Thursday, February 20, 2020

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens -- Short Stories

This February I have been reading short stories for Short Story February, as suggested by Rick Robinson at Tip the Wink. I did this once before, and I hope to continue doing it every February. This is the first set of stories I am reporting on. I have also been reading from two other collections, which I will post on next week.

Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens are spies, working for a secret government group in the UK called the Joint Services Standing Intelligence Committee (JSSIC). They are in their fifties and live in a fictional village in Kent. Mr. Behrens lives with his aunt and tends bees. Mr. Calder lives nearby, alone, and has a Persian deerhound named Rasselas. They are called upon when needed to handle special projects and missions. This book is comprised of twelve short stories featuring these characters.

Each story averages about 20 pages in length and follows an incident that one or both of the agents have been asked to address. They don't always work together and the cases are quite varied. Rasselas is often quite useful. Calder and Behrens carry out their tasks with ruthlessness when necessary.

The stories featuring Calder and Behrens were written from 1962 to 1982. Eleven short stories were published in Game Without Rules in 1968, and those stories were first published in Argosy.

The Spy Guys and Gals site has a good summary of the publication history of the Calder and Behrens stories. There is also more detail on that page about the order of publication. The stories in the books are not in the order published.
       The terrific pair of Daniel Calder and Samuel Behrens first appeared to readers in the pages of the U.K. magazine Argosy in early 1962 and would continue to show up there off and on for just over a decade with the last one appearing in 1973. While many of these adventures would get turned into teleplays for BBC Radio, two of the last three from the Argosy period were either up-to-then unpublished stories turned into teleplays or novelizations of the episodes.
       Just over half a decade would go by before they would again show up in print, this time in the U.S. magazine Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Again there were a couple that had been aired on radio before being shown in print.
It has been almost exactly three years ago I purchased my copy of Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens and read the first three short stories in the book, after having read all of the stories in Game Without Rules. It took until this February for me to finish up all the stories in the book. I don't know why it took me so long. I love all the stories. However, they are not light reading. They are packed with details and nuances, most of which I am sure I miss. I like the two agents and their matter of fact approach to their work, and other characters in the stories are also interesting, although usually not so well fleshed out.

See also:

Post on Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens at Tip the Wink.

Post on Game Without Rules at Existential Ennui.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   House of Stratus, 2011 (orig. pub. 1982)
Length:      245 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK, mostly; also in Germany.
Genre:        Espionage, short stories
Source:      On my TBR pile for three years.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

50 US States Challenge: update



Off and on, since October 2013, I have been working on a challenge to read books set in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. In July 2016, I wrote a post specifying which books I had read (and reviewed). At the time I had covered 17 states. Since then I have only added books for 6 more states. For this update, I also added some books for states I had read (and blogged about) in 2012 and 2013.

As I reviewed my books read on the blog, I found the same as before. The great majority of books are set in the UK. I also read a good number of books set in Canada. Plus a lot of European countries, some Asian countries,and some Central and South American countries. And even when I read books set in the US, a large number are set in California or New York or Texas.

Below is the list of states and the books I have read so far.

ALABAMA:  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

ALASKA: White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones

ARIZONA

ARKANSAS

CALIFORNIA: Jasmine Trade by Denise Hamilton

COLORADO

CONNECTICUT

DELAWARE

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: Cast a Yellow Shadow by Ross Thomas

FLORIDA: Don’t Lose Her by Jonathan King

GEORGIA

HAWAII:  The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers

IDAHO

ILLINOIS:  Sleeping Dogs by Ed Gorman

INDIANA

IOWA:   Eleven Days by Donald Harstad

KANSAS:  The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips

KENTUCKY:   Beyond a Reasonable Doubt by C. W. Grafton

LOUISIANA:   The Indigo Necklace by Frances Crane

MAINE

MARYLAND

MASSACHUSETTS:   The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor

MICHIGAN:   Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estelman

MINNESOTA:  Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger

MISSISSIPPI:   The Last Clinic by Gary Cusick

MISSOURI

MONTANA

NEBRASKA

NEVADA:  The Case of the Rolling Bones by Erle Stanley Gardner
Also:   Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

NEW HAMPSHIRE

NEW JERSEY:  Black-Headed Pins by Constance and Gwyneth Little

NEW MEXICO: Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes
Also: Wall of Glass by Walter Satterthwait
         Heartshot by Steven F. Havill

NEW YORK: Death of a Butterfly by Margaret Maron

NORTH CAROLINA: Time’s Witness by Michael Malone

NORTH DAKOTA: See Also Murder by Larry D. Sweazy

OHIO

OKLAHOMA: A Killing in Quail County by Jameson Cole

OREGON

PENNSYLVANIA:  Concrete Angel by Patricia Abbott

RHODE ISLAND

SOUTH CAROLINA:   In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

SOUTH DAKOTA

TENNESSEE

TEXAS:   Too Late to Die by Bill Crider

UTAH

VERMONT:  Open Season by Archer Mayor

VIRGINIA

WASHINGTON

WEST VIRGINIA

WISCONSIN

WYOMING:  The Mountain Cat Murders by Rex Stout


Notes:

I initially decided to stick with crime fiction novels that are set in the state. If I have trouble getting all the states, I may eventually start adding novels from outside the crime fiction genre.

I am now also adding more than one book for a state if the books are good examples of the setting.

I decided to include To Kill a Mockingbird for Alabama. It is definitely a good read for Alabama, and there are those who consider it to be crime fiction.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Saint Valentine's Day Murders: Ruth Dudley Edwards

This is book 2 in the Robert Amiss series, following on Corridors of Death, which I read and reviewed earlier. The first two books in the series feature office settings, and focus on bureaucracy and office politics. We often complain about bureaucracy in the business world, but I have never experienced anything like these workplaces.


Robert Amiss is a British civil servant and has recently been transferred to the British Conservation Corporation. He had been expecting a secondment to a job in industry, and a position that would lead to a better position in the civil service in the future. What he gets is a job pushing papers and managing men who are more disgruntled than he is.

Based on the title of the book, the reader is expecting murders on Valentine's Day, but it takes quite a while to get to that point. And the characters and the interactions within the office setting are so innocuous that it is surprising when crimes do occur. There are some practical jokers in Robert's department, and the pranks initially seem harmless but gradually escalate. But, when the murders do take place, they are quite horrendous. Not so much in the way of violence, but because so many innocent victims are claimed.

And at that point the pace does pick up. Once Robert has been cleared of any connection to the murders, he again works closely with the police to try to uncover the villain. In the first book in the series, Amiss met Jim Milton, a Scotland Yard detective, and his wife, so they are already friends when this crime takes place. And Ellis Pooley, the young detective who is obsessed with fictional sleuths, makes his debut here.

My thoughts:

Initially I was disappointed with this book, because I had enjoyed the first book in the series tremendously. I rarely have any problem with the crime being delayed until later in the story yet in this case the initial part of the story dragged for me.

The author tells a humorous story with excellent dialog, and the recurring characters are well done, but in this second book I did not enjoy the secondary characters as much.  Nevertheless, I am still enthusiastic about the series, and I will continue reading these books.

Praise for this book:

"The Saint Valentine’s Day Murders is a witty, well-written mystery as well as a keenly observed and cynically funny view of modern bureaucracy and the people who work in it."
  --  Michael Foley, Irish Times

Kirkus Reviews was somewhat disappointed with the plot, as I was, but still said:
"a wry, smart, surprisingly warm-hearted diversion--with one choice vignette after another (even the subsidiary cops are amusingly sketched) and some of the best office-life comedy since Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise."

Also see reviews at Jillysheep and RogerBW's Blog.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Poisoned Pen Press, 2007. (orig. publ. 1984)
Length:  225 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Series:   Robert Amiss #2
Setting:  London, UK
Genre:   Mystery
Source:  On my TBR pile for one year.


Monday, February 10, 2020

The Thief: Fuminori Nakamura

Brief description from the back of my paperback edition:
The Thief is a seasoned pickpocket. Anonymous in his tailored suit, he weaves in and out of Tokyo crowds, stealing wallets from strangers so smoothly sometimes he doesn’t even remember the snatch. Most people are just a blur to him, nameless faces from whom he chooses his victims. He has no family, no friends, no connections.
But he does have a past, which finally catches up with him when Ishikawa, his first partner, reappears in his life, and offers him a job he can’t refuse.
This is one of those novels that I enjoyed reading but I struggle to define why. The story was fast-paced and the writing pulled me in. The descriptions of how the pickpocket performs his trade and the instinctive planning in advance are fascinating. The story is told in first person by the pickpocket, and although he has a name it is only mentioned once. There were a number of flashbacks, and the brief story that is depicted is very very bleak.

At one point, the thief notices a young boy in a grocery store who is shoplifting for his mother. He tries to get him to stop, then ends up instructing him in ways to do it without being caught. He meets the child's mother, who is a prostitute and addicted to drugs, and reluctantly gets involved with her.

There were definitely points where I was confused. There was one scene that seemed more like a fantasy than reality or maybe like everyone was on drugs.  In this scene, a mob boss threatens the thief with death if he does not carry out a series of thefts for him. The thief's connection to the boy makes him more susceptible to those threats.

There is no resolution at the end. Sometimes I like that, sometimes not. It is like the reader can imagine the ending they want. There is also some musing on how much of life depends on fate, and the presence of a large tower in the background of the thief's descriptions of events, presumably symbolism which I never understood.

Some of the elements I have mentioned sound like criticisms, but they did not mar my enjoyment of the book. For some readers they might. So, even though I found this a very good read, I would be reluctant to recommend it to others. If you are interested in Japanese mysteries, it is definitely worth a try. If you like your mysteries in a more standard format and with a clear resolution, this might not appeal.

The Thief was Fuminori Nakamura's first novel to be translated into English. He had previously written several other novels and won many prizes in Japan. Soho Press has since published six more of his novels with English translations.

Check out reviews at: The Crime Segments and Bibliofreak.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Soho Crime, 2012 (orig. pub. 2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izuma and Stephen Coates 
Length:       211 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Setting:       Tokyo, Japan
Genre:        Crime fiction
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2018.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Death Lives Next Door: Gwendoline Butler


Death Lives Next Door is the sixth novel in the John Coffin series by Gwendoline Butler. The 34 books in the series were published from 1956 to 2002. In this book, published in 1960, Coffin is a Divisional Detective Inspector in South London. So, in a sense, this is a police procedural.

Dr. Marion Manning is a well-known and respected professor at Oxford University. She has a watcher who follows her around and watches her house, yet she is reluctant to complain to the police about it. (Now he would be called a stalker I am sure, although initially people in the neighborhood were afraid that they would all be watched, and the focus was not immediately on Marion.)


The story starts with Ezra Barton, on his way to see Marion, and thinking about whether he likes his life as a perpetual student. Marion has been his mentor since he came to Oxford and is not in any hurry for him to leave. On the other hand, his girlfriend is pushing him to move on and make something of himself. Since Ezra is 35, that seems reasonable, but he likes his life fine as it is. This is an important thread in the plot, but the story really centers around Marion, her neighborhood, her relationships, and her mysterious past.

In this book of about 250 pages, the crime does not take place until page 100 and Inspector Coffin does not show up until even later. He comes to Oxford for an unrelated missing person case. So you can see that not much of this novel is a standard police procedural.

My Thoughts:

Why did I read this book at this time? Partly because I acquired the book nearly 15 years ago. At that time, I had read about the author and I like police procedurals and I wanted to try the series. Then I just let the book sit. But another reason is that I have another book from the same series, set in Malta and published in 1964, and I want to read that one soon too.

This is a strange mystery, with an emphasis on personal relationships, but I enjoyed it and liked the writing style. Because it is unusual, I don't know if I will like later books in the series, but I will read the one I have and look for more.  I am sure the series changes over the years since it was published over four decades.

Readers who like the crime to happen early on in a book may not be pleased with the crime occurring later in the book. I liked the first portion of the book best, leading up to the death of one of the characters. Other reviewers did not like that section of the book and preferred the later portions of the book, as the crime is investigated and Coffin shows up.

In the first four books, Coffin is only a background character, and another detective, William Winter, is the protagonist. This novel was published in the U.S. as Dine and Be Dead. Actually neither title makes much sense to me in the context of the book, but that is not unusual.

Has anyone else had any experience reading this author? She also wrote under the pseudonym Jennie Melville.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Worldwide, 1994 (orig. pub. 1960).
Length:    253 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     John Coffin #6
Setting:    Oxford, England
Genre:     Mystery / Police Procedural
Source:    On my TBR pile since 2005.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

My Reading: January 2020


I read 14 books in January. One book of mystery reference, one nonfiction book, three books in the historical fiction genre, and the rest crime fiction. Of the fiction books, five were published after 2000, four in the 1990s, and three between 1953 and 1977.

And all twelve of the fiction books were from my TBR piles.

Mystery reference

Hatchards Crime Companion: 100 Top Crime Novels of All Time Selected By The Crime Writers' Association (1990)
edited by Susan Moody
I enjoy reading most mystery reference books. This was a reread. The book lists 100 favorite crime novels, as chosen by members of the British Crime Writers Association. Susan Moody provides commentary on each book on the list and there are interesting essays on various crime genres.
Rich Westwood of the Past Offences blog read and reviewed all 100 of the crime novels listed in this book. You can see the list here and links to his reviews.




Nonfiction

Life Below Stairs: in the Victorian and Edwardian Country House (2011) by Siân Evans
An entertaining social history of the life of servants in Victorian and Edwardian times, with photographs of rooms used by servants, items of clothing, etc. This was the perfect mix of information and anecdotes about the subject and very readable.

Historical Fiction

Wolf Hall (2009) by Hilary Mantel
This story follows Thomas Cromwell from his youth to his role as an important adviser to King Henry VIII. The main emphasis is on the period when the king wanted to marry Anne Boleyn and annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a solution that the Roman Catholic Church would not condone. A wonderful, compelling book, with some problems in writing style, but well worth the read. Even at 600 pages.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles
Another long read, over 450 pages. In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel in Moscow because his aristocratic attitudes threaten the ideals of the Russian Revolution. The alternative, if he leaves the hotel, is to be shot to death. He lives the next three decades within the confines of the hotel. This is a very fascinating look at Russia in that time, but sometimes reads more like a fantasy than historical fiction. 

The World at Night (1996) by Alan Furst
Alan Furst has said that he writes "historical spy novels." He is writing more about a time than about the actual espionage. This is the story of Jean Casson, a film producer living in Paris when Germany invades in 1940. He is approached by both the British secret service and the Germans to spy for them. The story continues in Furst's next novel, Red Gold.

Crime Fiction

A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin
The debut novel of the author of The Boys from Brazil, Rosemary's Baby, and The Stepford Wives. My review here.

The Lewis Man (2011) by Peter May
The second book in the Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. Fin MacLeod was a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh, but has resigned from that post and returned to the Isle of Lewis to restore his parents' croft and to try to establish relationships with people he left behind when he moved to Edinburgh. This is my favorite of all the Peter May books I have read.

The Thief (2009) by Fuminori Nakamura
This was a short book about a pickpocket in Tokyo. Very intense, very bleak, sometimes confusing, and even so I enjoyed it. My first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.


The Last Defector (1991) by Tony Cape
This is the second book in a short series about Derek Smailes, who starts out as a Detective Sergeant in Cambridge, England and in this book is an MI5 agent stationed in New York at the UN. My review here.


Death Lives Next Door (1960) by Gwendoline Butler
This is book #6 in the John Coffin Mystery series of 34 books, published from 1956 to 2002. Dr. Marion Manning is a well-known and respected professor at Oxford University. There is a stranger who follows her around and watches her house, yet she is reluctant to complain to the police about it. It is an unusual story, but I enjoyed it and liked the writing style.

An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good (2018) by Helene Tursten
This is a book of 5 short stories that are connected. The protagonist is an 88-year-old woman, living in a lovely apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, rent free. Some people try to take advantage of her due to her age and seeming infirmities; she is not easy to fool. This small book is full of dark humor.

Midwinter of the Spirit (1999) by Phil Rickman
This is book #2 in the Merrily Watkins series. The main character is a single mother of a teenage daughter and a Church of England vicar in a small town in Herefordshire. She is also in training to be a Diocesan Exorcist, or Deliverance Consultant. This book had maybe a little too much of the supernatural for me. But I really enjoyed reading about a female vicar in the Church of England and I like the writing.

A Drink of Deadly Wine (1991) by Kate Charles
This is the author's debut novel and the first book in Book of Psalms Mystery series. The vicar of St. Anne's church in London is being blackmailed and asks his old friend, David Middleton-Brown, to come help with the situation. The plot is very complex; I thought I had it figured but was totally surprised at the end.

A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) by Ellis Peters
The first book in the Brother Cadfael mystery series, set in Medieval times. A group of men from Brother Cadfael's religious order have been sent to Gwytherin, a small parish in Wales, to acquire the bones of a saint and bring them back to Shrewsbury Abbey in England.  Cadfael goes along because he is Welsh and can translate for them. The people of Gwytherin must agree to let the bones of the saint be moved, but then a prominent man in the village is killed, which complicates things. This was a very educational read, but also enjoyable. I am ready to move on to the next book soon.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation for February 2020


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 Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. As usual, I know very little about this book. It came out in 2019, and it was a very successful debut novel. It explores marriage and divorce.

My first link is to A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin. Published in 1956, it was also a very successful debut novel. I read it for the first time this month. Too tense for me, but a well-written book.



Which leads me to another suspense novel. Queenpin by Megan Abbott gave  me the same feelings of tension and dread while reading the book. Set in the 1940s or 50s, in the world of gangsters and gamblers, with two women as the main characters, a young woman learning the ropes from an older woman.

My next link is to A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell, also a historical mystery and also featuring a strong female protagonist. The setting is 1930's Germany.



Still in Germany, or at least another version of Germany, is SS-GB, by Len Deighton, an alternate history, set in a world where Germany won World War II and the UK is invaded. Although Len Deighton is one of my favorite authors, I still haven't read this book.

Another alternate history / mystery novel is The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. This one is set around the same time but the story is quite different. In this book, Jewish refugees settled in Sitka, Alaska rather than Israel following World War II. An unusual and fascinating book.


And the location of the previous book took me to my last link in the chain, The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley, also set in Sitka. This was the first book in a series featuring Cecil Younger as a private investigator.



It has been several months since I last participated in Six Degrees meme, and I enjoyed doing again. My chain this month mainly used links to locations. With the exception of Fleishman is in Trouble, and SS-GB, I have read all of the books and enjoyed them.

Next month the meme will start with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island.


Thursday, January 30, 2020

Frederica: Georgette Heyer

I have never considered Georgette Heyer to be a forgotten author, but she is included in The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler (which I am currently reading). Until now I have only read her mystery novels, and they are not that well-known. But I have always thought that her romances are fairly popular. Recently I decided that I had to give them a try. I lucked into finding a copy of Frederica, one of her best liked Regency romances, last September at the annual book sale I go to every year.

The Regency romances are set in England during the time that King George III's son reigned as Prince Regent (1811-1820). The title character is the eldest in a family of five children. Both parents are dead, and Frederica brings her three youngest siblings to London to secure a husband for her sister, who is young, shy, beautiful, not very bright but a talented dressmaker. Frederica seeks out their distant cousin Vernon Dauntry, the Marquis of Alverstoke to help introduce them into society.

Frederica is close to 25 years old and considers herself to be past marriageable age. She has a younger brother who sees himself as the head of the family but is really much less responsible than Frederica (and off at school). It is important to Frederika that Charis marries well, and her intention is to ask Alverstoke to introduce her sister to high society. The extended conversation between Frederica and Lord Alverstoke when they first meet to discuss that possibility is very entertaining.

Alverstoke is a genial man when he wants to be and quite impressed with Frederica and her younger sister, Charis, but he is well-known for being self-centered and not interested in doing favors for others. He has already refused to help his sister's daughter who will be coming out at the same time. So people are very surprised when he begins spending a good bit of time with various members of the Merrivale family.

This book is full of likable characters. Frederica is of course a wonderful heroine, but she is so focused on doing anything she can to improve the situation of her family that she seemed to miss a lot of what was going on around her. So, she is a realistic character, not idealized. Felix Merrivale, at 12, is very interested in new technology and mechanical inventions. Jessamy, 16, is very serious about his studies but loves horses. They also have a wonderful dog. There are also some unsympathetic characters, such as Alverstoke's sister who doesn't approve of his behavior but is willing to use him and his money for her own purposes. But even those characters are fun.

This was not the type of romance I was expecting, but then I have little experience with romance novels so have nothing to compare against. For me, this book was about Alverstoke's growth as a person.  He is in his late thirties and not at all looking for any serious relationship or anything to tie him down. He starts out as a selfish, thoughtless cad, very sought after because of his wealth, and ends up helping out the family in many ways. I was disappointed that Charis's talent at dressmaking was not more a part of the story. It does turn out that, shy as she is, she has a mind of her own.

In summary, Frederica was an engaging book, and I learned a lot about Regency England. I plan to read more of Heyer's Regency romances over time, starting with recommendations  at Yvette's In My Own Words. I already have a copy of The Grand Sophy (which includes a glossary of Regency slang).

See reviews at Pining for the West and Tor.com.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Sourcebooks Casablanca, 2009 (orig. publ. 1965)
Length:     437 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:     London
Genre:      Regency Romance
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2019.


Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020


I am joining the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2020. I am hoping it will help keep me moving along on my Classics Club List. The challenge is hosted by Books and Chocolate and is in its 7th year.

This is similar to another Classics Challenge I signed up for this year, and some of the categories do overlap. For this one I can go for 6 classics, or 9, or all 12.


I have listed possibilities for books I may read but I am not committed to those choices. In some cases there are many possibilities on my Classics Club List to fulfill the category description.

1. 19th Century Classic.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of the Four (1890)
2. 20th Century Classic.
Ira Levin – A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
3. Classic by a Woman Author.
Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
4. Classic in Translation.
Mikhail Bulgarov – The Master and Margarita (1967)   
5. Classic by a Person of Color.
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958)
6. A Genre Classic. Any classic novel that falls into a genre category -- fantasy, science fiction, Western, romance, crime, horror, etc.
Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None  (1939)
7. Classic with a Person's Name in the Title. First name, last name or both.
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre (1847)
8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Any classic with the proper name of a place (real or fictional) - a country, region, city, town, village, street, building, etc.
Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana (1958)
9. Classic with Nature in the Title. A classic with any element of nature in the title (not including animals).
Kenneth Grahame –  The Wind in the Willows (1908)
10. Classic About a Family. This classic should have multiple members of the same family as principal characters, either from the same generation or multiple different generations.  Updated: Family members in the title are also acceptable.
Elizabeth Gaskell –  Wives and Daughters (1863)
11. Abandoned Classic. Choose a classic that you started and just never got around to finishing, whether you didn't like it at or just didn't get around to it. Now is the time to give it another try.
I think this category may doom me to not completing all twelve categories (although I probably won't anyway). I cannot remember a classic that I have abandoned. I have only read classics in my younger years (too long ago to remember definitively) and in the last few years. There are many classics I have rejected (too scary or just not my thing or too long), but none I have started and not finished.
12. Classic Adaptation. Any classic that's been adapted as a movie or TV series.
So many possibilities on my list. Maybe:  Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Last Defector: Tony Cape

I read Tony Cape's first book featuring Derek Smailes, The Cambridge Theorum,  almost exactly eight years ago, right before I started blogging. I liked it a lot and I was grateful that Felony and Mayhem had published a new edition of that book.

In the first book, Derek Smailes is a detective sergeant in Cambridge. He investigates the suicide of a student at the university who was researching the possibility of a fifth Cambridge spy. That book begins as a police procedural and morphs into spy fiction. Set in the 1980s, it was first published in 1989.

In the follow-up to that first novel, Derek has been offered a position in MI-5, and has decided to accept it because he will be sent to New York for his first assignment. He has always had an interest in the US and its culture and he is delighted to be able to experience it directly. He has a junior position as a security officer at the British Mission to the UN. The story is set when the Cold War is coming to an end and disarmament talks are going on (late 1980s).

Based on a recording recovered from a listening device, Derek's superiors plan to try to convince a Soviet citizen also working at the UN to defect and provide information on disarmament plans in Russia. They decide to use Derek as the contact point for the mission, and allow him to plan the approach. The setup of the scheme to soften up the Russian for defection is complex and intriguing. A secondary plot in The Last Defector takes place in the Soviet Union, and follows a conspiracy to take over the government due to dissatisfaction with the current leader.


Initially the planned defection goes well, but as things start to fall apart, Derek ends up suspecting just about everyone he is working with of treachery, even the woman he wants to marry. He is a more realistic protagonist than some I have encountered in spy fiction. He is eager to take on a challenging assignment that could give his career a quick shot in the arm, but has doubts about his abilities and whether he and his group are doing the right thing.

I found this second book in the Derek Smailes series to be a worthy successor to the first. The plot was complex but not confusing. There were a lot of characters to keep track of, but that wasn't a problem either. The people he works with are well developed characters, with different personalities, but the officials back in Russia are more stereotypical. However, that seems to be true in many spy books I have read.

As with the first book, it was the development of the main character, Derek, and his new relationships in his job and with his ex-wife and daughter back in England, that made this book especially enjoyable to read. I like it when espionage stories explore the characters personal lives and motives, and I was happy that I made the effort to find a copy of the second book in this series.

This biographical information is available at Felony and Mayhem:
Tony Cape was born in Wales and grew up in Yorkshire before attending Cambridge University. After working as a journalist in Northern Ireland and England he moved to the United States in 1977 to join the Buddhist community of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. In the 1990s, he published a series of spy novels featuring Derek Smailes, a former police detective turned counterintelligence officer. The first of these, The Cambridge Theorem, became a bestseller in Britain and Italy, and was re-released by Felony and Mayhem Press in 2006.
See my review of The Cambridge Theorem.


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

Publisher:  Doubleday, 1991.
Length:      390 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Derek Smailes, #2
Setting:      New York City, US; UK
Genre:       Spy fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy in 2013.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Kiss Before Dying: Ira Levin

I read this novel for the Classics Club Spin #22. Previously, I had avoided reading anything by Ira Levin because his books are mostly horror and very tense. But I am finding it easier to try new things in my reading. For me it was not a fun read, but it was rewarding.

The story starts with a young man and woman, both college students, discussing their future. She is pregnant, and she wants to get married immediately. He doesn't. That doesn't sound too unusual, but in this case the situation eventually leads to the young woman's death.

The young man in this story is a World War II veteran with dreams and ambitions, but he wants to take short cuts to get to his goal. He doesn't want to finish college and find a job and work his way up the ladder. He wants to marry a young woman who has lots of money. That becomes his goal in life and he will let nothing get in his way of getting what he wants.

That is all I want to say about the plot because it is best to come into this story knowing very little.

My thoughts:

I don't do well with psychological suspense. This book was very intense for me, and there was a point where I just wanted to stop reading it. But I persevered and shortly after that it got less tense and more interesting.

The story is divided into three sections and each has a different feel, or mood, even though the main character remains constant throughout. There is tension in each part of the story, but handled in a different way, and I admired the author's ability to do this. The story has a fantastic twist, and it happens midway through the book. It  took my breath away.

More about the book and the author:

In a New York Times review of A Kiss Before Dying, Anthony Boucher wrote that “Levin combines great talent for pure novel writing -- full-bodied characterization, subtle psychological exploration, vivid evocation of locale -- with strict technical whodunit tricks as dazzling as anything ever brought off by Carr, Rawson, Queen or Christie.”

The New Yorker said:
"A remarkably constructed story depicting an inconceivably vicious character in episodes of thrilling horror."

A Kiss Before Dying has been adapted for the screen twice. The 1956 adaptation starred Robert Wagner, Virginia Leith, Joanne Woodward, and Mary Astor. The second adaptation was produced in 1991 and starred Matt Dillon, Sean Young, Diane Ladd, and Max von Sydow. I haven't seen either of the films but I understand that the 1956 film adhered closer to the plot in the book.

Ira Levin wrote a total of seven novels. Among them were: Rosemary's Baby (1967), The Stepford Wives (1972), and The Boys from Brazil (1976)... all of those also had film adaptations. He also wrote plays, several of which had film adaptations.

These reviews have more details about the plot:



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

Publisher:  Pegasus Books, 2011 (orig. publ. 1953)
Length:      265 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      USA
Genre:       Suspense / Inverted Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy in June 2018.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Charlie M: Brian Freemantle

I have wanted to read the Charlie Muffin series for years. The books in this series about a British intelligence agent were published between 1977 and 2013. Charlie M is the first in the series, and I only had an ebook copy, so I finally broke down and read the book in that format in October 2019. It was all I had hoped for.

Description of Charlie M at Open Road Media:
Charlie Muffin is an anachronism. He came into the intelligence service in the early 1950s, when the government, desperate for foot soldiers in the impending Cold War, dipped into the middle class for the first time. Despite a lack of upper-class bearing, Charlie survived twenty-five years on the espionage battle’s front line: Berlin. 
But times have changed: The boys from Oxford and Cambridge are running the shop again, and they want to get rid of the middle-class spy who’s a thorn in their side. They have decided that it’s time for Charlie to be sacrificed. But Charlie Muffin didn’t survive two decades in Berlin by being a pushover. He intends to go on protecting the realm, and won’t let anyone from his own organization get in his way. 
Charlie Muffin does not fit in with the rest of the men he works with. They look down on  him and consider him "a disposable embarrassment, with his scuffed suede Hush Puppies, the Marks and Spencer shirts he didn’t change daily and the flat, Mancunian accent." And they underestimate his abilities.

Charlie's boss, Sir Henry Cuthbertson, has learned that an important Russian KGB official, General Valery Kalenin, wants to defect. He and his team start plotting to set up the defection, excluding Charlie. The CIA finds out about the scheme and insist on being part of the plan. Things start to go badly with Cuthbertson's scheme, and they are forced to use Charlie in the end.

As you can probably tell from the description, the Charlie Muffin books are closer to the Nameless Spy series by Len Deighton than the James Bond type of espionage. This is the kind of Cold War spy fiction I enjoy, and I hope the rest of the series is as entertaining.

There is a very unexpected ending (at least for me) and I don't know exactly how the series can continue, but there are 15 more books in the series, so somehow it does.

The ebook I read features an interesting biography of Brian Freemantle with photographs from the author’s personal collection.

See also Col's review at Col's Criminal Library.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Open Road Media, 2011 (orig. publ. 1977)
Length:       207 pages
Format:      ebook
Series:       Charlie Muffin, #1
Setting:      UK, Germany, Russia
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      On my Kindle since 2013.


Sunday, January 12, 2020

My Reading: December 2019


I read ten books in December 2019; most were crime fiction, but I started off the month with a book outside of that genre: Crazy Rich Asians. I read a few crime novels set in December, around Christmas, some of them with a Christmassy feel and some not. I ended the month with several mysteries that had been on my TBR for years. All in all, a very good month.

Of my crime fiction reads, four were published between 1930 and 1940 and the other five were published between 1979 and 2007.

Fiction 

Crazy Rich Asians (2013) by Kevin Kwan
I am not sure how to categorize Crazy Rich Asians; some call it a romance, or a romantic comedy, or even chick lit. It is about extremely rich Chinese families in Singapore, and a young American-born Chinese woman who is dating the son of one of the families. I hadn't been interested in this book until I read a review at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. I knew if Bill could read this book and enjoy it, I could too. 
There were many things about the story I found impossible to believe (even though I am sure many of them are very true) but even so, I just settled in and enjoyed the ride. I was thinking of describing this book as a fairy tale, but it is also a soap opera, and both of those can be very entertaining.

Crime Fiction

Crime at Christmas (1934) by C.H.B. Kitchin
A mystery set at a large home in London where a group of people have gathered for Christmas celebrations. The protagonist is a young stockbroker, Malcolm Warren, who featured in three other mystery novels by Kitchin. See my review here.

This Gun for Hire (1936) by Graham Greene
I haven't read that much by Graham Greene and it has been a while, so I have nothing to compare this too, but other reviews say it is not his best work. It was written before World War II started in Europe and it shows that people are fearing another war. Raven is hired to kill a foreign government official, and then is paid off in stolen bills, so that he will be caught by the police. He finds he has been double crossed and seeks revenge on the people who hired him. Along the way he takes a young woman hostage, and she feels compassion for his plight. I liked the story very much. I thought it was told in a brilliant way and the characters were well done.
The  original title in the UK was A Gun for Sale. The novel was adapted as a film with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, titled This Gun for Hire. My paperback edition has one of the weirdest covers I have seen.

Cold Light (1994) by John Harvey
I read the first three books in the Charlie Resnick series years ago and I remember liking them a lot. Resnick is a detective inspector based in Nottingham, England. In November I read Off Minor (4th book) and now I have read Cold Light (6th book), set during the Christmas season. These two books seemed a bit darker than I remembered. I really like Charlie's character, with his love for jazz and his four cats. He is a middle-aged man trying to do his best in his job.

The Twelve Deaths Of Christmas (1979) by Marian Babson
Another Christmas mystery. I usually read too many of them and cannot review them all but I did pretty well this year. The Twelve Deaths of Christmas is set in a boarding house, and based on the title it sounds grim. But it is more of suspenseful, cozy mystery, with many deaths throughout. My review is here.

The Shop Window Murder (1930) by Vernon Loder
Mander’s Department Store in London is well known for its elaborate window displays. A new one is  revealed every Monday morning. Several weeks before Christmas, the crowd gathered to see the unveiling realizes that the elaborate new window design includes a dead body. And shortly afterward, a second body is discovered. One of the bodies is the store’s owner Tobias Mander and the other is Miss Effie Tumour, a chief buyer for the store. It is a good puzzle mystery and a very interesting picture of a department store of that period, but I could not get too excited about the characters. 

A Fête Worse Than Death (2007) by Dolores Gordon-Smith
This is the first book in the Jack Haldean mystery series, set in the early 1920s. Jack was a fighter pilot in World War I and is now an author of detective stories. He is currently staying with his cousins at their country house in Sussex, when a man he knew during the war is murdered at the local fête. This was a fun book with a clever mystery, and I am sorry it took me so long to get to it.

Death in Blue Folders (1985) by Margaret Maron
Before her well-known Judge Deborah Knott series, Margaret Maron wrote a series about Sigrid Harold, New York City homicide detective. This is the third book in that series; I loved it and I will continue reading the series. See my review here.

Murder At Madingley Grange (1990) by Caroline Graham
This was not at all what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be even better than expected in the end. Madingley Grange is the perfect setting for a 1930s murder-mystery weekend; thus Simon Hannaford plots to convince his half-sister to let him use their aunt's home for a money-making scheme while she is away on vacation. This reminded me a bit of a Peter Dickinson style plot, with many layers and hidden agendas and more than one twist. 

The Dog Who Bit a Policeman (1998) by Stuart M. Kaminsky
Stuart Kaminsky's Inspector Rostnikov series is one of my favorite series, and now I only have four books left to read. The stories are set in Russia in the years between 1981 and 2009. When the series started Russia was still part of the USSR. With each new book in the series, the characters have aged and developed. Kaminsky showed the changes in Russia as the USSR dissolved and new people and groups are in power. This is the 12th book in the series. In most of the books, there are several cases that Rostnikov and his team are working on. A warning, one case in this book centers on an unpleasant subject, dog-fighting, with some graphic scenes included. 


Thursday, January 9, 2020

Death in Blue Folders: Margaret Maron

I usually write a post mid-week for the Friday's Forgotten Books meme originated by Patricia Abbott at her blog pattinase and now hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom. The book I am featuring today is Death in Blue Folders by Margaret Maron. Obviously Maron is far from a forgotten author, but this book is part of her first series about Sigrid Harold, New York City detective. Maron's other series, featuring Judge Deborah Knott, is much better known.


Shortly after a successful lawyer, Clayton Gladwell, decides to retire, he is murdered in his office, in the evening after the rest of his staff has left for the day. Before the killer left the office, he attempted to burn Gladwell's special blue folders, which the police determine contained information that Gladwell was using to blackmail some of his clients. The police are able to salvage some charred remains from the folders and the search begins for all the clients who had blue folders...

Part of the mystery is tracking down who was being blackmailed and why. Of course, the suspects don't want to reveal damaging facts about themselves. The story behind each folder is interesting, but in some cases it is not clear why the secrets would lead to murder.

This is the third book in the Sigrid Harald series. The story focuses on the murder and the search for the culprit, but Sigrid's background and her life away from work are also part of the story. She is not the typical gorgeous, assured policewoman. She is quiet, shy, serious, and has a cool, reserved demeanor. But the series does show growth and change in the characters. In this story, Sigrid searches for a new apartment that she can afford in New York, with the help of her current roommate, Roman Tramegra. She has a tentative relationship with a well-known artist, Oscar Nauman, who is a good bit older than her. The author achieves a good balance between the mystery plot and the personal aspects of Sigrid's life.

I thought the ending was fairly obvious, or at least the only solution that would make sense, but that in no way spoiled my enjoyment... partly because I always suspect the author is leading me in the wrong direction anyway. It is sort of a sad ending, with some threads left hanging.

It has been nearly six years since I read the 2nd book in this series, and I won't wait that long to read another one. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Margaret Maron's writing. The dialog is very realistic and convincing. The characters are fleshed out and believable. I will continue this series, because I want to see where it takes Sigrid Harald. I may also return to the Deborah Knott series.

The Sigrid Harald series was written (mostly) in the 1980s and the Deborah Knott series started in 1992. A character from Death in Blue Folders, Kate Honeycutt, turns up as a continuing character in the Deborah Knott series. Later in the Deborah Knott series, Sigrid and Deborah meet (in Three Day Town) and they work together in the next novel in the series.

I have also read and reviewed:
One Coffee With (1981)
Death of a Butterfly (1984)


 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Ocanee Spirit Press, 2013. (orig. publ. 1985)
Length:  203 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Series:   Lt. Sigrid Harald, homicide detective
Setting:  New York City
Genre:   Mystery, Police Procedural
Source:  I purchased this book (in 2013).



Monday, January 6, 2020

More 2020 Reading Goals

I have decided to take part in a few more challenges and put them all in one post.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2020
Hosted by My Reader's Block
January 2020 kicks off the ninth year for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

I have participated before but it has been a few years and I need some motivation to focus on the TBR books I own, rather than getting books from other sources.

A few of the rules:
*Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2020. Items requested or ordered prior to January 1, may count even if they arrive in the new year. Audio books and E-books may count assuming you own them.
*A blog and reviews are not necessary to participate.

There are challenge levels. I am going for Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR pile/s.




Japanese Literature Challenge 13
Hosted by Dolce Bellezza

The guidelines are simple:

The Challenge only lasts for thee months.
It runs from January 1, 2020 through March 31, 2020.
Read and review one or more books which have originally been written in Japanese.
There is a separate review site for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 to add links to reviews.

I will read: The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura.
I also have books by Seichō Matsumoto  and Keigo Higashino.



2020 Victorian Reading Challenge
Host: Becky's Book Reviews
Duration: January - December 2020
Goal: Read between 4 to 6 Books (4 minimum)

There are two options:  the basic challenge (quarterly) or the advanced challenge (themed months). This is described in more detail here.
All books must fall into the "Victorian" category being either a) books originally published between 1837 and 1901 b) books originally written (but not published) between 1837 and 1901 c) general nonfiction about the Victorian era (the times, the culture, the people, the events) d) biographies of Victorians.

MY GOAL:  4 books

















2020 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Hosted by Passages to the Past

Any sub-genre of historical fiction is accepted (Historical Romance, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy, Young Adult, History/Non-Fiction, etc.)

Each month, a new post dedicated to the HF Challenge will be created to share links to reviews. However, you don't have to have a blog to participate.

Duration: January - December 2020

You can pick different reading levels, from 2 books to 50+ books.
I choose the Victorian Reader level = 5 books. I will probably read more.