Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Novena for Murder: Sister Carol Anne O'Marie

This is a very cozy mystery starring a nun as amateur sleuth. Sister Mary Helen has retired at 75 and is sent to Mt. Saint Francis College for Women in San Francisco. Shortly after she arrives the body of a professor at the school is found, following an earthquake. The police blame the wrong person, in Sister Mary Helen's opinion, so it is up to her to find out what happened. 

I read this book back in February, but I still have fond memories of it, even though the mystery is much lighter than my usual reading. I liked the setting and the characters; it was the perfect read for me at the time.

I don't read many cozy mysteries, although I do have a goal to try out more cozy mysteries by new (to me) authors. That could be the subject for a post. What is a cozy mystery? Why do some readers prefer them and others look down on them?

Anyway, moving on to this book:

I haven't read many books with a religious setting, but I have enjoyed those that I have read. The author was a nun and was working actively in the monastery while writing this series. Sister Carol Anne O'Marie was 54 when she wrote the first book in the series; the protagonist in this series is 75 and retiring. She is not really ready to retire so she naturally gets involved with a crime that has occurred on campus.

There is an interesting subplot involving Portuguese immigrants who have been helped to enter the US and are now students or workers at the college. When Sister Mary Helen starts looking into that issue and the murder, she meets several cops who continue to show up in later books in the series: Inspector Gallagher; a female inspector, Kate Murphy, assigned to the case; and her boyfriend, Jack Bassett. There are lots of characters (other nuns, students, employees, and the police) and that can get confusing. 

I enjoyed the depiction of San Francisco, especially the chilly weather and fog rolling in, which is so true. Also, the descriptions of life in a religious community (in 1984) were intriguing. 

Sister Mary Helen is an avid reader of murder mysteries and, when detecting, she refers to what fictional detectives would do (such as Charlie Chan). That was entertaining but sometimes those comments felt forced and repetitious. She was also heavily into literary quotes and I definitely got tired of that; it felt like padding. Issues like those I would attribute to the novel being the first one she wrote. The series continued for ten more books.

So, overall this is a story I enjoyed and a series I would like to continue, if I can fit it into all the other books I plan to read.

See this article at Clerical Detectives for more about the author, the series, and evaluations of all eleven books in the series.


Publisher: Dell, 1986 (orig. pub. 1984)
Length:    182 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Sister Mary Helen
Setting:    San Francisco, California 
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book in 2006.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Top Ten Book Covers with Skulls and Skeletons


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday theme is a Cover Freebie (pick your own topic related to book covers). I love book cover art and have been known to by a book solely for the cover, so I had to take part in this one. 

I am a big fan of older, and especially vintage, paperbacks, and I love interesting book cover art of all kinds. I collect covers that feature skulls or skeletons so I decided to stick with that theme this week. 

Here are my top ten covers, in no particular order:

Death Wears Pink Shoes by Robert James

A dancing skeleton. A book sent to me by Moira at Clothes in Books because she knows I love skeletons on books. And I loved the story too.

These Bones Were Made for Dancing by Annette Meyers

More dancing skeletons. This is the second book in the Smith and Wetzon series by Annette Meyers. 

Murder Sunny Side Up by R. B. Dominic

This is the first book in a series about Congressman Ben Safford. The series was written by Emma Lathen under the pseudonym R. B. Dominic.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

There are several sub-series within the Discworld series by Pratchett. One of them is the Death series. Mort is the first book in that series, and I read that a few years ago. Reaper Man is the second book in the series, and I have not read it yet.

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

A story set on Halloween night. It takes several young boys on a journey through several countries to see different versions of the Halloween story. The illustration is by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

A mystery set at Christmas and one of the better ones I have read. A book sent to me by Moira at Clothes in Books. 

Holiday Homicide by Rufus King

This mystery begins on New Year's Day but is only peripherally related to the holiday. Published in 1940, it is a Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin pastiche. A Dell mapback paperback.

Rough Cider by Peter Lovesey

This is one of Peter Lovesey's earlier novels. Published in 1986, it is set in 1964, and involves events that took place during World War II. See reviews at the Historical Novel Society site and At the Scene of the Crime.


Land of Dreams by James P Blaylock

A fantasy novel set in a village on the northern California coast. I haven't read and I have had it for years. I did buy it for the cover, but I do plan to read it someday.

King & Joker by Peter Dickinson

This is one of my favorite books ever, AND it has a beautiful skull cover. King & Joker is an alternate history/mystery set in an England where George V's elder brother did not die but lived to become King Victor I, and is later succeeded by his grandson, King Victor II.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times No. 20

I am participating in the Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times meme. It was originated by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness, but Katrina at Pining for the West is now gathering the blogposts.

So now I have some new photos of bookshelves to share, and I will start with this one...

If you right click on the image of the shelf, and open the link in a new tab, you will be able to read more of the titles.

On the left side are six hardcover books. Except for Field Gray by Philip Kerr, those are all newly acquired books that I want to read soonish. 

Escape Velocity is the second book by Susan Wolfe. Her first book was The Last Billable Hour, published in 1989. Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer who works for a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or very ambitious lawyers, Tweedmore and Slyde. He has only been there for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed.  I enjoyed that book a lot and wished there were more by the same author. However, it wasn't until 2016 that the author published her second novel, Escape Velocity.

Two reviews for Escape Velocity are at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan and at Clothes in Books.

To the right of those books is a stack of more of my Soho Crime books. The top book on that stack is Murder in the Off Season by Francine Mathews. It is set on the island of Nantucket. That book was originally published in 1994, but substantially revised before republication in 2016. I had not heard of an author taking that approach before. Read about that book at Reader in the Wilderness and at Caroline Bookbinder.

Further on the right are three books by J. Robert Janes, a Canadian author. The books are Mannequin, Sandman, and Stonekiller. The series is set in Occupied France, in 1942 and 1943. It is the story of two men who are on opposite sides but must work together. Gestapo Haupsturmführer Hermann Kohler and  his partner, Sûreté Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr have been thrown together by circumstances to investigate crimes.  They have developed a trusting relationship, but know that due to the realities of war, it will probably not end well. One side or the other will be the victor, and then where will their loyalties lie?

I have read the first four books in the series. See my reviews for Kaleidoscope and Salamander. And at Kirkus, see J. Kingston Pierce's interview with J. Robert Janes from 2012.

On the shelf above those books, you can see Tourist Season by Carl Hiaasen and The Dive from Claussen's Pier by Ann Packer. I have had both of those books for years and years. So long that I don't have a record of when I got them or where. And also two books about tap dancing. I love tap dancing in films and have at least a couple of other books related to that subject.

Have you read any of these books? What is your opinion?

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Grand Hotel: Vicki Baum

This was an easy book to read and to love, but not easy for me to review. There is so much going on, and so many sad people coming together over a few days and nights at the Grand Hotel in Berlin. I don't think one of the characters is really happy, although some of them find some happy moments during their stay, and all of them are in some way changed by the experience.

Here are our characters:

  • Grusinskaya, the aging dancer who still has a lovely body but is losing confidence in herself.
  • Baron Gaigern, debonair, likable, handsome, loves to dance and gamble, but beneath it all, a thief.
  • Two men from the Saxonia Cotton Company in Fredersdorf. Preysing is the Generaldirektor of the company; Kringelein is his minion, a clerk. Kringelein has come to Berlin after finding out he has a short time to live. He has brought all his money and plans to live it up for once.
  • Doktor Otternschlag, a man damaged by World War I, who is a longterm resident of the hotel.
  • Flämmchen, a typist, who aspires to be an actress and is prepared to give her body away to get ahead.
  • In the background of all of this, we follow the hall porter, Senf, whose wife is in the hospital having a baby. I was quite worried about that baby all the way through the story.

As I read the book, I found myself focusing on Grusinskaya and the Baron, but really all of the people visiting the hotel are equally interesting and given quite a bit of background. There isn't really a main plot and subplots, they all rotate around each other and interact. I was expecting a more surface look at the characters and their interactions, but there was depth to each character's story.

So, clearly, I enjoyed this book. It was very thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read. It provides a good picture of Germany in the late 1920s, between the two wars. The characters are very well drawn. The story is pretty dark at times, yet it did not drag me down. 

The film from 1932 is a good adaptation of the story, but I am glad I read the book first. As usual, the book provides more insight into the characters. Some of the actors were: John Barrymore as the Baron, Lionel Barrymore as Kringelein, Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya, Joan Crawford as Flämmchen, and Wallace Beery as Preysing. The sets for the hotel lobby are gorgeous.

Other resources:

At Clothes in Books and His Futile Preoccupations.


Publisher:  New York Review Books, 2016 (orig. pub. 1929)
Translated from the German by Basil Creighton with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo
Length:     270 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     Berlin, Germany
Genre:      Fiction, Classics
Source:     I purchased my copy, 2018.


Thursday, September 3, 2020

What did I read in August 2020?

I read eight books in August. As usual most of them were crime fiction or related books. I did not finish all the books on my 20 Books of Summer list but I did read 12 of them. One was a DNF, and I will read the remaining 7 books in the next two months.

Mystery reference

The Crown Crime Companion  (1995)

Annotated by 0tto Penzler and Compiled by Mickey Friedman

This was a reread. The book lists 101 favorite crime novels as chosen by members of the Mystery Writers Of America. There is some commentary on each book on the list and there are interesting essays on various crime genres. My favorite essays were "The Historical Mystery" by Peter Lovesey and "The Cozy/Traditional Mystery" by Margaret Maron. I also liked the Hardboiled/Private Eye essay by Sue Grafton, titled ""An Eye for an I: Justice, Morality, the Nature of the Hard-Boiled Investigator and All That Existential Stuff."

Historical Fiction

Young Bess (1944) by Margaret Irwin

First book in a trilogy about Queen Elizabeth I. The story was beautifully written, vividly describing details of the life at that time.  My review here.

Science Fiction and Fantasy / Short Stories

Clarkesworld Year Five (2013) edited by Neil Clarke and Sean Wallace

The stories in this collection were published in Clarkesworld Magazine between October 2010 and September 2011. Some are science fiction, some are fantasy and some I wasn't sure about. Almost all of them were good reads. I will be doing a post on this book later. Rick Robinson at Tip the Wink generously sent me this short story collection, plus two others.


Crime Fiction

The Queen's Man: A Medieval Mystery (1996) by Sharon Kay Penman

Justin de Quincy is the illegitimate son of a Bishop, Aubrey de Quincy, and Justin has just discovered this as the book opens. He leaves the Bishop's house but realizes he doesn't have any money. He does have his horse, Copper, and his sword. On the road to London, he surprises two men attacking an older man, a goldsmith from Winchester. The man dies but he lives long enough to ask Justin to deliver a letter to the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. He succeeds at delivering the letter and the Queen asks him to find out who killed the goldsmith and why. This novel, the first of three about Justin de Quincy, is a very nice combination of history and mystery.

Tripwire (1999) by Lee Child
#3 in the Jack Reacher series. I like Jack Reacher and I enjoy the way the author tells a story, but the level of violence in this one was too much for me. My review here.

Shooting at Loons (1994) by Margaret Maron

#3 in the Judge Deborah Knott series. There was a lot to like about this book and I will continue the series. My review here.

Other Paths to Glory (1974) by Anthony Price
This is the fifth book in the Dr David Audley & Colonel Jack Butler series. Audley and Butler are part of an British intelligence group working for the Ministry of Defence. I love this series. Each of the books has some historical theme and this one was connected to World War I and the Battle of the Somme in 1916. This book won the Gold Dagger award of the CWA.

Fall of a Cosmonaut (2000) by Stuart M. Kaminsky
13th book in the Porfiry Rostnikov series. This is another favorite series. Chief Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov of the Moscow police heads a small team of investigators. This time the group has three unusual cases: a missing cosmonaut, the theft of a film, and a death at the Center for Paranormal Research.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling for Insane Times No. 19

I am participating in the Bookshelf Traveling For Insane Times meme. It was originated by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness, but Katrina at Pining for the West is now gathering the blogposts.

I have run out of bookshelves to visit. That is not actually true, but I have no available photos right now. So I am taking a different approach. I am revisiting a post from 2013 and some stacks of books I bought at the Planned Parenthood book sale that year. The following images show several stacks of books I purchased that year. 

I am dismayed and embarrassed that I have only read four of the books in these stacks. A few other books were discarded without reading, but for the most part I have all of these books somewhere in my house (or garage). Some of them are later books in series that I plan to read later, but still ....

These are the books on those shelves that I have read:

Trust Me On This (1989) by Donald E. Westlake

I read a good number of books by Westlake earlier in my life. Most, but not all of them, were humorous stories. This book turned out to be a perfect reintroduction to Westlake. 

Sara Joslyn gets a job at a phenomenal salary at the Weekly Galaxy, a supermarket tabloid newspaper. On her first day at work, Sara drives by the scene of a crime on the isolated road to her new workplace.  A man has been murdered and she is the only witness. His body is half in and half out of the car, in the driver's seat. She thinks she has found her first story and is eager to impress her new employer. But when she arrives at the office no one is interested in a real crime. They want stories on fad diets or celebrity shenanigans or alien invasions. The murder she witnessed comes back to haunt her later.

I have since read another humorous book by this author (Brothers Keepers) and two books in the Parker series, written as Richard Stark.

Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction (2012)

by Barry Forshaw

This is a mystery reference book that includes crime fiction authors whose books have been translated to English. It covers writers from these countries: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland. Sweden gets the most coverage and I suppose that reflects that more Swedish authors had been translated in 2012. Most of the coverage is for current authors, although earlier translated works by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are discussed. I will read any book on mystery reference, and I learned a lot from this one.

A Capital Crime (2010) by Laura Wilson

I never wrote a full review on this one. It is #3 in the Ted Stratton series and I read it in September 2017. I loved the first two books in the series, The Innocent Spy (US title) and An Empty Death; this one was not quite as good, in my opinion. 

It is the 1950s in London; Detective Inspector Ted Stratton is a widower with grown children. The story begins with the suspected murders of a woman and her child. But it is also about the post-war changes in England and family relationships. The main plot is based on a real case but I knew nothing about it so it didn't affect my reading experience. I found it overly long, but still a good read.

The Black Seraphim (1983) by Michael Gilbert

The description from the back of my paperback edition:

James Scotland, a young pathologist, has come to Melchester on a much-needed vacation. But amid the cathedral town's quiet medieval atmosphere, he finds a hornet's nest of church politics, town and country rivalries. . . and murder. When one of the community's most influential figures dies suddenly (and very publicly), Scotland uncovers some curious alliances among church, state, and big business. Modern forensic pathology, the age-old mysteries of the church, and a bit of unexpected romance all play a part as Scotland unravels the unsettling truth about Melchester.

I liked the protagonist. He is inquisitive, intelligent and a pathologist, so it makes sense that he can tell when something is not right about a death.  Amanda, the Dean's daughter is also a wonderful character, forthright, honest, with high expectations of others. I liked the romance, not sweet and sentimental at all.