Sunday, March 17, 2019

The 74th Annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

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

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

Saturday, March 16, 2019

2019 World at War Reading Challenge

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

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

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

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

The categories:

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

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Turncoat: Aaron Elkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Monthly Reading in February 2019

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

Mystery reference

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


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

Graphic novel

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


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

Crime Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Tears of Autumn: Charles McCarry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Shanghai Factor: Charles McCarry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Arsonist to The Indigo Necklace

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 Arsonist by Chloe Hooper, a non-fiction book about the man who started two fires that let to a bushfire catastrophe in Australia. The book sounds very disturbing, but it is of interest to me because of the devastating wildfires we have had in California in the last year or two.

My first link is to a fiction story about arson on a smaller level, in The Dark Snow and Other Mysteries by Brendan DuBois. One short story in this book is "Fire Burning Bright", about a small town plagued by an arsonist, this time burning down houses, which causes the people in the area to become suspicious and distrustful of their neighbors.

 This leads me to another anthology of short stories, Alfred Hitchcock's Happiness is a Warm Corpse. I collect books with skulls or skeletons on the cover, and this is a great example.

Thinking about Hitchcock leads me one of my favorite films directed and produced by Hitchcock, Vertigo. That film was based on a book written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, titled D’entre les morts (1954). The film was set in San Francisco, but the book was set in France and originally written in French.

Another novel I read that was translated from French was Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas. This book in the Commissaire Adamsberg series is set in the French Alps. Adamsberg is based in Paris, but in the first two-thirds of this book, the story centers on a group of people residing in the French Alps who are on a quest to stop a murderer.

For the next link, I move on to the Swiss Alps... to Season of Snows and Sins (1971) by Patricia Moyes, one of my favorite authors of mysteries. The story has several narrators, starting with Jane Weston, a sculptor who has moved to a small chalet in the Swiss Alps. She invites Scotland Yard Inspector Henry Tibbett and his wife Emmy to visit at Christmas, since she knows how they love to ski. And then, of course, there is a murder.

My final book in the chain, The Indigo Necklace (1945) by Frances Crane, also features a husband and wife detecting duo. The books in the series  were set in a variety of locations. In this one, Pat and Jean Abbott are living in a rented apartment in an old house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where Pat is stationed toward the end of World War II.

Next month (April 6, 2019), Six Degrees of Separation will begin with Ali Smith’s award-winning novel, How to be Both.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Outrage at Blanco: Bill Crider

Outrage at Blanco is a Western, a crime story, and a tale of revenge with a strong female lead. It is set in 1887 and the action starts out in Blanco, Texas.

The story starts with a rape. Two men attack Ellie Taine on the way home with supplies she had picked up in Blanco, Texas. Their mistake is that they leave her alive. When she gets home, her husband goes out to find the men and avenge the crime, but that doesn't go well. What follows is Ellie's journey to get her own revenge. She is accompanied by an ailing, retired Texas Ranger, Jonathan Crossland.

I liked everything about this novel. The writing is good; the story is told in a straightforward manner. I liked the picture of the times and the locale.

Bill Crider creates several interesting characters in this book. Ellie Taine and Jonathan Crossland are good partners in their quest for revenge. Ellie's determination and intelligence is very believable, and Jonathan brings his tracking ability, even with his disabilities. The men they are following each have different motivations and views on life. We see the events from both sides and are privy to the character's thoughts and motivations.

While looking through the book for this review, having read it 5 months ago, I found myself wanting to reread it. And I will someday read the sequel, Texas Vigilante.

I liked this quote on the back of my Brash Books edition:

"Bill Crider is one of the most unpretentious and versatile pure entertainers in the mystery field." 
            -- Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

Also see:


Publisher:   Brash Books, 2014 (orig. publ. 1999)
Length:      184 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Ellie Taine #1
Setting:      Texas, 1887
Genre:       Western
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Unsuspected: Charlotte Armstrong

In this impressive, disturbing novel of psychological suspense, Luther Grandison is a famous director of stage plays and movies who holds sway over his two young female wards, one rich, one beautiful. His young secretary, Rosaleen, has recently committed suicide by hanging herself. Rosaleen's good friend Jane has taken the position of secretary to Grandison, as she suspects that the death was not suicide. She does not reveal to Grandison that she knew Rosaleen, but she does ask Rosaleen's former fiancé, Francis, to look into the situation.

Francis decides to pretend to have been married to one of Grandison's wards, Matilda, who died when her ship went down during a sea voyage to Bermuda.  Then, weeks later, Matilda shows up, having survived the ship going down. This description makes the plot sounds so complex as to be unbelievable, but the story moves quickly enough to be convincing.

I have only read two books by Charlotte Armstrong in the last few years. Both have been books that she wrote early in her career, and I liked both of them. She published mysteries from 1942 to 1970, and this one was published in 1946. She became well known for her novels of psychological suspense, often featuring women as amateur sleuths.

The story is told in a linear fashion, but it does hop around and gets a tad confusing. That could be just me, and it certainly did not ruin the story for me. We see the story from different points of view as it progresses, often from Francis's point of view or Matilda's.

Enjoyment of this book may depend on how much the reader can suspend disbelief and buy into the effect that the charismatic Grandison has on most people. I have never particularly cared for people "going undercover" or assuming false identities to prove that a crime has been committed, but this time it worked for me.

The book was made into a 1947 black and white film noir directed by Michael Curtiz, starring Claude Rains, and also featuring Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, and Constance Bennett.  I sought this book out specifically because I had seen a trailer of the film. As usual I was glad to have read the book first, but both are very, very good. Some of the story is changed in the film, but it is every bit as suspense-filled as the book.

To see some of the lovely black and white photography in the film, go to this post at The Nitrate Diva.

For other reviews of the book, see this review at Dead Yesterday, which goes into more detail about the story than I do, and Ryan's review at Wordsmithsonia.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1947 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length:   218 pages
Format:   Paperback
Setting:   US
Genre:    Mystery
Source:   I bought my copy.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A Chill Rain in January: L.R. Wright

Zoe Strachan was an angry, dangerous child, who eventually learned to keep her anger under control and hide her true self. As an adult, she has moved to Sechelt, on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, and has structured her life the way she wants it. Until her brother shows up and threatens to reveal some of her secrets. Shortly after that he dies from a fall down a flight of stairs.

Ramona Orlitzki, elderly and a widow, used to enjoy living alone in her small cottage, going out and enjoying her friends and neighbors and depending on them for help now and then. Eventually, her memory deteriorated and she got too old to live alone and had to move to Sechelt's hospital floor reserved for the elderly who needed care. But she tires of the regimented existence and lack of freedom and makes a break for it. The strange thing is, she is successful and eludes discovery.

The lives of these two women intersect and Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg gets involved. The local medical examiner hesitates to sign off on the death of Zoe's brother as accidental. Alberg doesn't think that there has been a crime, but he knows something is off.

This is not your standard mystery. The story is told from many points of view: Zoe's, Ramona's, Karl Alberg's, and more. The reader knows what is happening and the only mystery is... how will the situation be resolved? The story slowly moves to a climax.

A Chill Rain in January reads more like a straight novel than a mystery, focusing in part on the reaction in a small town when Ramona disappears. Some readers may not care for that, but it was perfect for me.

This is the third book in the Karl Alberg series by L. R. Wright. The first book, The Suspect, won the Edgar for Best Mystery Novel. I have read the first three books in the series, and they all feature excellent characterization and development of relationships over time, and loads of atmosphere. I would love to visit Sechelt.


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2009 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      261 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Karl Alberg #3
Setting:      Sunshine Coast in British Columbia, Canada
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Murder in Mykonos: Jeffrey Siger

Inspector Andreas Kaldis has been assigned to the beautiful island of Mykonos as Police Chief, a promotion of sorts. He is not happy with the situation because he loved being a homicide detective in Athens, but he takes the change in stride, hoping to return to Athens at some later time. The first case of any consequence after his arrival on Mykonos is the discovery of a young woman's bones in a church. More bones are discovered in other churches, all from young women, and it becomes clear that there has been a serial killer on Mykonos for years.

Kaldis quickly becomes friends with the local head of homicide, Tassos Stamatos. Kaldis, Stamatos, and the sleazy mayor of Mykonos work together to solve the mystery before the story of a serial killer on the loose leaks to the press. There is a lot of political maneuvering and the book does not paint a pretty picture of politics and government in Greece.

I realized early on that this book had one strike against it... but only because of my own prejudices. I do not like serial killer stories, and this one had all the aspects I don't like about that subset of the mystery genre. Getting inside the head of the killer, experiencing the panic of the victims, etc.

I have heard that this is a good series; it now consists of ten books. So I persevered. Overall this was an engaging read, with some interesting characters. The side story of a worried mother making her way to Mykonos to find her daughter when she goes missing was well-done. Some events, especially later in the book, were a bit over the top, but that is not unusual in a thriller.

Setting is very important in this story. The plot and its twists and turns tie into the geography of Mykonos and the churches and the religious beliefs on the island. The author convinced me that the island is very beautiful, but I would never want to visit there. A place that relies on tourism for its livelihood and is overrun with visitors doesn't appeal at all.

I am hoping that this is a decent introduction to a new series character and that the next books in the series appeal to me more. I have books two and three, and I will definitely give them a try. The books in the series are set in various locations in Greece, and attempt to explore societal issues in Greece, as the author says in an interview at Ramblings from Rhodes from early 2018:
They are aimed at exploring serious societal issues confronting modern day Greece in a tell-it-like-it-is style while touching upon the country's ancient roots. At the heart of each book lay some modern-day upheaval or other uncomfortable subject that most writers prefer to avoid, yet is precisely the sort of issue I promised myself to address when I changed careers.

Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press, 2010 (orig. pub. 2008)
Length:    279 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Inspector Kaldis #1
Setting:    Greece
Genre:     Thriller
Source:    Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The Mirror Crack'd: Agatha Christie

This is a Miss Marple mystery and I always enjoy a visit with that elderly sleuth. This time Miss Marple is really feeling her age, which made me sad. But her wits are just as sharp as ever and I liked the picture of the changing times in St. Mary's Mead, with a new housing development and more modern shops.

This is the 8th book in the series and it ties back to the 2nd book, The Body in the Library (reviewed here). That book featured Gossington Hall, the property of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. In this book, Dolly has sold her home to a famous actress, Marina Gregg, and her husband, a film director. A fête is held on the grounds of their new estate, and a local woman, Heather Badcock, dies after being invited in to meet the new owners.

This novel has a very ingenious plot. Even though I had an inkling of what had happened early on, I wasn't sure until the end. Christie always keeps me guessing, and that is one of the things I love about her books.

And the characters. There are so many good characters in this book: Cherry Baker, Miss Marple's house cleaner; Dr. Haydock, Miss Marple's physician; Dermot Craddock, an inspector from Scotland Yard. And more.

Even though it saddened me to see Miss Marple somewhat physically challenged and having to put up with her overbearing, annoying caregiver, Miss Knight, the depiction of the amateur sleuth dealing with aging and the cultural changes in the neighborhood was very well done, and made for a richer story.

My goal has been to read the Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series in order whenever possible, but this is another one where I skipped ahead so I could watch the film version from 1980, starring Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. The film also starred Elizabeth Taylor as Marina and Rock Hudson as her director husband. I thought they were perfect for the roles but most of the characters were quite a bit different from those in the book. I could not quite picture Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple, but I like her very much as an actress, and she did well enough in the role. The story was changed enough to disappoint me a bit, but I am sure I will be watching the film again.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1962.
Length:     216 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Miss Marple, #4
Setting:     St. Mary Mead, UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2017.

Monday, February 4, 2019

2019 European Reading Challenge

In the 2019 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader, participants tour Europe through books. The books can be read (and reviewed) anytime between January 1, 2019 to January 31, 2020.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. You can participate at different levels, but each book must be by a different author and set in a different country. A book must be reviewed in order to count towards the goal.

I am joining at the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE): Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. (And aiming for more?)

Here is the list of countries:
Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.

So far this year I have already read books set in the UK, France, and Greece (no reviews yet).

ADDED -- list of translated European novels that I have found:

Mrs. Peabody's suggestions for good European translated novel.

A list from Sarah Ward: Top 10 Scandinavian Crime Novels in Translation

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Reading Summary, January 2019

Another lovely month of reading in January. I read ten books: one fantasy, eight mysteries, AND I finally finished Les Misérables. I was feeling pretty bad about taking 13 months to read that book, but when I realized I read 400 out of 1200 pages in December and January, I decided that wasn't so bad.

Of the eight crime fiction books, two were set in the UK (England and Scotland), one was set in France, one set in Canada, and the others were set in the US. So, a good bit of variety.

Classic Fiction in January

Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo
Very glad to have finished this book. It started out as part of a chapter a day challenge, but that 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 my hardback copy, but that still did not keep me from reading in fits and starts. January was more a month of reading comfort books for me so it wasn't until the end of the month that I got back to the book and finished the last 140 pages. A very emotional section of the book. I am glad I read the book.

Fantasy Fiction in January

Good Omens (1990) by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This is a comic version of an Armageddon novel. It was written when both Gaiman and Pratchett were at the beginning of their careers. I enjoyed it very much, although I did have problems with an overload of humor. I prefer more subtle humor. The book is often compared to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and it does have the same style of writing and tone. A very entertaining  and fun book.

Crime Fiction in January

True Detective (1983) by Max Allan Collins
A historical mystery, with a private detective as the likable protagonist, not damaged, but not perfect either. And set in a very interesting time and place: Chicago during Prohibition, early 1930s. I loved the book and the character. My review is here.

Field of Blood (2005) by Denise Mina
I liked the first Denise Mina book I read (Garnethill), and this one was also very good. The subject matter was not my favorite; a young child has been killed. However the setting was great: Glasgow in the early 1980's. And the characters are well developed, interesting, not gorgeous with fantastic lives but real people with problems.
A Room Full of Bones (2011) by Elly Griffiths
The 4th book in a series of 11 books about Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist. She works with the police in her area whenever bones need to be examined. This series shines because the main characters are unique and the cast of recurring supporting characters get more and more interesting.

Murder with Pictures (1935) by George Harmon Coxe
My first vintage mystery fiction of the year. I was interested in this series, starring Kent Murdock, because he is a newspaper photographer, with a gift for sleuthing. I look forward to reading more by Coxe.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1950) by C.W. Grafton
C. W. Grafton was the father of Sue Grafton; he wrote four novels, and three of those were mysteries. This was his last novel, and I believe it is the best known.  This book was very different, it is an inverted mystery, and I enjoyed it very much. My review is here.

Die Trying (1998) by Lee Child
This is the 2nd Jack Reacher novel and there are now 23 books in the series. In the past year and a half I read two other Jack Reacher novels, the 9th (One Shot) and the 18th (Never Go Back). I am amazed at how much I enjoy these books. The writing is nothing special but the author draws me in and keeps me reading and I like the Jack Reacher character a lot.

A Rule Against Murder (2007) by Louise Penny
My first Canadian book of the year. Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache are celebrating their 35th anniversary at the Manoir Bellechaise, a former hunting lodge turned luxury resort on the shore of Lac Massawippi in Quebec. For those who are not familiar with Louise Penny's series, Armand Gamache is the head of Homicide at the Sûreté du Québec, and the protagonist of the series. This is the fourth book in the series. It took me a while to warm up to the series, but this book was very, very good.

Summertime All the Cats Are Bored (2009) by Philippe Georget
Gilles Sebag is a police inspector in the  French seaside town of Perpignan. He has been passed over for promotion  throughout his career due to choosing to take a reduction of hours when his children were young. His children are now teenagers and he suspects that his lovely wife may be having an affair. Then a young woman goes missing and the case becomes high profile, demanding most of his time. This was not a perfect book but very interesting and one that provides a good picture of the south of France. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Case of the Weird Sisters: Charlotte Armstrong

Alice Brennan has decided she is going to marry her boss, Innes Whitlock. Innes is rich and definitely interested in Alice and her boyfriend has just jilted her. She is honest about it. When he proposes, she even tells him she is marrying him for his money.

On a car trip, they get stranded in his home town, Ogaunee, Michigan; Innes decides to visit his three half-sisters. Each sister has a serious disability. Gertrude is blind, Maud has lost her hearing, and Isobel has only one arm. And they are very, very strange.

Until Innes proposed to Alice, the three sisters expect to inherit from him. So when accidents start happening while they stay at the old Whittaker home, Alice and the chauffeur think that the sisters are trying to kill Innes before he changes his will.

MacDougal Duff, one of Alice's college professors, happens to be in Ogaunee  at the same time. He is featured briefly in the prologue, then later returns to help investigate the crime. Duff is a retired history professor in New York City and an amateur detective. Here's a description from the book:
He was bound for Pinebend, a few hours away, where there was an Oneida reservation. Duff was interested in Indians, this trip. He had been rambling through northern Wisconsin and in and out of the Upper Peninsula, collecting impressions for Duff's History of America, a most unorthodox work which would take him, he cheerfully hoped, the rest of his life to write, between murder cases. Ogaunee was a central place to stay.
I remember Armstrong's books as being just a bit more creepy and weird than I like but this one was "pleasantly creepy" as described on the cover.
"Pleasantly creepy, excellently written, filled with fascinating characters, suspense and honest detecting... difficult to put down." -- Boston Globe
I mostly agree with the quote from the Boston Globe. The story was engrossing and  very hard to put down. The only drawback for me was that the mystery and the working out of the solution was much too complex.

This story is a bit odd, the writing is unusual, and most of the people are odd. But I found it endearing and charming, and very much liked the writing. MacDougal Duff is the detective in three of Charlotte Armstrong's early novels. Otherwise, all of her novels were standalone mysteries.

I love the paperback edition that I read, pictured here. Sadly it fell apart after I read it. But the image of the three sisters depicted on the cover is not representative of what they looked like in the book. Each was different, in looks and temperament and much older than the women on the cover appear.

There was a film based on the book, titled The Three Weird Sisters. I haven't seen it and don't know much about, but the location was moved to Wales and the story changed a bit.

I read this book in early October, immediately after reading this post at Clothes in Books (by guest blogger Colm). Two other good reviews of this book are at Beneath the Stains of Time and At the Scene of the Crime.

I read another book by Armstrong, The Unsuspected, in November 2018, and I enjoyed it even more. It was made into a movie with Claude Rains, which was also very good. I will be reviewing that book soonish. I am sorry I waited so long to start reading Charlotte Armstrong's novels again.


Publisher:   Berkley Medallion Books, 1970. Orig. pub. 1943.
Length:      192 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Michigan, USA
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

A Colder Kind of Death: Gail Bowen

Gail Bowen is the author of an 18-book series featuring Joanne Kilbourn, a Canadian political analyst and college professor who lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. I recently read the fourth book in this series, A Colder Kind of Death, which won the Arthur Ellis award for Best Novel in 1995.

In the first book in the series, Joanne is a widow with three children, the oldest nearing college age. By the third book, she had adopted a fourth child, the daughter of an old friend who died. Most of the books focus in some way on her family and her family life is prominent in the stories. This story involves events related to the death of her husband, a subject that has haunted Joanne for years.

First paragraphs:
Three minutes before the Hallowe'en edition of “Canada This Week” went on the air I learned that the man who murdered my husband had been shot to death. 
A technician was kneeling in front of me, adjusting my mike. Her hair was smoothed under a black skull-­cap, and she was wearing a black leotard and black tights. Her name was Leslie Martin, and she was dressed as a bat. 
... I glanced at the TV monitor behind her. 
At first, I ­didn’t recognize the face on the screen. The long blond hair and the pale goat-­like eyes were familiar, but I ­couldn’t place him. Then the still photograph was gone. In its place was the scene that had played endlessly in my head during the black months after Ian’s death. But these pictures weren’t in my head. The images on the TV were real. The desolate stretch of highway; the snow swirling in the air; the Volvo station wagon with the door open on the driver’s side; and on the highway beside the car, my husband’s body with a dark and bloody spillage where his head should have been.
The face on the screen was Ian Kilbourn's killer, Kevin Tarpley, and he had just been shot and killed while in prison. Several days after that, Tarpley’s sinister wife, Maureen, is discovered dead wearing a scarf that belongs to Joanne, which puts her under suspicion. The investigation into both recent deaths lead to old secrets and surprises for Joanne.

This book does not have a holiday theme but it begins on Halloween and continues through to the days before Christmas. Gail is more actively involved in looking for the murderer than in some of the earlier books. There are many characters, and, as usual, I had trouble keeping track of them.

For me, this was the best book in the series so far. The pacing is good and the story never bogs down.

Links to my reviews of the Joanne Kilbourn series, so far:

1. Deadly Appearances (1990)
2. Murder at the Mendel (1991)
3. The Wandering Soul Murders (1992)


Publisher:   McClelland & Stewart, 2011 (orig. pub. 1995)
Length:       228 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Joanne Kilbourn #4
Setting:      Saskatchewan, Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: C. W. Grafton

Jess London, a young lawyer, murders his despicable brother-in-law. When London's sister is suspected of the crime, he confesses to the crime. Initially, the confession is not believed but later the police decide to accuse him of the crime. By that time, his sister has been cleared, and London retracts his statement. He decides to act as his own lawyer and plead not guilty.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was written in 1950, and set in 1940, in a small town in Kentucky. It is a well-written book, with a complex plot which I found very believable, and interesting characters. The last third of the book is taken up with the court room drama.

The story is very unusual; we know who the killer is and why it happened. But he is also telling the story in first person narrative. Do we root for him to go free or should justice prevail? Because of this, tension is maintained until the very end.

C. W. Grafton was the father of Sue Grafton, and is now best known for his  relationship to her. Of his four novels, three were mysteries. This was his last novel, and I believe it is the best known, considered by some a classic. He was a practicing attorney in Louisville, Kentucky, and his three mysteries were set in a fictional county in Kentucky.

A quote from Sue Grafton in an article in the LA Times, February 18, 1990:
"My father taught me a lot about writing," Grafton says, "even though he himself eventually abandoned it for his law practice. Still, he often talked about the process of writing, about keeping language simple, about the importance of transitions and paying attention to small details in a scene."


Publisher:   Perennial Library, 1980 (orig. publ. 1950)
Length:      338 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Kentucky, 1940
Genre:       Inverted Mystery
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.

Monday, January 14, 2019

European Reading Challenge 2018: Wrap Up Post

This is my wrap up post for the 2018 European Reading Challenge. The goal was to read and review five books set in different European countries and by different authors. I enjoyed reading these books and will be signing up for this challenge in 2019.

My biggest problem is getting books reviewed but I made an effort to get most of the books that I read for this challenge reviewed.  I have linked the title to posts if I wrote one, otherwise I have included a short summary and comments.

The Whip Hand by Victor Canning (Croatia)
The hero, Rex Carver, visits many countries in this adventure, but he spends a good amount of time in Yugoslavia (1960s) in the area which is now Croatia.

Lumen by Ben Pastor (Poland)

The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall (Germany)

Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman (Hungary)
The first part of the book is set in Salzburg, Austria; 2nd and 3rd parts are mainly in Budapest, Hungary. Also some of the 2nd part takes place in Israel.

The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert (UK)

A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson (Portugal)

Eva's Eye by Karin Fossum (Norway)
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.

Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (Spain)

The Terra-Cotta Dog by Andrea Camilleri (Italy)
The second 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. I had read the previous book in the series but had forgotten how much of an independent loner the inspector is. The story is very complex.

Faithful Place by Tana French (Ireland)
Set in Dublin, this novel features Frank Mackey, a Dublin detective working in the Undercover department. Frank returns to his old neighborhood and the family he left 22 years earlier to investigate a possible crime. Another great story by this author, my favorite of her books ... so far.

Night Rounds by Helene Tursten (Sweden)

Blood & Rubles by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Russia)

Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (France)
The first installment in a wonderful new series (to me) that follows the exploits of Benoît Courrèges (Bruno for short), a policeman in a small French village. This seemed like a fantasy because the life in the village is (at least on the surface) so rustic. That description makes it sound on the cozy side, and it is not that at all. Although this book is heavy on the details of Bruno's past and the setting of the series, I am sure I am going to enjoy more of these books.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg (Denmark)