans.


I can understand why some people don't care for this book as much as other Campion mysteries. It is not a standard mystery, it focuses more on an unknown conspiracy than a murder (although it does have a murder), and the reader knows as little about what is going on as the protagonist. But all of those reasons are why I liked it so much, along with the presence of Lady Amanda Fitton, charming, capable and dependable, who we learn early on has been engaged to Campion but now wants to call it off.

One thing I can say for sure. If you want to try Margery Allingham's mysteries, don't start here. It is book 11 in the Albert Campion series, published in 1940, and it is entirely different from the others. More than one reviewer had a bad experience with this book and noted that it might be due to not reading any others first. Two other books that feature Amanda are Sweet Danger (#5) and The Fashion in Shrouds (#10).

I especially enjoy mystery novels set during World War II, and even more so when they were also written at the time. Knowing that this was written when no one knew the outcome and in a location where the threat was so imminent adds to the thrill.

Please see other reviews at Pining for the West, In so many words, Jandy's Reading Room, and Crime Time.

Also see the review from Tipping My Fedora. I will share a quote from that post:
More of a wartime spy thriller than a classic whodunit, this is a superb adventure and one that forever changed Albert Campion into a new kind of hero, one that we would however not encounter again until the war was over. Allingham was a great writer and this is one of her best books.

 -----------------------------

From Mr Campion's Lady, the Second Allingham Omnibus
Publisher:  Chatto and Windus, 1965 (this novel orig. pub. 1940). 
Length:     147 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2005.



Friday, June 1, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from The Tipping Point to Ask for Me Tomorrow

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting point this month is Malcolm Gladwell’s debut, The Tipping Point. Per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the tipping point is defined as "the critical point in a situation, process, or system beyond which a significant and often unstoppable effect or change takes place." Malcolm Gladwell explores that idea in this non-fiction bestseller, published in 2000. I have not read the book but it does sound very interesting.


That book leads me to another non-fiction book that I recently read: A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. I read this book because I wanted to know more about the Cambridge Five before I read any more fictional works based on one or more members of that group.

At this time, the particular fictional book I want to read about the Cambridge Five is Young Philby by Robert Littell, one of my long list of favorite authors of spy fiction. Another book by Littell is The Defection of A. J. Lewinter, in which an American scientist defects to the Soviet Union.


This reminds me of one of my favorite series set in Russia, the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series by Stuart M. Kaminsky. My most recent read in that series is Hard Currency, published in 1995, which features a trip to Cuba. One of the things I like about the series is that there were books written before and after the break up of the Soviet Union, and the series reflects the changes in Russia over those years.

I will stay with the same author but a different book for my next link: Bullet for a Star, the first book in the Toby Peters series, published in 1977. The Toby Peters mysteries feature a private eye who often works for the movie studios. Each book centers around a real person, usually a movie star. This one features Errol Flynn and is set in 1940 in Hollywood, California.


Another mystery novel that features a real life movie star is Bye Bye, Baby by Max Allan Collins. In the 15th book in the Nate Heller series, the private detective is hired by Marilyn Monroe shortly before her death. Other books in the series deal with real crime and real people from the 1930's into the 1960's. Max Allan Collins is a very prolific author (see his books listed at Fantastic Fiction) and was honored with the Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 2017. This is another author whose books I have not read yet, although I have several on my shelves.

My last link is to a book by another Grand Master of the MWA ... Ask For Me Tomorrow by Margaret Millar, Originally from Canada, she later moved to Santa Barbara, California with her husband, Kenneth Millar (who wrote as Ross Macdonald). This book was published in 1941 and partially set in a town very much like Santa Barbara, although the town is called Santa Felicia in the book.


I find it interesting that the books in my chain all have links to the past, whether the books are historical fiction or non-fiction or actually written at an earlier time.

Next month (July 7, 2018), we’ll begin with Tales of the City, the first in the much-loved series by Armistead Maupin. I haven't read that one either, but I have it on my Kindle, and I will read several chapters from it in the next month, at a minimum.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Murder is Announced: Agatha Christie

This is the fourth Jane Marple mystery novel and my fourth read in that series in the last few years. The story is set in the small English village of Chipping Cleghorn. A murder announcement is placed into the Personals section of local newspaper and everyone assumes it is a clever invitation to a murder party. However, the group that gathers witnesses a real murder. Miss Marple is called in to help with the investigation.

Having only read four of the Jane Marple books, I cannot point out a definitive favorite, but many fans of Agatha Christie's books have selected it as their favorite. And for now I would place it as tied with The Moving Finger for my favorite.

This is a very clever story, and had me fooled for most of the book. Close to the end I began to suspect who the culprit was but I was still surprised and never guessed the why, the motive.

But, beyond the fact that this is a good mystery, there are several specifics I liked.

The introduction of all the characters, of which there are many, at the beginning of the story. As the morning newspaper arrives at each household in the village, the inhabitants read the announcement and discuss it. Thus we get an overview of each of the households. And throughout the book, the characterizations of both primary and secondary characters is very well done. Where the idea came from that Agatha Christie's books were peopled by cardboard characters, I don't know.

This novel also provided a very good picture of England, and particularly English villages, after World War II. Published in 1950, it was written when the deprivations following the war were still in effect. It was hard to get specific foods, everyone was wary of "foreigners" and it was more usual to have strangers in the area.

Also see reviews at these blogs: A Little Reading, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, FictionFan's Book Reviews, Past Offences, and Clothes in Books.


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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1970. Orig. pub. 1950.
Length:     197 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #4
Setting:     Small village, UK.
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2007.




Monday, May 28, 2018

20 Books of Summer 2018

A few days ago I was wondering if the 20 Books of Summer challenge would return in 2018. Then I saw Jean's list at Howling Frog Books, and I immediately started thinking about my list for this summer. The originator of the challenge is Cathy at 746 Books. Check out Cathy's list for more information.


This is a challenge of sorts but it is very flexible and I have enjoyed it for the last two years. For this event, summer starts June 1st and ends September 3rd. You can go for 15 Books of Summer or 10 Books of Summer if 20 is too much to commit to. Both years I participated I did not finish my list in the Summer, omitting 2 or 3 books, and I read others that appealed to me at the time. And that is fine.

And the absolute best part is making the list, even if it means narrowing down a list of 40 books to 20. So here is what I chose.



A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle
This brief book, barely over 100 pages, introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and it will be the first novel in this series that I have read.
Death in the Clouds (1935) by Agatha Christie
A woman is murdered with the venom-dipped dart of a South African blow-gun on a routine flight over the English Channel. A Hercule Poirot mystery.
The Bigger They Come (1939) by A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)
The first book in the Donald Lam and Bertha Cool series.
Murder with Mirrors (1952) by Agatha Christie
Jane Marple visits Carrie Louise at her Victorian mansion, Stoneygates, at the request of an old friend. UK title is They Do It with Mirrors.
Auntie Mame (1955) by Patrick Dennis
A story about a young boy raised by his aunt. It has been adapted for film and as a Broadway play.
Thunderball (1961) by Ian Fleming
The 9th James Bond book, set in the Bahamas. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of the criminal organization SPECTRE, makes his first appearance.
The Limbo Line (1963) by Victor Canning
Starring British Secret Service agent Richard Manston, who shows up later in Canning's Rex Carver books.
Death in the Garden (1995) by Elizabeth Ironside
A historical novel, with story lines in two different time periods. In 1925, Diana Pollexfen was accused of killing her husband, but found innocent. Sixty years later, her grandniece decides to find out what really happened.
The Terra-Cotta Dog (1996) by Andrea Camilleri
The 2nd Inspector Montalbano mystery, set in Italy, part of a long-running series. Montalbano finds a cave filled with artifacts and the bodies of two young lovers who have been dead for 50 years.
Starting Out in the Evening (1998) by Brian Morton
A novel about an aging author whose books are now generally forgotten, and a young female grad student who wants to a write her thesis about him. There is a movie based on the book starring Frank Langella.
Night Rounds (1999) by Helene Tursten
The second book in Helene Tursten's series featuring Inspector Irene Huss, set in Sweden. Her husband is a chef, and they have twin daughters and a dog. 
White Sky, Black Ice (1999) by Stan Jones
Starring Nathan Active, an Alaska state trooper assigned to the remote village of Chukchi. This will be my first experience reading this author.
Murder is Academic (2002) by Christine Poulson
This is the first book in Poulson's Cambridge Mystery series, starring Cassandra James. The UK title is Dead Letters
The Bone Garden (2003) by Kate Ellis
This is the 5th book in a series that has an archaeological theme and has two mysteries in each novel, one past, one in the present. I read the first one years ago but wasn't encouraged to continue with the series. Yet I have heard good things about the series and it now has a total of 22 books.
Gasa-Gasa Girl (2005) by Naomi Hirahara
The sleuth in this book is Mas Arai, a Japanese-American gardener in Los Angeles. This story takes him to New York, where his daughter lives. The 2nd book in the series.
The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters
I was attracted to this book by the subject matter (World War II, London, 1941-1947)  but put off by the length. Now I am going to give it a try.
An Expert in Murder (2008) by Nicola Upson
Mystery novelist Josephine Tey is the sleuth in this one. I was dubious of the premise but I have heard good things about the books so why not see if I like it?
The Diggers Rest Hotel (2010) by Geoffrey McGeachin
Set in post-World War II Australia, the hero is Charlie Berlin, who rejoins the Melbourne police force after the war. This book won the 2011 Ned Kelly Award.
The Cold Cold Ground (2012) by Adrian McKinty
Set in Northern Ireland in 1981, at the height of the Troubles. Starring Detective Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman.
Follow Her Home (2013) by Steph Cha
Juniper Song is a young female Korean American amateur detective in LA, who is an admirer of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. The series sounds like it could be fun.
Moskva (2016) by Jack Grimwood
I have read two of this author's books published as John Courtenay Grimwood and I was very impressed with them, so when I heard he had written a cold war spy thriller set in Russia, I had to read it.
 

Since this list is so long I won't even comment on its makeup, but since I have added dates you can see what decades I am reading from.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

On the TBR shelves: Patricia Wentworth novels

Actually I have many novels by Wentworth unread but the ones below I picked up at the Planned Parenthood book sale last September.

Outrageous Fortune (1933) is the only one that is not a Miss Silver novel.

A man survives a shipwreck—only to finds his memory wiped clean and a stranger at his bedside claiming to be his wife. See further description at Open Road Media.


The remaining books are all Miss Silver mysteries and were published during World War II or in the ten years after the war.

The Chinese Shawl (1943)   See a review by Katrina at Pining for the West.


The Case Of William Smith (1948)  See a review by Les at Classic Mysteries.


Through The Wall (1950)  See a review by Moira at Clothes in Books.


The Watersplash (1954)  See a review by Curtis at The Passing Tramp.



I also purchased these two at the book sale, and I have already read and reviewed them....
Grey Mask and The Clock Strikes Twelve.





Sunday, May 20, 2018

Downfall: Margot Kinberg

This is the fourth book in Margot Kinberg's Joel Williams series. Joel is a former policeman who has left that job to teach criminal justice at Tilton University. The first three books focused more on the academic setting, but in Downfall the setting shifts to Philadelphia.

Downfall is a quiet, more traditional mystery, where the sleuth gradually tries to tease out a problem that is bothering him. In this case, Joel is working on a research project with two other professors. The subject of the research is an alternative school for at-risk teens, Second Chance of Cords Creek, located in West Philadelphia. The researchers are concerned when they learn that a student in residence at the school died when he left the facility unattended. Even though this took place a couple of years before, they question whether the program has adequate oversight, and soon they begin to question whether the death was accidental.

MY REACTION

I enjoyed visiting with Joel again, and this time he moves outside of his university environment. He is still doing his job, though, working with students, other members of his department, and helping to assess if his department should work with another company that provides a for-profit alternative environment for juvenile offenders. Margot Kinberg lived a good portion of her life in Pennsylvania and works in higher education, so the setting is familiar to her and feels authentic.

I often gravitate towards police procedurals when choosing mystery novels, I like the relative realism that type of story provides. Joel doesn't exactly count as an amateur sleuth since he is a ex-cop, and he has good relationships with many policemen in the area. So this is the perfect mix for me, a mystery that focuses on the developing story and the characters but also has police resources when needed. 

This is not a thriller but there is a build-up to some tense moments, as the researchers seek more information on the death of the student, and they begin to suspect that his death was not an accident. When a second death occurs at an event run by  Second Chance, the stress increases and a real investigation starts.

I have read all three of the earlier books in this series, and each has a different approach and we meet new characters. I like this in a series.

I also love the title and the cover of the book.

See other reviews at Fiction Fan's Book Reviews and Mysteries in Paradise, and an interview at Col's Criminal Library.


-----------------------------

Publisher:  Grey Cells Press, 2018.
Length:      365 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Joel Williams #4
Setting:      Philadelphia
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Goldfinger: Ian Fleming


This was a fun read because I have watched the movie many times, but I had some  major quibbles with this novel.

The book starts with James Bond in the Miami airport, waiting for a delayed flight. Coincidentally, another passenger recognizes him from a previous encounter, and enlists his help in figuring out how Auric Goldfinger is cheating him at cards, canasta in this case. Only later does Bond find out that Goldfinger is causing consternation in the UK, because the Bank of England suspects him of smuggling large amounts of gold out of the country. His boss, M, assigns Bond the case of finding out exactly what Goldfinger is up to.


There are a lot of things to like about the James Bond thrillers by Ian Fleming. They combine adventure and spy fiction, with interesting characters, and each one is a bit different. There does not seem to be a formula. Sometimes the stories are a bit fantastic, but still a lot of fun.

In this case, Fleming did seem to borrow from an earlier book, with the initial encounter with a villain being connected to card playing, and Bond meeting the villain before there is an official case to investigate (similar to Moonraker). On the other hand, Bond's character is more developed in this book. He is introspective -- about his job where he kills people for a living, about his inability to be all things to all people.

Usually I find the James Bond books to be well written and entertaining, but this time the book had flaws that took me out of the story. There was a section of the story devoted to a round of golf, which went on entirely too long. It was important to the depiction of characteristics of both Goldfinger and Bond, and their future relationship, but could have been cut back by half, at least.

The story was also marred by offensive racial and homophobic comments.  Sometimes such remarks can be attributed to the time of publication or as a character trait, but there was so much time spent on these remarks in this story, it was impossible to just ignore them.

Moving on to the movie. This was the third of the James Bond films, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, Gert Fröbe as Goldfinger, and Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore.

We watched the movie again after I read the book. The plot of the movie is fairly close to that of the book, but there were some changes, enough to make it entertaining.

Sometimes I cannot believe that the outrageous names that are used in the movies are actually from the books, but they are. Pussy Galore is the best example, I just could not believe that name would be used in a novel. But it was. In the movie she leads a band of female pilots that perform for airshows; in the book she is a female crime boss.

One big difference I noted was that Felix Leiter, a CIA agent and long-time friend of Bond, has a much larger role in the movie than in the book. In the movie he is in Miami to meet Bond and pass on M's instructions to keep tabs on Goldfinger. In the book he shows up much later, although he plays a crucial role.

In this case I would recommend the movie over the book, although certainly it is always nice to read the source material.

This is the 6th James Bond book I have read since I started blogging. I started with Live and Let Die, Book 2 in the series, because I had read Casino Royale in 2007 after the Daniel Craig movie came out. Now that I have read Goldfinger, I really want to go back and reread Casino Royale, but I am also in a hurry to get to On His Majesty's Secret Service. Decisions, decisions.

Also see these reviews: Clothes in Books, At the Scene of the Crime, Simon McDonald, and Vintage Pop Fictions.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:   MJF Books, 1997 (orig. pub. 1959) 
Length:       318 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       James Bond, #7
Setting:      US, UK, France, Switzerland
Genre:       Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis


There are four novels in Connie Willis's Oxford Time Travel series and all of them are very long books. After reading Doomsday Book in November 2017 and To Say Nothing of the Dog in December 2017, I put off the last two, Blackout and All Clear, until later in March. The two books are really one book in two parts so I did end up reading both of them together, between March 24th and April 6th. It was a wonderful read, very emotional at the end.

The story is centered on three time travelers. They are historians who have assignments to go back to specific events in World War II in the year 1940. The time and place they come from is Oxford, England in 2060.


Rather than focus on the story. I am going spend more time on the characters.

  • Eileen O’Reilly (real name Merope Ward) works as a maid in a manor house in Backbury, Warwickshire. Her assignment is to observe children evacuated from London.
  • Mike Davis (real name Michael Davies) is sent to Dover, to observe the evacuation of servicemen from Dunkirk. He has been implanted with an American accent for a trip he planned to Pearl Harbor but his assignment is switched, so he poses as an American reporter.
  • Polly Sebastien (real name Polly Churchill) works as a shopgirl in London during the Blitz. She has been supplied with lists of places that were bombed during the Blitz over a specific period of time so that she can avoid those locations.

The story revolves around these three people and they eventually meet up in London. There are three other characters with smaller but important roles that I enjoyed:

  • Colin Templer previously appeared as a young teenager in Oxford in Doomsday Book. At the time the book begins he is a bit older, 17, and has a crush on Polly. 
  • Mr James Dunworthy, who is on the teaching staff of Balliol College, Oxford University, provides tutoring to the historians prior to their assignments, and appears in all of the books in the series. He is in charge of making the time travel assignments and has been moving them around for a reason that has not been shared with the historians or the reader. When things start going wrong, Mr Dunworthy decides to go to 1940 himself.
  • Sir Godfrey Kingsman was not a time traveler but one of the "contemps," a person who belongs in the time that the historians are visiting. Sir Godfrey is a classically-trained Shakespearean actor who befriends Polly in an air raid shelter. They develop an attraction and affection for each other even though there is a very large age difference.

There are confusing elements: The historians have multiple assignments in the past, and in each trip to the past they have different names to fit in with the time period. Throughout the book we read about various time travelers and in some cases the real identity of the time traveler is not clear. This did not bother me, but it could be confusing and frustrating. I also think it was intentional, so I just went with the flow.

I liked All Clear better than Blackout, and it wasn't just because Blackout ends with a cliffhanger and there is a real ending to All Clear. In the first book there was too much repetition of and emphasis on the thought process of the historians, a quibble I also noted in my review of Doomsday Book. They worry all the time about the predicament that they are in AND they don't tell their fellow historians their concerns. It is like a soap opera. And both parts were too long. But I have no regrets about the two weeks I spent reading these books.

Those are my only criticisms of Blackout / All Clear and overall I loved the books. I think that the author does a great job with the characterizations. I was especially fond of the main characters but there are many, many small parts in these books and several of those minor characters still stick with me. I see Connie Willis's time travel series as re-readable and I am sure I will be doing that someday with these two books because of the picture of the UK during the Blitz. I will be able to slow down and savor them because I won't be worried about the fate of the characters.

The most important thing that I took away from this reading experience was its focus on the ordinary people in the UK during the war and the effect the war had on their country and their lives. I have always been interested in this time period, but I had no idea of the extent of the suffering and upheaval in the UK until I read two books by Juliet Gardiner, Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 and The Blitz. I was not a student of history and any history I learned came from the perspective of how the US fit into events. Whether the facts and the terminology are absolutely correct or not, you cannot miss the impact of World War II on the everyday life of people in the UK when reading Blackout and All Clear.

If you are interested in an overview of the mechanics of time travel in this novel, check out Alan J Chick's article on Connie Willis's “OXFORD TIME TRAVEL” SERIES.

See these links for more. Note that most of these reviews have quibbles but still like the book:



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Blackout
Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, February 2010
Length:      512 pages 
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #3
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      Borrowed from my husband

All Clear

Publisher:   Bantam Books / Spectra, October 2010
Length:      656 pages 
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Oxford Time Travel, #4
Setting:      England 
Genre:       Time Travel
Source:      Borrowed from my husband


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Whip Hand: Rex Carver

From the cover of my Arcturus Crime Classics edition:
This fast-paced thriller opens with laconic private eye Rex Carver accepting an apparently straightforward job of tracing a missing young German au pair. Never one to avoid trouble, Carver soon becomes entangled in a dangerous game of international espionage and double dealing.
Although I have read only three books by Victor Canning, I have become a big fan of his writing. This book is along the lines of a James Bond thriller, although the protagonist, Rex Carver, is a private eye and not a spy. He does do some side jobs for a British secret service department. This is the first in a series of four books featuring Carver, and I look forward to reading the others.

In this book, Carver follows his assignment, and the au pair, Katerina, whom he has fallen for, to Paris, Dubrovnik, the island of Mljet, Venice and Germany. He finds that agents from Germany and Russia are also interested in her.


The plot was rather over the top for me and serpentine, but Carver's first-person narration kept me engaged. He was a delightful although flawed protagonist. I also enjoyed two of the female characters in this book, Hilda Wilkins, Carver's secretary and partner in the private detective agency, and Verité Latour-Mesmin, whose boss indirectly hired Carver to find Katerina. Verité is very cool and professional but slowly warms up to Carver's charms.

And I loved the ending of the book. That always makes a big difference to me.

See these other resources:
At the Victor Canning pages
At Simon's Book Blog
At Clothes in Books

John Higgins, who created the Victor Canning pages, which cover Canning's writings in depth, has written a book, A Rex Carver Companion, about the Rex Carver books, including background material about Canning. I have only dipped into that because this is the only Rex Carver book I have read so far, but I am enjoying it immensely.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Arcturus Publishing, 2011 (orig. publ. 1965)
Length:     254 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Rex Carver #1
Setting:    UK, France, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), Italy, and Germany
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased my copy

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to Wartime


The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting point this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I have not read the book, and knew nothing about it until now. Per the author's website:
The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959.
The fact that the story included narration from each of the daughters, from a five-year-old to a teenager, sounds very interesting, but the length of the book (over 500 pages) might put me off.

Moving on to my first link, I chose to go with another book set in Africa, Tefuga by Peter Dickinson. I read that book in 2004 and I remember being very impressed by the book and especially the ending. The book is set in Nigeria and tells the story of a man in the 1980's filming the story of his mother's experiences in that country in the 1920's. Alternating chapters are from her diary. Now I want to reread that book.



My next book is another book by the same author, King and Joker. This one is an alternative history and a mystery, and one of my favorite books ever. The premise is described at Peter Dickinson's website:
If Prince Edward hadn't died in 1892 he would have succeeded to the throne of England, instead of his brother George, and reigned as King Victor I, to be succeeded in his turn by his grandson King Victor II, the present monarch. Much would have remained the same, but much would have been very, very different. 
The story is told from the point of view of the teen-age Princess Louise.

Another alternative history / mystery is Farthing by Jo Walton. It is part of a trilogy set in the 1940's after Britain has made peace with Hitler. A murder occurs at a house party in the country, during a retreat of members of the Farthing Set, the group that supported appeasement rather than war. Part of the narrative focuses on Lucy Kahn, daughter of the proprietors of the Farthing estate, and her husband, the only Jewish person attending the house party.


The policeman investigating the death at the country house in Farthing is a Scotland Yard detective sent from London. In my next book, the detectives are also London police detectives but they work for the Metropolitan Police force in the Peculiar Crimes Unit. The book is Ten Second Staircase by Christopher Fowler and the detectives are Arthur Bryant and John May. They are elderly and eccentric and very effective in the long run.

Now I move on to another elderly sleuth, Miss Maud Silver, featured in over thirty novels written by Patricia Wentworth between 1928 and 1961. The Clock Strikes Twelve, published in 1945, begins on the last day in 1941. Thus this is set during World War II and shows the effects of the war on the various characters.


I enjoy reading mystery novels set during World War II, both those written at the time, and historical mysteries. But my last book is a nonfiction book, a very in-depth coverage of Britain during the war: Wartime: Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner. It focuses on how World War II affected the populace of Great Britain, using in many cases quotes from letters and diaries written during that time. The emphasis is on what happened in the country itself, not on the war waged in other countries.

These chains are a lot of fun. I learn about books I haven't read (and might want to read) and remember series I want to continue reading. Now I am reading the 6th book in Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series, The Victoria Vanishes.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Malice Aforethought: Francis Iles


An inverted mystery reveals the murderer early in the story and usually shows the murder taking place. Then the real mystery of the story is why the murder was done or how the murderer is caught. Some readers don't go for that, but I really do. Usually.

Malice Aforethought is mentioned frequently as one of the first inverted mystery novels. I have read and enjoyed many inverted mysteries but in this one the emphasis is more on the buildup to the murder than on the events following the event.

Dr. Edmund Bickleigh, known to his wife and friends as Teddy, is the murderer and he takes quite a while planning and executing the murder. Although we know from the beginning that he wants to murder his wife, he is very careful to do it in a way that won't look like murder.

This book was written in 1931 and it was very innovative for its time.The setting is a small English village where everyone knows everyone and gossip is a way of life. The village was filled with very unappealing characters, including Teddy.


Unfortunately the book just did not work for me.  There were very few things I liked about it. But I am in the minority.

The book had a great beginning and I liked the ending, but there was not enough to keep me interested in between. I don't have to like the characters, but I do need to be interested in them, and I was not. Teddy's wife was an overbearing, snobby woman and I could almost understand him wanting to get rid of her. But his behavior is just as bad and I could not build up any sympathy for anyone.

The tension builds admirably; over the course of the book, Teddy develops from an almost normal if somewhat self-centered man to gradually losing control over his whims and emotions.  But it took too long for anything to happen. There were long, detailed descriptions of activities. But I found none of that entertaining or enlightening. I kept reading because I was sure that I was missing something.



Although most reviewers give this book glowing reviews, I am not totally alone in my opinion. In 1001 Midnights, by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, Marsha Muller's review of Malice Aforethought agrees with my assessment. She says:

"If Teddy and his wife are not likable neither is anyone else.... And it does take Teddy an interminable time to get on with his murder--so long that when it finally happens, it's more a relief than a shock. This book is slow going, and like its protagonist, seems to have few redeeming qualities."

Francis Iles is a pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley Cox. The author also published books as Anthony Berkeley.

Because this is a classic crime fiction novel and so well-liked by so many, I would still recommend that you give the book a try. Check out the following reviews. All except one is very positive.




-----------------------------

Publisher:  Harper & Row, 1981 (orig. publ. 1931)
Length:      290 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Inverted mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Reading Summary for April 2018


Once again I have read more books this month than I expected. One book was very very long and took most of a week to finish (All Clear), and several were vintage mysteries which usually don't have lots of pages, so I guess it all balances out. Mostly crime fiction, as usual. I also read a good mix of older and newer fiction, which I am happy about.

I read two books outside of the crime fiction genre. One was Connie Willis's time travel book All Clear. The other was a book of short stories, I Bring Sorrow by Patricia Abbott, which had 25 stories, all dark, some crime fiction, some from other genres.


All Clear (2010) by Connie Willis
When I started reading Blackout and All Clear, all I knew about the books was that they took place in 1940, during the London Blitz, and they were about a group of time travelers who were from Oxford in 2060. And I did not want to know more than that so I hesitate to go into more depth here. A more detailed summary that doesn't give away much is available at Goodreads. The two books are really one book in two parts so I did end up reading both of them together, between March 24th and April 6th. It was a wonderful read, very emotional at the end, and I loved it.



I Bring Sorrow: and Other Stories of Transgression by Patricia Abbott
This book contains 25 short stories; some are very short (3-6 pages), most fall between 10-15 pages in length. There  are definitely some that fit the crime fiction label, with violence and murders, but there are others that are more atmospheric and thought-provoking. Actually all of them made me stop and think and that is what I loved about them. See my full review.


The remainder of my reads were crime fiction novels. Four were written before 1960, one in the 1970's, one in the 1990's, and two were after 2000.  I got in two more vintage mysteries than last month so I am happy about that.

The Silent Speaker (1946) by Rex Stout
This was a reread; I have read all of the books in the Nero Wolfe series multiple times. The Silent Speaker is one of my favorites in the series. Nero Wolfe is investigating the murder of the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR) and the group footing his bill is the National Industrial Association (NIA). The two organizations are rivals. This was the first novel that Rex Stout published after World War II and it depicts an interesting time. See this post for more on the book.
Hidden Depths (2007) by Ann Cleeves
This is the third book in Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series, which is also now a TV series. This one takes place in the summer on the Northumberland coast. A woman returns home after a night out to find her son dead in the bathtub; she assumes it is suicide. But it was murder and Vera and her team are investigating. I liked this one for the same reason I liked the first two in the series: wonderful characterizations and a great sense of place.
The Case of the One-Penny Orange (1977) by E.V. Cunningham
This is the second of seven mystery novels starring Masao Masuto, a detective on the Beverly Hills police force. The mysteries were  written by Howard Fast, using the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham. Matsuo is Nisei, a native-born American who parents were Japanese immigrants. Matsuo is a Zen Buddhist and his religion shapes his way of looking at things and his behavior in his work. I enjoy these books, at least the ones I have read so far. See this post for more on the book.
Goldfinger (1959) by Ian Fleming
Back in April 2016 I started a project to read all the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. I was inspired by Moira at Clothes in Books, who has read and posted on all the books now. I am far behind. Goldfinger is only book #7 of 14 books (although two of them are short story books, not novels). This was a fun read because I have watched the movie so many times, but it is not one of my favorite Bond books so  far.
Malice Aforethought (1931) by Francis Iles
This is a classic mystery novel, mentioned frequently as one of the first examples of the inverted mystery novel. I have read and enjoyed many inverted mysteries but I did not like this one as much, although it is usually very well reviewed. I will be posting on this book soon.

Eva's Eye (1995) by Karin Fossum
The story begins with a woman discovering a body while walking on a river bank with her young daughter. The woman is Eva Magnus, and soon we learn that she is also linked to another unsolved case, the murder of a prostitute.  The police get to work on figuring out how the two cases are related. I enjoyed this first book in the Inspector Konrad Sejer series very much, although I found the ending quite sad. The setting is Norway; I read this book for the European Reading Challenge.
The Private Practice of Michael Shayne (1940) by Brett Halliday
This is the 2nd in a long-running series featuring Michael Shayne, private detective. I read the book at this time primarily because I have a few Mike Shayne movies starring Lloyd Nolan and the first of those is based on this book. This is only the second book by this author that I have read, and I enjoyed this one even more than the first one. And a bonus is the cover illustration by Robert McGinnis.
Death of a Nationalist (2003) by Rebecca Pawel
Carlos Tejada Alonso y León is a Sergeant in the Guardia Civil, and stationed in Madrid in 1939. The bitter civil war between the Nationalists and the Republicans has ended and Tejada is part of the Guaria Civil that is attempting to impose order in Madrid. Reading about the Spanish Civil War was new for me, and the book was  extremely well-written, I read this book for the European Reading Challenge.