Sunday, May 20, 2018

Downfall: Margot Kinberg

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

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

MY REACTION

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Goldfinger: Ian Fleming


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

All Clear

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


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Whip Hand: Rex Carver

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to Wartime


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

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

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



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

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


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

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


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

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


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Malice Aforethought: Francis Iles


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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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




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