Sunday, March 30, 2014

Moon Over Soho: Ben Aaronovitch

Although my favorite genre is mystery novels, I have been dabbling in reading science fiction and fantasy novels in the last few years. Straight fantasy novels don't usually excite me, although I keep trying (and welcome suggestions). But the blend of mystery and fantasy often works for me. The Rivers of London series is the perfect example of that sub-genre. From my point of view, the series is very successful because it gives just as much attention to the investigation (in this case, by a policeman) as it does to the fantasy elements.

Moon Over Soho is the 2nd book in a series by Ben Aaronovitch. Peter Grant is the hero, and in the first book he is a probationary constable in the Metropolitan Police Service in London. He wants to be assigned to the CID, but it looks like he is headed for the dreaded Case Progression Unit, where he will be stuck doing paperwork. Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale saves him from this fate, drafting him into a specialist unit that deals with ghosts, spirits, vampires.

To give a sample of the tone of the story, here is a quote from the beginning of  the second chapter:
The general public have a warped view of the speed at which an investigation proceeds. They like to imagine tense conversations going on behind the Venetian blinds, and unshaven but ruggedly handsome, detectives working themselves with single-minded devotion into the bottle and marital breakdown. The truth is that at the end of the day, unless you’ve generated some sort of urgent lead, you go home and get on with the important things in life — like drinking and sleeping and, if you’re lucky, a relationship with the gender and sexual orientation of your choice. And I would have been doing at least one of those things the next morning if I hadn’t also been the last bleeding apprentice wizard in England. Which meant I spent my spare time learning magic, studying dead languages, and reading books like Essays on the Metaphysical by John “never saw a polysyllabic word he didn’t like” Cartwright.
And learning magic, of course — which is what makes the whole thing worthwhile.
This book is described as an urban fantasy and it does fit within that genre. The thing I don't like about that label is that there is an expectation that urban fantasies mostly have female protagonists and are strong on romance (at least from what I have read). This book has a young black male protagonist; romance is involved but not the strongest element. There is, however, in this book, a lot of explicit sex. For a while that bothered me but it is integral to the plot so... 

Actually Peter is of mixed race, but he is a person of color and that often affects how he is treated in his work and his investigations. This is not dwelt on but does add another dimension. Jazz is a theme throughout the book. Peter's father, Richard "Lord" Grant, is a jazz musician, and jazz musicians are being targeted in the latest case. Another very strong element of the books is the author's love of and extensive knowledge of London. In a sense, this can be distracting to someone who doesn't know much about the area, but I still enjoyed this aspect.

If I have not already made it clear, I did like this book a lot. I have the third book in the series and will be reading that soon. This book did not make as big an impact on me as the first one. That may have been that I was really mesmerized by the writing, the humor, the fun in reading the first book, but knew what to expect when I got to this one. It might have been the emphasis on sex, which I still think could have been toned down a bit. Regardless, a wonderful read and a series I want to continue.

This is definitely a series you would want to read in order. I am sure I would have been entirely lost if I had started with this book.

This is my first submission for Once Upon a Time VIII.

Publisher: Gollancz [2011]
Length: 373 pages
Format: trade paperback
Series: Rivers of London, book 2

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Locked In: Kerry Wilkinson

This is a police procedural, set in Manchester, England, the first in a series featuring recently promoted Detective Sergeant Jessica Daniels. Jessica is a nice, normal person, living with a roommate she is fond of. In fact all the members of the police force in this book are human, believable, not grand-standers and none have the personality flaws that are often associated with fictional detectives.  The only damaged cop seems to be Jessica's ex-partner who is retired after being attacked in a bar.

The story begins as Jessica is called to house where a woman has been killed. How the killer gained entry to the dwelling, and exited the dwelling leaving it locked, is in question. A reporter gets a tip about the murder, publishes facts he should not know, and some suspect that Jessica is his source.

I liked this book. I plan to read more in the series. Jessica is a likable character, and I was invested in what happens to her next. The depiction of the investigation was well done; there is a lot of plodding police work and mistakes made as the search goes on and on.

However, I did have several criticisms of the story and the writing as I read it, and some of those elements might bother other readers more. Some reviewers noted that they spotted the culprit and the resolution to the locked room mystery early on; I did not, but I was bothered by too many coincidences. There were many vague references to other plot lines that were not resolved... perhaps the intention was to follow up on them in future books in the series. 

Although this mystery was flawed, it was a good first novel, and it held my interest from beginning to end. Especially at the end.

When I purchased this book, it had been a best-selling e-book on Amazon UK. Usually, I would not be attracted to a best seller.  In this case, my motivation for buying and reading the book was that the Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery had enjoyed it and recommended it. Also see the positive review at Raven Crime Reads, which includes more information about the author's success. There are now seven Jessica Daniels books, with more planned; see the author's website. All the books are not available in the US.

I was impressed by the Afterword in my trade paperback edition of this book. The author tells the story of writing the book and expresses appreciation to the readers who encouraged him and bought his first book. He seems like a very nice person. Kerry Wilkinson was interviewed at the Shotsmag website. I like this quote:
I don’t believe people read long series of books - or watch a long series of something on television - because they are desperate to know what the next crime is. Why would they? They can buy any of the other thousands of crime books or watch any of the other TV shows. Or do none of that at all and play Angry Birds on their phone. I believe they come back because they’re invested in the character. It doesn’t even have to be for a positive reason – they might hate them and hope they get a comeuppance.
Caring one way or the other is important.
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer [2013]; originally self-published 2011.
Length: 319 pages
Format: Trade paperback

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Whodunit? A Guide to Crime, Suspense, & Spy Fiction

Goodreads tells me that I have been reading Whodunit? for nine months. And now I have finally finished it. That makes it sound like it was a chore, but I enjoyed reading it every time I picked it up. It was one of several books I keep around the house and pick up and read when time permits and the mood hits me.

This is a mystery reference book edited by H.R.F. Keating, published in 1982. Most mystery reference books I would not try to read in their entirety, either due to spoilers or because there is too much to read. But this one is perfect for reading, very entertaining, and I am sure I will be sampling from it often. H.R.F. Keating supplies the introduction. There are lovely black and white photos and illustrations throughout.

Keeping in mind that the book was published in 1982, it obviously doesn't include current authors. But for readers who like mysteries from the Golden Age to the present, it is a fount of information for the older, obscure authors. And a view of the early career of authors who are still writing. Although I am always on the lookout for mystery reference books, new or old, it was Sarah at Crimepieces, in this post on two vintage mysteries by Frances Crane, who introduced me to this book.

This book has several sections:
  • Crime Fiction and Its Categories
  • How I Write My Books (pieces by Stanley Ellin, P. D. James, Desmond Bagley, Dorothy Eden, Patricia Highsmith, Gregory Mcdonald, Lionel Davidson, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, and H.R.F. Keating)
  • Writers and Their Books: A Consumer's Guide
  • The People of Crime Fiction
In August, 2013, I had read the first two sections, and I discussed them in this post. In the first section, I especially enjoyed Hillary Waugh's discussion of the American police procedural, Michael Gilbert's take on the British police procedural, and John Gardner's overview of the espionage novel.

The section about Writers and Their Books was authored by: Dorothy B. Hughes, Reginald Hill, Melvyn Barnes and H.R.F. Keating. For each author listed, one to three books are suggested as a good introduction to the author. Some excerpts from that section:

Ferrars, Elizabeth:
British detective novelist, published in the U.S. as E.X. Ferrars. With 50 books behind her, starting in 1940, she is one of the stalwarts of the traditional British-style crime novel.... Her books always give the reader something to think about, as well as a good puzzle to unravel. Her people are notably real. They eat; they choose clothes.
Lathen, Emma:
Pseudonym of mystery-writing team Mary Latsis and Martha Henissart. ... Lathen is inimitable, witty, intelligent, honest, and just an all-round terrific writer. The key man and crime solver of the Lathen books is John Putnam Thatcher, New York banker. He and his story reflect the modes and manners of today's Manhattan and the surrounding suburbs.
Garfield, Brian:
American mystery writer. A prolific writer of Westerns under his own name and under many pseudonyms, Brian Garfield moved into the mystery field to an immediate and equal success. He writes the hard-boiled novel and many of his stories have been filmed. In 1975, Garfield received the Edgar for Best Novel with Hopscotch.
The People of Crime Fiction section covers 90 popular characters and was written by H.R.F. Keating. The illustrations come from a variety of sources: film and televisions stills when the characters have been portrayed in adaptations; illustrations from books and magazines; and some were specially commissioned for the book. That section is very entertaining and contains many interesting facts about the characters and the authors that I had not known.

Publisher: Van Nostrand Reinhold [1982]
Length: 314 pages
Format: Hardback

Friday, March 21, 2014

Once Upon a Time VIII

The Once Upon a Time Challenge, hosted by Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings, has begun. And I am very excited about joining in for the second time. I have a stack of books I have been saving for this challenge.

Check out the post for Once Upon a Time VIII with rules and sign-ups and check out his other posts, too.

A brief description of the event from that post:
Friday, March 21st begins the eigth annual Once Upon a Time Challenge. This is a reading and viewing event that encompasses four broad categories: Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum. The challenge continues through June 21st and allows for very minor (1 book only) participation as well as more immersion depending on your reading/viewing whims.
My goal is to complete Quest the First. For this quest, I will read at least five books in any of the above categories during the three months of the challenge. I already know I will read mostly fantasy, and some of my choices will blend fantasy and mystery in the same book.

These are the books I definitely want to read for this challenge:

  • Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch 
  • Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch
  • Among Others by Jo Walton
  • 9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Other possibilities are:

  • The Black Company by Glen Cook
  • Tailchaser's Song by Tad Williams
  • Land of Dreams by James P. Blaylock
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the Heat of the Night: John Ball

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball was published in 1965. It was Ball's first book and it won the Edgar for Best First Novel.

I enjoyed reading this book; I read it in few hours in one sitting, which is very rare for me. Some of my enjoyment may have been affected by knowing the story, since I have seen the movie adaptation several times. The movie and the book are not identical, but close enough so that I knew what to expect with both the characters and the resolution of the crime.

In this book, however, the main story is not the crime but the racial prejudice which leads a sheriff to make the assumption that a black man waiting in a railroad station with a wallet full of money must be guilty of a crime. This book does a very good job of showing us the extreme prejudice against blacks at the time, and illustraties the barriers that racial and ethnic stereotypes lead to.  The book is set in a small town in South Carolina.

Soon, the sheriff has discovered that Virgil Tibbs, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is not his culprit and is, in fact, an experienced police detective, visiting from Pasadena, California. He ropes Tibbs into working with him to solve the crime; he sees that it is a no lose situation. If Tibbs fails, Tibbs is blamed; if  Tibbs helps solve the crime, the sheriff gets the credit.

Much is made of the reaction of the community members to being questioned by a black man. He cannot stay in the hotels that will not serve blacks. Most people treat him abominably. The sheriff insists on calling him Virgil, as a show of disrespect. The tensions and the inequities of that that time and place come across very well.

I was raised in Alabama and I was living there when this book came out. Just a few years before, Birmingham, Alabama was the center of marches for civil rights and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the death of four young black girls. Yet, I don't remember anyone as blatantly prejudiced as the people we encounter in this book. It could have been my own family experience; it could have been that I was in a big city. It doesn't really matter because that level of animosity against a different race does happen. This book shows people experiencing the gradual awakening that this person they are dealing with is a competent person, with intelligence and feelings and pride in his abilities.

We see much of the story from the point of view of Sam Wood, who works under the sheriff. The sheriff is new to town, not experienced in this type of work, and he and Sam don't get along. Sam is conscientious and tries to do a good job regardless. But he is predisposed to give Virgil Tibbs the benefit of the doubt, although he has the same ingrained biases as most other people in town. I found Sam to be a very interesting character.

I also liked that a couple of the characters, the murder victim and his daughter, were Italian. The point is made that some people are biased against other ethnic groups also. In this case, they were well to do and staying with an influential family, so they were accepted. The dynamics of the small town in need of revenue, and the politics of the leaders of the town trying to run Tibbs out of town, also added to the tension.

John Ball continued the Virgil Tibbs series with six more books and a few short stories. I will be looking for the next one in the series. I will be re-watching the movie soon also.

This book was also recently reviewed at: Col's Criminal Library and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Cairo Affair: Olen Steinhauer

I have been a fan of espionage fiction for a long time, but I have avoided books in that genre that cover espionage in the Middle East. However, Olen Steinhauer is one of my favorite authors, so I am going to read anything he writes in this genre. When I was offered an opportunity to  read this book via NetGalley, I took them up on the offer immediately.

The Cairo Affair
starts during the activities of the Arab Spring, in February 2011. (See note below.) Sophie Kohl's husband Emmett is currently working at the American embassy in Hungary, but his previous assignment was in Cairo. Both of them have friends still in Cairo, and when Emmett is killed, Sophie seeks the reasons for his death there. Along her journey to discover the truth, we visit the couple in the early years of their marriage. Along the way, three other characters get pulled into the quest: Stan Bertolli, a CIA agent in Cairo; Omar Halawi, who works in Egyptian intelligence; and John Calhoun, a contractor working for CIA agents in Cairo.

I was very pleased with this novel. I loved the structure, with the point of view changing focus several times throughout the story, and the story moving back and forth in time. Some readers find this narrative style disorienting, but I thrive on that kind of story. As usual, his characterization is very good, although in an espionage novel, the author cannot tell us too much about the characters without spoiling the story. The characters are the focus of this story, showing how their jobs and their chosen way of life is affecting them. Once again, this is a spy novel with the emphasis on the problem of trust. In the world of politics and espionage, who can you trust? Your family? Your coworkers?

Note my reviews of The Tourist and The Nearest Exit. They are books 1 and 2 in the Tourist trilogy, also written by Steinhauer. I have yet to read the third in the trilogy, The American Spy.

Arab Spring was a term I was not familiar with, which reveals a lot about me. I found two interesting posts on that period. One is at NPR, written in 2011. The second is an article at CNN re Arab Spring three years later. 

Publisher: Minotaur Books [2014]
Length: 417 pages
Format / Origin: e-book, via NetGalley

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Touchstone: Laurie R. King

Laurie R. King is well known for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series (12 books so far). Her first book in the Kate Martinelli series, A Grave Talent (1993), won the best first novel awards from both the Mystery Writers of America and the Crime Writers Association. If you want to know more about the author and her novels, check out her website.

Touchstone (2007) was originally written as a standalone novel. The book is set in the UK in 1926 and the story centers around the weeks leading up to the general strike. Harris Stuyvesant is an agent of the United States Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, and he has arrived in England to track down the man responsible for terrorist bombings in the US. In London, he is introduced to an intelligence officer named Aldous Carstairs, who is willing to work with him in order to further his own ends. Along the way, Stuyvesant meets a victim of shell shock in Cornwall, Bennett Grey. Grey and his sister have ties to an aristocratic family, the Hurleighs.

I love the way King tells a story. She writes beautiful prose. She creates interesting characters that are fleshed out well. Even minor characters have interest and background. I have read four other books by her and they have all been engaging stories. Some of them focused too much on issues, too little on the mystery plot. This story does center around terrorism, and King has stated that she was exploring what turns people into terrorists (see this post), but the book is primarily an entertaining story set against the backdrop of serious events in history.

I cannot find any negatives in this book. I could complain that it is too long (548 pages). But that would only be because I like shorter books. While I was reading and after I finished, I could find no deadwood in this book that I would cut or pare down. I think each part leads up to the next and is necessary. It never gets boring.

The main protagonist travels from London to Cornwall. He spends time in the rural areas around Oxford. I am geographically-challenged and for once I actually felt like I knew where the locales were (there was a map in the book).  I now know where Penzance is (a port in Cornwall, the most westerly major town in that county). The Pirates of Penzance is a favorite Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera in our household and I guess I knew it really existed, but I had never pictured it.

See this page at the author's site for background information on the settings. If you like historical fiction, and don't mind some elements of a conspiracy thriller, I heartily recommend this book. It now has a sequel, The Bones of Paris (2013).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

After the Armistice Ball: Catriona McPherson

The best brief introduction to this book is at the author's website:
After the Armistice Ball is set among the struggling upper classes of 1920s Perthshire as, in the aftermath of the First World War, their comfortable world begins to crumble. Dandy Gilver, her husband back from the War, her children off at school and her uniform growing musty in the attic, is bored to a whimper and a little light snooping seems like harmless fun. Before long, though, the puzzle of what really happened to the Duffy diamonds after the Armistice Ball is swept aside by a sudden death in a lonely seaside cottage in Galloway.
This book did not grab me from the beginning. It wasn't slow, but the "detecting" style and the narrative style was not my favorite. It may have to do with my preference for real detectives of some type, either policemen, or PIs, or even spies. Amateur detectives are not my favorite. Putting that to one side for now, I did get grabbed by the plot about two-thirds in and I always prefer a good ending over a good start (if I can't have both).

Although Dandy is new at sleuthing, she is getting paid to detect, so she is not strictly an amateur. I noticed how much of Dandy's motivation was connected to getting paid to do the sleuthing, which I found surprising. Was this because this was her own money not controlled by her husband? Or because the family's funds are low due to economic circumstances of the times?

Dandy later acquires a partner in sleuthing, Alec, a male acquaintance who has connections to the family she is investigating. Her husband, Hugh, is involved with the care of their estate and is just as happy for her to go off and entertain herself, and she does not enlighten him as to her true intent. These are relationships I don't understand, but I accepted them and I assume they were not that unusual for the time. Dandy is still very inexperienced at detecting. She doesn't really have a plan, she and Alec endlessly discuss what they have discovered, and she sort of fumbles through the sleuthing. Nevertheless, except for the long discussions, the results are entertaining.

The depiction of the times seems accurate, although I am not knowledgeable in that area. In fact, learning more about that time is one attraction for me. I have read some books from both the Charles Todd series (Bess Crawford) and the Jaqueline Winspear series (Maisie Dobbs) and this one focuses more on the upper classes and how they were affected by World War I. That does bring a different slant to the story.

One thing that bothered me initially: Dandy makes it quite clear she is not maternally inclined and is just as happy that her sons are now away at school. That, along with her attitude toward her husband, grated on me. But this is just my personal prejudice, reflecting my times and my experiences. When her sons return from school, their relationship with Dandy seems quite fine, so maybe she just is not the smothering type. One can definitely understand how a woman of that class in those times could be bored with her life and seeking more excitement.

There is a detailed description of Dandy Gilver and her family and her household at the author's blog.

This book seems to get a divided response at Goodreads. Seems like readers either love it or hate it. So be warned, this may not be the book or the series for you. From my comments, you can see I went back and forth about this book. I have read many reviews that are very complimentary about the later books. I enjoyed the setting and the characters and I plan to seek out more of the books in the series.

This is my first read for the Read Scotland challenge, hosted by Peggy at Peggy Ann's Post.

Reviewed at: BooksPlease and Pining for the West

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Indigo Necklace: Frances Crane

Beginning in the early 1940's, Frances Crane wrote a series of over 25 books featuring Pat and Jean Abbott. Most of the books had a color in the title, and they were set in a variety of locations. The couple meet in New Mexico, where Jean has an antique shop. Pat is from San Francisco, and the book I just read is set in New Orleans. Pat is a private investigator, and does most of the investigating, but the stories are narrated by Jean.

In The Indigo Necklace, published in 1945, Pat and Jean are living in a rented apartment in an old house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where Pat is stationed toward the end of World War II. Jean describes the group of people living in the house:
This was an interesting place. It had charm. On the surface, it had tranquility. Underneath, strange currents ran darkly. Roger Clary had an invalid wife. The wife had a nurse. The nurse only spoke French. Aunt Dollie and Uncle George Sears had been visiting Aunt Rita Clary for seven years, but they had been waiting to go back to Paris. The Graham girls called this their home and Toby Wick had the run of the place when he didn't seem in the least to belong. It was very interesting. And we were lucky to be here.

Mysterious things happen; someone walks through the Abbott's living room while Jean is dozing. Later, a woman dies in the courtyard of the building. When they discover that it is murder, Pat and Jean become involved in the investigation.

Based on what I have read about the series, these books often fall into the "woman in peril" sub-genre. Jean is unafraid and gets herself involved in trouble often. Based on this novel, I would guess that there is enough entertainment in the novels regardless of this, and especially if you enjoy a picture of the times in which they were written. I will try more of these books to find out. 

What I really loved about this book were the descriptions of the French Quarter and the building the Abbott's live in. That building sounded so much like a place my husband and I stayed in many years ago when we visited the French Quarter, called the Maisonettes. The rooms all faced a courtyard, with a fountain. The building was very old, from the early 1800s.

Jean and Pat live near to the St. Louis Cathedral, and go for walks in that area. They eat at many restaurants that still exist in the French Quarter: Antoine's, Arnaud's. The season is summer and it is hot and muggy. I felt like I was there with them.

Other views:
  • Sarah at Crimepieces reviews The Golden Box and Thirteen White Tulips.
  • Moira at Clothes in Books looks at Thirteen White Tulips here and here.

The photos in this post were taken by my husband in 1979 in the French Quarter, New Orleans. The top picture is the St. Louis Cathedral. The bottom picture was the door to our room at the Maisonettes. Note that in the background of the middle picture (also of the Maisonettes) there is a tiny spiral staircase from the veranda to the courtyard. It was for the resident cat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reading in February and Pick of the Month

In February I read seven books. It was a great reading month. I set myself a goal of reading only books by female authors, and I succeeded in that goal. My reading included one historical fiction book (non-mystery), one vintage mystery, two books by Canadian authors, a book set in Spain, another one set in Thailand, and two books set in the USA. All in all, a lot of variety in my reading for February.

These are the seven books I read in February...

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Maze of Cadiz by Aly Monroe
The Death of a Butterfly by Margaret Maron
Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage
Under the Dragon's Tail by Maureen Jennings
Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara
The Indigo Necklace by Frances Crane

My favorite read this month was my one non-mystery book, The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott. I am very interested in vaudeville, and I don't know as much as I would like about the history of vaudeville, so that may have swayed me. Regardless, it it was very readable, entertaining, and featured interesting characters.

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.

It was hard to settle on one of my crime fiction reads as a favorite. All of the books were enjoyable and had their good points.


My Crime Fiction favorite for February is Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage, an Australian author. That book has several points in its favor: an interesting female protagonist, an exotic setting, and a look at social issues within that setting. Of course, it takes the author's skill to turn those elements into a pleasurable and entertaining read.

In this book, Jayne Keeney is a private investigator living in Bangkok. She becomes involved in a murder investigation while visiting a friend in the smaller town of Chiang Mai. Angela Savage's writing about this area feels authentic because she lived in Southeast Asia for six years in the 1990's.