Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Ackermanthology!, compiled by Forrest J. Ackerman

 This week I read seven short shorts from Ackermanthology!:  65 Astonishing, Re-Discovered Sci-Fi Shorts. This was another book that my husband passed along to me, and I am glad he did. 

Ackermanthology! consists of 65 very short stories compiled by Forrest J. Ackerman. It was published in 1997 and has introductory comments by Ackerman and John Landis.

After reading a few of the stories, I started doing some research online and eventually discovered that Jerry House at Jerry's House of Everything had covered this anthology just two weeks ago. How did I miss that post? And he has actually read all the stories in the book.

So I will refer you to Jerry's post that includes a list of all the stories and some more information about each of them.

Based on the seven stories I read, which were in the first section, titled "Aliens", I agree with Jerry's assessment of the stories. None of the stories are extra special or exciting, but I found most of them entertaining and fun, and I will read the rest of the stories over time. 

At first I wasn't sure I would enjoy such short stories. Most of the stories in the section I read were 2 to 3 pages. But I did not mind the short length at all.

A couple of the stories in the "Aliens" section were about first contact situations, and two were about cats. The longest story, "Traders in Treasures", by C. P. Mason, was 6 pages long and totally over my head. I wasn't even tempted to reread it to try to understand it.

Another story, "Pressure Cruise", was written by a Russian, Andrei Gorbovskii, and was translated by Norbert F. Novotny in collaboration with Forrest J. Ackerman. That story was about visitors from another planet look for signs of intelligent life on Earth, undersea.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Bel Canto: Ann Patchett

I purchased this book at least 10 years ago, and I don't know why I waited so long to read it. All I knew about it when I started reading it was that terrorists take a large number of hostages in an international setting. And that it wasn't a thriller.

Summary from the back of the book:

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxane Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening—until a band of gun-wielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage.

Mr. Hosokawa's one joy in life (other than his work) is listening to opera, and Roxane Coss is an opera singer that he greatly admires. The unnamed South American country wants to lure Mr. Hosokawa to build a plant there, to help their economy. They invite Miss Coss to sing for them at a birthday celebration for Mr. Hosokawa. He makes the trip, but only because Miss Coss will be performing; he has no intention of doing business in that country.

The president of the country backs out of attending the banquet, and the vice president has to take over that duty, which works well because the banquet is hosted in his home... a beautiful, large residence surrounded by lovely, well-cared for grounds. 

And then a group of insurgents enters the building after the concert. Their goal is to kidnap the president. When they find out that he is not there, they take residence in the building, with all the people attending as hostages. 

From the beginning, the reader knows that this cannot turn out well. Obviously the hostages fear for their lives. The story in some ways feels fantastical and unrealistic, but I was able to get involved in the story and care for members of both groups. 

The characterizations are very well done. There are many characters that we get to know well, both from the group of hostages and the insurgents. Over the time that the hostages are held captive, they form bonds. And eventually, they start to accept the situation and even dread returning to their former lives. 

Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Coss are the main protagonists, along with Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, who knows an amazing number of languages. One interesting aspect is that the hostages are from many countries and speak different languages. Gen spends most of his time translating for various hostages, the negotiator, and the soldiers.

But my favorite character is Ruben Iglesias, the Vice President who should not have been at the event.  After the hostage situation has settled down a bit, he manages things and continues to act like the host. He cleans up, he distributes the food that is sent in daily, and cooks when they are sent  ingredients for a meal. He even starts weeding the grounds when they are finally allowed outside. 

The writing is beautiful; the story is moving and it will stick with me for a long time. 

This was my fifth book read and reviewed for 20 Books of Summer.


Publisher:  Perennial, 2002 (orig. publ. 2001)
Length:      318 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      South America
Genre:       Fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Three Stations: Martin Cruz Smith

This is the 7th book in the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith. I have read all of the earlier books in the series, but it has been 13 years since I read the previous book, Stalin's Ghost. So I don't remember exactly where we left Arkady in that book. 

In the first book in the series, Gorky Park, published in 1981, Arkady was a homicide investigator in Moscow. In the second book, Polar Star, not published until 1989, he is working on a huge fishing-factory ship in the Bering Sea. [I remember that as my favorite book in the series.] In Red Square (1992), he is back in Moscow and again working on the homicide squad in post-Soviet Russia. Havana Bay takes him to Cuba to investigate a crime that no one else wants investigated. In the fifth book, Wolves Eat Dogs, he ends up in Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an area closed to the world since the nuclear disaster in 1986. So Arkady has had quite an interesting life.

In Three Stations, Arkady is a prosecutor's investigator in Moscow but does not have any current cases because he always causes problems, no matter what he investigates. He decides to help his friend and former partner, Victor Orlov, with his current case, the death of a prostitute by drug overdose. Of course, Arkady sees more in the death than a simple overdose and wants to pursue it. Victor is an alcoholic and Arkady is rescuing him from the drunk tank when we first meet him. 

Arkady befriended a young orphan in a previous book. Zhenya was 11 when Arkady first found him at a children's shelter and he is now 15. They have no legal relationship, but Zhenya is welcome to stay with Arkady whenever he wants. Most of the time he chooses to live in the deserted Peter the Great Casino in Three Stations. He is gifted at chess and makes money taking bets on chess games. 

"What tourist maps called Komsomol Square, the people of Moscow called Three Stations for the railway terminals gathered there. Plus the converging forces of two Metro lines and ten lanes of traffic. Passengers pushed their way like badly organized armies through street vendors selling flowers, embroidered shirts, shirts with Putin, shirts with Che, CDs, DVDs, fur hats, posters, nesting dolls, war medals and Soviet kitsch."

Maya is a 15-year-old who arrives on a train at Three Stations only to find her three-week-old baby is missing. She has escaped her captors who were going to give away the baby, but she has no clue how to find her and there are two men searching for Maya. Zhenya is trying to help her but she doesn't know who to trust. 

My thoughts...

For the most part, the author keeps the story moving, but there are places where it is more slowly paced. Smith's stories seem to be less about the mystery or crime and more about the state of Russia and the state of Arkady Renko's life. Smith's writing is beautiful.

Life in Russia is not depicted as very appealing; there are depressing moments and a good bit of violence. This book was fairly short, at 241 pages, and I liked that length.

Between the two story lines, one about the investigation of the death of a young woman, the other following Maya and Zhenya and the search for the baby, I was more invested in the secondary one, which was given less time. The ending was very good, satisfying and moving. 


Publisher:   Simon & Schuster, 2010
Length:       241 pages
Format:       Hardcover
Series:        Arkady Renko, #7
Setting:       Moscow, Russia
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:       I purchased this book when it was published.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Travelers: Chris Pavone

The Washington Post describes The Travelers as a Hitchcockian thriller, and points to similar elements in two of Hitchcock's films, Notorious and North by Northwest. I would agree with that assessment. Both of those films are about a reluctant person caught up in espionage.

Will Rhodes is the main character in The Travelers. He has been married to Chloe for four years and it is obvious that their marriage has problems, although they love each other. They are remodeling their house and trying to have a baby. Will works for a company called Travelers that publishes a travel magazine (also called Travelers). The magazine appears to be doing very well financially in these times when most print magazines are going under. The story focuses primarily on Will's life, his job, his problems. 

Will travels a lot. Chloe, his wife, previously worked for Travelers. Now she contributes some freelance articles to the magazine, but has moved to a different job. Chloe also travels for her job, and they don't see much of each other. We know that she objected to Will joining the staff of Travelers, and the reason is not clear.

Fairly early in the book, Will is blackmailed into becoming an asset for the CIA. His job is the perfect cover for that type of work. From that time on, he is miserable, having to lie to his wife and at work, living a double life. 

My thoughts:

I came into this book intentionally not knowing anything about it. I had read the author's two previous books, The Expats and The Accident. All three of the books have some focus on espionage in the story. I did not like this book as well as the first two books, but it was still a very good story and an enjoyable read.

The writing style of The Travelers could be confusing to some readers. The chapters are very short, and the story jumps from character to character, place to place, all over the world. Sometimes the events are told in a linear fashion, and other times the story goes back to an earlier event to provide more information. The book is written in present tense; this time I did not notice it that much.

I liked the short chapters and even the hopping around from character to character, but the author withholds a lot of information, and most of the time he leaves the reader in the dark too long. Maybe that would have worked better with a shorter book. 

The story goes from the USA to France to Argentina in quick succession, and there are also visits to the UK, Italy, and Iceland. I got the best feel for Iceland in this book; several locations are visited and described in some detail.

The story is very fast paced, and I think that is why it works. I never stopped trying to figure out what was going on. The ending was somewhat ambiguous, but I was happy with it.


Publisher:  Broadway Books, 2017 (orig. pub. 2016)
Length:      433 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:      USA, France, Argentina, UK, Italy, Iceland
Genre:       Thriller
Source:      Purchased in 2020.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Bug-Eyed Monsters

Today I am featuring a book of science fiction short stories, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. My husband bought this book several years ago at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, and has now passed it along to me. The cover has a lovely wrap around illustration by Ruby Mazur.

From the Introduction to this book, by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg:

The Bug-Eyed Monster has been an important, if not always approbated, subtextual figure of science fiction virtually from the field's inception as a distinct subgenre of American popular fiction.

Established almost thirty years before then by H.G. Wells in his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds (a work made even more famous by Orson Welles's 1938 radio​ adaptation), the BEM had his heyday in the 1920s and the 1930s. Such writers as Raymond Z. Gallun, Edmond Hamilton, and H.P. Lovecraft built their careers on the seemingly endless confrontation between man and hideous​ beings from alien worlds (or, on occasion, from right here on Earth).

The stories in this book were published between 1927 and 1980, with most of them written in 1950s and 1960s. The stories and their authors are:

"Stranger Station" by Damon Knight

"Talent" by Robert Bloch

"The Other Kids" by R.F. Young

"The Miracle of the Lily" by C.W. Harris

"The Bug-Eyed Musicians" by Laurence M. Janifer

"Puppet Show" by Frederic Brown

"Portfolio (Cartoons)" by  Gahan Wilson

"Wherever You Are" by Poul Anderson

"Mimic" by D.A. Wollheim

"The Faceless Thing" by Edward D. Hoch

"The Rull" by A.E. Van Vogt

"Friend to Man" by C.M. Kornbluth

"The Last One Left" by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

"Hostess" by Isaac Asimov

I have not read any of the stories in this book yet, but I will be doing that soon.

For more information, check out:

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database

Reviews at Steve A. Wiggins' blog, Monster Book Club, and Black Gate.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows: Dan Fesperman

I read this book for 20 Books of Summer and for the European Reading Challenge. It has an unusual setting and takes place in 1998.

Vlado Petric was once a homicide detective in Sarajevo. He is now living in Berlin, working as a backhoe operator at a construction site, after escaping from Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, when the city was under siege. He is happy to be reunited with his wife and daughter in Berlin, and thankful for the menial job and the ability to work legally in Germany.

At the beginning of this story, Vlado is approached by an investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. He is invited to take part in a mission to help capture a man who was a guard at the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War II and participated in the atrocities that happened at that camp. 

Vlado is eager to take part in the mission. He misses his homeland and his former life and this may give him the opportunity to return to Bosnia for good. However, his wife is not so eager for that to happen. They both decide that it is best for him to return to Bosnia for this mission, regardless.

This is the second book in a two book series. The first book, Lie in the Dark, covers Vlado's life as a homicide inspector in Sarajevo during the siege, and his investigation into a conspiracy related to the theft of art treasures in Sarajevo. This book is set about 5 years later, and can be read as a standalone.

My thoughts:

This is a cross between an espionage novel and an adventure story. Some of the actions of the representatives of the War Crimes Tribunal are inept and the events keep spiraling into dangerous situations as mistakes are made along the way. Both the investigators from the tribunal and Vlado have kept secrets, which get revealed along the way. The author ratchets up the tension, and kept me guessing throughout. 

The only character we get to know very well is Vlado. The story is written in third person, but mostly from Vlado's point of view. Another character I liked was the American investigator, Calvin Pine, who  is Vlado's companion on the mission to capture the war criminal. Pine is young, engaging, sincere; not a spy and not cynical or jaded. The sections of the story that focus on the war criminal being sought give us the story from his point of view.

Reading about the realities of living as an immigrant in Berlin was interesting. Vlado and his wife describe the feelings of not belonging, not being able to speak the language very well, and that most Germans resent their presence. But going back to Bosnia has not been an option, and there are still ethnic groups there who resent each other or worse. 

I enjoyed reading this book. I was interested in the setting and the characters. The mission is not as easy as they think it will be, of course, and there are multiple obstacles along the way. The resolution was realistic in my opinion, although there are the typical thrillerish activities towards the end.

I linked to my review of the first book in the series, Lie in the Dark, above. There is a longer, more detailed review by Sarah Weinman at January Magazine.

Another book I have read by Dan Fesperman and enjoyed was The Arms Maker of Berlin


Publisher:   Vintage Crime, 2004 (orig. pub. 2003)
Length:       308 pages
Format:       Trade Paperback
Series:        Vlado Petric, #2
Setting:       Germany, Bosnia, the Netherlands, Italy
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copy in 2010.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "The Frustration Dream" by Ellis Peters


"The Frustration Dream" starts with the narrator describing a type of dream he has sometimes, the frustration dream.

The frustration dream comes in several variations. The most frequent, perhaps, is of setting out to go somewhere, and finding that roads shrivel into narrow lanes before you, and narrow lanes into paths blocked by bushes and briars, rocks, stones, fetid puddles and even nastier obstacles.

... And the really absolute law that applies to all of these dreams is that they never have any ending, never a solution.

He moves on to describing an experience he once had that seemed like a frustration dream, but it was real. Initially the story he is telling seems like a dream, then like a nightmare, and then it is a story of a crime. Except that in the end it is not so straightforward as that. 

At first I did not think I liked the story; it wasn't my type of thing. But then, after I finished it, I kept thinking about it, and that is always a good sign. All in all, I found this to be a very well-done and somewhat creepy story.

I found this story in 2nd Culprit: A Crime Writers' Annual, published in 1993.  Later. it was included in a collection of Ellis Peters' short stories, The Trinity Cat and Other Mysteries, published by Crippen & Landru.

Using the name Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter wrote two series of mysteries, the Cadfael Mysteries set in the twelfth century and the George Felse series. Under her own name she wrote historical fiction and non-fiction.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Birdwatcher: William Shaw

The first three short paragraphs of this book set the tone of the rest of the story.

There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team.

The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.

The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.

William South has worked as a policeman for 20 years but has successfully avoided being on a murder team.  For the newest case, he is immediately signed on to work with a new Detective Sergeant, Alexandra Cupidi, since she is unfamiliar with the area and the body was discovered in his neighborhood. He soon finds out that the victim is his next door neighbor, Bob Rayner. They were not close, but had similar interests, including birding, so they spent a lot of time together. So he has a personal reaction to the crime. Rayner was sort of a mystery man, never talked much about himself or his past. His sister was visiting, and was the one who found the body, but after she was interviewed she disappeared.

As the case continues, South gets to know DS Cupidi and her troubled teenage daughter. DS Cupidi is driven and aggressive, the opposite of Shaw. Cupidi's daughter, Zoë, is a good character. She is annoying because she is always trying to irritate her mother, and compensates for her loneliness as the new girl in school with sarcasm and rude humor. South gets roped into taking her birding with him a couple of times and they form a bond.

William South is a good policeman; other than doing his job, he spends most of his time birding. He is a very sympathetic character, much more so than DS Cupidi. Getting back to the fact that South has killed a man, this happened before he was a policeman, and throughout the book there are flashbacks to the time period when that event took place. It is pretty clear who South killed but there are plenty of questions (why and how, for starters) that don't get answered until close to the end of book. So in a sense there are two mysteries.

The story and style of writing kept me engaged. The descriptions of the setting, the coast of Kent near the Dungeness nuclear power station, were very well done. I was very involved in following William South's story and seeing how this case affected him. By the time I had read about 80% of the book, I had no idea how it would be resolved. Perhaps the story did not end exactly as I would have liked, but the disparate threads of the story were pulled together effectively.

This book is followed by the first in the DS Alexandra Cupidi series, where she becomes the main character. I am very curious about that and will be reading that one.


Publisher:   Mulholland Books, 2017 (orig. pub. 2016)
Length:      328 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Prequel to the DS Alexandra Cupidi series
Setting:      Kent, UK
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Reading Summary for May 2021


I had a very good reading month in May. My big project was reading The Mirror & the Light. Although it was 750 plus pages, it was not the length that bothered me. I just found it to be a depressing read, knowing how the story would end, and I could only read short bits at a time. So I interspersed several lighter books throughout, which is not the way I usually read books. 

General Fiction

A Month in the Country (1980) by J.L. Carr

From the cover of the book: "In J. L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church." I enjoyed reading this book immensely; I loved the way it was written and reading about the 1920s in that setting.

Historical Fiction

The Mirror & the Light (2020) by Hilary Mantel

This is the closing book in a trilogy about Henry the VIII and Thomas Cromwell, a subject I knew little about when I first started reading Wolf Hall. It covers Cromwell's later years, following the beheading of Anne Boleyn. As noted above, this is a long book and overall about a depressing subject, so I found it demanding. But definitely worth the effort.

Crime Fiction

Curtain: Poirot's Last Case (1975) by Agatha Christie

This was a darker book than I expected. Both Hastings and Poirot are older, and Poirot has crippling arthritis which limits his ability to get around. Hastings meets Poirot at Styles, the setting of the first mystery in the Poirot series, which is now a guest house. There are several interesting guests: Dr. Franklin, a scientist, and his wife; Hasting's daughter Julia;  Stephen Norton, a bird-watcher; and Sir Carrington, whose home nearby is being renovated.  I liked it, of course, but it was not as much fun as many of the Poirot books. It was much more serious, more like Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile.

Checkmate to Murder (1944) by E.C.R. Lorac

This was an excellent vintage police procedural, set during World War II. Great characters and an interesting plot, and even better, there are several more by this author, easily available. See my review here.

The Man in the Queue (1929) by Josephine Tey

This was a reread, the first mystery novel by Josephine Tey, and the first in the Inspector Alan Grant series. I would like to get back to rereading more of Josephine Tey's mysteries. See my review here.

The Red Box (1937) by Rex Stout

This was another reread. It is an early book in the Nero Wolfe series, #4 following The Rubber Band, which I read in March. A complex story and interesting characters, and I am sure I would not have guessed the culprit except that I had read the books several times before.

So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan

This book is part of the Mordecai Tremaine series. Tremaine is an amateur sleuth, retired from his job as a tobacconist. As this book begins, we find that a controversial artist has been killed by his wife. She says it was an accident, but they were alone so no one can back her up. I enjoyed this  book, I liked the way it was structured. Last year I read Murder for Christmas by the same author and enjoyed it also. I first learned about this series of books from Rick Robinson at Tip the Wink.


Currently I am reading The Birdwatcher by William Shaw. I am enjoying it, as I expected, and I hope to finish it tonight. I have no idea how it is going to end.

Next I might read She Came Back by Patricia Wentworth or All Systems Red by Martha Wells or The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman. All of these books are on my 20 Books of Summer list.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: "There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union" by Reginald Hill

My story for today is "There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union". It is actually a novella, 67 pages long in the paperback edition I am reading, which was published in 1987. 

Inspector Lev Chislenko answers an emergency call about a man who had been pushed down an elevator shaft. Yet when he arrives at the site, there is no body to be found. All the witnesses swear that a man stepped in the elevator and was pushed through the floor to his death. It seems to be a paranormal event, but his superiors insist that such an event doesn't happen in the Soviet Union. He does his best to find other explanations, but his innate honesty causes him to keep forcing the issue, finding new information which leads him to believe in the paranormal occurrence. This is both a ghost story and a love story, and I like the way the problem is handled.

This story was published in There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union: A Novella and Five Stories. All the stories are by Reginald Hill. The other stories include one that features Dalziel and Pascoe and one about Joe Sixsmith. I look forward to reading those stories also.

British author Reginald Hill (1936 - 2012) worked as a schoolmaster and a college lecturer until he began writing full time in 1980. He received the Gold Dagger for Bones and Silence (1990) and in 1995 he won the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. Hill was a prolific writer; in addition to the Dalziel and Pascoe series and the Joe Sixsmith series, he wrote many standalone novels, some under the name Patrick Ruell.