Friday, December 28, 2018

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

I am joining the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019. A new challenge for me, and I am hoping it will help keep me moving along on my Classics Club List. The challenge is hosted by Books and Chocolate and is in its 6th year.

There are lots of rules and information at the signup post.

THE CATEGORIES (and my choices, which may be subject to change):

1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
Bram Stoker – Dracula (1897)
2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago. The only exceptions are books that were published posthumously but were written at least 50 years ago.
Virginia Woolf – Flush (1933)
3. Classic by a Woman Author.
Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre (1847)
4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a language other than your native language.
Vicki Baum – Grand Hotel (1929)
5. Classic Comic Novel. Any comedy, satire, or humorous work.
Stella Gibbons – Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
6. Classic Tragic Novel.
Theodore Dreiser –  An American Tragedy (1925)
7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes.
Charles Dickens – Bleak House (1853)
8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)
9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either continent or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries.
Betty Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those continents or islands, or by an author from these countries.
Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart  (Nigeria, 1958). 
11. Classic From a Place You've Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you've lived, or by a local author.
Raymond Chandler – The Little Sister (California, 1949) 
12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
William Shakespeare – Much Ado About Nothing (1598)

Participants may read 6, 9 or 12 books from this list, so I may not read all of these.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Salamander: J. Robert Janes

J. Robert Janes has written a series of sixteen books about two men in Occupied France in 1942 and 1943 who are on opposite sides but must work together. Gestapo officer Hermann Kohler and  his partner, Sûreté Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr have been instructed by their superiors to work together to investigate crimes.  Over time, they develop a trusting relationship, but know that due to the realities of war, it will probably not end well. One side or the other will be the victor, and then where will their loyalties lie?

Salamander, the fourth book in the series is set in Lyons, France, in December of 1942. From the cover of my Soho edition:
Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the Sûreté Nationale has been teamed with Hermann Kohler, formerly a Munich cop, now of the Gestapo, with respect to all police investigations of the so-called "ordinary crimes." They are sent to Lyon to find an arsonist. A fire set in a cinema has left one hundred and eighty-three Frenchmen and women dead. Is the crime linked to prewar cases of arson in Lubeck, Cologne and Heidelberg in Germany? Or to the Resistance, several of whose members were trapped in the flames? Or is there a pyromaniac at large who kills for sexual thrills and release? St-Cyr and Kohler face their most difficult challenge as they take on the case of the firebug who has been given the name of Salamander.
I am a fan of this series, but it has it problems. The writing is sometimes jerky and the story is often hard to follow. For me, the effort is worth it, primarily for the portrayal of France and it citizens during the German occupation. And the characterizations of the two policemen.

In this book we are in either Kohler's head or St-Cyr's head much of the time. This provides many hints to their characters and details about their friendship but also contributes to the confusion with frequent changes of point of view. This particular book in the series is heavy on sexual content, with a brothel and sexual perversions being a major element in the investigation.

Each book ends with a reference to the next case. There is very little time between each book. It isn't like a cliffhanger, just an enticement, and it works with me, I want to jump into the next one immediately.

Why did I read this book, now? Because the investigation is set around Christmas time, a time when everyone would rather be doing anything else but investigating an arson case. The fire occurred two days before Christmas and there are references to Christmas throughout. But this is not a cheery Christmas story.

For anyone interested in the series, I would recommend starting with the first book in the series, Mayhem (also published as Mirage) which provides background on the major characters.

You can see more about the series at the following links:

  • Cara Black, author of the Aimee Leduc series, wrote a post on Mayhem, which also covers Mannequin, Sandman, and Stonekiller.
  • J. Kingston Pierce posted two interviews with J. Robert Janes in 2012, one at Kirkus and a second at the Rap Sheet


Publisher:   Soho Press, 1998 (orig. pub. 1994)
Length:       311 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       A St-Cyr and Kohler Investigation #4
Setting:      Lyon, France, 1942.
Genre:        Police procedural, thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens

I am not sure if I have read A Christmas Carol before, but it felt brand new to me as I read it a few days ago. I have, of course seen some adaptations of the story but the only one I remember is Scrooged with Bill Murray. It is one of my favorite Christmas films, but of course it is a departure from the original story.

The novella has a very simple structure. In the first part, Scrooge is revealed to be a bitter man who has no sympathy for the poor and whose every thought is aimed at making more money. On Christmas Eve, he leaves his place of business at the end of the day, after being rude and inconsiderate to his employee, his nephew, and some people seeking donations for the poor. He goes home but immediately notices odd occurrences; the iron knocker on his door looks like the head of his old partner, Marley, now dead. Marley appears before him, in chains, and foretells that that three visitors will come and will try to save Scrooge from Marley's sad fate.

In the middle three parts, the three ghosts visit Scrooge and take him on heartbreaking and scary tours of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. And Scrooge does experience an epiphany and becomes aware that he can change. The last part shows Scrooge's redemption and his new relationships with family and friends.

What did I like?

Just about everything. I liked the way the story was told. The narration pulled me into the mood immediately. Not only is the book a pleasant and humorous read, while giving us a beautiful story of redemption and finding new happiness, it also shows us today what life was like in the 1800's, especially for the very poor. The edition that I read had wonderful illustrations by Roberto Innocenti. The illustrations enriched the reading experience.

Here are some paragraphs from his journey with the Ghost of Christmas Present:
...they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.
The house fronts looked black enough, and the windows blacker, contrasting with the smooth white sheet of snow upon the roofs, and with the dirtier snow upon the ground; which last deposit had been ploughed up in deep furrows by the heavy wheels of carts and waggons; furrows that crossed and re-crossed each other hundreds of times where the great streets branched off; and made intricate channels, hard to trace in the thick yellow mud and icy water. The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain. 
For, the people who were shovelling away on the housetops were jovial and full of glee; calling out to one another from the parapets, and now and then exchanging a facetious snowball—better-natured missile far than many a wordy jest—laughing heartily if it went right and not less heartily if it went wrong. The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. ...
If I had to find some complaint about the book, I would point out that Scrooge reversed his attitudes awfully quickly. On the other hand, who wouldn't change if they were in the middle of being taking back and forth in time by ghosts. I sensed that deep down he was ready to make amends. And this is a fantasy / ghost story anyway. A parable of sorts.

It is encouraging that this story has endured for so long. I understand now why some people read this every Christmas. It is a quick read, very entertaining, and joyful.


Publisher:   Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, Inc., 1990 (Orig. Publ. 1843)
Length:      152 pages, with illustrations.
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Great Britain
Genre:       Classic; Fiction
Source:      From our collection of illustrated books.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Shortest Day: Jane Langton

The Shortest Day is the 11th book in the Homer Kelly series. This story is set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Homer and Mary Kelly are teaching a class at Harvard University. Mary is participating in the annual Christmas Revels when a young singer in the event dies in an automobile accident. When other deaths follow, Homer resists getting involved, even though he was once a homicide detective. This book centers on the production of the Revels and an activist group seeking housing for the homeless; the author illustrated the story with her own pen and ink drawings.

I have been featuring some books that are set in December around Christmas this month, but this is the first book that is truly seasonal, with the story built around the Christmas season and the Winter Solstice.

From the book, a description of the Christmas Revels at Harvard:
Of course, it wasn't just the festival of Christmas they would be celebrating, it was also the winter solstice. Some of the Revels themes had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.  They were pagan stories, they were magic, they were ancient rites challenging the cold of winter in its darkest time, awakening the growth and greenness of the spring. And some were wassails praising the joys of good brown ale, and some were haunting entreaties to the wild deer in the forest, appeals by the hunters to the hunted to allow themselves to be killed. And always there was the stamping and leaping of the Morris dancers, which had no connection with the Christian nativity at all.

In this mystery, which really doesn't involve much investigation, Homer Kelly takes a back seat to Mary, who notices what is going on and sees the clues. He, on the other hand, doesn't see any evidence of wrongdoing until much later in the story.

This is, in essence, an inverted mystery, because the reader does know early on who is causing the deaths. I mention that because some mystery readers prefer stories where they can guess who the perpetrator is and why.

I read the first three books in the series, in 2007, and have always thought of Homer Kelly and Mary Kelly being on an equal footing in the series. The books I read were published in 1964, 1975, and 1978. Possibly I remember wrongly, because I see that the series is called the Homer Kelly series and in this story, published in 1995, Homer brushes off Mary's concerns every time she brings up her misgivings about the deaths.  I found this irritating and it took me out of the story at times, but it really does not change the fact that this mystery has a lot to offer.  Such as:

  • This is a quirky and humorous mystery in an academic setting. 
  • it is a nice cozy and mildly humorous mystery set at Christmas, with background on the Christmas solstice and accompany celebrations.
  • The line drawings are lovely and add to the story.
  • There are interesting side stories about the homeless and urban poverty, and an astronomer who is photographing the analemma over a year's time and is nearly at the end of this project.

Mysterious Press publishes ebook editions of the entire series, which include the line drawings. They have this to say about Jane Langton:
Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (b. 1922) is an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.

See also an article that appeared in Mystery Scene magazine in the Spring 2012 Issue #124.


Publisher: Penguin Books, 1996; orig. pub. 1995
Length:  262 pages
Format: mass market paperback
Series:  Homer Kelly #11
Setting:   Boston, Massachusetts
Genre:  Mystery
Source: I purchased this book.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow: Peter Hoeg

This book begins with a funeral. A very young boy that Smilla has befriended is dead as the result of a fall off a building. The death is almost immediately declared to be accidental, but Smilla disagrees. She files a complaint, and an investigator comes out, but the investigator is not convinced. Smilla will not give up, she is determined to find out who would kill Isaac and why.

The story takes place mostly in Denmark. The last third takes place on a ship, the Kronos, on an expedition to an island off Greenland. Smilla was originally from Greenland, although her father was Danish. I learned a lot about the relationship between Greenland and Denmark. And the cold, cruel weather in both of those countries.

As you can see from the cover, the story takes place around Christmas and New Year's Day. Smilla is not fond of holidays, but her father tries to get her to celebrate with him. They have a difficult history and relationship.

This was a reread (after about 25 years so I remembered nothing about the book), and I think I loved this story more the second time.

The writing is just beautiful. It pulls you in. It took me longer than usual to read this book and that was partly because I wanted to extend the experience.

The story is written in present tense, and usually I find that distracting. However, I have found that I notice it much less when the story is also told from the first person point of view, and that works well here.

Smilla is like a pink Energizer Bunny. She refuses to be stopped and she never runs down. Or, as her friend the mechanic puts it...
"Smilla," he whispers, "when I was a child I had a tank you could wind up – with caterpillar treads. If you put something down in front of it, it would climb straight over it because it had such low gears. If the object was perpendicular the tank would turn around and crawl along the edge until it found some other way over. You couldn't stop it. You're like that tank, Smilla."
Smilla is also very intelligent with a scientific background. She is a strong female protagonist, with a mind of her own. I found her to be a very attractive character, and that was a major factor in my enjoyment of the book.

Some people don't care for the ending, and I don't want to tell too much about it. I really wasn't bothered by any aspect of the ending because I knew the story could never end the way I wanted it to.

The original language of this book was Danish, and it has been translated into English in two different versions, one published in the US (with the title Smilla's Sense of Snow), one published in the UK. There are disagreements about which translation is best. I read the US version the first time, the UK version the second time. This was not intentional, I did not know about the two translations until after I purchased my copy. I found more information at A Crime is Afoot, and here, if you are interested.

I have only given a brief overview and there is much more that could be said about this book. If you would like more detail, see Margot's Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...


Publisher:   Vintage Classics, 2015 (orig. pub. 1992)
Length:       410 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Denmark, Greenland
Genre:       Mystery
Translation:   Translated from Danish by F. David
Source:      I purchased this book.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Reading Summary, November 2018

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

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


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


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

Crime Fiction:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Iron Lake: William Kent Krueger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, December 1, 2018

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

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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