Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hard Going: Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I have been reading this police procedural series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, featuring DI Bill Slider of the Metropolitan Police, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, for many years. Not sure when I discovered it but at the time several were already published and I read them all very quickly.

Recently I was given the opportunity to review this book by Severn House via NetGalley. Even though I was only up to the 12th book in the series, and this is the 16th, I decided to break my rules and take a chance and read the most recent book in the series. I am glad I did.

I like all kinds of police procedural series. I like them traditional, with less violence. I like them gritty with cops with more behavioral or psychological problems. And in between. I see this series as a traditional, cozyish series. There is a strong focus on the lives of the two major characters (Slider and his partner Atherton) in addition to the investigation of the crime; that makes it feel more realistic.

A concise summary of this book in a brief piece on "The British Police Procedural" at the publisher's site:
Harrod-Eagles' sixteenth book in the Bill Slider series, Hard Going, has her detective inspector trying to juggle his personal life while he and his team must investigate the brutal killing of an elderly solicitor who seemingly had no enemies.
In this case, the police can find very little information about the victim. He has many friends and acquaintances in his neighborhood, and he is known for helping out hard-luck cases, but his friends can provide no background on him. No next of kin. Slider and his team must work hard to find where he came from. I think I must especially enjoy the situation where a person's identity is in question, because I just read Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird and enjoyed that story as well. (See that review here.)

Like many long running series, this one has its ups and downs, but I have found it a series worth sticking with. The characters are likable. I find that the policemen are very well-defined characters, the other persons involved in the crime less so. These books tell the story of the day by day investigation, looking for leads and connections, searching hours of CCTV tapes to trace the activities of the suspects.The series is known for its wit and humor, but this one seemed less humorous to me. Which was fine.

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles was born in Shepherd's Bush in London, which  is the setting of the Bill Slider series. At her website, you can find a brief history of Shepherd's Bush and a lovely map. She is the author of over 70 novels, including the MORLAND DYNASTY series which extended to 35 books.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

War Through the Generations Challenge 2014

Two years ago I participated in a challenge at War Through the Generations for World War I.

For the 2014 challenge at War Through the Generations, the hosts decided to mix things up a bit. The focus will be on 1 war for 2 months rather than a full or half year. Every two months, they will post a new linky for a new war so everyone can share their review links.

To be clear, you don’t have to read just Gulf War books in January and February, for instance, but any of the books that fit the war categories. You can read books from any of the listed wars during the entire year, then come back and post your reviews in the linky for the designated month. If you are interested in signing up, the sign up page is here.

Here’s the schedule:
  • Jan./Feb.: Gulf Wars (Gulf War/Operation Desert Storm and Iraq War/Operation Iraqi Freedom)
  • March/April: French and Indian War
  • May/June: Korean War
  • July/August: WWI (100th Anniversary)
  • Sept./Oct.: WWII
  • Nov./Dec.: Vietnam War
Level of Participation:
  • Dip Your Toes: Read 1 book for any war
  • Novice: Read 1 book per war throughout the year for a total of 6 books on 6 different wars
  • Intermediate: Read 2+ books for 1 war, and 1 book for each of the others for a total of 7 books
  • Expert: Read 2+ books for each war for a total of 12 books
The books can be fiction or non-fiction. There are list of recommended books and links to book reviews for some wars at the site.

I frequently read books that are set around World War II and there are several books I have that are set around World War I. I don't mind including other wars if I can find books I want to read on that topic. I know that there are some wars I will not be including, so I will join at the Dip Your Toes level.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Henrietta Who?: Catherine Aird

Henrietta Who? is a police procedural, set in the small village of Larking in England, published in 1968 by Catherine Aird. Her protagonist is Inspector C.D. Sloan of the Calleshire C.I.D. The locations are fictional but so well described that they feel real.

This was another short book (about 150 pages), with a very interesting premise. Grace Jenkins is the victim of a hit-and-run, initially assumed to be an accident. Her daughter Henrietta is called home from college but it turns out that she cannot be Grace's daughter because the woman has never had a child. Thus, all that the young woman thought she knew about her identity, and her parents, may be in question.

This is the story of the quest for a murderer where not much is known about the victim. But it is also the story of a very young woman coming to terms with questions about her parents and her origins. And a lovely picture of a village as described in this excerpt from the book:
   An outsider would have said Larking was typical of a thousand other English villages. And, as it happened, this was true, though the people of Larking wouldn't have liked it. It had all the appurtenances of a normal village and the usual complement of important-and self-important-people: two different groups.
   Spiritual leadership was provided by the Reverend Edward Bouverie Meyton (his father had been an admirer of Pusey). He lived at the Rectory on the green by the church (one Diocesan leaflet, three appeals, a Missionary newsletter, the quarterly report of the Additional Curates' Society and an interesting letter from the Calleshire Historical Association).
   Secular leadership came from James Augustus Heber Hibbs, Esquire, at The Hall (an assortment of bills, two closely typed pages of good advice from his stockbroker, a wine list, a picture postcard from his cousin Maude, and a letter from Scotland about a grouse moor).
   Harry Ford, postman, was not deceived. He knew as well as anyone else that real power-as opposed to leadership- was vested behind the counter at the Post Office cum General Store in the vast person of Mrs. Ricks (one seed catalogue: Mrs. Ricks rarely committed herself to paper).
   Larking shared a branch of the Women's Institute with the neighbouring hamlet of Belling St. Peter (Mrs. Hibbs was president) and a doctor with a cluster of small communities round about.
   And everyone thought they knew everything about everyone else.
   In which they were very mistaken.
A review of Aird's only non-series novel, A Most Contagious Game, in the book 1001 Midnights, by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, has this to say about Aird's Inspector Sloan series:
   Catherine Aird excels at portraying the English countryside’s village life with all its petty prejudices, the gentry and near-gentry, and the castles and ruins that dot the landscape.
   Her series sleuth, Inspector C. S. Sloan, deals with them in the fond yet frustrated manner of a native. Sloan is competent yet low-key, a good foil for the oddities of the suspects.
I liked this book a lot and I recommend it.  The search for the murderer, and why behind the murder, is well plotted. There are clues, although I missed them. I suppose the culprit may have been easy to guess for some, but I wasn't close to guessing the solution.

The characters were interesting, and for the most part likable. Sloan is often irritated with the ambitious but plodding assistant assigned to him, and his chief is aggravating, but I found all of them entertaining characters. I don't want to gush, but I found Aird's writing witty and charming, without being sentimental or silly.

This is the 2nd book in a series that now includes 23 books. I have read the first one, The Religious Body, published in 1966, and the third, The Stately Home Murder (aka The Complete Steel).  I liked both. The last book (so far) in the series was published in 2013.

Other resources:
  • Catherine Aird is the pseudonym of Kinn Hamilton McIntosh. The website of Rue Morgue Press, the publisher of the edition I read, has a detailed article about the author, if you would like to know more.
  • There is a nice review of Henrietta Who? at Mystery File, which has a great cover image and an image of a map included in the original hardback edition (which I wish I could afford to own).

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Naked Sun: Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov is a cross-genre book with an interesting whodunit and an intriguing picture of two dystopian societies. It paints a picture of the possible ills of isolationism, automation, and the proliferation of technology.

From the back of my book:
A millennium into the future, two advancements have altered the course of human history:  the colonization of the Galaxy and the creation of the positronic brain. 

On the beautiful Outer World planet of Solaria, a handful of human colonists lead a hermit-like existence, their every need attended to by their faithful robot servants.  To this strange and provocative planet comes Detective Elijah Baley, sent from the streets of New York with his positronic partner, the robot R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve an incredible murder that has rocked Solaria to its foundations.
Isaac Asimov was in part inspired to start the series of novels that feature Elijah and Daneel by conversations with John Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. This excerpt is from the Introduction to The Naked Sun, titled "The Story Behind the Robot Novels."
Campbell had often said that a science-fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated.
Asimov set out to prove him wrong with The Caves of Steel (my review here), published in 1954. The Naked Sun followed in 1957. Both books were serialized in magazines first.

I found The Naked Sun especially interesting because Elijah is out of his element on the planet of Solaria. Not only is he on a different planet, but the culture and the development of this planet are very different from the direction that humans on earth have taken. He and the people of Solaria have very little in common and many of the people he needs to interview have contempt for the people of earth and for him.

In the future that Asimov has depicted, the people of earth have protected themselves in huge domes and never (or rarely) experience wide open spaces or the outdoors or even elements of nature.  They have developed a fear of being exposed to these experiences. The humans who have settled on other planets in the galaxy are referred to as Spacers, and each group has developed in different ways. The Solarians seclude themselves from other human contact. Even husbands and wives meet face to face only at appointed times. Humans usually meet with each other by "viewing", which sounds something like a sophisticated type of holographic projection. They can play games or eat a meal together, but not be in the same room physically.

The Solarians consider the society that has developed to be near perfect, and have a small population whose every need is met by specialized robots. Thus they don't even have a police force to deal with crime. Elijah is assigned to this case at the request of a Solarian, but comes into the situation with very little knowledge, and gets little cooperation from the Solarians in his investigation. Robot Daneel, again assigned as his partner, does understand much more about the culture of Solaria, but he is from a very influential planet, Aurora, and does not share all of his knowledge with Elijah. The investigation of the crime is thus very different and challenging for Elijah.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I recommend it highly. The way this book is written, the reader can come into it without knowledge of the first book (I had forgotten a lot about that book myself). The next book in the series, The Robots of Dawn, was not published until 1983. I will be getting that one sometime to follow up on Elijah and Daneel.

John at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent evaluation of this book in this post, which includes some lovely book covers.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Another challenge. Because one of my goals is to read books set in Australia OR written by Austrialian authors. And another goal is to read more books written by women. This challenge combines the two.

The 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge was set up to help overcome gender bias in the reviewing of books by Australian women. The challenge encourages avid readers and book bloggers, male and female, Australian and non-Australian, to read and review books by Australian women throughout the year. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up. You can choose to read and review, or read only.

The challenge runs from Jan 1 – Dec 31, 2014. You can sign up at any time. The information for signing up is here.

There are three levels or you can create your own level:
  • Stella: read 4 – if reviewing, review at least 3
  • Miles: read 6 – if reviewing, review at least 4
  • Franklin: read 10 – if reviewing, review at least 6
  • Create your own challenge: nominate your own goal
I am keeping my expectations and commitments for all challenges low and attainable, so I will be aim at reading 4 books, and probably review all 4 of them.

I already know of two books I want to read that fit this challenge:

Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage
The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell
I also have books by Kerry Greenwood and Malla Nunn. Other suggestions are welcome; even if I don't read them this year, there is always 2015.

Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for alerting me to this challenge and encouraging me to join.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches: Alan Bradley

It is difficult to review this 6th book in the Flavia de Luce series without revealing spoilers (at least for previous books in the series). It completes one story arc about Flavia's adventures in her 11th year. It ties up loose ends that have been hinted at since the beginning, and I hate to reveal much about the story. 

As I have just recently reviewed both the 4th and the 5th book in this series, it is obvious to readers of the blog that I like the series very much.  I am very fond of Flavia and her adventures. The author develops her character over the six books, and we see her growth in that year that it covers. It is appropriate that she changes a good bit over this time as she is moving toward adolescence and the huge changes this brings. Even though most readers don't mind whether Flavia is a realistic 11-year-old or not, I think she is realistic. She just happens to be on the very intelligent and adventurous end of the continuum. But two other very important factors for my enjoyment are the setting (post-War England) and the author's ability to keep it entertaining and fun.

The only thing I would say specifically about this book is that it does have a different, more serious tone than the other books. It deals with a serious subject and Flavia is forced to grow up a bit in this book. I do recommend this book and the series very highly. I would hesitate to do this, because it seems too cozy for some, but I have noticed that there are many bloggers who read more edgy, gritty books who do like these books, so I would say, if you haven't tried the series, give one of the early books a try.

This series is definitely best read from the beginning, to see the progression of Flavia's development, but it is not necessary. Many readers have started at different entry points in this series, but I would say this book is not the place to start. It ties in too much to what happened in the fifth book.

This book was provided for review by Delacorte Press via NetGalley. The book was published in the US on January 14, 2014. This interview with the author indicates that there will be more books, and even a TV series (which I am not too sure about).

My reviews for the first four books in the series:
 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
 The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
 A Red Herring Without Mustard
 I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Speaking from Among the Bones

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Danger Within: Michael Gilbert

The Danger Within by Michael Gilbert was first published in the UK as Death in Captivity. The book is short and sweet (about 150 pages in the edition I read), and it is my favorite book so far this month.

This book is an exceedingly good story of men incarcerated in a prison camp in Italy toward the end of World War II, and it is also a murder mystery. It features an amateur detective, a prisoner in the camp who is asked to look into the circumstances of the death of a fellow prisoner. He discovers along the way that he enjoys the puzzle and is obsessed with solving it.

I was most impressed with the plot development and the detailed description of daily life in the camp. There is a large cast of characters. None of the characters are cardboard, by any means, but there is less emphasis on characterization and more on the story.

Everything I know about prison camp life during World War II comes from the movie The Great Escape. This book, published in 1952 and based on the author's experiences during the war, painted a very similar picture. The reader (at least this one) is just as interested in the success or failure of the attempts to escape from prison as how the murder will be solved. Yet it is a very good puzzle, with clues revealed along the way.

Michael Gilbert's actions during the war, after being captured in North Africa and sent to multiple prison camps in Italy, are very interesting and gave him plenty of background for this novel. My edition of The Danger Within, a reprint edition published by Rue Morgue Press, has an introduction by Tom and Enid Schantz, which goes into detail about various escapes and recaptures experienced by Gilbert and other prisoners-of-war in Italy. They based their summary on a non-fiction book written by Tony Davies, When the Moon Rises, which recounts his escape attempts, successful and otherwise. That information is included here at the author's page at the Rue Morgue Press site.

Other reviews:
  • It was at Sergio's blog, Tipping My Fedora, that I first read about this book. He covers this book in detail at this post.
  • Another informative review at Only Detect.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reading Outside the Box Challenge, 2014

I have decided to join the Outside the Box challenge. I generally stick to crime fiction novels, with occasional forays into science fiction and fantasy, and every now and then I read straight fiction.

At Musings of a Booklover, a challenge is offered to encourage the reader to stretch their reading boundaries a little bit more!  I thought I should try reading Outside the Box this year.

Here are the Categories 

Classics are the new black – read a classic novel
It’s a serial thing – you’ve read the first in a series (or even three of them), it’s time to read another!
Lost in translation – time to read a book that was first written in another language and then translated.
It’s about time! – read a book that has been sitting on your shelf for at least two years! (and haven’t read it yet!)
By the numbers – read a book with a Number in the title
Weird Science! – read a book that features some form of science – and maybe discover an untapped passion.
I just love a good Duet – a book written by more than one author.
New Guy in Town – read a Debut book written by a new author.
Almost Human – read a book from the perspective of an animal – or an alien – or a robot! (at least feature an ‘almost human’)
Chunkster-time! – read a book that is longer 500 pages. (Time to dust off War and Peace)
Random Rescue – go to a used book store and RANDOMLY pick a book! (could even be from a grab-bag)
Under-Aged Writer – read a book by an author who is not yet 21. Here's a little help.
Time for exercise – read a book that is set in or around a sport or exercise activity (like yoga or baseball). This can be fiction or nonfiction!
Make-Believe - This category is just for YOU! (and anyone who wants to try it!) Here is your chance to let others know what would get you outside of your Comfort Zone!

The levels are:

I’m a little Scared: 3-4 categories
It’s not so bad out here!:  5-7 categories
Look at me, outside my comfort zone!:  8-10 categories
Outside In!: 11-13 categories
No Box can Contain Me!: I did ALL 14!

This challenge will run from 1 January 2014 to 31 December 2014.  

I will aim at the It’s not so bad out here!: (5-7 categories) level. Some of the catogories I already routinely read (serials, books in translation) so I think I should aim beyond the first level. This challenge won't force me to step outside of my usual boundaries, but at least I will have that idea in mind.

If you are interested, the rules and the sign up are HERE.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Speaking from Among the Bones: Alan Bradley

It took a lot of convincing to get me to start reading the Flavia de Luce series, which features an 11-year-old heroine. I was sure that the story and the heroine would be too cutesy, not my type of thing.

The first incentive was seeing lots of good reviews, but especially this review for the first book in the series at Stainless Steel Droppings. The next encouragement was finding a nice copy of the second book in the series that featured a skeleton on the cover at my favorite book sale. But even then, I was still on the fence. Then I saw that the author is Canadian and I was looking for Canadian authors, so that cinched it. I found a copy of the first book in the series and read it.
And now I would not miss an entry in this series. So why do I still have a hard time defining what it is I like about the series?
Mainly I just love reading about Flavia and her adventures. She is so daring and so adventurous, entirely different from myself. The stories as told through her brilliant but still childish mind are very well done and very entertaining. Even though Flavia has not aged even a year in the five books I have read so far, and the occurrence of five murders in one small town is totally unrealistic, it doesn't phase this reader.

The series is set in post-War England, in a small town, and that background makes the stories that much more interesting. There is always some obscure information thrown in. Such as descriptions of poisons, and chemical interactions, and the parts of a church organ. Flavia's main interest (other than crime solving) is chemistry, and she is always willing to share that information with the reader.
One thing I do not like in mysteries is cliffhangers. And this book does have a doozy of a cliffhanger. Fortunately I knew that in advance and deliberately held off reading this book until close to publication time for the sixth one.

To close this review I will include a favorite quote:
   The best thing for soothing a disappointed mind is oxygen. A couple of deep inhalations of the old “O” rejuvenates every cell in the body. I suppose I could have gone upstairs to my laboratory for a bit of the bottled stuff, but to me, that would have been cheating. There is nothing like oxygen in its natural form—oxygen which has been naturally produced in a forest or a greenhouse, where many plants, by the process of photosynthesis, are absorbing the poisonous carbon dioxide which we breathe out, and giving us oxygen in exchange.
   I had once remarked to Feely that, because of the oxygen, breathing fresh air was like breathing God, but she had slapped my face and told me I was being blasphemous.
My reviews for the first four books in the series:
 The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
 The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
 A Red Herring Without Mustard
 I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Historical Fiction Challenge 2013 Wrap-up

I participated in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for the second year in 2013. It is sponsored by Historical Tapestry. My goal was the Medieval level - 15 books

Unfortunately I aimed too high, but I still read a good number of historical novels. As usual, all were from the crime fiction genre.

Books read and reviewed for this challenge:
The Smoke by Tony Broadbent
Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland
Except the Dying by Maureen Jennings
A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley 
Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis
A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell
Dark Star by Alan Furst
The Yard by Alex Grecian
Kaleidoscope by J. Robert Janes
The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott

The majority of the historical mysteries that I read this year were set in the years before, during, or after World War II. That is a favorite time period for me. There is so much to learn about that time period, and I will never run out of books to read about that time. Most of them are set in Europe, but Devil in a Blue Dress is set in California in 1948, and The Holiday Murders is set in Australia, during the war.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Case for Mr. Crook: Anthony Gilbert

To be honest, I bought this book for the cover. It is a Green Door mystery published by Pyramid Books and it has a skeleton's hand on the cover (and a tiny skull on the door).

Anthony Gilbert is one of the pseudonyms used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson. She was a prolific author, writing from the mid-1920's into the early 1970's. Her first mysteries featured Scott Egerton, a British political leader. Later she started a long series featuring Arthur C. Crook, a Cockney solicitor.

Here is a description of Crook at Thrilling Detective:
Part of Crook's appeal is surely that he's so much clearly not just one of the people, and so for the people. No snooty Lord Mucky-muck pretensions here -- he's a lower-class Cockney, with questionable taste in clothing, and a weakness for vulgar, gaudy cars and beer. He's loud, obnoxious (and cheerfully sexist), but clearly devoted to his clients. One wag describes him as "a bright red face, bright red hair and a bright red car," and that about sums him up.
The original title of this book was Miss Pinnegar Disappears. Miss Pinnegar is an elderly nurse living with another retired nurse. She runs into Arthur Crook on the way home on a Sunday morning. He offers her a ride, and it turns out she knows of him and his work in helping the less fortunate who have problems with the law. Weeks later, she gets involved in a situation where she needs his advice. The wife of her nephew. thought to have died during an air raid in World War II, turns up at her doorstep out of the blue seeking help. 

There is not much of a mystery in this book. It seems pretty clear who the villains are; the story is more about whether Miss Pinnegar will be found, and there are no twists. There is much quirky humor in this book, a lot of which I did not fully understand, and one does have to suspend disbelief. I guess I would call this a light entertainment. On the plus side, one of the joys of this book is the characterizations. Both Miss Pinnegar and her nephew are entertaining. All of the characters seem a bit eccentric.

I read a  couple of reviews of other books featuring Arthur Crook in 1001 Midnights by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller. In at least one (Mr. Crook Lifts the Mask), the plot and characters sounded very similar to the one I read. The person in peril is an elderly spinster, and Mr. Crook calls her "Sugar".

Several other bloggers have reviewed mysteries by Anthony Gilbert and really liked them, so I think I just ran into one with less substance. I will try more of Anthony Gilbert's books.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

2014 Global Reading Challenge Sign Up

The 2014 Global Reading Challenge (2014GRC) challenges you to expand your reading boundaries, go where you haven't been before, move a little outside your comfort zone. It is hosted by Kerrie of MYSTERIES in PARADISE.

The goal is to read one or more novels from each of these continents in the course of 2014:

North America
South America (please include Central America where it is most convenient for you)
The Seventh Continent (here you can either choose Antarctica or your own ´seventh´ setting, eg the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future – you name it).
  • You may read any genre so long as the books are fiction. There are three levels: Either read one book, two books or three books from each continent.
  • Decide which level you will attempt, although you can change that later if you wish. 
I am committing to The Easy Challenge: Read one novel from each of these continents in the course of 2014. I know I will read more than one book for some of these continents, but I am trying to keep my challenge involvement low pressure this year.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2014

I am joining in on the Mount TBR Reading Challenge for the third year. This challenge is hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.

 Challenge Levels:

Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s

Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s

Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

Some of the rules are:
  • Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you're on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.
  • Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2014.
  • Books must be owned by you prior to January 1, 2013. No ARCs (none), no library books. No rereads.
  • A blog and reviews are not necessary to participate
There is more explanation at the sign-up post on Bev's blog.

In 2014, I plan to make my goal to reach Mt. Vancouver (36 books from my TBR pile).  Same as last year. I hope to read 72 books in the year and I would like at least half of them to be books to be ones I already owned in 2013.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Ghost Brigades: John Scalzi

From the summary at Fantastic Fiction:
The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF's toughest operations. They're young, they're fast and strong, and they're totally without normal human qualms.
The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it's about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space.
The Ghost Brigades is military science fiction, not my normal reading fare.  It is part of the Old Man's War series by John Scalzi, but it is not a traditional sequel. It is set in the same universe and the events follow the previous book, and there is a bit of overlap in characters. I read the first book in the series, Old Man's War,  mostly because it was written by John Scalzi and had a lot of good reviews, and I was glad I did. I look forward to reading the third book in the series someday (The Last Colony).

The main character in this book is Jared Dirac, a member of the Special Forces group. However, he is different. He was specifically created to house the consciousness of a scientist who has turned traitor, in hopes that he can help the Special Forces track the scientist down. Because the process of transferring consciousness is new and untested, he ends up developing his own personality and sharing his "self" with the memories and attitudes of another man.

So, what did I like about this book? The military scenes and maneuvering were definitely not my favorite part. What I liked were the characterizations: the portrayals of all the humans working at all levels , the portrayals of the alien species.  Also the moral issues surrounding using clones bred to defend earth and its colonies are explored. The soldiers in the Special Forces are trained to see themselves as elite because they have one purpose: to protect the colonies. Yet, in reality they have no freedom of choice. Some say that they are treated as slaves. And Jared is in the best position to see the situation from both sides.

This book gives us more information about the universe created by the author, the Colonial Defense Forces and their motivations. This is a universe where we cannot judge who are the good guys or the bad guys. There are just a lot of civilizations competing.

My review of the first book in the series, Old Man's War, is HERE.

Check out this list of Scalzi's publications at his website, Whatever.

I read this book as a part of the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience at Stainless Steel Droppings. The event began in December 2013 and runs through January 2014. The Review Site can be found here; check out other bloggers reviews and related posts.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New To Me Authors, October - December 2013

Today I am joining in on the meme for the best new-to-me crime fiction authors at Mysteries in Paradise. This meme runs at the end of each quarter. Check out other posts for this quarter.

Between October 1st and December 31st in 2013, I read eight books by authors that I had never read before.
  1. Frantic by Katherine Howell
  2. Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer
  3. The Last Clinic  by Gary Gusick
  4. The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor
  5. Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis 
  6. The Man-Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan
  7. Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos
  8. The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott
I liked all of these authors for different reasons, and it is very hard to make a choice of best new crime fiction author (for me). But that is the name of this game, so I will narrow it down to ... Katherine Howell, an Australian author.

Frantic (2007) by Katherine Howell is the first in a series of thrillers set in Sydney, Australia. There are two main characters per book (roughly, as I understand it from reviews). The detective, Ella Marconi, is a constant throughout the series. The second character in each book is a paramedic, and that character changes from book to book. I think this is a very clever strategy, because it allows for variety and spices up the mix of characters. But, most of all I liked the pace of the book. It just did not let up. The excitement level in the story kept me reading and I did not want to put the book down.

I think I first heard of this author at Margot's blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... This In the Spotlight features a later book in the series.

I was also very impressed with both of the non-crime fiction authors I read in this time period: R. K Narayan and Oscar Hijuelos. I plan to read more books by both of them, so I am taking small steps toward broadening my reading choices.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

52 Books in 52 Weeks 2013: Wrap-up And Continuation

I participated in the 52 books in 52 Weeks Challenge in 2013. The only goal is to post one book a week at the challenge site. Here is my wrap-up.

1. How many books did you read in 2013? Did you meet your personal goal?
    Per Goodreads, I read 107 books.  I exceeded my goal for this year (which was 86, to beat last year's number read by one). But next year I am going to read some longer books so I don't think I will read that many.

2. What are your top 5 (or more) favorite stories?  
   I did a Top Ten post here.

3. Name one book you read this year that you thought you’d never read.
   The Infernal Detective is a paranormal mystery, again not the type of book I would normally read. But I have been reading more fantasy and I decided to give it a try.

4. Name the most thrilling and/or unputdownable book you read this year.
   This would be Frantic by Katherine Howell. I read it in less than a day, very unusual for me. The story is definitely fast paced and had me hooked from the beginning.

5. Did you come across a story you enjoyed so much that you read it again or plan to reread it in 2014?
   Not really. I was really impressed with Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos, and I am sure I will read it again at Christmas, but probably not in 2014. And I want to try more of his books.

6. Name a book you thought you’d love but didn’t.
  There were a couple of books that were too dark for me, too violent and depressing. Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson is one. I loved the first book I read by him: The Company of Strangers. Also Forty Words for Sorrow by Giles Blunt had too much graphic violence for me, including explicit torture scenes. Don't get me wrong, they are both good books and worth reading, but not the kind of book I seek out usually.

7. What book had the greatest impact on you this year?
    Nothing applies.

8. Do you have a favorite cover or quote from a story you’d like to share? Share a shelfie.
  I love book covers, and have many favorites. But I will go with this Santa cover.

9. What book would you recommend that everybody read?
   Reader's tastes vary so much I would never attempt to recommend something to everyone. However, we all love books, and this year I read Book Lust To Go and re-read More Book Lust, both by Nancy Pearl. The Book Lust books have suggestions for everyone and are very re-readable.

10. What was your favorite part of the challenge? Did you complete any of the mini-challenges?
   I  liked aiming toward at least one book read a week and one book reviewed a week. I love the reviewing process because it forces me to think about what works for me and what doesn't.
   Also, I like seeing what everyone else read. I did not do any mini-challenges.

The challenge continues this year.  It is hosted by Robin at My Two Blessings. Sign up at the 52 Books in 52 Weeks site if you are interested.

I am ready for another round of Reading 52 books in 52 Weeks. To repeat, the goal is to read one book (at least) a week for 52 weeks. Make the year easy and casual or kick it up by exploring new to you authors and genres. Challenge yourself to read at least some classics or delve into that chunkster (more than 500 pages) you always wanted to tackle?

There are several mini challenges that are optional:

Read Around the World  

Nobel Prize Winners in Literature

Well Educated Mind:  Continuing exploring the classics in 5 categories: Fiction, Autobiography, History/Politics, Drama and Poetry. 

52 BaW Reader Recommendations:  Read books recommended by participants in 2013

Dusty Mini challenge: Limit buying new books for 1 - 4 months and read 4 to 12 or more books gathering dust on your shelves prior to 2013. 

Chunky Mini Challenge -books more than 500 pages.

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Holiday Murders: Robert Gott

As the title indicates, this book is set around the Christmas to New Year's holidays. I read it shortly after Christmas for that reason and I am glad I pushed this to the top of the stack, although I had just purchased it.

This book combines a good plot with great characters and has an exciting ending. That pretty well covers the elements I look for in a mystery. And on top of that, it is set during World War II, in Australia, and revealed a lot to me about events that occurred in Australia during that war.

The events in the book revolve around what appears to be a murder/suicide in East Melbourne. Soon it is obvious that there is more to this crime, and further crimes are committed. The question is, are the crimes related? All the crimes are gruesome and horrifying, but they could be unrelated acts of violence.

The team investigating the crime are Inspector Titus Lambert and his Detective, Joe Sable. Lambert soon adds a new member, Constable Helen Lord. She is eager to get out of the desk job she has been relegated to, and prove her worth in the new homicide squad, where she only has the opportunity because of World War II and the shortage of men available. Lambert is not only happily married, but he often shares information about cases with his wife and seeks her opinion. Sable is Jewish. He is not a practicing Jew, but the word of persecutions of Jews in Europe have made him more aware of his heritage.

It isn't long before Military Intelligence shows up and attempts to take over the investigation. They have good reason to believe the deaths may be related to an extremist group called Australia First. Joe Sable begins working with Military Intelligence on this investigation. Before it is all over, it gets very complicated.

The book not only has a police team we like and empathize with, there are well-defined villains and secondary characters. This book is not that long. My copy had 307 pages, but it packs a lot of plot and characters into those pages.

The book begins with a series of very unappealing crimes, but they were not dwelled upon, so I had less problem with them. Towards the end, the violence does get more graphic and grisly. I include that only as a warning, not a criticism.

Some other reviews: At In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and at Fair Dinkum Crime. Margot put this novel In the Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Books in December and Pick of the Month

In December I read a mix of crime fiction and straight fiction.  I enjoyed my forays into non-mystery fiction. The Man-Eater of Malgudi is set in India and written by an Indian author. Mr. Ives' Christmas tells the story of a man who has experienced a great loss, and how he deals with the loss. Both were very different reading experiences for me.

These are the nine books I read in December...
  1. The Hanging Judge by Michael Ponsor
  2. Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis 
  3. Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
  4. Murder in Belleville by Cara Black
  5. A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell
  6. I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley
  7. The Man-Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan
  8. Mr. Ives' Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos
  9. The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott

I read four books that had a Christmas theme. That is to say, they were set at Christmas and Christmas played into the story to at least a small extent. But none of them were really Christmassy and uplifting. Which is fine. Three of them were obvious from the title. The fourth is I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley. This is an historical mystery set in post-World War II England, and features an acting group at a snowed-in country house.

I just finished The Holiday Murders by Robert Gott and have not had time to write a review. It takes place from Christmas Eve to New Year's Day, and no one in this book is in the Christmas holiday spirit. It is set during World War II in Australia, and it was an eye-opener to read about the situation in Australia at that time. Another thing I love about crime fiction: the chance to learn about different places and different times. I liked The Holiday Murders a lot, although there were some grisly scenes toward the end.

My crime fiction pick of the month is A Night of Long Knives by Rebecca Cantrell. This is the second book in a four book series, set in Germany in the 1930's prior to World War II. This book takes place in 1934, in the cities of Munich and Berlin.

The story is told in first person, by Hannah. She is headstrong and independent, and willing to take risks. As the book's title indicates, the events of this book are intertwined with the Nazi purge called the Night of the Long Knives.
The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. Bloggers link to a summary post for the month, and identify a crime fiction best read of the month.

2013 Global Reading Challenge Wrap-up

This year I participated in the 2013 Global Reading Challenge, which challenges you to expand your reading boundaries, go where you haven't been before, move a little outside your comfort zone. Any genre was acceptable as long as the books are fiction. The challenge is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

I joined at the Medium Challenge level, which required reading two novels from each of these continents in the course of 2013.

These are the books I read for the challenge: 

Dead Before Dying by Deon Meyer  (South Africa)
Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson  (Benin)

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino    (Japan)
The Man-Eater of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan  (India)

Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil)
Blood of the Wicked by Leighton Gage (Brazil)

Frantic by Katherine Howell (Australia)
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (Australia)

Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka (Canada, Saskatchewan)
The Ransom Game by Howard Engel (Canada, Ontario)

The Smoke by Tony Broadbent (United Kingdom)
Eye of the Red Tsar by Sam Eastland (Russia)

Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein
Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I was glad I participated in this challenge, and it was an effort to get it finished before the year ended. The challenge provided me with the needed motivation to read more books from different continents.

I did try to read books by authors from the area that the book was set in, but that was not true in all cases. Most of the books I read were by authors new to me. I especially enjoyed the two books set in Brazil. I had planned to pick authors two different countries for South America, so for the next Global Reading Challenge I will move outside of Brazil.