Thursday, April 11, 2024

Two Brief Reviews

I read these books in March. Both were good books and very different stories. Each was challenging to read at times, and both were well worth the effort.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The story is about a woman, Lucy Barton, who was in a hospital in New York City in the 1980s for many weeks due to complications following an appendectomy. Her husband doesn't visit her very often because they have two young daughters at home and he has a job. Her mother comes to sit with her for a few days when she is in the hospital and they have some strained conversations about the past. This leads Lucy to remember her strange and unfortunate upbringing and her relationship with her parents and siblings. 

Lucy tells the story; thus it feels very personal. She is telling it years after it happened. That approach worked very well.


My thoughts...

  •  I loved this book. I do have to caution that this is not a happy, feel good book; I found it unsettling and sad at times.  Also sometimes it was very funny. 
  • On the other hand, it is only about 200 pages long and it had me longing to read more about Lucy and her life. Fortunately there are three more books about Lucy Barton. 
  • I like the themes, childhood experiences and mother-daughter relationships. This was only my second book by Strout; I read Olive Kitteridge a few years ago. 



A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn

This is a historical mystery, set in a small tiny town on the border between South Africa and Mozambique in 1952. New apartheid laws have recently gone into effect. 

The protagonist is an English police detective who is investigating the death of an Afrikaner police captain. The Security Branch takes over the investigation. They would like to blame the death on black communist radicals, and will be happy to beat a confession out of any suspect that fits their bias. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is directed by his superior to stay in the area so that he can ensure that the real murderer is arrested, if possible.

The story gets very complex. Emmanuel, an emotionally traumatized World War II vet, has problems of his own. The dead Afrikaner policeman's sons have it in for him, and he spends a lot of time avoiding them. He is lucky to be working with a native Zulu officer, Shabalala and a Jewish doctor who has no real credentials in South Africa.


My thoughts:

  • The setting of South Africa in the 1950s was well done. There was plenty of action and a sense of dread about how the English detective could survive. 
  • I could have done without some of the melodrama but I liked the depiction of apartheid at this time, and hope to continue reading the series. 
  • Apartheid is not a totally new subject to me, but I don't know much about it. I am still trying to understand the differences between the various racial groups involved.
  • It was a good story but a difficult read. The same thing applies to the other book I read that was set in South Africa during apartheid, A Lonely Place to Die by Wessel Ebersohn. That one was published in 1979 and set around that time. 




Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Your Republic is Calling You: Young-Ha Kim

 


The story takes place over the course of one day in the life of Ki-Yong, a South Korean with a wife and teenage daughter. Except that he is really a North Korean spy who has been in Seoul, working as a film importer, over 20 years, and has now been recalled to North Korea. About 10 years into his assignment in South Korea, the man who had run his intelligence group was purged; after that they had heard nothing from anyone in North Korea. For 10 years he has led a normal life but now it has been upended in one email; although Ki-Yong immediately begins following plans for his exit from South Korea, he is fearful and uncertain about his future.

The reader also follows Ki-Yong's wife and daughter throughout the day, and those parts of the story are told from their point of view. The daughter is in high school, doing well in school and with lots of friends, but with typical teen-age angst. His wife is alienated from her husband and unhappy with her life, although we don't understand why until later in the story.


My Thoughts:

  • The book is spy fiction, but it is more than that. It is also the picture of a family dealing with problems, and focuses most on how they are affected by the events. We get to know much more about each member of the family as the day unfolds.
  • One minor disappointment was that the book is mostly set in South Korea. There are flashbacks to the protagonist's youth in North Korea and they are interesting, as are his reflections on the differences in life in South Korea and North Korea.
  • I was immersed in the story, and it whetted my appetite for more reading about North and South Korea.



-----------------------------

Publisher: Mariner Books, 2010 (orig. pub. 2006)
Length:     236 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Setting:     South Korea, North Korea
Genre:      Espionage fiction
Source:    On my shelves since 2012
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim


Friday, April 5, 2024

Six Degrees of Separation: From Lonely Planet's Best Ever Photography Tips to ....

 

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six books, forming a chain. The common points may be obvious, like a word in the title or a shared theme, or more personal. Usually Kate provides the title of a book as the starting point, but for April's Six Degrees the instructions were to find a travel guide such as a Lonely Planet title or an Eyewitness title.


So the first book in my Six Degrees chain will be Lonely Planet's Best Ever Photography Tips. It features "45 practical tips and ten golden rules from award-winning travel photographer Richard I'Anson." My husband is and always has been interested in photography and he has many books on the subject.


1st degree:

My first book is also from my husband's shelves: A Wandering Eye: Travels with My Phone by Miguel Flores-Vianna. The book is filled with photos taken with his smart phone while traveling. There are some really gorgeous pictures in this book.


2nd degree:

Continuing the theme of photography, my next book is Plates + Dishes: The Food and Faces of the Roadside Diner by Stephan Schacher. This is a fantastic book, following Schacher's travels from New York up into Canada, starting with Ontario, going across to the Yukon, into Alaska, back down through British Columbia into the US. In the US he covered the western coast states, then some midwestern states, through the deep South, and back up to New York. His plan was to document the diners he visited. Per Publishers Weekly, he visited  "70 highway eating establishments, and photographed the food he ate and the women who served it to him." He made the trip using various vehicles: a Volkswagen van, a motor home, and a motorcycle. This edition was published in 2005, and Schacher's travels appear to have taken place between 2002 and 2004. There isn't much text in this book, just an introduction. The focus is really on the photos.


3rd degree:

The next link is one of our cookbooks, Retro Diner: Comfort Food from the American Roadside by Linda Everett. The book contains recipes for diner food and also includes photos of the exteriors and interiors of some old diners. We have used at least one of the recipes because we have notes in the book on suggested changes. 


4th degree:

At this point I will move toward fiction. In The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, Cora and Nick Papadakis own and operate a small diner in rural California, not far from Los Angeles. Cora is sick of her husband and tired of running the diner. Frank Chambers, a drifter, has just arrived in the area and does some odd jobs for Nick. Frank wants Cora to leave her husband behind and drift around the country with him. The book is very well written, but too dark and dreary for me. 


5th degree:

Even though the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout feature a lot of gourmet foods and situations focused on food and eating, Archie Goodwin often visits diners to eat, when he just wants to eat plain food, or when he isn't getting along with Wolfe, or he is out doing some errands for Wolfe. In Plot it Yourself, a mystery about authors, publishers, and plagiarism, Archie twice mentions going to Bert's Diner around the corner on Tenth Avenue near Wolfe's brownstone. Early in the book, Archie says: "I eat in the dining room with Wolfe, except when we are not speaking; then I join Fritz and Theodore in the kitchen, or get invited somewhere, or take a friend to a restaurant, or go to Bert’s diner around the corner on Tenth Avenue and eat beans." Towards the end of the book, when he thinks he will be having a meatless dinner with Wolfe at home, he considers going to Bert's to "eat hamburgers and slaw and discuss the world situation for an hour or so." Thinking about these connections motivated me to reread this book in late March.


6th degree:

I decided to stick with a novel by Rex Stout in this last link. Black Orchids collects two novellas, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death." As I noted above, food is very important in the Nero Wolfe stories. Usually Wolfe doesn't like to have anything to do with women, but somehow, in "Cordially Invited to Meet Death," he ends up with one in his kitchen, where he is experimenting with making corned beef hash. She offers to help. 

"... corned beef hash is one of my specialties. Nothing in there but meat, is there?”

“As you see,” Wolfe grunted.

“It’s ground too fine,” Maryella asserted. 

Wolfe scowled at her. I could see he was torn with conflicting emotions. A female in his kitchen was an outrage. A woman criticizing his or Fritz's cooking was an insult. But corned beef hash was one of life's toughest problems, never yet solved by anyone. To tone down the corned flavor and yet preserve its unique quality, to remove the curse of its dryness without making it greasy—the theories and experiments had gone on for years. He scowled at her but he didn't order her out.

"Cordially Invited to Meet Death" is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories.



My Six Degrees took me from traveling and photography to roadside diners, to mysteries with an emphasis on food.  If you did this month's Six Degrees, where did your list take you?


The next Six Degrees will be on May 4th, 2024 and the starting book will be The Anniversary by Stephanie Bishop.


Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Short Story Wednesday — Doctorow: Collected Stories

 

My husband purchased Doctorow: Collected Stories at the 2023 Planned Parenthood Book Sale, and at his suggestion, I read some short stories from that collection, which is comprised of fifteen short stories written by E. L. Doctorow. Per the dust jacket, the stories were "selected, revised, and placed in order by the author himself shortly before he died in 2015."



I read the first five stories in the book, plus a later story I was especially interested in. Of the six stories I read, I only really liked two of the stories, but I liked those a lot, so it was a worthwhile experience.

These are the first five stories:

  • "Willi"
  • "The Hunter"
  • "The Writer in the Family"
  • "Heist"
  • "The Water Works"


I did not care for "Willi" at all. I found these stories confusing: "The Hunter," "Heist," and "The Water Works." From what I have read, "Heist" was expanded to be the novel City of God.


"The Writer in the Family" was my favorite of the first five stories I read. It tells about a man who dies and how his death affects his family. The man's sisters don't want to tell his 90-year-old mother about his death, so they tell her that he has moved to Arizona. They request that his wife and two sons join in this deception. One of the sons is asked to write letters to his grandmother as if they are from his father. Not only is it a very moving story, it gets a lot across in 15 pages.


The other story I read was "Wakefield," which was first published in The New Yorker, January 7, 2008. It was one of the longer stories in the book at about 35 pages. In 2016, the story was adapted to film, starring Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner.

The story is about a man, Howard Wakefield, who leaves his wife and family, in a manner of speaking. I am not even going to try to summarize the story any further than that. I wanted a more definitive ending but it was still an effective ending. I liked this story very much.

Here are the first few sentences of the story:

People will say that I left my wife and I suppose, as a factual matter, I did, but where was the intentionality? I had no thought of deserting her. It was a series of odd circumstances that put me in the garage attic with all the junk furniture and the raccoon droppings—which is how I began to leave her, all unknowing, of course—whereas I could have walked in the door as I had done every evening after work in the fourteen years and two children of our marriage. Diana would think of her last sight of me, that same morning, when she pulled up to the station and slammed on the brakes, and I got out of the car and, before closing the door, leaned in with a cryptic smile to say goodbye—she would think that I had left her from that moment.


"Wakefield" is available online at The New Yorker



Sunday, March 31, 2024

The Glass Hotel: Emily St. John Mandel


When I started reading The Glass Hotel, I thought that Paul Smith and his half-sister Vincent Smith would be the central characters. As the story opens, they are in high school. Paul resents Vincent because as a child she got to live with his father and her mother full time, whereas he only spent summers and every other Christmas with his father. He knows that is not Vincent's fault but he cannot let it go. They have a very troubled relationship.

However, later it seems that Vincent and Paul are minor characters and the story revolves more around a very rich man, Jonathan Alkaitis, who Vincent lives with for several years. (Vincent was named after the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay.) Paul and Vincent are more like bookends to the story of Alkaitis and his financial dealings.

The biggest plot point is an illegal financial scheme, but it takes a while to show up. Later, there are vignettes that focus on what happens to those injured by the scheme and those who kept it going. However, the mechanics of the scheme are not emphasized and you don't need to know much about finance to enjoy it. This book is much more about the characters.


My thoughts:

  • I did not love this book immediately, but I was intrigued. It picked up at the midpoint, and by the end I loved it. I like the structure and I like the way that Mandel tells the story.
  • The book has lots of elements that tie together at the end but it often seems like many separate but connected stories. That format worked well for me, but many readers won't like that.
  • I saw similarities between this book and several of the books of Chris Pavone, especially The Expats and The Paris Diversion, which mostly revolve around espionage plots. Information is given out to the reader a bit at a time, as the story unfolds. Also, many of the characters are acting almost all the time, pretending to be someone that they are not, even with those closest to them. 
  • There is a huge cast of characters, most of whom show up now and then throughout the book. That can be confusing. 
  • Some of the characters with the smallest roles were the most interesting to me. One of my favorites was Walter, the night manager of the Hotel Caiette, which is a very expensive, exclusive hotel on a small island off the north coast of Vancouver Island. Not many of the characters in the story are happy. Walter loves the isolation of the hotel and is happier at this job than he has ever been in his life. He only shows up at the beginning and end of the book.
  • There are supernatural elements, although I could not figure out if they were intended to be real or imagined. Either way, I enjoyed that element in this book.


Emily St. John Mandel is a Canadian novelist. She has also written The Singer's Gun, Last Night in Montreal, The Lola Quartet, Station Eleven, and Sea of Tranquility.



Wednesday, March 27, 2024

The Silver Swan: Benjamin Black

In early March, I read The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black (pseudonym of John Banville). Set in Ireland in the 1950s, it is the 2nd book about Quirke, a pathologist working in a hospital in Dublin. I read the book for this year’s Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

Billy Hunt was in college with Quirke. They had not seen each for years; Quirke did not recognize him at first. Billy's wife has just died in a strange situation, and Billy does not want the death to be declared a suicide; he asks Quirke to see to it that she is not cut up (which seemed strange to me). Of course, Quirke is curious.

Billy's wife was Deirdre Hunt, but she also went by the name Laura Swan and ran a beauty salon, The Silver Swan. In looking into Deirdre's death, slowly, at his own pace, Quirke discovers that there are many unanswered questions, but he does not share the things he finds with  Inspector Hackett, who is also interested in the case. 


The story is much more complex than the overview above. Much of the story consists of flashbacks to events before Deirdre's death. There are many other characters, including Quirke's daughter, Phoebe. At times I was very confused about the overall plot. This did not lessen my enjoyment of the story, because the writing is gorgeous, and I was very focused on Quirke's character.


Things to note:

  • Quirke is only identified by his last name. I think this continues throughout the series but not sure.
  • The pace of the story is slow and it seems more like a character study or a lot of character studies thrown together than a mystery. There was not a lot of sleuthing going on (or it is not shared with the reader).
  • I remember finding the first book to be dark and depressing, and that was also true for this one. But this time I was prepared. I am looking forward to reading the next book some time.
  • If you are thinking of reading this book, I strongly suggest that you start with book 1 in the series, Christine Falls. It is not necessary; it can be read as a standalone. I read Christine Falls in 2010 and by the time I read this book, I had forgotten the story entirely. I knew that Quirke was a pathologist working in a hospital, and that he investigated a crime, but that was it. Events and discoveries from the previous book are mentioned often in this book. On the one hand, the author tells you enough about book 1 so that you are familiar with the story; on the other, events in book 1 may be spoiled if you read book 2 first.





Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Short Story Wednesday: "Forgiveness Day" by Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Forgiveness Day" by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novella published in 1994, a part of Le Guin's Hainish cycle of books. I have not read any of the Hainish novels and I am not sure how much my unfamiliarity with those stories affected my reaction to this story. However, in retrospect I don't think that was the problem. 

First paragraph:

Solly had been a space brat, a Mobile's child, living on this ship and that, this world and that; she'd traveled five hundred light-years by the time she was ten. At twenty-five she had been through a revolution on Alterra, learned aiji on Terra and farthinking from an old hilfer on Rokanan, breezed through the Schools on Hain, and survived an assignment as Observer in murderous, dying Kheakh, skipping another half millennium at near-lightspeed in the process. She was young, but she'd been around. 

The story describes Solly's experiences as the first Envoy of the Ekumen to the Divine Kingdom of Gatay. The themes of the story seem to be feminism, misogyny, sexual repression, and slavery.

Solly is assigned a Guide and a Guard, plus a Maid. At least one of those three were with her at all times. The Maid was assigned to her as an asset, which was essentially the same as a slave, which Solly was very uncomfortable with. Women did not take part in any events that Solly attended. Solly is treated as an equal to the males in the society, to a certain extent, but it is clear that they all look down on her. She never has any contact or conversations with women, because they all wait at home for their husbands. Solly and the Guard, Rega Teyeo, have an antagonistic relationship, which is explained to some extent by revealing his very complex backstory.

She gets around her isolation to a certain extent by gaining access to Batikam the Makil. He is a transvestite, part of a traveling troupe of entertainers, and is allowed to visit her at night after his performances.

During Forgiveness Day activities, Solly and the Guard are taken prisoner by a rebel group. Up to that point they have never spoken more than necessary, but they are forced to get to know each other under the circumstances.


The first half (or more) of the story was very complex and confusing for me. I suspect I read it too fast. I went back and reread bits of it and figured out where I had gone astray, and I intend to read it again in full.

I was emotionally engaged and moved by the ending of the story, and when that happens, I figure that the author has succeeded. So my final "rating" for this story is very high.


I read this story in The Year's Best Science Fiction, Twelfth Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois. All the stories in that anthology were published in 1994.

It is also included in Five Ways to Forgiveness, an eBook published by Library of America, which includes five stories (one novelette and 4 novellas) in the Hainish cycle.

Two other short stories I have read by Le Guin are "The Shobie's Story" (also in the Hainish cycle) and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", reviewed at the Casual Debris blog in September 2023.



Wednesday, March 13, 2024

January and February Reading, 2024

 




It used to be that most of the books I read were published before 1975; I also read many books published from 1976 to 2000. A smaller percentage of the books I read were published after 2000. As I looked back on my reading in the first two months of this year, I realized that 10 out of the 12 books that I read were published after 2000.  Since I enjoyed almost every book I have read this year, I don't think that is a bad thing. I am just wondering why and when my tastes changed and whether that will continue. I did read two books published in the 1950s, one by Graham Greene and one by Seichō Matsumoto, and both were excellent books.

So here are the book I read...


Nonfiction / Nature

Vesper Flights (2020) by Helen Macdonald

This is a collection of Macdonald's essays, mostly about nature, but sometimes delving into her personal life. Many of the essays focus on birds (which is what I was looking for) but not all. The book was educational, in a fun way. Some of the essays that I especially I enjoyed: "Field Guides," about the evolution of field guides;  "High Rise," about bird watching on the top of the Empire State building, at night; "Ants," about the mating flight of queen ants and drones; "Swan Upping," about mute swans on the River Thames.


Nonfiction / Memoir

Wait for Me! (2010) by Deborah Mitford

I found this book to be a fantastic read, but maybe that is because I enjoy reading about the Mitford sisters so much. The author has a gift of telling short interesting anecdotes. The two other books I have read about the family were biographies and they focused mainly on Nancy (16 years older than Deborah) and Diana (10 years older). Because Deborah was the youngest child (of seven), her view of the family came from a different perspective. The book is divided between her childhood and young adult years with her family and her life as the Duchess of Devonshire. Both were equally of interest to me.  


Fiction

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow (2022) by Gabrielle Zevin

This book is about two young people who create video games. The story starts when Sam Mazur and Sadie Green are about 12 years old and covers the next 30 years in their lives. It does focus on video gaming and the process of creating them, but it is about many other things: relationships, families, judgement and misunderstandings, and ambition. I liked the writing, and I was caught up in the story. My one complaint is that the book is too long at 400 plus pages.  


Days at the Morisaki Bookshop (2010) by Satoshi Yagisawa

I read this book for the Japanese Literary Challenge and for the Bookish Books Challenge. A young woman goes to work in a bookshop owned by her uncle after a romantic relationship ends abruptly. The book is definitely not a romance; there is a lot of emphasis on human relationships, in addition to books and reading. See my review.


A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman

Ove is an older man, nearing sixty, who has fixed ideas about life and often doesn't fit in with societal norms. He often seems cranky or rude. His wife has recently died. Their relationship had its ups and downs, but they were a devoted couple, and she was undoubtedly the most important thing in his life. He has decided that he does not want to go on living without her. This story alternates between very funny episodes and very sad episodes, but it does lean toward the sadder ones. Some chapters tell about the three weeks after his new neighbors move in next door; others describe key times in his earlier life: his childhood, meeting his wife, and his work. I liked the structure and the way the author gradually reveals more and more about Ove and his life. It was a great read and I will be looking for more books by this author.



Crime Fiction

Chilled to the Bone (2013) by Quentin Bates

This is the third book in a police procedural series set in Iceland. The main character is a female policewoman working in the Serious Crime Unit in Reykjavík.  See my review.


Tokyo Express (1958) by Seichō Matsumoto

This was another book I read for the Japanese Literature Challenge. It was Matsumoto's first novel, published in 1958, and was first published in English translation as Points and Lines. See my review.


A Darkness Absolute (2017) by Kelley Armstrong

This is the second book in the Rockton series, and it was just as appealing as the first, City of the Lost, which I read about 3 years ago. Rockton is a small town in the Yukon wilderness, so isolated that most modern conveniences are lacking. Most of the residents are hiding from something in their past. See my review.


Wanting Sheila Dead (2010) by Jane Haddam

Book 25 in the Gregor Demarkian series. The main character is a retired FBI profiler who sometimes does consulting jobs for various police departments. This book is mostly set in the Philadelphia area where Demarkian lives. A reality show is being filmed in the very elaborate home that his wife Bennis grew up in. When a body is found at the house he agrees to check into it. See my review.


Gallows Court (2018) by Martin Edwards

This is the first book in the Rachel Savernake series. It is a departure for Edwards, both a historical mystery (set in the 1930s in London) and a thriller. I did end up liking the book, but it took me 150 pages of 350 pages to get into it, which is not ideal. I liked the way it ended and I thought it was a brilliant mystery, but I wasn't really enjoying it too much as I read it. I also wonder where the next book, Mortmain Hall, will take the main character, so I will definitely be reading it, maybe later in the year.


Judas 62 (2021) by Charles Cumming

This is the second book in the BOX 88 espionage series. BOX 88 is a covert spy agency that is not officially attached to the CIA or MI6, but has contacts in both groups that Box 88 agents can work with. In JUDAS 62, Lachlan Kite is assigned to extract a Russian chemical weapons scientist defector. He goes to the city of Voronezh in Russia as an English Language teacher. That section of the book is set in 1993. The second section is set in 2020 in Dubai. I loved the first book, BOX 88; this one was very good also. 


The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene

I have been wanting to read more by Graham Greene and this was a great choice. This book was published in 1955 and the events in this book took place in the early 1950s. The story is set in Saigon, Vietnam and surrounding areas when the French Army and the Viet Minh guerrillas are fighting each other. See my review.


Status of challenges

Back in November 2023, I joined the Wanderlust Bingo Challenge at Fiction Fan's Book Reviews. Five or six of the books I read since the first of the year could work for that challenge, but I still have to work out which squares they would fit best.

I read two books for the Japanese Literature Challenge at Dolce Bellezza, which ran January - February. I will continue reading books translated from Japanese throughout the year. 

I have now formally joined the Bookish Books Reading Challenge at Bloggin' 'bout Books and have completed one book so far. 

The only other challenge I have joined is the Mount TBR Reading Challenge on Goodreads. Every book I have read this year so far (15) counts toward my goal of 48 books so I may have no problem meeting that goal.


Currently reading

I just finished Your Republic is Calling You by Young-ha Kim last night. Published in 2006, the setting is South Korea. It was a different kind of spy fiction and I liked it very much.



Next I will be reading A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn. The blurb on the book describes it as a "darkly romantic crime novel set in 1950s apartheid South Africa, featuring Detective Emmanuel Cooper." It has been on my shelves for 6 years. 



The photos at the top and bottom of this post were taken at the Santa Barbara International Orchid Show that we attended last week. See the previous post for more photos. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.


Tuesday, March 12, 2024

The 76th Annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show

 

On Friday, March 8th, we attended the 76th annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show.  It was a fantastic photography opportunity and most visitors were taking photos as they visited the exhibits. The show is extremely popular but we hoped that Friday would be less crowded. My husband and I and our son all took pictures and I included some of my favorites in this post. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.



From the website:

The Santa Barbara International Orchid Show is one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious orchid shows in the United States, reflecting the rich agricultural and orchid-growing history of Santa Barbara County. Visitors from all over the world return each March to delight in our grand orchid displays installed by local, national and international artisans and orchid enthusiasts. Exhibits of orchid art, photography and floral arrangements, in addition to a comprehensive workshop and demonstration schedule, provide visitors with a rich and unique orchid experience.











 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Wanting Sheila Dead: Jane Haddam

 

This book is the 25th in Jane Haddam's Gregor Demarkian series. Gregor Demarkian is a retired FBI profiler who spent many years tracking down serial killers. When he settles down in his old Armenian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, he ends up doing consulting jobs for various police departments. The crimes he investigates are interesting but less gruesome than serial killers. The books were initially described as a cozy mystery series but over time I think it has developed more of an edge. 


In Wanting Sheila Dead, Gregor reluctantly gets involved with two cases (one set in his neighborhood, the other related to the filming of a reality show), but he is not officially working on either one. Sheila Dunham is the famous but loud and offensive host of the reality show. The first crime that occurs is an attempt on Sheila's life, during the judging of the contestants on the show.

Usually Gregor works as a consultant to the police, and they are very pleased to have his help. In both of these cases he has no standing with the police, and some of the detectives resent his interference. Plus he has just (finally) gotten married and he is adjusting to the changes. His new wife Bennis has been a part of the series from the beginning, but she is more in the background this time. I find it interesting that the author shares so much of Gregor's thoughts about what is happening in his life: not just about his marriage, but about getting older, his confusion about not being an official part of the investigations, even about his dreams.


I like this series because the books have engaging, sometimes quirky, characters and the stories are often centered around interesting issues. I usually find that the author presents the issues from both sides, although it may be clear which side she favors. Each book begins with a few chapters at the beginning setting up some of the characters that will be involved in the events, providing some idea of where they fit in. I have always liked this approach and it is one of my favorite aspects of Haddam's books. This time, the vignettes of the characters were less successful because there were so many of them.

From the beginning of the series, Gregor is often described as the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot in newspapers and on TV news shows. This irritates him to no end, even though he has never read any books about Poirot. In this book, for the first time Gregor has read some mysteries by Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie and he contrasts the two authors and philosophizes on Christie's approach to detecting. I found that part especially interesting and amusing. 

Although I am a big fan of this series, I am not really recommending this book or the series; it would not be everyone's cup of tea. Having said that, the first book in the series (Not a Creature was Stirring) would be on my top favorites list of books read, across all genres. I have read all the previous books in the series and plan to read the remaining five books. The earlier books in the series are my favorites and I have reread several of them. 


Jane Haddam is a pseudonym for Orania Papazoglou. She was the wife of William L. Deandrea, author of mysteries and Encyclopedia Mysteriosa, a mystery reference book.


Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Short Story Wednesday: Three Captain Leopold Stories by Edward D. Hoch

 


Recently I read another three stories in Leopold's Way by Edward D. Hoch. I read the first five stories in the book in November 2023. See this post for my thoughts on those stories and notes about the book and the author.


These are the three stories I read:

"The Oblong Room"

A college student has been killed in his dorm room, and his roommate stayed in the room with him after his death for at least 20 hours before the student next door discovered the situation. The assumption is that the roommate killed him, but question is why. This one was more spooky than most. It was a puzzle, of course, but it had a psychological element too.

This story won an Edgar award. My only complaint is that Captain Leopold keeps saying that this case is Sergeant Fletcher's case, but then he seems to take the lead. Still a great story. From what I have read, it has been reprinted many times.


"The Vanishing of Velma"

In this story, a teen-age girl has been reported as missing under very unusual circumstances. The young man who she was out with reports her missing; he says she took a ride on the Ferris wheel but never got off. It is a very good puzzle but Leopold figures it out.

The story mentions events in a previous story in this book, "The House by the Ferris," and Stella Gaze, a character in that story.

The solution was outstanding.


"The Athanasia League"

Of the three, this was my least favorite, but very interesting nevertheless. A woman is dead at the Athanasia League, a sort of home for older people run by Dr. Raymond Libby. He is not a medical doctor, but he leads a group of older people who pay to live in the home, "striving for deathlessness and immortality." A very strange case, since there seems to be no one with a motive to kill the woman, who was a member of the group.

Two interesting aspects are that Sergeant Fletcher has taken the test to become a Lieutenant and the only other policeman competing with him is one with a questionable reputation, not above taking graft or using force with a suspect. Also both Leopold and Fletcher have conflicts with the Mayor and a staff member. Unfortunately the story leaves it up in the air whether Fletcher gets his promotion or not.


Why do I like the Captain Leopold stories?

  • Captain Leopold is a very likable character. Dedicated to his job, smart and intuitive. I also like Sergeant Fletcher, who works with Leopold most of the time.
  • There were over 100 Captain Leopold stories and I have only read nine of them, so I am no expert. But so far in each story we learn just a bit more about Leopold and his background. (In "The Vanishing of Velma" the missing girl is 15 years old and he wonders if he might have a daughter that age if he and his wife had not divorced.)
  • The stories are always interesting and never too far-fetched. 


Monday, March 4, 2024

Days at the Morisaki Bookshop: Satoshi Yagisawa



First two paragraphs of the book:

From late summer to early spring the next year, I lived at the Morisaki Bookshop. I spent that period of my life in the spare room on the second floor of the store, trying to bury myself in books. The cramped room barely got any light, and everything felt damp. It smelled constantly of musty old books. 

But I will always remember the days I spent there. Because that's where my real life began. And I know, without a doubt, that if not for those days, the rest of my life would have been bland, monotonous, and lonely.

Takaka and her boyfriend work at the same business. One night they go out for dinner and he announces that he is going to marry another woman, who also works at the same workplace. This is weird for two reasons. First, Takaka has no clue that Hideaki has been dating this other woman, and thought she had a serious relationship with him. Second, she doesn't object or even question him about this; she just says "Oh, that's good," and calmly leaves. She expresses none of her feelings of surprise or rejection.

Takaka is miserable; she still has to work with Hideaki, she can't eat, and she loses lots of weight. She eventually quits her job and spends all day sleeping in her apartment. After a few weeks of this her uncle Satoru calls her and asks her to come work part time for him in his bookshop; he will provide a place for her to live, over the bookshop. She can save on rent until she decides to go back to work. She reluctantly agrees, because he really needs her help.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section covers the time that Takaka lives at the bookshop; the second takes place months later, after her mental state has improved and she has found another job. Uncle Satoru again calls on Takaka, but this time it is because his wife Momoko who left him 5 years earlier has returned with no explanation. The story is as much about family and relationships with people as it is about books and reading.


I enjoyed this book for many reasons:

  • I liked the picture of life in Japan, the bookshop setting, and Takaka's growing love of books. The neighborhood she moves to has many bookshops all in the same area. According to the translator's note, there is an actual neighborhood of book stores in Jimbochu. The translator's notes are very good. 
  • Takaka not only does not express her own needs in her romantic relationship, she also has trouble opening up to anyone and accepting the quirks of others. Her interactions with people at the bookshop and in her new relationships help her to improve in this area.
  • The story is mostly upbeat, and it has a good and realistic ending.


The cover of this book is wonderful, but I was frustrated by it because it shows two very cute cats, but there are no cats in the story.

I read this book for the Japanese Literary Challenge and for the Bookish Books Challenge.



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Publisher:   Harper Perennial, 2023 (orig. pub. 2010)
Translator:  Eric Ozawa
Length:       150 pages
Format:       Trade Paper
Setting:       Japan
Genre:        Fiction
Source:       Purchased September 2023.


Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Quiet American: Graham Greene

 


This book was my read for the latest Classic Club Spin. I have been wanting to read more by Graham Greene and this was a great choice. This book was published in 1955 and the events in this book took place in the early 1950s.

The story is set in Saigon, Vietnam and surrounding areas. The French Army and the Viet Minh guerrillas are fighting each other. Thomas Fowler is a war correspondent who has been stationed in the area for two years. During that time he had a relationship with Phuong, a very young Vietnamese woman; it was not clear to me whether he loves her or he just needs what she provides, sex and companionship. Alden Pyle, the quiet American, is a newcomer, working in the Economic Attaché's office. He is a young, more idealistic man. He becomes a rival for Phuong's affections. Fowler is more jaded and realistic, and much older than Phuong or Pyle.

As the story opens, Fowler and Phuong are in his rooms, waiting for news of Pyle, who is missing. Soon the French Sûreté officer Vigot tells Fowler that Pyle is dead and the circumstances. Fowler tells Phuong, who was living with Pyle at the time.

The rest of the story is relayed through flashbacks. Fowler and Pyle are also involved in some of the fighting between the French and the Vietnamese. Those scenes seemed very realistic and were quite gruesome. 


My Thoughts:

This book was very very good. It has elements of spy fiction and political intrigue, but the picture of Vietnam and the fighting that was going on there in the early 1950s was more interesting for me. It is not an uplifting read, very much the opposite, but very well written, and I learned a lot about the Vietnam conflict in those years. 

The relationship of these men who both want the same Vietnamese woman, for different reasons, is sad. Thomas Fowler narrates the story and it is hard to determine if he is a reliable narrator or not. Since he is telling Pyle's story, we only know his version of the events and Pyle's motivations, except for the conversations between them. In any case I had little sympathy for either one of them. 

Having lived through the years of the Vietnam conflict you would think I would know more about its history, but I don't. I would like to learn more about that topic.


 -----------------------------

Publisher:   Open Road Media, 2018 (orig. pub. 1955)
Length:       190 pages
Format:       e-book
Setting:       Vietnam
Genre:        Fiction, Espionage
Source:      I purchased this book. 

Friday, March 1, 2024

Six Degrees of Separation from Tom Lake to Lady in the Lake

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six books, forming a chain. The common points may be obvious, like a word in the title or a shared theme, or more personal. Every month Kate provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting book this month is Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. I have only read one book by Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. I loved it and I have several more on my shelves to read. But this one is fairly new and I won't be reading it for a while. I know little about the book but I decided to use the word "lake" in the title as the basis for the links in my chain. 


1st degree:

My first book is The Lady in the Lake (1943) by Raymond Chandler. I have read four books in the Philip Marlowe series. This is the 4th book and it will be the next book I read in the series. The story begins with the search for the wife of a very rich business man. The story is set in California. 


2nd degree:

China Lake (2002) by Meg Gardiner is the first book in the Evan Delaney series. It is another one set in California and I was interested because a large portion of it takes place in Santa Barbara. The Santa Barbara setting was very well done, which makes sense because the author lived here in the past. China Lake in the title refers to the  Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the Mojave desert, where a good bit of the action takes place. The book was a page turner but it was too much of a thriller for me and I had problems with the characters. I still have Mission Canyon, the 2nd book in the series, and Mission Canyon is the part of the Santa Barbara area that we lived in during our first six years in California. So I will eventually read that one too.


3rd degree:

The Draining Lake (2004) by Arnaldur Indridason is the 4th book in a police procedural series set in Iceland. I have read the first book in this series and plan to continue reading it. The lake in this book is draining due to an earthquake. A skeleton is revealed by the draining. Inspector Erlendur and his team are called out to investigate.


4th degree:

In The Lake Ching Murders (2001) by David Rotenberg, the former Shanghai Head of Special Investigations Zhong Fong has been exiled to the north country in China as a convicted political felon. With much reluctance, officials bring him out of exile to investigate the deaths of 17 influential foreigners which took place on a pleasure boat on Lake Ching. I haven't read anything else by this Canadian author and the book has been on my bookshelves for 10 years. This is the 2nd in a series of 5 books


5th degree:

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


6th degree:

The last book in my chain is Lady in the Lake (2019) by Laura Lippman. The setting is Baltimore in the 1960s. The story was inspired by two cases of women who disappeared in Baltimore, one black and one white, that occurred around the same time as the story in the book. The protagonist is a female crime reporter. I read Lippman's first mystery in the Tess Monaghan series (1997) but I have not read any of her standalone mysteries.


My Six Degrees took me to several locations in the US plus Iceland and China. Have you read any of these books? 

If you did this month's Six Degrees, where did your list take you?

The next Six Degrees will be on April 6, 2024. The instructions for the starting book: "look to your bookshelf – do you see a Lonely Planet title there? Or an Eyewitness Travel title? Or any other travel guide? That’s your starting book."