Thursday, February 27, 2014

Summer of the Big Bachi: Naomi Hirahara

From the back of the paperback edition I read:
In the foothills of Pasadena, Mas Arai is just another Japanese-American gardener, his lawnmower blades clean and sharp, his truck carefully tuned. But while Mas keeps lawns neatly trimmed, his own life has gone to seed. His wife is dead. And his livelihood is falling into the hands of the men he once hired by the day.
This book pulled me into Mas Arai's story immediately. It is 1999 and Mas is nearly 70; he is still working as a gardener. At one time he had several large estates to care for; now his clientele has dwindled to one large estate and short term jobs he finds here and there. Mas was born in the US, but his family had returned to Japan and he had spent his childhood there. He survived the bombing of Hiroshima, and later returned to the US. And for over 50 years he has lived with a secret that haunts him. Then two  men with different agendas come seeking his old acquaintance, Joji Haneda, and he can no longer avoid the truth.

The story moves at a slow pace. It is not short on violence, but much of the book is spent in Mas Arai's quest to discover why people are looking into his past. Most of the characters are old friends of Mas, and we get a picture of the Japanese-American community and the changes it is going through.  There is a heavy use of dialect. I did not find this problematic and I felt it was necessary to convey the setting, the characters and their relationships.

At one point, Mas goes with his friend Haruo to a medical exam conducted by doctors from Hiroshima. They come to the US every two years to examine Japanese Americans who were exposed to the bomb. These examinations began in 1977; hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) are also seen in three other locations in the US (San Francisco, Seattle and Honolulu). This is just one example of bits of history that I was unaware of until I read this book.

Naomi Hirahara used her own background in writing this book. From the author's website:
Naomi Hirahara was born in Pasadena, California. Her father, Isamu (known as "Sam"), was also born in California, but was taken to Hiroshima, Japan, as an infant. He was only miles away from the epicenter of the atomic-bombing in 1945, yet survived. Naomi's mother, Mayumi, or "May," was born in Hiroshima and lost her father in the blast. Shortly after the end of World War II, Sam returned to California and eventually established himself in the gardening and landscaping trade in the Los Angeles area. After Sam married May in Hiroshima in 1960, the couple made their new home in Altadena and then South Pasadena, where Naomi and her younger brother Jimmy grew up and attended secondary school.
The main attraction of this book for me was the cultural setting; the characters are interesting and different but we don't get an in-depth picture of any one character. I will be interested in seeing how the series progresses, because the basis of this book would not work for future stories. There are four more books in the series, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Mas Arai.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Two Years of Blogging

Today is the second anniversary of my first blog post.

After one year of blogging, I felt like I was settling in and accomplishing the goals I had set for myself in the blog. After two years, some of my goals have changed. I want to do fewer reading challenges and focus on specific goals, like more books written by authors from a variety of countries and occasionally dipping into other genres outside of mystery fiction.

In the last year of blogging, I have discovered new authors.

Naomi Hirahara is a new-to-me author whose books feature Mas Arai, a 69-year-old Japanese American gardener in the Los Angeles area. Mas Arai is a unique protagonist and the books provide a picture of a community and culture that I don't have much familiarity with. I just finished the first book in the series, Summer of the Big Bachi. Review coming soon.

I have also re-discovered authors I had not read in a long time. I read six books by Agatha Christie, three featuring Hercule Poirot, one starring Miss Marple, and two stand-alone novels.  

The Mystery of the Blue Train is a favorite. First of all, it features a train and many scenes on a train. I also like the variety of characters; the rich, the not so rich. Thieves and those who prey on the wealth of others.

Several people take the train to the Riviera, and one dies before journey's end. Hercule Poirot will be engaged to solve the murder.

I discovered that I enjoy cross-genre books that combine fantasy or science fiction with crime fiction. One example is Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch. I am eagerly awaiting the start of the Once Upon a Time Challenge in Spring 2014 so that I can read the next two books in the series, Moon Over Soho and Whispers Under Ground.

There are so many books and authors I want to read this year, and I know I will not get to all of them. I want to read more espionage fiction (Len Deighton, John Le Carré, Alan Furst, Dan Fesperman, Tom Gabbay, David Downing). I want to read books by Raymond Chandler, John D. MacDonald, and Ross MacDonald. And that list does not even scratch the surface.

I look forward to another year of blogging, enjoying more books and enjoying interacting with other bloggers and discovering new books and authors that they have read and reviewed.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Under the Dragon's Tail: Maureen Jennings

This is the second book in the Murdoch Mysteries series, published by Maureen Jennings in 1998, and featuring William Murdoch, an Acting Detective in Toronto in the late 1800's.  I enjoyed the first book in the series, Except the Dying (1997), and I liked this one even more.

Maureen Jennings does a wonderful job of portraying Victorian-era Toronto. As described in this article, she did extensive research into the time period. But in addition to the convincing picture of the times, we also get well-developed and interesting characters. Without dwelling on Murdoch's past, the author conveys how his childhood has affected him, and his continuing grief for his fiancee who died of typhoid, at the same time he yearns for a relationship with a woman. Maybe he is a tad too perfect, but I can live with that. Constable George Crabtree, and several of the suspects at varying levels of society are also well-defined; their portrayals contribute to the overall portrait of the city, its poverty and its inhabitants.

Getting to the mystery, the detective and his constable are investigating the death of a former midwife, living with her grown daughter and two foster children. The suspects come from a well-to-do family and from the lower echelons of society. To the reader, it is somewhat obvious who the culprit is likely to be, yet the author kept me guessing. And the story had a very good pace, never lagging.

In 2004, three made-for-TV movies were produced and televised, based on the first three books in the series. Later, in 2008, a television series (with new actors in the parts) began and has continued for seven seasons.  I watched the TV movies and a few episodes of the 2008 series before I read the books. As I read the first two books in this series, my only disappointment has been that the forensics that are emphasized in the TV movie adaptations were not featured more in the books (those that I have read so far). Dr. Julia Ogden, who is featured in both the TV movies and the later TV series, only shows up briefly in this second book. Nevertheless, I found this book to be very enjoyable on its own merits.

Under the Dragon's Tail (2004), Shaftesbury Films Inc., Toronto, Ontario
Cast: Peter Outerbridge, Flora Montgomery, Matthew MacFadzean

The three made-for-TV movies were televised in a slightly different order than the first three books. Under the Dragon's Tail is the second book in the series; the adaptation of this story was the third movie televised. Dr. Julia Odgen features heavily in the first two movies, but is only mentioned in the this adaptation.

The TV movie based on this book is a fine adaptation, but it does change the story quite a bit. The basic outline of the story is retained, and the picture of Toronto in the 1890's is well done. There is, however, much more emphasis on forensics, such as the use of fingerprints, or finger marks as they are called in the movie. This was an emerging science at the time, and an interesting topic to introduce into the story. My take on adaptations of books or series is that sometimes you end up with something entirely different, but that can be fine as long as the adaptation works well on its own. I think this one does. I don't want to go into more detail about the differences in the movie, so that I don't spoil it for anyone who ends up watching the movie (or reading the book).

This book and movie review is submitted for Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey and for the 7th annual Canadian Book Challenge sponsored by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Behind the Night Bazaar: Angela Savage

Jayne Keeney is in Chiang Mai, Thailand visiting her friend, Didier. A private investigator living in Bangkok, Jayne's usual gigs involve following wayward spouses, and getting evidence that the subject is cheating on the spouse. After the violent ending of her most recent investigation, she has turned to Didier for comfort and to forget. Soon, however, she is involved in a much more serious case involving murder, with the potential for far more risk to Jayne.

Jayne is an appealing protagonist because she is strong, independent, and courageous, yet she is not depicted as flawless, nor is she hard as nails. She has her vulnerabilities. The book's setting is attractive and believable, probably due to Angela Savage's background. She lived in Southeast Asia for six years in the 1990's. Per her blog: "Based in Vientiane, Hanoi and later Bangkok, she managed a HIV/AIDS prevention program for the Australian Red Cross that covered Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and southern China."

Within the context of the murder investigation, the book explores social and political issues: the problems of HIV/AIDS in Southeast Asia, child prostitution, police corruption. But with all of these serious subjects, and the gritty action, the book retains its humor and is not too heavy or dark.

All of these elements -- an interesting female protagonist, an exotic setting, and a look at social issues within that setting -- make this a series I intend to read more of.

I almost forgot one delightful aspect of this book. Jayne and her friend Didier share a love of crime fiction, but they are devoted to very different types of books within that genre. They discuss mystery authors and crime fiction is often mentioned within the context of the story. I loved that.

Other reviews at Ms. Wordopolis Reads and Mrs. Peabody Investigates.  I mentioned the author's blog above; it is worth a look, with crime fiction reviews and other interesting posts.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Death of a Butterfly: Margaret Maron

Julie Redmond is a beautiful woman with few friends. She has been killed in her apartment, shortly after her young son has left for an outing with a neighbor. As Lieutenant Sigrid Harald digs into Julie Redmond's past, she finds that many people would be better off with her dead.

Quote from the entry on this series in Killer Books (1998, by Jean Swanson & Dean James):
Sigrid Harald, Maron's first character, features in a series of police procedurals in the traditional vein set in New York City; her debut was in the novel One Coffee With (Raven House/Worldwide, 1981). Sigrid is a tightly sealed-up character, efficient and seemingly emotionless as the series opens, but as the books progress, Sigrid slowly become less uninvolved with those around her, largely thanks to a relationship with a character introduced in the first book of the series. This series is a textbook example of how a writer can use a series for the natural and interesting development of a character who continues to grow and change.
So what do I like about this series and this book in particular?

To summarize points I made in my review of One Coffee With, the first book in the series:
  • I enjoy reading books written in earlier times because they often give a picture of what that time and the attitudes were actually like. This series was written in the early 1980's for the most part, and it reflects those times.
  • This is a typical police procedural (especially for the time it was written), but the female protagonist and her emotional issues bring another facet to the story.
I noted in my review of the first book in the series that Sigrid has emotional issues; she resists getting close to people.  Maybe in a male police detective, this would be less noticeable; in a woman, people seem to hold it against her. In this second entry in the series, there is less emphasis on Sigrid's issues with personal relationships and with her mother and father, although there is mention of them here and there. There is a continuing acknowledgement that she comes over to many of the people she works with as cold and condescending. Many of her colleagues who work closely with her know there is more beneath the surface, but even they don't try to breach her reserve.

The mystery is a traditional one, with clues. I missed the clues and was surprised by the ending, but they were definitely there. The emotional issues are there, but all of the personal development is subsidiary to the mystery itself. Her personal life does not take over the story.

As mentioned in the quote above, Harald is Margaret Maron's first series character. In 1992, she started another series with a female protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott. This series has been very successful, and is set in the state Maron grew up in, North Carolina. The first in the series, Bootlegger's Daughter, won four awards for Best Novel: an Edgar, an Agatha, an Anthony, and a Macavity. I have read two books in this series, and I prefer the Sigrid Harald series. But I am planning to check out another book or two in the Deborah Knott series. Maybe I will be more open to the setting and the series now.

I will close with this excerpt from a very interesting interview with the author from 2011:
MM: Place is absolutely crucial to writing. In fact, I take my characters and I put them in a certain place, and I let my story grow organically out of the setting.
At the time I created [recurring character] Sigrid Harald, you didn’t have a whole lot of senior women police officers. Women were looked upon as poaching on men’s grounds, and the police force was, like, 90% male at that time. It’s more common now, so to write about her now is a little difficult. You do not realize how the world has changed in 20 years. You do not. Trust me.
R: I don’t know if you’d describe yourself as a feminist, but is gender equality something you try to advocate through your writing?
MM: Absolutely. I don’t know how any career woman could not be a feminist.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Maze of Cadiz: Aly Monroe

From the description on the back of my edition of the book:
1944. Sent to Spain to arrest a rogue spy, British agent Peter Cotton expects an easy first assignment. But he arrives to find his quarry dead and all of Cadiz awaiting his arrival. In a hotbed of scandal and murder, Cotton must navigate through a labyrinth of international conspiracies, shifting political allegiances and a mysterious local expatriate community to discover the truth.
This has been a difficult review for me. I am torn with conflicting opinions on this book and my experience reading it. I liked some aspects, but it didn't grab me at all.

This book was very slow to read. Yet I was not bored by the story. I just kept wondering when something was going to happen and what the point was. At about 80% into the novel, all of a sudden it got exciting and I could see what it had been building up to. But I wasn't too happy waiting that long for a payoff. And I was not given any sense of how the protagonist arrived at his deductions (or guesses) about the situation.

I enjoyed the picture of Spain, September 1944. Hotter than I can imagine, a different kind of heat. I loved a lot of the descriptions.
His scalp prickled as drops of sweat formed. Then the sweating stopped. Cotton had been this hot before as a child of about seven years old in Mexico, when he had felt his forehead and pronounced it 'spongy'.  'Oh, you're transpiring, dear,' his mother said. 'We'll get you something to drink. But do remember to sip. Gulping is bad for you.' She had also given him a definition of transpiring. 'When you're too hot to sweat, dear, the water sort of wafts out of you. It can be rather dangerous.'
When he visits the British cemetery...
The cemetery was not much bigger than a suburban garden, and in no way big enough for the massive, mottled trees that inhabited it. Tree roots had pushed gravestones aside, cracked slabs, and invaded the paths. It was almost like being in a rank, green room. Leaves shrouded the view to the sky and filtered the light like a lamp Cotton remembered in his maiden aunt's house: she had called it art nouveau, but it had always struck him as modified Moroccan...
I know I am not alone in my assessment of this book being too slowly paced. I have read several reviews by bloggers saying the same thing. Yet I also see many positive reviews, some cited at the author's website.

Also, Mike Ripley speaks glowingly about this book at the Eurocrime website, and I respect his opinion.
This is not a spy story crammed with car chases and explosions, but a tale of the more realistic, downbeat dangerous trivia of the clandestine life which is very convincingly done; so convincingly I was beginning to suspect that Ms Monroe may actually have been an agent in a previous life. I certainly suspect she is not a debut author as this is so well-written I have real trouble believing it is a first novel.
So I would leave you with this recommendation. If you like espionage fiction at all, or historical fiction set during World War II, give this book a try. You may love it. It certainly provides a picture of Spain during the war, which I was not familiar with.

I am fairly sure that the later books are much better, much more engaging.  I have read so many positive reviews of the next three books in the series, that I will definitely be reading the next book, Washington Shadow, set in 1945.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Some New Books for my Stacks

My husband passed a stack of books on to me in December and January. I was thrilled to get them. Some are ones he has read, others are one he has decided he won't read. They are a mixed bag, but mostly mystery, which is why I was so excited. Of course, now I have to find a place on my book shelves, but I can live with that.

Crowther and Westerman series by Imogen Robertson:
Instruments of Darkness (2009)
Anatomy of Murder (2010)

Summary of Instruments of Darkness at Goodreads:
An intricate historical page-turner about a forbidding country estate and the unlikely forensic duo who set out to uncover its deadly secrets.

In the year 1780, Harriet Westerman, the willful mistress of a country manor in Sussex, finds a dead man on her grounds with a ring bearing the crest of Thornleigh Hall in his pocket. Not one to be bound by convention or to shy away from adventure, she recruits a reclusive local anatomist named Gabriel Crowther to help her find the murderer, and historical suspense's newest investigative duo is born.
This is my husband's review of Instruments of Darkness at Goodreads:
Leisurely paced (except for the last 50 pages or so) and well-written first novel set in 1780s England. The story mostly takes place in a rural region of country estates and dark secrets with the remainder in a London in the throes of anti-Catholic rioting. Rural areas before the advent of dependable transportation (railroads) seem a good setting because of their remoteness and isolation and here it is especially well done. The subsidiary characters seem more interesting and sharply drawn than the main ones of Westerman and Crowther but this a minor quibble.

Captain Alexei Dimitrevich Korolev series by William Ryan
The Holy Thief (2010)
The Darkening Field [also published as The Bloody Meadow] (2011)

From the summary at Goodreads:
Moscow, 1936, and Stalin’s Great Terror is beginning. In a deconsecrated church, a young woman is found dead, her mutilated body displayed on the altar for all to see. Captain Alexei Korolev, finally beginning to enjoy the benefits of his success with the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Militia, is asked to investigate. But when he discovers that the victim is an American citizen, the NKVD—the most feared organization in Russia—becomes involved. Soon, Korolev’s every step is under close scrutiny and one false move will mean exile to The Zone, where enemies of the Soviet State, both real and imagined, meet their fate in the frozen camps of the far north.

Juan Gómez-Jurado: The Traitor's Emblem

This is a stand-alone novel. Before my husband discovered this book, I had never heard of it or the author. At Amazon, the summary describes it as...
... an epic novel spanning decades of family betrayal, impossible love and the high price of vengeance. Set against the dark and menacing streets of Depression-era Munich and the cruel rise of Nazism, Gómez-Jurado's spellbinding thriller proves again that he is a master of narration.
Per the website for this book, Juan Gomez-Jurado is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author. THE TRAITOR'S EMBLEM won Spain's prestigious literary award, the Premio de Novela Ciudad de Torrevieja. He lives in Spain with his wife and two children.

Leo Demidov series by Tom Rob Smith
The Secret Speech (2009)
Agent 6 (2012)

The 2nd and 3rd books in the series which features Leo Demidov and is set primarily in Cold War Russia. My husband held on to the first one in the series, Child 44. I haven't read any of them yet.

From the review of Child 44:
... a frightening, chilling, almost unbelievable horror story about the very worst that Stalin's henchmen could manage. In this worker's paradise, superior in every way to the decadent West, the citizen's needs are met: health care, food, shelter, security. All one must offer in exchange are work and loyalty to the State. Leo Demidov is a believer, a former war hero who loves his country and wants only to serve it well. He puts contradictions out of his mind and carries on. Until something happens that he cannot ignore. A serial killer of children is on the loose, and the State cannot admit it.
A number of non-fiction books also made it to my stacks; I will follow up later with a post on those books.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Little Shadows: Marina Endicott

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott is a historical novel set in the years preceding and during World War I. It is the story of three sisters, teenagers as the story begins, who travel with their mother to support the family as a vaudeville act. The book is 527 pages long, and that is the first chunkster of that size I have read in over a year.

I often have a difficult time reviewing books I like a lot. I loved this book and it is hard to describe why. I was engaged in the story immediately. I loved the way the author switched back and forth between the sisters (especially) and the mother (occasionally). It took a while for the characters to grow on me, but I enjoyed all of the story telling and the pictures of life in vaudeville.

Through the first half of the book, we follow the sisters in their travails in vaudeville. They all love the life and entertaining people, and I liked that it wasn't a chore for them. If they were tied down in one place for too long, they got bored. In the money or not, they wanted to be entertaining in vaudeville more than anything else.

At around the midpoint of the book, the sisters are all maturing and various aspects of life intrude upon their plans and goals. I don't like to say more than that, but at this point, I was more involved with the characters and pulling for them with their various problems or triumphs in life. This book covers the years from 1912-1917 and thus World War I figures a great deal. That was also a plus for me. I like to learn about wars in a fictional setting.

I am no expert on vaudeville. I have seen vaudeville depicted in movies, although maybe the life was described more glamorously there. We have seen early sound Vitaphone shorts with actors from vaudeville featured, and my husband has several books on the topic. Marina Endicott has done extensive research, as she describes in her acknowledgements and at her website. This book shows the poverty and uncertainty in the vaudeville life for most performers, and how their fortunes may rise or fall based on luck just as easily as talent.

Many of the sections are preceded with quotes that relate to vaudeville and often these quotes come from this book, How to Enter Vaudeville by Frederic LaDelle.

I learned about this book from Moira at Clothes in Books. Her excellent blog has introduced me to several authors, and I am grateful to have experienced this one. See Moira's take on The Little Shadows here and here and here.

This book was written by a Canadian author, and a great deal of it is set in Canada. This book is my 5th book for the Canadian Book Challenge 7. Since I started participating in the Canadian Book Challenge in 2012, I have learned a lot about Canada that I did not know.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sci-Fi Experience Wrap-up

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience at Stainless Steel Droppings has come to a close. In January, as a part of my participation in that event, I read two science fiction novels.

These are the two novels I read, with links to my reviews:
Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (second novel in the Old Man's War series)
The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (blend of science fiction and mystery)

In addition to reading science fiction, I also watched several sci-fi movies, which I have not yet reported on.


Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and released in 1998, is a blend of noir and science fiction. It is very dark. Visually dark and dark in mood.

John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel  room that he doesn't remember at all. He is in the bathtub, with a dead woman in the next room. He does not know what is happening to him or around him, and the memories he does have don't make sense either.

The first time I watched this movie, I found it confusing. This time around, I was very impressed. I liked the look and the acting. I am not that familiar with Rufus Sewell but I thought he did a fine job as John Murdoch. Jennifer Connelly was good as the equally confused wife. William Hurt was superb as Bumstead, the policeman; Kiefer Sutherland was a very convincing mad doctor.

The rest of the sci fi movies I watched in December and January were 2013 releases. I saw them for the first time on Blu-ray.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the twelfth film in the Star Trek film franchise and the second movie since the reboot of the original series. On the one hand, I enjoyed the movie. On the other hand, it was disappointing, in comparison to Star Trek (2009), which I liked a lot. I like all the new actors in this reboot, and I enjoyed watching them. However, It felt like the action was too kinetic, too jumpy, that it went in too many directions. However, I certainly will be watching it again, and I may revise my opinion.

I found two articles on the web with two opposing viewpoints. Both include spoilers if you have not seen the movie yet.

At Wired, this article explores how Star Trek Into Darkness could have been a better movie.

Wil Wheaton loved the movie, and explains why in his review.

Oblivion is not the perfect movie, and has been accused of being derivative and too slow, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. It was visually stunning, and I thought the acting was good too.

All we start out knowing is that two people, a couple, are living on Earth, which has been damaged by an alien attack. The survivors have been moved to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. Jack (Tom Cruise) is a repairman who handles problems with drones that "care for" the planet. His partner, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), manages his work and communicates with their superiors. Both have had their memories wiped for security reasons, ostensibly, but Jack has persistent dreams and memories about something from his past.

I will admit that the movie might have been better if it had moved faster, but I was fine with it as it was, and I enjoyed the twists and turns. Morgan Freeman also had a significant role, and that is almost always a plus for a movie. This is another movie that I will be re-watching.

The World's End is the third of three movies directed by Eric Wright, written by Eric Wright and Simon Pegg, and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. All three films (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End) are different types but they all do have a lot of blood and gore. I liked all three movies but I am not a fan of blood and gore, so I cannot say I loved them. They are all funny, and well worth watching. 

The World's End starts with a pub crawl initiated by Gary King (Simon Pegg). He talks a group of former friends into reenacting a pub crawl that they attempted 20 years before but never completed. As they go from pub to pub they discover more about their relationships and secrets of the past, and also run into some really strange characters in their home town.

I am sure I will be watching this movie many more times and discovering new things each time. Next time I plan to pay more attention to the soundtrack, which includes many songs from the time of the characters' adolescence.

Those were my choices for the Sci-Fi Experience and I enjoyed all of them. Thanks to Carl for encouraging me to mix some science fiction reading into my normal fare.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Reading in January and Pick of the Month

In January I read two science fiction novels in addition to my standard mystery fare. I was participating in Carl V’s The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience at Stainless Steel Droppings, which ended on January 31st. My reading included two vintage mysteries, and three e-books supplied for review from NetGalley. And all of the books that were not ARCs came from my TBR stacks (purchased before the first of this year).

These are the nine books I read in January...

Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (science fiction, part of the Old Man's War series)
A Case for Mr. Crook by Anthony Gilbert
Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley
The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley
The Danger Within by Michael Gilbert
The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov (blend of science fiction and mystery)
Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird
Hard Going by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Judgement Call by Nick Oldham

My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is The Danger Within by Michael Gilbert. Published in 1952, it is an exceptional story of men incarcerated in a prison camp in Italy toward the end of World War II. The book also includes a mystery, featuring an amateur detective, a prisoner in the camp who is asked to look into the circumstances of the death of a fellow prisoner.

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.

Check out other bloggers Crime Fiction Picks of the Month over at Mysteries In Paradise.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Judgement Call: Nick Oldham

My normal approach to mystery series is to start at the beginning, no matter how many books are in the series. When I started the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam, the 18th book had just been published. I bought that one and started at the beginning. Luckily I really liked the series and I read all 18 books in 3 months. But that was then, and now I realize that I cannot read every book by an author and keep up with all the new (and old) authors I want to try.

So I decided to start the Henry Christie series by Nick Oldham at the 20th book in the series. I was very pleased to find out that this book was a prequel, and it would not feel like I was missing a lot of back history on the series.

Summary of the book at the author's website:
    It's 1982 - and Henry is a young cop with a point to prove and an attitude to control. His youthful enthusiasm can sometimes cloud his better judgement. When a series of rash decisions results in disaster, Henry determines to put things right his own way - despite being warned off by his detective inspector. Setting out to smash singlehandedly a dangerous criminal enterprise, Henry's impetuous actions lead to more conflict - and a very real threat to his own life.
This story is set in Rossendale Valley in Lancashire, and starts with Henry arresting a man in a case of domestic violence, and then having to let him go because a superior doesn't think the victim will follow through with the charge. He is idealistic, and unhappy with the cynical approach of his superiors. He has some good ideas and can see where his department is lacking in planning skills, but he also is too sure of his own opinions and goes out on his own too much. In other words, he has a lot to learn.

For the most part I liked this book and I plan to follow up and read some other books in the series. I like Henry's idealistic approach and hope that he continues to hold on to some of that as he matures in the job. The action was fast-paced and I got involved in the story. Nick Oldham was a policeman for many years before he retired, so I am sure he knows a thing or two about police procedure.

The negative side of this book was the plethora of sex scenes. I am not a prude, but in general I don't think a lot of emphasis on the policeman's sex life is going to advance the story. In this case it was not realistic; too many women throwing themselves at Henry in too short a time. I did not find Henry's attitude in this area appealing. But there are readers who would not be bothered so that is really just a preference I have. This element was balanced by a good plot involving primarily Henry and his superior. This police procedural is a bit more dark and gritty than the previous book I reviewed: Hard Going by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.

Thoughts on other books by Nick Oldham:
  • A post at Petrona has some nice things to say about some of Nick Oldham's earlier novels.
  • At Scene of the Crime, Nick Oldham talks about using Blackpool as the setting of most of the series.
This book was provided to me for review by Severn House via NetGalley. The book was published in the US on February 1, 2014.

If anyone has experience or thoughts on the books in this series, I would love to get your opinions.