Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Betty Smith

For years, I mistakenly thought that this was children's book, and I was not interested in reading it. When I researched the book and its history recently, I realized it was much more than that, but still wasn't sure I wanted to invest the time in it. In the end, I was glad that I did.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a story of poverty in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. The focus is on Francie Nolan, the daughter of a waiter / singer who has a problem with alcohol and his wife who cleans the building they live in to pay the rent. Francie is very close to her father, but her mother favors her younger brother Neeley. Life was very hard for their family, often not having enough food, worrying about not having enough money for the basics and having to move to cheaper apartments as the father is able to bring in less money.

Although I found this a very hard book to read, I do recommend it to anyone who has not read it. While reading When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning, I was surprised to learn of this book's huge popularity when distributed as an Armed Services Edition. I now understand why. It is a compelling read and the characters are fully fleshed out and realistic.  My focus in this post is on the parents and the two children, but the extended family and many people in the neighborhood are featured also.

Although I have stressed the negatives of the life the Nolan's led, there are uplifting moments. Francie's unquenchable thirst for reading and knowledge is inspiring, and she never gives up on getting more education. I did not enjoy reading about poverty and hunger, but the way this story was told, focusing on the love that was part of this family, reminded me that not having love in childhood could be worse than not having food.

The inequities of gender are also addressed, although at many times the women in this story were stronger than the men. Yet, there was the prevalent idea that it is important for men to get an education but not women.

I did watch the film after reading the book. It was pretty faithful to the novel and a very moving story. James Dunn won the Best Supporting Actor for his role as Johnny, Franny's father. Peggy Ann Garner as Francie, Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan, Joan Blondell as Katie's sister Sissy and Lloyd  Nolan as Officer McShane were also very effective in their roles.

See these reviews:


Publisher:   Harper, 2002 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:       493 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Brooklyn, New York
Genre:       Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Killer's Choice: Ed McBain

As the story opens, a liquor store has been robbed. The saleswoman, Annie Boone, is dead of four bullet wounds, and a lot of damage was done to the store, including most of the merchandise. The store owner is moaning about the damage and the loss of most of his stock, and seems to care little about his employee's death. As the detectives of the 87th Precinct investigate this crime, they meet many people who know Annie but each has a different picture of her. The homicide victim is just as much a mystery as who killed her.

One difference between the 87th Precinct books and other police procedural mysteries I have read is that we see and follow several of the detectives working cases, often in pairs. In many other series, the focus is on one policeman or two partners. True, in this series Steve Carella is a central character, but at least at this point in the series, everyone plays their part and we follow extraneous events in each of their lives.

In this book, the 87th Precinct loses one policeman to a freakish incident, he just sort of wanders onto the site of a robbery at the wrong time. Also a new detective, Cotton Hawes, is added to the precinct; he has a bit of trouble fitting in because he comes from a precinct set in a nicer section of the city, which had fewer homicides to deal with. Also featured in Killer's Choice are Meyer Meyer and Bert Kling.

The lovely descriptive passages that seemed to be missing in book 4, The Con Man, are back again in this book. Ed McBain also tells the story well through dialog. The policemen are believable characters, with flaws and individual personalities.

I am reading this series in order from the beginning, and this is the fifth book that I have read. The series started in 1956, and this book came out in 1957. The early books in the series are short, quick reads. (McBain says he wrote those in a month.) There were over 50 books in the series and some of the later books are quite long. I started late with this series but it is nice to know I have many more to read. It will be interesting to see how the series and the policemen change as the series evolves.

See these reviews by:


Publisher:   Permabooks, 1962 (orig. pub. 1957)
Length:       147 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       87th Precinct, #5
Setting:      Isola, fictional city loosely based on New York City
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

My Reading in September 2019

When I review this month's reading, I can see that I have been moving away from vintage mystery novels and reading more contemporary fiction. That is neither good nor bad but I don't know why it is happening.

Of the ten books I read, seven were crime fiction although one was a mystery / fantasy blend. Of the crime fiction books, only one was written before 1990--Margery Allingham's More Work for the Undertaker, from 1948.

My first foray into Georgette Heyer's historical romance fiction (Frederica) was a success. That one was published in 1965. Reading Neil Gaiman's Coraline was not quite as successful for me, but that is because I don't like dark, creepy stories.

I started two series by "new to me" authors. I read Heartshot by Steven F. Havill and Snowblind by Ragnar Jónasson. I was very happy with both of those and will continue reading the series.

Overall, a very good month of reading. Here are the books I read...

Mystery reference

Brit Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of the British Isles
(2016) by Barry Forshaw
This book covers crime fiction authors from the UK. It is divided into geographic regions within the UK. There is also a section on UK authors whose books are set outside the UK. I do enjoy reading about crime fiction authors and their books, and each mystery reference book has its high and low points. This one is not perfect but is a good overview.

Historical Fiction / Romance

Frederica (1965) by Georgette Heyer
This is my first Regency romance. It has been many years since I have read a book in the romance genre, but so many people enjoy Heyer's romances that I had to give them a try. And I was glad I did. Frederica was an engaging book, and I learned a lot about Regency England. I have more of Heyer's Regency romances on my wishlist and will definitely be trying more.

Fantasy / Horror

Coraline (2002) by Neil Gaiman
This is a very dark and strange story of a young girl who goes through a door in her house into an alternate version of her house and her parents. Beautifully written and very creepy. Definitely a good read to get into the mood for Halloween. It isn't the type of story I enjoy very much, too creepy for me, but I am glad I experienced it.

Crime Fiction

Paper Son (2019) by S.J. Rozan
I wish I could convey to you how excited I was to find out that S.J. Rozan had written another book in the Lydia Chin / Bill Smith mystery series. That is one my favorite contemporary mystery series and the last book was in 2011. The surprise here is that Lydia and Bill are both in Mississippi helping one of her cousins who is in serious trouble. And Lydia had not even known she had relatives in Mississippi. If you are already a fan of this series, I highly recommend this book. If you haven't tried the others, I would read a couple of the earliest books in the series first.  I will be reviewing it, sooner or later, in more detail.

Heartshot (1991) by Steven F. Havill
The first book in a  24-book series set in a fictional county in New Mexico. It features Undersheriff Bill Gastner and Detective Estelle Reyes. I enjoyed this book a lot and will be reading more. My review here.

Joe Country (2019) by Mick Herron
The 6th book in Herron's Slough House series about spies who have been demoted due to some disgrace or screw up in their jobs, and are now working under Jackson Lamb. Amazingly, this is one series I have kept current with. I love the writing, the characters, and the plots get better and better.  

More Work for the Undertaker (1948) by Margery Allingham
The 13th book in the Albert Campion series. I am rereading the series in order because I enjoy Allingham's writing so much. Not my favorite book in the series, but many readers like it a lot. My review here.

The Manual of Detection (2009) by Jedediah Berry
My son bought this book at the book sale last year. We both read it recently, and we both enjoyed it. But it is very hard to describe. It mixes both mystery and fantasy, and I did find it more confusing than most books with that blend. The story is dark but with a good bit of humor, and I liked the ending.
Snowblind (2010) by Ragnar Jónasson
Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series. The setting is the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjörður, close to the Arctic Circle. I have read other mysteries set in Iceland but this part of Iceland is new to me. I liked it, I will be continuing the series. See my review.

A Foreign Country (2012) by Charles Cumming
This was my 2nd spy fiction read of the month. I really like spy fiction, and this book worked really well for me. This is Cumming's first book in the Thomas Kell series. Kell has been tossed out of MI6 but is called back to run a secret investigation. Very complex, lots of surprises, and believable characters. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Heartshot: Steven F. Havill

Heartshot is the first book in a  24-book series by Steven F. Havill. The series is set in a fictional county in New Mexico. Although this book was published in 1991, the series was entirely new to me, and I was so pleased with my reading experience I wanted to share it.

Summary from my trade paperback edition published by Poisoned Pen Press:
Posadas County, New Mexico has very few mean streets and no city-slick cop shop. But it has an earnest, elected Sheriff and his aging Undersheriff, William C. Gastner. Pushing sixty, widower Bill has no other life than in law enforcement–and doesn't want one, even if he's being nudged gently toward retirement. Then a car full of teens, running from a stop by Deputy Torrez, goes air­borne into a rocky outcrop, killing all five kids and revealing a package of cocaine under the seat. Has someone brought big-time crime to the county? Bill is now dealing with grieving par­ents–one of whom starts packing a gun...
What did I like so much about this book? I think the most important thing for me was the main character, Undersheriff Bill Gastner. Overweight and unhealthy, he is dedicated to his job but works too hard. With a new Sheriff taking over, Gastner worries about being pushed out of his job. And he is cranky and curmudgeonly. The story is told from Gastner's point of view, in first person, and that approach works very well in this case.

Another great character is Detective Estelle Reyes, younger, but just as intelligent and determined as Gastner. I like the way the relationships develop between the inexperienced Sheriff, Undersheriff Gastner and Detective Reyes.

The story is compelling. The deaths of five teenagers is devastating to the community, and the investigation leads to further deaths. My interest never lagged. Towards the end the story becomes somewhat thrillerish, but still convincing. I was certainly caught up in the story and holding my breath until the end.

I loved this book. I already have the 2nd book in the series, Bitter Recoil, and I will be reading it soon. The series is in print, having been reissued by Poisoned Pen Press. I was introduced to this series by Richard Robinson at Tip the Wink, and I am very grateful he told me about it.


Publisher:  Poisoned Pen Press, 2007. (orig. publ. 1991)
Length:  217 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Series:   Posadas County Mysteries
Setting:  New Mexico
Genre:   Mystery, Police Procedural

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Cold Comfort Farm: Stella Gibbons

I have heard so much about Cold Comfort Farm over the years. I had to try it, but I was hesitant. The book is described as a parody of rural novels written in the early 1900s. Not being familiar with those novels, I wasn't sure how much it would mean to me. The title of the book conjured up something quite different. So I was surprised to find that I loved it, from the first page.

The book opens after Flora Poste's parents have died:
The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.
Her father had always been spoken of as a wealthy man, but on his death his executors were disconcerted to find him a poor one. After death duties had been paid and the demands of creditors satisfied, his child was left with an income of one hundred pounds a year, and no property.
Thus, after writing to various relatives, Flora Poste decides to move in with her country relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm.

In various reviews and articles, Flora Poste has been compared to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse. That never occurred to me because the two stories are so different, but it is a valid comparison, because Flora wants to set everything right and fix everyone's lives. Or at least everyone living at Cold Comfort Farm. And at the Starkadder's farm, everyone does need at least a little help.

I was dubious of her attitude of taking over initially. Who was she to think she knew what was right for everyone? But as she worked her magic gradually with each person, and helped them find their way, I began to enjoy it.

There are so many interesting and entertaining characters that I cannot include them all. Flora is at the top of the list, of course. Then there is Judith Starkadder, the matriarch, who only cares for her son Seth. Seth, in turn, is handsome and sexy but all he is really interested in is the movies at the local theater. Amos, the father, preaches at the Church of the Quivering Brethren and hates being tied to the farm. Reuben, the other son, is the only one who really cares about the farm. None of them are happy. And that just scratches the surface.

This is not a book that is meant to be taken seriously, and I found it a lot of fun. But there are readers who don't find it funny or enjoyable, and I would hesitate to recommend to everyone. I do think it is a book worth trying, and I am sure I will be reading it again.

Some other posts to check out:


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2006 (orig. pub. 1932). 
Length:     233 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Fiction
Source:    I purchased this book.
Introduction by Lynne Truss.
Cover by Roz Chast.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Snowblind: Ragnar Jonasson

Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series, written by Ragnar Jónasson. The setting is the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjörður, close to the Arctic Circle. I have read other mysteries set in Iceland but those have been set in or around Reykavik, and I like this different setting. The town is small and can only be accessed via a tunnel, thus it is often isolated when the weather is bad.

This is the summary on the back of my edition:
Where: An isolated fishing village in the fjords of northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors.
Who: Ari Thór is a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik.
What: A young woman is found lying half naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death. Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.

As the novel opens, Ari Thór Arason is attending police college and lives with his girlfriend, Kristin, who is studying to be a doctor. He soon gets a call offering him a job in Siglufjörður, and he decides to take it without consulting Kristin. She is upset with him, and he leaves for his new job with a good bit of resentment between the two of them.

When Ari Thór arrives at his new job, he is disappointed to find the that the town is so quiet and crime free. As his new boss, Tomas, says, "nothing ever happens here." Ari Thór feels claustrophobic and threatened in his new environment and he is very much an outsider there.

Even when a well-known, elderly author dies by falling down the stairs at the local theater, and Ari Thór suspects that it may not be an accident, Tómas downplays the incident and doesn't want to stir up any trouble.

Then a young woman is found lying in the snow near to her home, bleeding and near death. Her husband is immediately suspected, but the police have to look into other possibilities, and as the investigation continues, many secrets are exposed.

My first reaction to the story was that the police were much less focused on the solution to the crime than I would expect, possibly due to not having had to deal with such a serious crime in the past. I also noticed that many of the characters were troubled about tragic events in their past. Ari Thor had lost both parents at a young age and felt that there is little justice in life. Several other characters had lost one of their parents at a young age or someone similarly close and had suffered trauma from those losses. This type of loss is not unusual, it just seemed very prominent in this small set of characters.

But as I got involved in the story, I found it to be a rewarding read. Many of the characters are experiencing change in their lives and adjusting. The crime highlights those situations. And the way the investigation plays out is realistic.

I also liked the way the story goes back and forth in time, letting the reader know that a serious crime has occurred, and going back in time to reveal more about the characters and explore events leading up to the crime. I thought that was handled very cleverly. I mention it specifically because some readers don't care for that style.

My only problem with this series is that it was published out of order in the US. Per the author's website:
Original publication order of the series in Iceland:
Fölsk nóta (2009)*
Snjóblinda (Snowblind) - 2010
Myrknætti (Blackout) - 2011
Rof (Rupture) - 2012
Andköf (Whiteout) - 2013
Náttblinda (Nightblind) - 2014
* Not set in Siglufjordur, but the first novel featuring Ari Thór Arason, as a young theology student looking for his missing father.

Some other reviews to check out...


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2017 (orig. pub. 2010)
Length:      302 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Dark Iceland Series #1
Setting:      Iceland
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased this book.