Sunday, December 9, 2018

Reading Summary, November 2018

I read nine books in November. One book was a fantasy; one book was a nonfiction book about books and reading. The rest were crime fiction. I started three new (to me) series, and all of those were very good.

I did make some progress on Les Miserables, which I am trying to finish by the end of the year. But I am still only about 2/3 done with that book (800 out of 1200 pages, approximately).


I'd Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life (2018) by Anne Bogel
I love reading. When I finish one book, I am always excited about picking my next read. I have to have a book with me to read, just in case... So I appreciate reading about other booklovers. Like any other book of essays, not every one of the topics appealed to me. But overall this was a great read that I will go back to from time to time. Suggested at Kay's Reading Life; see her post for more detail.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) by J.K. Rowling
Oh my goodness, I finally finished the last book in this series. It is a whopping 607 pages long. I am glad I read this book, I think it finished the series off very well. I just wish it had been shorter. The last 200 pages were great; the first 400 pages had too much padding. 

Crime Fiction:

The Birthday Murder (1945) by Lange Lewis
Victoria Jason Hime is a successful screen writer and novelist. Her most recent novel has been bought by a film studio and her husband, Albert Hime, is hoping to produce the film. Then, before he gets the chance, he dies of poison and Victoria is the primary suspect. I enjoyed the way the story was told, and the ending was very surprising. My thoughts are HERE.

Entry Island (2013) by Peter May
Entry Island blends historical fiction with a present-day police procedural. Both stories come together in the end, as we expect. I liked what I learned about both settings. The historical focus is on the Highland Clearances which take place on the Isle of Lewis and Harris. The current investigation centers on a death on a small Canadian island (Entry Island, which is a part of the Magdalen Islands). This was an unusual and compelling story.
The Unsuspected (1945) by Charlotte Armstrong
In this impressive, disturbing novel of psychological suspense, Luther Grandison is a famous director of stage plays and movies who holds sway over his two young female wards, one rich, one beautiful. His young secretary, Rosaleen, has recently committed suicide by hanging herself. Rosaleen's good friend Jane has taken the position of secretary to Grandison, as she suspects that the death was not suicide. There is a film version starring Claude Rains as Grandison (which I have not yet seen).

Iron Lake (1998) by William Kent Krueger
This is the first novel in the long running Cork O'Connor series, set in the small town of Aurora, Minnesota near Iron Lake and the Iron Lake Reservation. Cork, the former sheriff, is half Irish and half Anishinaabe. An influential local judge is found dead, an apparent suicide; Cork is the one who discovers the body. A young Indian boy is missing and his mother seeks Cork's help to find him. I loved this book and plan to read more of the series. My thoughts are HERE.

Never Go Back (2012) by Lee Child
This book is the 18th Jack Reacher novel (out of 23). It is the book that the latest Jack Reacher film is based on, which is why I read it now. This is only the third book in the series I have read and I loved it. 

Bruno, Chief of Police (2008) by Martin Walker
The first installment in a wonderful new series (to me) that follows the exploits of Benoît Courrèges (Bruno for short), a policeman in a small French village. This seemed like a fantasy because the life in the village is (at least on the surface) so rustic. That description makes it sound on the cozy side, and it is not that at all. Although this book is heavy on the details of Bruno's past and the setting of the series, I am sure I am going to enjoy more of these books.

Dead Sand (1994) by Brendan DuBois
As the first novel in the Lewis Cole series, Dead Sand also features a lot of backstory on the protagonist, and I liked that.  Cole's place in the community is unusual; he is a journalist who writes a regular column for a magazine but he also gets involved in helping out the local police on a regular basis. Sometimes that help is welcome, sometimes not. There are two mysteries in this book. Who is Lewis Cole and how did he come to Tyler, New Hampshire? And who is behind a series of local deaths?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Iron Lake: William Kent Krueger

Iron Lake is William Kent Krueger's first novel, starring Cork O'Connor, the former sheriff of Aurora, Minnesota, ousted in a recent recall election. Many residents of the small town still think of him as sheriff and ask him for help when they get into trouble. Cork is also half Irish and half Anishinaabe Indian. The Anishinaabe reservation is near to Aurora, and the town and the reservation share usage of nearby Iron Lake.

This story tells us about Cork's connection to the reservation, and his history with his wife and family. Gradually we learn about the political situation in the town and the disputes between the townspeople and the reservation. I like the way the story is slowly revealed. Although we know from the beginning that a death has occurred, we don't know if it is murder or not for quite a while.

This book has it all. Complex characters. A meaningful plot. Lots of surprises. Very good pacing.

At first I found Cork's wife to be a cipher, I could not connect with her. I don't know that I ever liked her, but in the end she was just as complex as any of the other important characters. Sometimes, I didn't like Cork all that much, but the story explains a lot of his behavior, his background, and I found him admirable in the context of what he had experienced.

The family dynamics are very, very good. He has children that he cares about and he wants to be with them; yet he and his wife are separated, so he cannot be a real part of their lives. The children are at different stages of development and I liked his relationship with them and his patience with them.

Another bonus is that the book is set at Christmas. It is not a traditional Christmas mystery by any means but Christmas does play a part in the plot.

And finally, I enjoyed this book for the setting, which not only included the physical setting  of northern Minnesota but also the proximity to an Indian reservation and the juxtaposition of the Indian culture vs the town culture. Cork's mixed race causes issues on both sides.

I am very glad I finally ready this book. I bought my copy of Iron Lake over 5 years ago and it was first published 20 years ago. I was motivated to move it to the top of my TBR pile by a recent recommendation from Richard at Tip the Wink. His review is here. I want to see how a lot of this plays out for Cork. So I will be reading more of the series.


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1999, orig. pub. 1998.
Length:    438 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Cork O'Connor #1
Setting:    Minnesota
Genre:     Mystery
Source:   I bought my copy.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation from A Christmas Carol to Mr. Ive's Christmas

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 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, thus this is a perfect first post for December. I am sure I have read this story long ago, but then maybe I am just familiar with film adaptations. (My favorite is Scrooged with Bill Murray.) I do have the illustrated edition pictured here, and I will be reading it this month.

For my first link I will make the obvious connection, another book with a Christmas theme.

The Shortest Day by Jane Langton is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Homer and Mary Kelly are teaching a class at Harvard University. Mary is participating in the annual Christmas Revels when a young singer in the event dies in an automobile accident. When other deaths follow, Homer resists getting involved, even though he was once a homicide detective.

I next link to another book featuring an academic setting ... Murder is Academic by Christine Poulson. The UK title is Dead Letters. This is the first book in Poulson's Cassandra James series. Cassandra becomes the Head of the English department at St. Etheldreda's College at the University of Cambridge, after the former Head, a close friend, dies. This is one of my favorite academic mysteries.

I move on to another book set at the University of Cambridge, The Cambridge Theorum. The main character, Derek Smailes, is a police detective assigned to investigate the death of an undergraduate. It is a combination of a police procedural and an espionage novel.

My next choice would be The Becket Factor by Michael David Anthony, which also includes elements of espionage with another subgenre, this time a clerical mystery. Published in 1990, politics, local and national, are also touched on. The main setting for this book is a cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral, and its surroundings, which leads me to another book set in a Cathedral close.

Close Quarters by Michael Gilbert was my first exposure to life in a Cathedral close, which made it doubly interesting. That book was published much earlier, in 1947, and is very much a traditional puzzle-type mystery.

My last book in the chain has even more of a religious emphasis, and takes us back to the Christmas theme. Mr. Ive's Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos is a novel that tells the story of a man's life and the grief he suffers when his son dies in a senseless robbery a few days before Christmas. Mr. Ives' religious beliefs and faith are at the center of this book, but family relationships and friendships are also stressed.

My chain this month began and ended with Christmas stories, and in the middle there were books with academic or ecclesiastical settings. I look forward to seeing the direction of other Six Degrees posts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

And Be a Villain: Rex Stout

This book, the 13th in the Nero Wolfe series, is the first in a trilogy that features Wolfe's archnemesis, Arnold Zeck. This is a re-read for me, of course. In this story, the characters include a radio talk show host, Madeline Fraser, and her entourage. A guest on the show dies from poisoning, and Wolfe investigates. An enjoyable read, as always.

From the dust jacket...
Motivated by money alone, Nero involves himself in a crime which has been broadcast over a great national network. A leading lady of the microphone interviews a racetrack tout and a professor of mathematics. In the course of the interview, as a plug for one of the sponsors, a noted soft-drink manufacturer, each guest is served a bottle of the beverage. To the astonishment of the radio public, the embarrassment of the soft-drink manufacturer, and the annoyance of the New York Police Department, the racetrack oracle instantly drops dead of cyanide poisoning. How did cyanide get into the drink? And how could anyone be sure that the tout would receive the fatal bottle? Or, for that matter, was the poisoned bottle intended for him at all? 

Nero Wolfe's usual approach to detecting is to work only when he needs money. He often charges so much to work on a case that he can pick and choose when he wants to work. Occasionally he will be motivated by friendship or a feeling of responsibility to investigate, but this is one of those times that he has run out of money and wants to persuade the central figures in the case to hire him. In And Be a Villain, he has multiple clients: the radio personality, and the many sponsors of her show, all of whom want this incident far behind them.

And this is one case where Wolfe really has to work for his money. There are no easy answers, and the perpetrator is very, very clever. The investigation involves a lot of leg work, which Wolfe never does and is even more than Archie can handle. Wolfe tries (somewhat successfully) to use the police to follow up on clues he has found.

As mentioned above, this book is part of the Arnold Zeck trilogy. The two other books that feature that villain are The Second Confession (1949) and In the Best Families (1950). In this book, Wolfe only encounters Zeck at the very end, more like a cameo to whet our interest. The next two novels in the series include more involvement with Zeck. All three were published together in an omnibus, Triple Zeck.

Many fans of this series consider these three books to be some of the best in the series. I do like this one a lot. Usually it is Nero Wolfe's "family" (Archie, his legman; Fritz the cook and Theodore, the gardener; and the stable of freelance investigators) that I enjoy reading about. This time, Madeline Fraser and her employees, sponsors, and devoted fans provide the entertainment, until the deaths continue to mount up. Stout often likes to poke fun at big businesses like the marketing and advertising industries, and he gets a lot of opportunities here.

An interesting tidbit that I had not noticed before:

In the Book Club Edition I read this time, the beverage in question was called Starlite. In later editions, it was called Hi-Spot and that is the name that I remember. I actually did not notice the difference at all until it was pointed out in a review on Goodreads. That review is very good and has lot of insights, other than the issue of the drink name, but it does get into detail about the story, so keep that in mind if you read it.

I found this Wikipedia page that discusses the issues with the different wording for the drink and it appears that the title of the drink went back and forth over various editions:
1948 Viking FE – Hi-Spot;
1948 Viking BCE – Starlite;
1949 Wm. Collins, Crime Club (Great Britain) – Starlite;
1950 Bantam Paperback – Hi-Spot;
1950 Viking BCE/Full House Omnibus – Starlite;
1974 Viking FE/Zeck Trilogy – Hi-Spot;
1975 Severn House (Great Britain) – Starlite;
1994 Bantam Paperback – Hi-Spot

The two different sources give different reasons for the name changes but either way, it was interesting.

See other reviews at:
Bill Crider's Pulp Culture Magazine
Clothes in Books
Noah's Archives
The Passing Tramp
In So Many Words...    (covers all three Arnold Zeck books)


Publisher: Viking Press, 1948 (book club ed.)
Length:    216 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:     Mystery

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Joining the Classics Club

Back in 2016, I posted a list of classic books I wanted to read. At the time I was in the mood to have a loose goal, an open-ended personal project to read more "classics." Since then I have read 10 of the books on that list and written about 8 of those.

Recently I decided I wanted to revise the list, and make it official by joining The Classics Club, an online group that focuses on reading classics and posting about books read. The main requirements are to create a list of at least 50 classic titles that I plan to read and blog about within the next five years.

So here is the new list, now with about 70 titles.  Since I am posting this on November 25, 2018, my goal date to have finished all the titles is November 25, 2023.

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart (1958)
Louisa May Alcott – Little Women (1868)
Margery Allingham – Tiger in the Smoke (1952)
Isaac Asimov – Foundation (1951)
Jane Austen – Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Vicki Baum – Grand Hotel (1929)
Nicholas Blake – The Beast Must Die (1938)
Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles (1950)
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Anne Bronte – Agnes Grey (1847)
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre (1847)
Mikhail Bulgarov – The Master and Margarita (1967)
James Cain – The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
Albert Camus –  The Stranger (1942)
Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)
Lewis Carroll – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
Willa Cather –  My Ántonia (1918)
Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye (1953)
Agatha Christie – And Then There Were None  (1939)
Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
Charles Dickens – Bleak House (1853)
Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol (1843)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Sign of the Four (1890)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Adventures of Sherlock Holmes  (1892)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca (1938)
John Meade Falkner – The Nebuly Coat (1903)
Edna Ferber – Giant (1952)
Edna Ferber – Show Boat (1926)
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby (1925)
Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier (1915)
Kenneth Grahame –  The Wind in the Willows (1908)
Stella Gibbons – Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana (1958)
Graham Greene – The Quiet American (1955)
Dashiell Hammett – Red Harvest (1929)
Robert A. Heinlein –  Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr.Ripley (1955)
Dorothy B. Hughes – In A Lonely Place (1947)
Victor Hugo  – Les Misérables (1862)
Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Christopher Isherwood – Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
Madeleine L'Engle – A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
Ira Levin – A Kiss Before Dying (1953)
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
Margaret Millar – Beast In View (1955)
Nancy Mitford – The Pursuit of Love (1945)
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer (1961)
J. D. Salinger – Catcher in the Rye (1951)
J. D. Salinger – Franny and Zooey (1961)
Dorothy l. Sayers – The Nine Tailors (1934)
William Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing (1598)
Mary Shelley – Frankenstein (1818)
Nevil Shute – On the Beach (1957)
Betty Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle (1948)
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
John Steinbeck – Cannery Row (1945)
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)
Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)
William Thackeray – Vanity Fair (1848)
James Thurber – The 13 Clocks (1950)
Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1878)
Anthony Trollope – The Warden (1855)
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse-Five  (1955)
H. G. Wells –  The Invisible Man (1897)
Eudora Welty – The Optimist's Daughter (1972)
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
Virginia Woolf – Flush (1933)

The definition of a classic is pretty much up to the person creating the list. My list is still primarily works of fiction that were published over 50 years ago that have "stood the test of time." I removed some titles, adding more titles. I did add one title that was published in 1972, so not quite 50 years old. Because the number of titles is greater, I also increased the number of classic crime fiction, science fiction, and fantasy books.

The club acknowledges that readers may want to change the list around over time, and it is allowable to "switch up the titles on your list after you post it, at any time during the duration of your challenge."

How to join the Classics Club

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Blood and Rubles: Stuart M. Kaminsky

The Inspector Rostnikov series began in 1981 when Russia was still part of the USSR; the 16th and  last book in the series was published in 2009. I am now at book 10 in the series. The protagonist is a metropolitan police detective in Moscow. Per the description on the dust jacket:
Crime in post-communist Russia has only gotten worse: rubles are scarce; blood, plentiful. In the eyes of Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov and his metropolitan police team, newfound democracy has unleashed the desperation that pushes people over the edge, and has emboldened those already on the path to hell. ...A trio of nasty cases confirms their worst fears.
The major case involves a Mafia shoot-out at a cafe; several innocent bystanders are killed or injured, and one of the dead is someone important to Inspector Emil Karpo. An American FBI agent, a Black man who can speak Russian, is assigned to the team to observe and help with this case. The second assignment involves three young boys who are robbing and beating people in their neighborhood, and another member of the team works on the disappearance of valuable artifacts.

Inspector Rostnikov is the center of each novel. He has a leg injury suffered during military service, which causes him pain and inconvenience in his job. He reads Ed McBain novels. His wife is Jewish, which has also caused problems with his job. His grown son is fighting in Afghanistan when the series begins.

There are several police colleagues on Rostnikov's team who have recurring roles. Their relationships play a part in each novel.

Inspector Emil Karpo, known as "the Vampire," is cold and forbidding, almost robotic in his behavior. He has always supported Communism and still does, even after the change in government in Russia after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. As the series progresses, he  becomes more human and thus a more interesting character.

This series is intriguing because of the picture of life in Russia during this interesting period. Rostnikov's strongest characteristic is his support of his staff in the face of the continuing changes in Russia and his ability to get the best out of them. He recognizes their differences and their gifts.

For me, the criminal plots are less important than the interactions of all the characters, yet each subplot is interesting, if sometimes depressing.

This series is best read in order; the characters grow and their lives change from book to book.

Stuart M. Kaminsky (September 29, 1934 – October 9, 2009) was an American mystery writer and film professor. He was a very prolific writer, and he is known for four long-running series of mystery novels. Two of the series feature police detectives, the Inspector Rostnikov series and the Abe Lieberman series. The other two series are about private detectives; the Toby Peters series is set in 1940's Hollywood and the Lew Fonescu series is set in Florida. The Toby Peters series is the longest and those mysteries are humorous; the other series are more serious in tone, sometimes dark. Kaminsky received the 1989 Edgar Award for Best Novel for A Cold Red Sunrise, the fifth novel in the Inspector Rostnikov series.

Many of Stuart Kaminsky's books are available through Road in e-book format or in trade paperback.


Publisher:  Fawcett Columbine, 1996
Length:      257 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Series:      Inspector Rostnikov, #10
Setting:     Moscow
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy