Thursday, December 31, 2020

2021 European Reading Challenge

In the 2021 European Reading Challenge hosted by Rose City Reader, participants tour Europe through books. The books can be read (and reviewed) anytime between January 1, 2021 to January 31, 2022.

The idea is to read books by European authors or books set in European countries (no matter where the author comes from). The books can be anything – novels, short stories, memoirs, travel guides, cookbooks, biography, poetry, or any other genre. Each book must be by a different author and set in a different country. A book must be reviewed in order to count towards the goal. 

More detailed rules and sign ups are here.

I am joining at the FIVE STAR (DELUXE ENTOURAGE) level: Read at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. 

This is the list of countries:

Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.


Last year, I listed some books I could read (from my own shelves) for the challenge. Of the five books I listed, I only read one of those. Here are the four remaining from that list.

SwitzerlandThe Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Spain:  Tattoo by Manuel Vazquez Montalban

NorwayNemesis by Jo Nesbo

GreeceAssassins of Athens by Jeffrey Siger

These are a few other books that I plan to read in 2021.

BelgiumThe Dancer At The Gai-Moulin by Georges Simenon

IcelandBlackout by Ragnar Jónasson

RussiaThe Big Red Train Ride by Eric Newby OR

                 Murder on the Trans-Siberian Express by Stuart Kaminsky

TurkeyBelshazzar's Daughter by Barbara Nadel

Monday, December 28, 2020

European Reading Challenge 2020: Wrap-Up Post

This is my wrap-up post for the 2020 European Reading Challenge. The goal was to read and review at least five books by different European authors or books set in different European countries. I enjoyed reading these books and will be signing up for this challenge in 2021.

These are the books I read and reviewed for the challenge:

MALTA:  Coffin in Malta by Gwendoline Butler

A very strange mystery set in Malta. Inspector Coffin of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate a murder shortly after his friend John Azzopardi returns to Malta.

SWEDEN:  An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten

Translated by Marlaine Delargy 

The five stories in this slim volume all focus on eighty-eight-year-old Maud, who lives in a lovely apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden, rent free.

DENMARK:  The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Translated by K. E. Semmel

Carl Mørck is a homicide detective in Copenhagen, and has been chosen to head the new Department Q, focusing on high profile cold cases. This is the second in a series.

FINLAND:  Snow Angels by James Thompson

This is the first novel in the Inspector Vaara series. A very interesting setting: Finnish Lapland, a hundred miles into the Arctic Circle.

UNITED KINGDOM:  The Saint Valentine's Day Murders by Ruth Dudley Edwards

This is book 2 in the Robert Amiss series, following on Corridors of Death. The first two books in the series feature office settings (specifically civil service jobs), and focus on bureaucracy and office politics.

LUXEMBOURG:  The Expats by Chris Pavone

A spy fiction thriller set in Luxembourg, although not your standard spy fiction story.

FRANCE:  The Awkward Squad by Sophie Hénaff

Translated from the French by Sam Gordon

A mystery featuring police detective Anne Capestan, who has been suspended for six months. When she returns to work she is give a new department made up of misfits and rejects from other areas. Their mission is to follow up on unsolved cases.

GREECE:  Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz

This is the sequel to an earlier book by Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders. In both books the main character is Susan Ryeland, and both feature the "book within a book" format.  Moonflower Murders begins and ends in Greece, and that setting is lovingly described. The main action takes place in the UK.

NETHERLANDS:  Shooting in the Dark by Carolyn Hougan

This spy story was published in 1984, and the story takes place during the Iran hostage situation, and at the time of the coronation of Queen Beatrix in the Netherlands, in late April 1980. Claire Brooks visits Amsterdam on a whim after her husband announces that he is leaving her.

GERMANY:  Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum

Translated from the German by Basil Creighton with revisions by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Grand Hotel provides a good picture of Germany in the late 1920s, between the two wars. It describes several people who stay in the Grand Hotel in Berlin over several days. First published in 1929.

SWITZERLAND: The Arms Maker of Berlin by Dan Fesperman

This book is a mixture of adventure novel and spy thriller,  with a dual timeline. History professor Nat Turnbull gets mixed up with the FBI when his former mentor is arrested for stealing important documents from World War II.

ITALY:  October Men by Anthony Price

This is the fourth book in a cold war espionage series. David Audley is the central character throughout the series, but each book is different, focusing on other characters within the team. In this book Audley takes his wife and child to Italy.

RUSSIA:  The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

This is a Russian classic novel written in the 1930's and finished shortly before the author died in 1940, at the age of 49. The novel was finally published in Russia in 1966.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Do Not Murder Before Christmas: Jack Iams

This book was a pleasure to read, on the humorous side but definitely with a serious theme. Stanley "Rocky" Rockwell has been instructed to cover a Christmas Party at the community center, even though he is an editor and that assignment should be beneath him. His presence was requested by the wealthy Mallory family, who have set up the community center in a bad section of town, to atone for their sins.

The problem is that Uncle Poot, owner of a toy shop in Shady Hollow, traditionally gives a party on Christmas Day for kids in the neighborhood and gives away free toys to all the kids. The two parties will conflict. Rocky has always done a special story on that event. The intersection of these two events and sets of people leads to a death.

Another problem is that Rocky meets the new social worker who is running the Malloy Memorial Community Center, and she is young, blond, and just his type. And also seems to be hooked up with Martin Malloy III.

My thoughts:

This one started out a little lighter than I like, but it has a mix of romance, a crusading journalist, and the sleuthing is entertaining. There are also elements of hard-boiled crime fiction and themes of corruption in City Hall and inequities between the poor and the wealthy. 

The story is told in first person by Rocky. He has a supporter in Mrs. Pickett, also known as Debbie Mayfair, the society columnist. Both of them are great characters, ones you want to encounter again. Jane Hewes, the social worker, is also a good character, a good portrayal of a woman who wants more than just marriage and a man to support her. Rocky does show up in two later novels.

My only problem with this one was that the culprit was too obvious, but the rest of the story made up for that, with enough suspense and action to keep me interested. 

The Dell paperback edition is like a Mapback, but the artwork on the back features newspaper clippings superimposed on a drawing of the toyshop. My copy of the Dell paperback is in bad shape so I purchased another copy to read. That book is a Detective Book Club edition that includes two other mysteries that I will read someday. That edition was missing two things: an excellent cast list, and the innovative chapter headings from the earlier edition.

The chapter headings were modeled on the poem "Twas the Night Before Christmas".

For example chapters 1-10 have the following titles

The Note Was Sent to the Record With Care
In Hopes Good Editors All Would Beware
The Days Before Christmas
Around the Community House
Charming Creatures Were Stirring
And Maybe a Louse
Jane With Her Worries
And Me With My Woe
Were Caught in a Maelstrom
Of Murder Most Low

I have kept the description of the plot of this book as brief as possible, but it is very complex. Check out reviews at My Reader's Block and The Passing Tramp if you would like more detail on the story and additional views of this book.


Publisher: Dell, 1949 
Length:    224 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Rocky Rockwell
Setting:    US, possibly Ohio 
Genre:      Mystery

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Short Story Wednesday: "The Carol Singers" by Josephine Bell

This is my second post on stories from Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards. This anthology of vintage crime stories was published by the British Library in 2016.

I have now read all the stories in the book. For the most part they were all entertaining, with some better than others. 

The last story in Crimson Snow is "The Carol Singers" by Josephine Bell. This was my first experience reading anything by Bell, and I was encouraged to try more of her writing.

It is a dark, sad story of an elderly woman spending Christmas alone because her daughter's children have chicken pox. On Christmas Eve, two sets of carolers visit her home after dark, and she has misgivings about opening the door to them. As it turns out, with good reason.

This story isn't really a mystery to the reader because we know what has occurred and who perpetrated the crime. It is more focused on how the investigation is carried out with very little evidence. The story begins before Christmas and it take several days to solve the crime.

This is one of the longer stories in the book, at 40 pages. The length is put to good use with more character development than usual, and more depth of plot. 

See my earlier post about two other stories in the book here. See George Kelley's review for additonal comments on the stories and a list of all the stories.


Publisher:   Poisoned Pen Press, 2016 (orig. pub. by The British Library Publishing Division, 2016)
Editor:        Martin Edwards
Length:       311 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Genre:       Mysteries, short story collection
Source:      Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

2020: The Year in First Lines


The goal for this meme is to look at your last year of blogging using the first line of the first post of each month. I haven't ever tried it before but this year I thought it would work for me.

The guidelines are to use the first "line" of each post but in most cases I include more, up to a full paragraph.


The Twelve Deaths of Christmas: Marian Babson

I am still in a holiday mood on the 2nd day of the new year, so I am writing about my last Christmas read from mid-December. The Twelve Deaths of Christmas is set in a boarding house, and based on the title it sounds grim. But it is more of cozy mystery, although there are many deaths throughout.

  • I don't do a lot of Christmas celebrating or decorating, but I do like to read Christmas mysteries and short stories. I like to start in November and continue through December so sometimes posts related to the holidays overflow into January.


My Reading: January 2020

I read 14 books in January. One book of mystery reference, one nonfiction book, three books in the historical fiction genre, and the rest crime fiction. Of the fiction books, five were published after 2000, four in the 1990s, and three between 1953 and 1977. And all twelve of the fiction books were from my TBR piles.

  • I don't usually read 14 books in a month, and I usually read more vintage mysteries than that (by percentage). And I did start out the year reading mostly from my TBR piles. 
  • I hope to do that again this year, but this time continue that trend through the whole year.


Reading Summary for February 2020

February was a strange reading month. It took me close to 3 weeks to read Bleak House. I also read a good number of short stories, most of them in the two short story books I have already reviewed. All of the books I read were published before 1990.

  • In contrast, in February I read seven books. Bleak House was a difficult read for me, although I was glad I read it. I read two on my Classics Club list this month. This was my big month for reading short stories.


Tiger in the Smoke: Margery Allingham

I recently realized that I started my journey towards reading this book in 2015, nearly five years ago. That was when I decided to start with Death of a Ghost (Albert Campion #6) and read the series in order up to Tiger in the Smoke (#14). Along the way I have become a big fan of Margery Allingham's writing.

  • I aim to read some vintage mysteries every month. At least it was that way when I started the blog.


Westside: W. M. Akers

From the introduction to the book at HarperCollins:

It’s 1921, and a thirteen-mile fence running the length of Broadway splits the island of Manhattan, separating the prosperous Eastside from the Westside—an overgrown wasteland whose hostility to modern technology gives it the flavor of old New York. Thousands have disappeared here, and the respectable have fled, leaving behind the killers, thieves, poets, painters, drunks, and those too poor or desperate to leave.

  • This is one of my few fantasy reads for the year. I borrowed this book from my son, and it was a cross-genre book, blending mystery and fantasy. I like books that blend more than one genre.


20 Books of Summer 2020

This is my fifth year of joining in the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge. It is very flexible. You can go for 15 Books of Summer or 10 Books of Summer if 20 is too much to commit to.

  • I aimed for 20 books for this challenge, and in 2019 I completed that many books. At the time we were only about 2 and a half months into the COVID-19 pandemic so I wasn't sure how it would affect my reading.


The Ivory Dagger: Patricia Wentworth

Although I read some books in the Miss Silver series by Patricia Wentworth when I was younger, in 2017 I returned to the series, first reading The Clock Strikes Twelve. Since then I have read four more books in that series, and now I am a confirmed fan of the Miss Silver books. I find them entertaining and I like the picture they provide of the time that they were written in.

  • Another vintage series I am reading. Not in any order, but just as I find them. Although, I have put some emphasis on reading some that were written during World War II or the postwar years.


What did I read in July 2020?

I read 7 books in July. One nonfiction book about the influenza pandemic of 1918, one science fiction book, and five crime fiction novels. I read three books for the Canadian Reading Challenge. Now I just have to write reviews for them. 

  • In August, I got a good start on the Canadian Reading Challenge, which always runs from July 1st of one year to June 30th of the next year. The book I read on the influenza pandemic of 1918 (The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History) was the second I read on that topic this year. 


What did I read in August 2020?

I read eight books in August. As usual most of them were crime fiction or related books. I did not finish all the books on my 20 Books of Summer list but I did read 12 of them. One was a DNF, and I will read the remaining 7 books in the next two months.

  • I was bothered that I did not read more of my 20 Books of Summer but I was optimistic that I would finish that up soon. In fact, I will probably have 5 books from that list still not read by the end of the year.
  • Also, I rarely ever stop reading a book once it is started. This one was related to extremely sadistic behavior and torture, but still a new experience for me.


Reading Summary for September 2020

I am having a hard time believing that we are already into October and I am summarizing my reads for September. My reading changed a lot this year. It was partially due to Covid-19, I am sure, but not only because of that. 

  • I don't think I mentioned COVID-19 much in any of my blog posts, but it did affect all of us. I read just about as much this year and blogged a bit more than previous years, but I also retired at the end of 2019, so I had more free time, and my husband was working at home. I think the biggest effect was on what I read. I read more newer mysteries, made more spur of the moment decisions on what to read, and read more nonfiction. I read a good bit of comfort fiction, most of that being vintage mysteries from 1960 or before.


Reading Summary, October 2020

In October, I finished ten books. That total is a bit misleading because two of them were nonfiction books that I had been reading off and on for a good while.

  • I was surprised that my reading summary posts have been the first post of the month so many times this year. In the past it took me longer to get around to them.
  • In October, I deliberately aimed to finish two nonfiction books because I was planning to participate in Nonfiction November. That was a big commitment for me.


Short Story Wednesday: "Butch Minds the Baby" by Damon Runyon

I read my first story by Damon Runyon in Detective Stories, selections by Philip Pullman. My husband and I discussed the story and he mentioned some movies that were based on Runyon's stories. The most well-known is Guys and Dolls but there are many others, including Little Miss Marker with Shirley Temple and Lady for a Day, with Warren William and May Robson (later remade as Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis). 

  • In mid-October I started doing (mostly) weekly posts on a short story (or a book of short stories), suggested by Patti at Patricia Abbott (pattinase). In the past I didn't read that many short stories on a regular basis and I have always had a problem reviewing or commenting on them. Since they are so short, I don't want to give away the ending. I have enjoyed reading the stories and finding some new authors, to boot.

Overall thoughts:
  • The emphasis here on what I read each month does show one of my main goals, which is to document what I read, even if I don't have time or inclination to review it.
  • Also, the pandemic definitely did affect my reading, although not necessarily in a bad way. More variety, for one thing.
  • I attempted some new things, like Nonfiction November and reading short stories more regularly and actually posting about them.

What would your first lines say about your blog?

I first saw this meme at BookerTalk. Other blogs who have also done the meme are Brona's Books and ANZ LitLovers.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Murder for Christmas: Francis Duncan

My husband has been the source of several of my mystery reads set during the holidays, this year and in the past, and here is another one he discovered. Murder for Christmas is part of a series written by Francis Duncan and published between 1944 and 1954. This book falls in the middle of the series.

Mordecai Tremaine receives an invitation to spend Christmas at the country estate of Benedict Grame. Included in the invitation is a brief note from Grame's secretary, Nicholas Blaise, asking Tremaine to join the Christmas gathering because he has a sense that trouble is brewing. Tremaine does not know Benedict Grame well at all, having only met him once at a party in Kensington, but the lure of a mystery is appealing.

Tremaine is an unusual character. He is a retired tobacconist, and has a definite interest in criminology. He has helped in solving a crime or two in an amateur capacity in the past, working with local policemen. He also likes reading romances and he is addicted to stories in the magazine Romantic Times

Even before Mordecai Tremaine arrives at the country house of Benedict Grame, he gets a hint that strange things may be going on. He stops at a tea shop in the nearby town of Calnford on his way to Grame's estate and sees a couple talking furtively at another table. Then at dinner that night at Sherbroome House he sees the female half of that couple and she pointedly ignores him. Strange behavior like that seems the norm in the group of guests visiting Grame, but Tremaine cannot put his finger on what is going on. And there are lots of characters to keep track of: Grame's relatives, friends, business acquaintances, and the villagers. 

I like the way that the author reveals that there are strange and sinister things going on, and gives us hints, but I never guessed at the secret that is being hidden. And when it is, then all of a sudden a lot of things make sense. The characters are mostly unsympathetic but there are enough likable characters to make up for them.  

There is a romance but it does not take over the plot. This is a twisty, fun Christmas mystery. It would be interesting to see how some of the other books in the series fare, since they don't have the added benefit of Christmas traditions.

This is the fourth in a series of seven mysteries, so if you want to start with another in the series, I would suggest reading John Norris's post on three other books by this author. On the other hand, based on John's post, it doesn't seem like order matters.


Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2017 (orig. publ. 1949)
Length:    345 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:     Mordecai Tremaine #4
Setting:    England
Genre:     Mystery
Source:    Borrowed from my husband.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was the book that came up for me to read in the last Classics Club spin. I was happy about that because I had just purchased this very nice edition and was eager to read it.

I think I read this book when I was younger. However, it is possible I just remember what I saw in movies over the years. The story was somewhat familiar to me but my memories were garbled so that there were enough surprises to entertain me. 

I had mixed feelings before reading Little Women; I thought it would be too old-fashioned in tone and themes. There is a good bit of moralizing, which isn't appealing, but that does fit with the times it was written. 

Thus it surprised me that I found this such an enjoyable read and also that I continued thinking about it for several days after finishing it. 

The story focuses on four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) and their mother, Marmee. Mr. March has volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, and he is stationed far away. The fear that they will never see him again weighs heavily on all of them. The family once was well-to-do but Mr. March made some bad business decisions so that they have now moved to a smaller home and have to mind their pennies. Right next door, however, is a very rich man and his grandson, Laurie. Over time the girls and Laurie become good friends. 

I did not realize that the book was in two parts (and is sometimes published as two separate books). The first part begins when Meg, the oldest, is 16 and Amy, the youngest, is 12.  The second part follows the girls as they approach their twenties and are thinking of marriage.

My favorite character is Jo, who is headstrong with a temper, and doesn't want to fit in with the expectations of the day related to marriage, being dependent on a man, and taking care of a home. I was not at all like that when I was young and ended up with a career by accident, so it isn't that I really understood her yearnings. I think Jo balances out the other characters who want to be married, and preferably to someone with lots of money (except for Beth, but I am not addressing that at all).

I like that the story is told in episodes of the girls lives; each chapter is almost like a short story that can stand alone. They all go through trials and tribulations. I was never bored with the story.

My edition of the book was a Penguin Deluxe Edition and had a Foreword, an Introduction, and a section on "how the read the book" for both children and adults, which I found useful. There was a glossary in the back of the book, also useful and entertaining. Usually I could figure out approximate meanings of words I was unfamiliar with, but often reading the notes in the glossary helped even more by explaining books that were popular at the time, etc.

I enjoyed the introduction (and other sections), and learning more about Alcott and how and why she wrote the book. I never thought of this book as a children's book, but it was written for children which explains a lot of the moralizing. Actually, nowadays, it seems like it would appeal more to adults, as a picture of what times were like in the 1860s, than to children.

Reading an article in LitHub, I found it interesting that Louisa May Alcott wrote the following sentence in a response to a letter from a young writer: "I do not enjoy writing 'moral tales' for the young, I do it because it pays well." 

I nearly forgot to mention one of my favorite themes in the book. Throughout the years the March family celebrates Christmas. The book begins at Christmas, with Jo complaining that it won't be Christmas without presents. They find ways to make it nice anyway. The Christmas celebration the next year is lovely. This is the perfect book to read in December.

Moira at Clothes in Books has featured Little Women (and other books by Alcott) on her blog often. See this post about Christmas in wartime.


Publisher: Penguin Books, 2018 (orig. pub. 1868).
Length:    464 pages
Format:    Trade Paperback
Setting:    Massachusetts, US
Genre:     Fiction, Classic
Source:    I purchased this book in 2020.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Absent One: Jussi Adler-Olsen

This is the last book I am reading this year for the European Reading Challenge. It is #2 in the Department Q series, set in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the first book, Detective Carl Mørck was promoted, or demoted, depending on your point of view, to head the new Department Q which goes back and tries to close old cold cases. There are two people in the department and Carl and his assistant have offices in the basement.

Description from the back cover of The Absent One:

In The Keeper of Lost Causes, American audiences were finally introduced to Copenhagen’s Detective Carl Mørck and his creator, number-one international bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen. Now, Mørck is back. He’s settled into Department Q and is ready to take on another cold case. This time, it’s the brutal double-murder of a brother and sister two decades earlier. One of the suspects confessed and is serving time, but it’s clear to Mørck that all is not what it seems. Kimmie, a homeless woman with secrets involving certain powerful individuals, could hold the key—if Mørck can track her down before they do.

After Mørck returns from his summer vacation, he and his assistant Assad find that a new file for a cold case has been given to them, except that the case was closed. When the crime was commited, a gang of students at a boarding school was suspected. Recently, a list has been compiled other similar cases that were similar and could be attributed to the same gang of people. Most of the people in the gang are now successful, rich businessmen with influence in the community. When Mørck and Assad make progress on investigating the original case and the newer unsolved cases, they are told to stop work and close the case. Of course, they ignore this and keep investigating.

Assad, who started out as the janitor, continues to be proactive and impulsive as he takes part in investigations. We see new sides of his personality in this story.

A new member of Department Q is introduced. Rose Knudsen trained to be a police officer but failed her driving test, which keeps her from performing the duties of the job. She chooses to work as a personal assistant in the department, in order to continue on with police work. Thus Mørck is able to give her complicated assignments, finding information on suspects and witnesses.

I liked this book a lot. It moved at a good pace and the author kept me interested throughout. Plus the characterizations are very well done. I plan to continue reading this series. 

But... the crimes involved are brutal, and are featured throughout the story. The criminals are sadistic. It wasn't an easy read. This is also a mystery where you know who the perpetrators are from the beginning, although much more about the group is revealed in later parts of the story. 


Publisher:   Dutton, 2016 (orig. pub. 2008)
Translated by K. E. Semmel
Length:      406 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Department Q #2
Setting:      Denmark
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:      I purchased this book in January 2020.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Short Story Wednesday: Three from Mistletoe Mysteries

In 2014, George Kelley wrote a review of Mistletoe Mysteries, an anthology of Christmas stories edited by Charlotte MacLeod, originally published in 1989. All of the stories have a copyright date of 1989 and were first published in this anthology. See George's post, which includes a list of all the stories in the book. 

At the time I purchased a used copy of the book, and the next year I read the first three stories in the book. This year I read the next six stories, so I have now read nine of the fifteen stories. 

These are the three stories I liked the best. Two relate to Christmas traditions, the other is about the Scottish end of year celebration, Hogmanay.

"The Live Tree" by John Lutz

I haven't ever read anything by John Lutz. This was the shortest story of all the ones I read, about a grinchy father with zero Christmas spirit, who refuses to buy a live Christmas tree for his young son. Then his brother, who was in prison, shows up on his doorstep, with a live tree. Contrary to my expectations, I loved the ending of this story.

"Here Comes Santa Claus" by Bill Pronzini

Bill Pronzini is a very prolific author. Mostly he writes mysteries, but he has also written Westerns and edited many short story anthologies. He is best known for his Nameless Detective series of over 40 novels about a private  investigator working in the San Francisco area. I have read 25 of the books in the series; my husband has read all of them except the last one.

This short story features Nameless, who has been coerced by his girlfriend Kerry to play Santa Claus at a big fundraiser. The story is told in first person, as the novels are, but with more humor. A very good read.

"A Wee Doch and Doris" by Sharyn McCrumb

The main character in this story is a burglar, who takes advantage of New Year's Eve, when many people are out celebrating, to rob several empty houses. It also features Hogmanay, a Scottish celebration of the last day of the year, and first footing, a tradition where the first person to enter the house on the first day of the year determines the household's luck for the next year. The end of this story is a hoot, and it surprised me. Not only do I finally have a better understanding of Hogmanay, but I enjoyed reading the story.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Bookshelf Traveling: More book purchases

Three weeks ago I did a Bookshelf Traveling post about newly purchased books. I did not want to do the same thing again, but this weekend we had the opportunity to go to a small Pre-Christmas sale put on by Planned Parenthood, and I could not resist featuring the books we purchased.

Planned Parenthood has held an annual book sale as a fund raiser for many years in Santa Barbara. The first sale was in 1974. We moved to Santa Barbara in 1980 and probably started going to the sale a few years later. Obviously the big sale could not be held this year, but they did hold a shorter, more limited version in October. We did not feel comfortable enough to go to that one, but when they announced this sale we decided to check it out. It was well done, not too crowded (masks required, and social distancing, and a limit on the number of people allowed in at one time). 

The selection was limited to gift-quality used books in the following categories: Cooking, Children's books, Currently Popular, and Coffee Table Books. But when we got there we found that there were books priced and available for sale outside of those areas. (No mysteries though, except for the ones in Currently Popular.)

Starting from the bottom, the books my husband bought were:

The Cecils of Hatfield House: A Portrait of an English Ruling Family by David Cecil

This sounds like an interesting history of Hatfield House and the Cecil family.

The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Brian Fagan

My husband has read and enjoyed two other books by this author: The Little Ice Age and The Long Summer.

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson 

Nicolson writes about islands in the Outer Hebrides that were purchased by his father, then passed on to him. Published in 2001.

First three sentences: "For the last twenty years I have owned some islands. They are called the Shiants: one definite, softened syllable, ‘the Shant Isles’, like a sea shanty but with the ‘y’ trimmed away. The rest of the world thinks there is nothing much to them."

Sun After Dark by Pico Iyer 

Essays, book reviews, and more by the renowned travel writer. 

And then, the seven books that I purchased:

A Quiet Reckoning and Kingdom of the Blind  by Louise Penny

Books #12 and #14 in the Chief Inspector Gamache series. I have only read seven of the books in the series, but I have the next two books, so it won't be that long before I get to these books.

Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré

This is le Carré's most recent spy fiction novel. He takes on Trump and Brexit.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks 

Sixteen short stories by Tom Hanks. Each story features a typewriter in some way. 

The Radleys by Matt Haig

This is a vampire novel. I did not know anything about the book when I bought it but I have heard of Matt Haig. I read the first few chapters – it has very brief chapters. It reads well; I think I will like it.

Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I have been curious about these novels by Elizabeth Strout, so here is my chance to try them.

If you have thoughts on these books, or have read them, let me know.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Reading Summary for November 2020

We are getting close to the end of 2020, a year that has been challenging for all of us in many different ways. This month I read my third book about the 1918 pandemic, a new interest for me. I also participated in Nonfiction November and picked up lots of suggestions for nonfiction reading in 2021. I read a couple of Christmas mysteries and more short stories than usual.

Science Fiction / Fantasy

I Love Galesburg in the Springtime (1963) by Jack Finney

A short story collection. All of the twelve stories in the book are magical, with unexpected, lovely endings. A few included some variation of time travel, and all had some fantastical element, although the setting is our everyday world. See my full review here.


Pandemic 1918 (2018) by Catharine Arnold

The subtitle of this book is "Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History." This was the type of book I was looking for originally when I read the other two books on the 1918 flu pandemic. So this book expanded what I had learned before and for the most part was not a repeat of information from the other books.

Crime Fiction

Escape Velocity (2017) by Susan Wolfe

Georgia Griffin has just arrived in Silicon Valley from Piney, Arkansas, with very little money and some training as a paralegal. Her father is a con artist and she also has talents in that area. However, Georgia's father is in jail, she is trying to leave that part of her life behind, and she wants to bring her teenage sister to Silicon Valley to live with her and have a normal life. She gets a job at a software firm, and works towards trying to fit in and helping the company by weeding out inept or harmful employees. This is an excellent legal thriller about the workings of a software company and the challenges in that field.

Murder In Mesopotamia (1936) by Agatha Christie

This is a Hercule Poirot mystery set in Iraq, at an archaelogical dig. One of the members of the expedition is murdered. Poirot happens to be passing through the area and is called upon to look int the death. The story is narrated by Nurse Leatheran, and that is what I liked best about the book. 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) by Agatha Christie

I read two books in the Hercule Poirot series this month, because we are watching the Poirot TV series and I want to read each novel before watching the adaptation. I had read this one before but it was long long ago. This was written early in Christie's career and was successful at the time. It is still considered one of her best mysteries.

Murder for Christmas
(1949) by Francis Duncan

Mordecai Tremaine receives an invitation to spend Christmas at the country estate of Benedict Grame. Enclosed in the invitation is a brief note from Grame's secretary, Nicholas Blaise, asking Tremaine to join the Christmas gathering because he has a sense that trouble is brewing. There are lots of characters: relatives, business acquaintances, villagers. And a romance or two. This is a twisty, fun Christmas mystery.

Do Not Murder Before Christmas (1949) by Jack Iams

Another fun vintage Christmas mystery. This one is kind of hard to describe. In some ways it is light and romantic, in other ways it is a hard-boiled tale of crime in the city. 

Moonflower Murders (2020) Anthony Horowitz

This book is the sequel to an earlier book by Anthony Horowitz, Magpie Murders. See my review here.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Shooting in the Dark: Carolyn Hougan

After eight years of marriage, Claire Brooks starts an ordinary day, brushing her teeth, getting ready to go to the dentist -- when her husband walks in and announces that he is leaving her. She had no awareness that there were problems with their marriage, that he had been seeing another woman. Claire reacts strongly. Her first thought is to escape, to take leave from her job and take an extended vacation. She chooses Amsterdam, for no definable reason. 

This story was first published in 1984, and takes place in late April 1980 as the Iran hostage situation is playing out, and the reigning queen of the Netherlands has abdicated. The coronation of Queen Beatrix is about to take place in Amsterdam, and the city is filled with tourists and journalists covering that event. Shortly after Claire arrives in Amsterdam, she meets a reporter from the US, they have a fling, and both get pulled into a plot related to the situation in Iran. 

The story is similar to the plots of Eric Ambler's spy fiction; Claire is the amateur unwittingly caught in a dangerous situation that she is not prepared for. I am a fan of espionage fiction, so of course this was a perfect story for me. The characterizations were very well done and realistic. Claire is a strong female lead, who is going through personal turmoil but doesn't crack under pressure. As the reader is introduced to the various people engaged in espionage or counter-espionage, the plot gets more  circuitous and difficult to follow, but it all makes sense in the end. I enjoyed reading this fast-paced story.

I am including this book in my submissions for the European Reading Challenge for the Netherlands,


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2006 (orig. pub. 1984)
Length:      430 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      Amsterdam, Netherlands; US
Genre:       Espionage thriller
Source:      On my TBR shelf since 2013.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Short Story Wednesday: "Butch Minds the Baby" by Damon Runyon

I read my first story by Damon Runyon in Detective Stories, selections by Philip Pullman. My husband and I discussed the story and he mentioned some movies that were based on Runyon's stories. The most well-known is Guys and Dolls but there are many others, including Little Miss Marker with Shirley Temple and Lady for a Day, with Warren William and May Robson (later remade as Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis). 

The story in Detective Stories is "Butch Minds the Baby" and Pullman admits that it is not really a detective story. Three hoodlums tried to steal a  company payroll but the plan did not succeed and the payroll was transferred to an office safe temporarily. The three hoodlums are from Brooklyn and their names are Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John. 

They need someone who can open a safe. Big Butch has these skills but he doesn't want to participate because he has already been in Sing Sing three times, but mostly because he is minding his baby. However, they talk Butch into bringing the baby along so that he can open the safe for him.

I realized later that the story was written in first person, present tense, which surprised me because I usually don't enjoy stories in present tense. 

"Butch Minds the Baby" was made into a 1942 American comedy of the same name. The film stars Virginia Bruce, Broderick Crawford, and Shemp Howard.

We decided to purchase Guys and Dolls and Other Writings by Damon Runyon. I have read the first two stories in that book, both from The Broadway Stories section ("Romance in the Roaring Forties" and "A Very Honorable Guy"). I enjoyed both of those stories also. 

I love Runyon's writing style. It is engaging and very humorous. Too bad I did not discover him earlier.