20 February 2007

The problem with Project Gutenberg

I love Project Gutenberg. For those unfamiliar with it, it is an online library of texts, recordings, film, sheet music and artwork that is not copyrighted, mostly because the copyright has expired, but in some cases because the copyright owners have decided to make them available to the world free of charge. The biggest collection is that of books, of which it has thousands, including many classics. While I am no particular lover of e-books, I have downloaded and read many books from the site that I have been unable to get from the public library. Unfortunately the site has one huge disadvantage: the search options are limited.

There are several different search options available, but unfortunately they only work as designed if you have a specific author or title in mind. You can also look by language, type of file (text, audio, picture, etc.) and several other criteria, including LoCC categories, which I assume to mean Library of Congress Catalogue classifications. But why is there no genre search?

Surely I am not the only one who would like to be able browse the texts by genre or subject? The option is already available in the Subject search, but it is useless because very few of the books have actually been labelled by subject. For example, the other day I wanted to find some mysteries to browse through to see if I could find something interesting but when I made a Subject search for “mystery”, I only got 64 results, but I happen to know there are hundreds of mysteries (true and fictional) in the database. Even where they are labelled, the labelling is sometimes nearly useless because it is not the same for all the books, as for example in the Sherlock Holmes books, where some of the books are labelled “Mystery and detective stories” and others “Private investigators”. While the first label is rather obvious, the second is not, and it’s annoying that, for example, not all the Sherlock Holmes books will come up when you type in “mystery”, and only 2 out of the 5 R. Austin Freeman mysteries available, and so on. And it’s the same for all other genres.

As it is, if I want to browse, I must either browse only the labelled books by the genre I am looking for, missing all the unlabelled ones, or go through the whole list of 20 thousand plus files in order to find titles that may or may not fit what I am looking for, missing many because they don’t have indicative titles or are written by authors I am unfamiliar with.

Even a person with no knowledge of library classification systems can fill in the subject line in the description file for the books with general words and phrases that describe the subject and/or genre of the book, but it has not happened except for a few books. Surely, if a list were to be supplied to standardise the subject labelling and the people who work so hard at scanning, editing and proofreading the texts before they are published were take a moment to fill in the subject line when they turn in their work for publication and others would go to work on the books already in the database, the database would become much more user friendly. I know that I, for one, would use it a lot more.

17 February 2007

Mystery author #28 Ellery Queen

No mystery reading challenge would be complete without a review of the books of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, better known as Ellery Queen. This formidable writing team is among the USA's most influential crime writers of the 20th century. Their eponymous detective and mystery writer is one of the "thinking machine" types who often solve mysteries by pure logic and deduction. I will be reviewing three Ellery Queen books here, but have unfortunately not been able to get my hands on any books about their other series detective, Drury Lane.

As always, I will review the writing style in the author review.

Series detective: Ellery Queen, assisted by his father, Richard Queen of the NYPD
Type of investigator: Amateur

Title: The American Gun Mystery (alt. title Death at the Rodeo)
No. in series: 6
Year of publication: 1933
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, howdunnit
Setting & time: New York city, USA, 1930s

Story: The Queens attend a rodeo show and, along with hundreds of other spectators, witness the murder of a performer. In spite of a very thorough search of both people and place, the murder weapon can not be found. When the show re-opens after the murder, another murder is committed, using exactly the same method. But this time Ellery has spotted something the police didn't.

Review: This is quite an entertaining book that gives a plausible look behind the curtains of a cowboy circus, and into some of the technical aspects of criminology, especially that of guns (which does not seem to have changed much since the time of writing). However, while it is admittedly hard to spot the murderer in the case, the mystery as such is weak, as it hinges on a very implausible piece of trickery that, while not impossible, is of such a nature as to make it very hard for the average reader to spot and therefore puts the reader on an uneven footing with the sleuth.

Rating: An entertaining but ultimately weak mystery that cheats the reader of a fair chance to solve the crime. 2 stars.

Title: The Siamese Twin Mystery
No. in series: 7
Year of publication: 1933
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit
Setting & time: North-east USA, 1930s

Story: The Queens, on their way home after a holiday in Canada, decide to take a scenic route over a mountain and get shut in by a forest fire. Escaping up a track, they find their way to the top of the mountain, where they discover a house. Their arrival there is at first greeted with suspicion, but when their situation becomes clear, they are invited to stay there until they can continue on their way home. But during the night their host, a respected doctor, is murdered, and thus begins a complicated puzzle plot where the Queens (Richard having been deputised by the local sheriff over the phone) use the father's experience and the son's thinking powers to solve the mystery.

Review: This is a good puzzle mystery where the case is solved several times, only for the carefully built-up piles of evidence to crumble repeatedly as tensions mount, both because of the murderer – who is extremely ruthless – and the approaching forest fire that threatens the lives of everyone in the house. The characters are interesting and the psychological study of a group of people with danger threatening both from outside and inside the group is very plausible. An astute and experienced reader can spot the killer before the sleuths do, but it would be quite easy to not discover the killer's identity.

Rating: Quite a good puzzle plot. 3+ stars.

Title: Cat of Many Tails
No. in series: 19
Year of publication: 1949
Type of mystery: Serial murders, thriller, whodunnit
Setting & time: New York City, USA, 1940s

Story: Ellery, badly affected by a failure that caused a tragic death, has retired from crime-solving, but when the mayor of New York personally asks him to work on the case of the Cat, a serial strangler, he reluctantly accepts the commission. The victims appear to have been chosen at random, but Ellery soon spots something they had in common, but is unable to attach much meaning to it, until a chance fact dropped by the medical examiner leads him to a likely suspect. But the only proof is circumstantial and they want solid proof before they move in, as psychological profiling has indicated that the killer is extremely clever, so a trap is set. But will the killer walk into it?

Review: This is in many ways a fine mystery/thriller with an intriguing puzzle plot, but while in the previous book I read it was quite difficult (although not impossible) to discover the killer, I had this one pegged before the halfway point and therefore found the subsequent red herrings, while entertaining as such, quite tedious.

Rating: An interesting psychological mystery. 3 stars.

Author/series review review: I had read and heard so much about Ellery Queen that I was quite looking forward to reading some of "his" books. Unfortunately I started with the weakest of the three I had on hand, and it prejudiced me so much against Queen that it was several months before I picked up another. That time I got something more like what I had been expecting, but still it was not exceptional, and neither was the third. But they are quite readable mysteries, even if Ellery (the character, as opposed to the author) can be a little annoying at times and everyone around him irritatingly obtuse (including, occasionally, his father). But this is forgivable – I certainly don't let my dislike of Hercule Poirot stop me from reading Christie – because the stories are entertaining and the plotting satisfyingly intricate.

The three books vary in quality, both in the writing and plotting. Two have quite intricate puzzle plots with psychological thriller elements. The third, while also having a puzzle plot, is simpler and cheats the reader of an opportunity to solve the mystery alongside the sleuth (the how rather than the who or why of it) by using a rather unlikely solution. Characterisations are usually rounded in the characters that matter and there is a stress on psychology, especially in Cat… where it is the key to the puzzle. The writing style swings from being somewhat stilted to being a mixture of straightforward writing mixed with language that is quite literary (the extended metaphor of the beginning paragraph of The Siamese Twin Mystery is a good example, even if it is somewhat stretched). This can not entirely be attributed to the double authorship, as apparently one of the team did most of the plotting while the other did most of the writing.

While on the whole I was rather disappointed with this giant of American mystery literature, I will in no way avoid "his" books should I come across more of them.

16 February 2007

Bibliophile reviews Prepared for Murder by Cecile Lamalle

Series detective: Charles "Charly" Poisson, master chef
No. in series: 3
Year of publication: 2001
Type of mystery: Cozy: murder, fraud, money laundering, foodie
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: USA, contemporary
Some themes:

I was initially going to include this book in the 52 mystery authors challenge, but although it is categorised as a mystery, I would rather call it a comic crime story, so insubstantial is the mystery element in it, which is why I am reviewing it as a regular non-challenge read. The murder mystery is really only a sub-plot to a crime story that is told quite openly from all points of view: criminals, police and bystanders. Most of the crime – and there is lots of it – is in no way mysterious to the reader and only to a few of the characters.

Story: Charly Poisson is gathering new nettles in springtime when his dog finds a decomposing body in a pond on his land. It turns out to be that of a rather unpleasant small-time criminal. Charly has been involved in murder investigations before and promises himself to keep out of this one, but can not but wonder if the man's last employers, two obvious gangsters, had something to do with it. Those two have opened a factory that turns out ready-made and highly suspicious frozen seafood dishes for the restaurant trade, with a moneylaundering operation on the side. It worries Charly that his delusional former parther in the restaurant business has invested in the company. Then there is the unstable and even more delusional landscape gardener Charly has hired to plan his front yard and who may turn out to be the biggest problem of all.

Review: I have often wondered about the recipes included in foodie mysteries like this one, and while I have been warned against the recipes in another foodie mystery writer's books (who shall remain unnamed), I think I would be quite safe in trying the ones in this book, as the author is an actual chef.
In addition to offering mouth-watering recipes and descriptions of food preparation and dining, the book is entertaining and funny, and the twist ending will not be to the liking of a reader who expects mysteries to adhere to Van Dine's rules.

Rating: A funny and delicious boullaibaise of a comedy. 3 stars.

15 February 2007

Reading report for January 2007

In a previous post I said I had not been reading much lately, so it came as a surprise to find that I actually read 14 books in January, which is a little above my average per month in 2006. It does not feel like I have read this many.

Here is the breakdown:
Empty shelf challenge books:
Gods, Graves and Scholars: CW Ceram
Úti að aka: Á reykspúandi kadillak yfir Ameríku (Out for a drive: By smoke-belching Cadillac across America): Einar Kárason & Ólafur Gunnarsson
Lady of Quality: Georgette Heyer
Irish Fairy Tales: Sinéad de Valera
Second Fiddle: Mary Wesley

Other books:
True North: A memoir: Jill Ker Conway
The Road from Coorain: Jill Ker Conway
Sælir eru þeir sem þyrstir (Blessed are they which do thirst): Anne Holt (possible 52 authors challenge book – if I can find another one by the same author)
The Book of Lost Books: Stuart Kelly

The Last Hero: Terry Pratchett
The Science of Discworld: Terry Pratchett

Rhoda: A life in stories: Ellen Gilchrist
The Historian: Elizabeth Kostova
Eight feet in the Andes: Dervla Murphy

14 February 2007

Reading report for 2006: Most read authors

My most read author in 2006 was Terry Pratchett, which is no surprise as I embarked on a rereading of all the Discworld books, which is still not finished. If the Pratchett rereads are left out and only authors with books I read for the first time are counted, the list looks like this:

Georgette Heyer: 7
Sharyn McCrumb: 5
Marion Chesney/MC Beaton: 4
Georges Simenon: 4
Catherine Aird: 3
Robert Barnard: 3
Paul Doherty: 3
Arthur W Upfield: 3
Patricia Wentworth: 3
Terry Pratchett: 2
Arnaldur Indriðason: 2
Carolyn G Hart: 2
ST Haymon: 2
Joan Hess: 2
Caron Anne O'Marie: 2
Elizabeth Peters: 2
Kathy Reichs: 2
Josephine Tey: 2

It is interesting that all the authors whose books I read who have more than one book on the 2006 reading list are mystery authors. While Heyer is better know for romances and romantic historicals, Chesney for historical romances and Pratchett for fantasies, all have written mysteries. I read one Pratchett mystery, one Chesney mystery (written as MC Beaton) and three Heyer mysteries.

Since I have only completed two entire year's reading reports, there is not much that can be read from these results, other than that I am obviously going through a mystery reading phase, but in 5-6 year's time it will be interesting to compare these lists and the statistical breakdowns to see what reading trends I have gone through.

04 February 2007

Mystery author #27: MM Kaye

Title: Death in the Andamans
Year of publication: 1960
Type of mystery: Murder, whodunnit, romance
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: The Andaman Islands, 1950s

Story: Copper Randall is visiting her friend in the Andaman Islands. On Christmas Day they attend a picnic and they and the guests barely escape over to the small island where they live, before a tropical storm hits the islands. Some of the guests end up in the sea on the way there and one of them goes missing, later to be found dead on the beach with a suspicious head wound. When another man is found dead, clearly murdered, fear sweeps through the group and the young people, Copper, her friend and their love interests, begin to investigate the deaths.

Review: This is an entertaining little "limited location" mystery where the possible killer is one of a small group of people who are stuck in one place, thus giving the amateur investigators time to solve the case without the intervention of the police.

Rating: A suspenseful romantic mystery in the tradition of the Golden Era. 3 stars.

Title: Death in Zanzibar
Year of publication:1959
Type of mystery: Murder, thriller, romance
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Zanzibar, 1950s

Story: Young and innocent Dany Ashton becomes entangled in a murder case when she agrees to carry a letter from a solicitor in London to her stepfather in Zanzibar. Along the way, she become romantically interested in two young men, both of them somewhat mysterious, and finds herself dogged by an unseen killer who seems to be trying to pin 2 murders on her.

Review: This is more of a thriller than a mystery, as the crime really solves itself in the end, but there is still a fair amount of investigating (mostly conjecturing) by some of the characters. There is hidden treasure (the story of which is apparently included in one of Kaye's historical novels, Trade Wind), romantic intrigue and politics involved, which makes for fair entertainment. One minor annoyance is a scientific plot device that doesn't work, but as it would have worked back at the time of writing and takes place after the crime is solved, I am not going to let it affect my rating of the story.

Rating: An entertaining romantic mystery thriller, set in exotic Zanzibar. 3 stars.

Author review: MM Kaye wrote a series of romantic mysteries/thrillers that all have in common that they take place in exotic locations, like Cyprus, the Andaman Islands, Zanzibar and Kasmir. Additionally, she wrote some historical novels, the most famous of which was The Far Pavillions. As the wife of a career army officer she had the opportunity to visit far-flung corners of the globe and she used some of those locations as the setting for her mysteries, and the landscapes and people sometimes feature as plot devices in the books.

Kaye's heroines always seem to be young, beautiful, innocent and inexperienced, while the men are older, more experienced and irresistably attractive to women. In Dany Ashton's case her innocence and inexperience borders on stupidity, but at least Kaye is aware of it and has a couple of the other characters joke about it. The stories can, for this reason, be classified as "damsel in distress" stories, at least those two can. Kaye's use, in these two books, of what is basically the same formula (limited and exotic location, small group of suspects, red herrings aplenty, the heroine stumbling on the truth and being rescued from the killer at the last moment, love forever after) is cleverly used and thankfully she can write characters that have character, so that there is no danger of the reader confusing, for example, Dany and Copper, or the two killers when the memory of the two stories begins to fade and blend. This does not change the fact that the feminist in me strongly objects to women being shown as helpless and so innocent that they seem to have been wrapped in cotton all their lives, but I find that in cases such as these, when the rest of the cast, the setting and plot all have merit, a little suspension of disbelief and annoyance is in order.

Kaye's style is deft and the plots flow well and the stories are very readable. Both books are good, undemanding entertainment, perfect for the beach or an airplane ride. I will not be rushing out to buy all of her books, but I will definitely be reading more of them if the chance presents itself.

Bibliophile’s reading report for 2006

I suddenly occurred to me yesterday that I had not published my annual reading report. Well, here goes:

Total books read in 2006: 160. This is 122 books fewer than in 2005, which is not surprising as I wrote my master's thesis in 2006 and thus had less time for reading.

Fiction: 119 (74,4%)
Non-fiction: 41 (25,6%)
My non-fiction percentage has risen by 4% since 2005, probably due to all the travel books I read in 2006.

Total no. of pages: 40422.
Average number of pages per book: 252. Not surprisingly, I read fewer pages in 2006 than in 2005, but the books I read in 2006 were on average 38 pages longer than those I read in 2005.
Number of books under 100 pages long: 2
Number of books over 300 pages long: 43 (26,8%)

Re-reads: 15 (9,4%)
Library and loan books: 50 (31,25%)
E-books: 1
Audio books: 1
Translated books: 13 (8,1%)

Books published before 1900: 2 (1,25%) -> Memo: Must read more classics in 2007
Books published after 2000: 27 (16,9%)

Average rating per book (out of a possible 5+): 3+
Most common rating (out of a possible 5+): 4 (36 books, 22,5%)

Languages: English (153, 95,6%), Icelandic (7, 4,4%) -> Memo: Must read more Icelandic books in 2007

Breakdown by genre:
Fiction is often difficult to classify by genre because so many novels straddle genre boundaries, like "romantic mystery", "mystery thriller" or "supernatural romance". This is why, when I break my reading down by genre for the purpose of statistical analysis, I always look at the main genre so I can get a clear breakdown. If a book is, for example, a romantic mystery, I decide which is the main focus: the mystery or the romance. Rachel Gibson's Sex, lies and online dating uses the mystery to get the lovers together, and so gets classified as a romance, while Carolyn G. Hart's Death on Demand features a romance incidental to the mystery and thus gets classified as a mystery. A historical romance is classified under "romance". A historical novel is classified under "fiction", unless there are many of them (see below). Non-fiction where I only read a few books in the genre is collected under "miscellaneous non-fiction" and so on. The only time is use a fuller genre classification is when there are enough of them to be statistically interesting.

Out of the 160 books I read in 2006, 17 books count as historical fiction, which includes historical novels, historical mysteries and historical romance. 3 more feature a historical mystery that is solved in modern times. That makes 20 books that can be counted as historical, or 12,5% of all the books I read in 2006.

Crime, mystery and action, including criminal stories and revenge tales: 65 (40,6%, up by 10%)
Romance (no chick lit this year): 14 (8,75%, down by about 2%)
Fantasy and sci-fi, supernatural horror, alternate realities and futuristic novels: 24 (15%, up by 5% due to a re-reading spree of the Discworld series)
Miscellaneous fiction, incl. novels, short story collections, verse, cartoons and graphic novels: 16 (10%)
Biographies, autobiographies and memoirs: 7 (4,4%)
Travel: 20 (12,5%, up by 8,5%)
Miscellaneous non-fiction: 14 (8,75%)

Out of these, 5 were written with teenagers or children in mind, but I only use teen-lit and children's lit as genre definitions when I have read a substantial number of them.

Last year I promised to publish a list of my most read authors in 2005, but never did. I will try to do better this year.