Sunday, April 28, 2019

Follow Her Home: Steph Cha

Follow Her Home is the first of three books featuring Korean-American Juniper Song. I read this book in August 2018, but never had time to write a post about it. I liked the book so much I decided to do one now.

From the book cover:
Juniper Song knows secrets–how to keep them and how to search them out.  As a girl, noir fiction was her favorite escape, and Philip Marlowe has always been her literary idol. So when her friend Luke asks her to investigate a possible affair between his father and a young employee, Juniper (or "Song" as her friends call her) finds an opportunity to play detective. Driving through L.A.'s side streets, following leads, tailing suspects–it all appeals to Song's romantic ideal of the noir hero. 
But when she's knocked out while investigating a mysterious car and finds a body in her own trunk, Song lurches back to the real L.A., becoming embroiled in a crime that goes far beyond role play. What's more, this isn't the first time Song has stuck her nose in other people's business. As she fights to discover the truth about her friend's family, Song reveals one of her own deeply hidden secrets, something dark and damaging, urging her to see the current mystery through, to rectify the mistakes of her past life.
This book is hard to describe. It starts out seeming light, even frothy, contrary to the description of "L.A. noir" on the cover. It takes a long time to turn darker but when it does it gets very dark, very quickly. I don't think this switch in mood and style mid-way into the story would work for everyone but it did for me.

Philip Marlowe has always been Song's hero, and she models her "detecting" on his adventures. I did not initially like the idea of the amateur sleuth modeling herself after Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler's books, but it actually did work well in the end. (Although the Philip Marlowe books are hard-boiled, not noir.  I think the description of "noir" gets thrown around a lot where it doesn't really apply.)

There is a secondary story of Song's relationship with her depressed sister. That part of the story is important to the whole, but the process of the story going back and forth from the present to Juniper's earlier days with her sister threw me off at times.

There are two main themes throughout the book: family relationships and the experience of being Korean American and a woman. I enjoy reading about families, so this was right up my alley. And I liked reading about a female protagonist who keeps pushing to find the answers to questions, no matter what.

In the end: 

I loved this book. I have the next two books in this series, and I just found out that Steph Cha has another book coming in October 2019 (not part of the Juniper Song series).


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2013
Length:      278 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Juniper Song #1
Setting:      Los Angesles, CA
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Free Reign: Rosemary Aubert

The unusual protagonist of this story is a homeless man who was once a judge, high in Toronto society. Ellis Portal was born to a poor family but through education and perseverance has raised his status in life. He was born Angelo Portalese but tried to hide his origins by changing his name. When he graduates from law school a fellow graduate calls together five friends, including Ellis, and gives them rings to commemorate their connection. The rings bind them by allowing each member of the group to extract one favor from each of the others, no question asked. From that point the five lawyers proceed with their lives and ambitions, except  for one who dies in a tragic car accident shortly afterward.

Ellis becomes a judge, marries and has children, but later in his life, the pressures of his job get to him; he has a breakdown and suffers from anger management issues. He ends up in jail, then in a mental institution, then becomes homeless.

At the point that the book begins, Ellis has been homeless for five years and lives in a homemade shelter made from a packing crate in a ravine in Toronto. He finds the severed hand of a black male  in the garden area he has planted, and that hand has one of the five rings on the finger. He begins to investigate but things get very complicated. Being homeless, he is not healthy, not well fed, and can't go into the downtown area without a great effort to clean himself up. He works with a female reporter he knew in his previous life to look for clues, but along the way discovers other mysteries to solve.

I liked this book quite a bit. The first person narrative from Ellis keeps us focused on his story and allows many facts to be hidden from us. He shares little of his history, which is frustrating at times but fits his character. I was engaged in the story throughout.

One element of this book is the interesting look at the life of a homeless man, in this case one who avoids shelters and lives in isolation. The ravine system in Toronto, which spans several parks, is also very intriguing.

The characters were also well done. Ellis feels very real, and is shown with plenty of faults, but still sympathetic. Some of the secondary characters are homeless people. Others are friends or acquaintances that have kept tabs on Ellis over the years even though Ellis has rebuffed them and their overtures.

Some reviews complain of a fairy tale happy ending and the unbelievable revelations and events that resolve the mysteries that Ellis has been investigating. Those accusations are true, to a certain extent, but I enjoyed the whole book and had no problem with any part of the ending.

Aubert writes with sensitivity about several topics: homelessness, prostitution, homosexuality. I enjoyed getting to know the main character and the gradual revelation of what had led to his current status. I will be reading the second book just to see what happens next in Ellis Portal’s life.

See Rick Robinson's excellent review at The Broken Bullhorn.


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2009 (orig. pub. 1997)
Length:      306 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Ellis Portal #1
Setting:      Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Classics Club Spin #20

One of the events offered by the Classics Club is The Classics Club Spin and this month is Spin #20.

Members who participate list twenty books from their classics list that they have not read. I am new to the club and have never participated but I am finding I need a push to get me reading from my list.

So, here is my list of 20 books from my list. On April 22nd, a number will be announced and the goal is to read that book by May 31st. That seems doable.

  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe 
  2. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte 
  3. The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgarov
  4. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote
  6. And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie
  7. Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons 
  8. Our Man in Havana (1958) by Graham Greene
  9. The Talented Mr.Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
  10. In A Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes
  11. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson 
  12. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  13. A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin
  14. Beast In View (1955) by Margaret Millar
  15. The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford
  16. The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy
  17. Much Ado About Nothing (1598) by William Shakespeare
  18. Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley 
  19. On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute 
  20. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943) by Betty Smith

Several of these books are from my list for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019. I am hoping that the number for one of those will be picked but any one of the books on the list will be a nice read.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Shortest Way to Hades: Sarah Caudwell

The Hilary Tamar series centers around a group of young barristers who often seek Hilary's help when they run into trouble. Hilary is a Law professor and former tutor of one of the group, Timothy Shepherd.

This story is about an heiress, who is trying to avoid excessive estate taxes by an amendment to her grandfather's will. Her family all cooperate, except for one cousin who demands a large sum to agree to the changes. And shortly after that, the cousin is dead. But why, Hilary wonders, is she the one who died, and not the cousin who will inherit all the money?

I loved this quote from the book:
There are days on which Julia does not open letters. She is overcome, as I understand it, by a sort of superstitious dread, in which she is persuaded that letters bode her no good: they will be from the Gas Board, and demand money; or from the Inland Revenue, and demand accounts; or from some much valued friend, and demand an answer. If a letter arrives on such a day as this, she does not open it but puts it carefully away, to be dealt with when she feels stronger. After that, I had always supposed, it is never seen again.
Julia is the barrister who had advised the cousin who is now dead. And if she had opened the letter from this woman a few days before her death, she might not have died.

One notable thing about this series is that Hilary Tamar's gender is never identified. I am one of those readers who was shocked to hear this. I have only read the first book prior to this one, but I had definitely pegged Hilary as female. Another reviewer had decided on the opposite sex.

The characters are quirky, sometimes flaky. The prose is full of humor and wit. Many people read these books for the entertainment factor solely, the relationships of Hilary Tamar and her friends and the method of telling the story. In this case a portion of the story was told through letters. I found the mystery in this book satisfying, and I did not find the legal explanations boring. I could have done without the lengthy coverage of a cricket game.

I did not fall immediately in love with this author and her series when I read the first book, as many do. But I was persuaded to return and try another book after seeing many enthusiastic reviews. The lovely covers adorned with illustrations by Edward Gorey also helped. And I was happy to find that I did enjoy this one. Still a bit too humorous for me, but well worth the read.

Other resources:


Publisher:  Dell, 1995. Orig. pub. 1985.
Length:     314 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hilary Tamar, #2
Setting:     London; Greece
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Entry Island: Peter May

Entry Island blends historical fiction with a present-day police procedural. Both stories come together in the end, as we expect. The historical focus is on the Highland Clearances which take place on the Isle of Lewis and Harris in Scotland. The current investigation centers on a death on a small Canadian island (Entry Island, which is a part of the Magdalen Islands, in the province of Quebec). This was an unusual and compelling story.

A rich businessman, James Cowell, who lives on Entry Island has been murdered. Sime Mackenzie, a homicide detective with the Sûreté in Montreal, is attached to the police team sent to the island solely because he is an English speaker and the inhabitants of the island speak English. When they arrive they find that the man's wife, Kirsty Cowell, is the most likely suspect. Entry Island is very small, with only 130 residents. No one believes that Kirsty Cowell is innocent, except Sime.

There are many tensions in Sime's life. Simes marriage has ended; his ex-wife is also on the police force and taking part in this investigation. He has suffered insomnia since the end of his marriage, affecting his health. He is a loner, and as an English speaker in Quebec, he doesn't fit in.


My favorite thing about Peter May's books is the background on each book's setting and its history. In this case there are two settings (in Scotland and in Canada) and I learned a lot about each. In addition to that, the book provided some insight into Quebec and the tensions in that area due to the change to French as the official language. I am seeing that a lot in Canadian fiction set in this area.

I find it interesting that various reviewers differed on which story line they found the most compelling. I thought they were blended very well, even though the connections are almost too coincidental and stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. Regardless, I was impatient to find out the resolution to each part and it was an enjoyable read. 


To learn more abut the Highland Clearances and the relationship of the Magdalen Islands off the coast of Canada, see these two resources.

I wish I had read that last article before reading the book, because it explains that the main character's name, Sime, is a corruption of Sim, the Gaelic for Simon, which is pronounced “Sheem”.


Publisher:   Quercus, 2015 (orig. publ. 2014)
Length:       448 pages
Format:       Trade paperback
Setting:       Scotland and Canada
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:       I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Tarnished Icons: Stuart M. Kaminsky

This is the eleventh novel in Stuart Kaminsky's Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov series, set in Russia in the late 1990's. Many things have happened in Rostnikov's life since the end of Blood and Rubles. Since suffering an injury to one leg during combat in World War II, he has had difficulty walking and the condition was worsening. He now has an artificial limb and is getting used to it.

Rostnikov and his team in the Office of Special Investigations have a new boss, Igor Yakovlev, formerly of the KGB. And Rostnikov's son, Iosef, has decided to join the police and is working with Rostnikov's team. There are continuing changes in the lives of other members of the team. There have been tragedies, changes for the better, and challenges in their lives.

As usual, the team has several cases going at one time. The Office of Special Investigations is given the most difficult cases. Rostnikov's wife is Jewish and thus his son, Iosef, is half-Jewish. In Russia, this has sometimes causes problems in their lives. Now Rostnikov is asked to find out who is killing Jews in Moscow. In the most recent occurrence, three men from a new synagogue were gunned down. Other cases the team is investigating are a serial rapist who is called "the Silent One" and a bomber who is protesting the unsafe use of nuclear power.

This is a another series where the lives of the police team are just as interesting as the solution to the crimes. In Tarnished Icons, we get more background on all of Rostniknov's team. The crimes and their solution are interesting, but more in the context of the changes in Russia at the time.

Rostnikov is the do-it-yourself type. During the course of this story, in addition to hunting down the killers, Rostinikov helps the rabbi of the synagogue put heating ducts in. He is good at fixing things and teaching himself how things work. He is a self-taught plumber, and he  finds the work relaxing. He handles all the plumbing problems in the building he lives in. And there are many.

The nature of life in post-communist Russia as depicted by Stuart Kaminsky is grim. Crime is more common and bureaucracies and power struggles make a policeman's job difficult. The challenges of earning enough money to live and getting adequate housing, for example, are constant thorns in the side of the people  Sometimes the books have left me a bit depressed, although Rostnikov always has a positive approach to life. But this book left me with a very good feeling, and I look forward to the next one.


Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1997
Length:      277 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Inspector Rostnikov, #11
Setting:      Moscow, Russia
Genre:        Police Procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Reading Summary March 2019

I read thirteen books this month, including three graphic novels, one science fiction novel, one non-fiction book, and eight crime fiction novels.

Science Fiction

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) by Douglas Adams
Most people will have heard of this book and its author, even if they haven't read the book. Arthur Dent is protesting the demolition of his house to make way for a bypass. Coincidentally, Arthur's friend, Ford Prefect, is an alien who has learned that the earth is about to be destroyed to make way for a galactic freeway. They are picked up by a giant spaceship from a different galaxy and their adventures begin. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started out as a radio series,  broadcast by the BBC, and later became a novel. It has also been adapted as a TV series and a 2005 movie starring Martin Freeman. The book was a fun read. It is clearly science fiction, but not serious at all.


The Minimalist Home: A Room-By-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life (2018) by Joshua Becker
This is similar to the KonMari Method, but the two systems take different approaches. Marie Kondo suggests a different order to eliminating things, going by types of objects and emphasizes doing it all at once. Joshua Becker goes from room to room, and expects the process to take a while. Both are motivational if you want to make some progress in this area, but I can probably accept Becker's approach more easily. The major flaw in this book is repetition, but I see this in most self-help literature.

Understanding Comics (1994) by Scott McCloud
This is a comic about comics. I have read comics all my life, but I do have problems comprehending some contemporary graphic novels and I thought this might help. I did find some of it very useful for me, all of it informative and enlightening, and McCloud's enthusiasm for the subject makes it very interesting.

Graphic novels

The Umbrella Academy: The Apocalypse Suite  (2008) and
The Umbrella Academy: Dallas (2009)
by Gerard Way (Writer),  Gabrielle Bá (Artist)
I bought these two graphic novels before I heard about the adaptation of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. The story is about a dysfunctional family of adopted children, all born at the same time (in different locations all over the world) to mothers who showed no signs of pregnancy.  The adoptive father, Reginald Hargreeves, takes the children to the Umbrella Academy and trains them to be superheroes. 

Crime Fiction

The Tears of Autumn (1974) by Charles McCarry
This is a spy fiction novel by Charles McCarry, the second book in the Paul Christopher series. McCarry is one of my favorite authors and I have read most of his books. 
See review here.

Extraordinary People (2006) by Peter May
The Enzo Macleod Investigation series, Book #1. I have read several books by Peter May, and I learn a lot from each of his books. He often includes information about the setting and its history in the stories, and that is true in this case. Macleod, half-Scottish and half-Italian, is a forensics expert and a university professor in Toulouse, France. In this book, Macleod spends a good bit of time looking for clues in the catacombs under Paris.
Turncoat (2002) by Aaron Elkins
It is very difficult to describe this book in one sentence, so I will just send you to my review if you want to know more. The story, the premise, and the writing grabbed me immediately. The story begins in November 1963 in New York but soon moves to France, where the narrator, a professor of history, is trying to locate his wife, who has disappeared. 

Remembered Death (1944) by Agatha Christie
This non-series book by Agatha Christie was published in the UK as Sparkling Cyanide. Beautiful Rosemary Barton dies from drinking cyanide-laced champagne at her own birthday party while celebrating at a nightclub in London and the police assume that her death was suicide. My review here.

Smoke Detector  (1984) by Eric Wright
Smoke Detector is the 2nd Charlie Salter mystery, set in Toronto, Ontario. Salter is a member of the Metropolitan Police. In this story, he is assigned to an arson / homicide case. My review here.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
by Douglas Adams
This book is almost as hard to describe as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is a bit less weird, it is set in the UK, and many strange things do happen. It is a mish-mash of science fiction and fantasy and a detective story. I enjoyed it but it took a while before I had any sense of where it was going.

The Silkworm (2014) by Robert Galbraith (AKA J.K. Rowling)
The second book in the  Cormoran Strike series. Strike is an ex-Army private detective, and his young secretary Robin wants to learn to be an investigator also. This book focuses on the publishing industry. A woman asks Strike's help in finding her husband, an author who has been missing for several days. There is a lot to like about this series and the main characters.

What Never Happens (2014) by Anne Holt
This is the second book in the Adam Stubo and Johanne Vik series. The setting is Oslo, Norway. My main attraction to this series is the two main characters. Adam is an inspector in the Criminal Investigation Service and Johanne has worked with the FBI as a profiler. See my review here.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Remembered Death: Agatha Christie

Beautiful, charming Rosemary Barton dies from drinking a glass of cyanide-laced champagne at her own birthday party at a nightclub in London. The assumption is that her death was suicide, but as six of those close to Rosemary think back to the details and events leading up to the event, some of them begin to question that verdict.

The book's structure is different from other Agatha Christie novels I have read. It is divided into thirds, roughly. The first third consists of six chapters, each featuring one of the people at Rosemary’s birthday dinner. The first chapter centers on Iris, her younger, quieter sister. That part of the story I especially liked because we get to know those six people  and realize that they all had motives to kill her.

In the middle section, George Barton, Rosemary's husband, plans to re-stage the dinner party at the Luxembourg nearly a year after her death, hoping to catch her murderer. And the third section follows the events at that second dinner.

What I liked:

  • The unusual structure, including the reminiscences of those who attended the dinner party, was a plus for me. 
  • There is a romance, and Agatha Christie usually handles those very well. We never know how they will end. Actually there were several romances and each was interesting.
  • I was completely fooled, never suspected who the murderer was. And how the murder was carried out was very clever, and believable, although depending on a bit of luck.
  • Most of the characters are well-fleshed out and distinctive. And with all of that background on the characters I still couldn't guess who did it.
  • Colonel Race is an old friend of George Barton, and calls him "young George". I have enjoyed all the novels that include Colonel Race, and I am happy that I still have one left to read: Cards on the Table, an earlier novel.

This book by Agatha Christie was published in the UK as Sparkling Cyanide.

See these reviews at:

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel


Clothes in Books


Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1986. Orig. pub. 1945.
Length:     194 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.