27 November 2007

Bibliophile reviews The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby

Year published: 1956
Genre: Non-fiction: Memoir, travel
Setting & time: Aboard ship and shore leaves in the UK and Australia; 1938-9

The Story:
In 1938, 19 year old Newby gave up his job as a clerk and signed on for a round trip as an apprentice seaman aboard the freighter Moshulu, one of the last sailing ships that plied the grain route between Britain and Australia. His descriptions of the excitement and hardships of shipboard life make for wonderful reading, and a documentary of a lifestyle that was soon to be extinct. The 1938-9 season was, according to Newby, the last time a fleet of sailing ships vied with one another for the fastest passage from Australia to Britain. After the Second World War was over, the fleet had broken up, many of the ships were destroyed, and ships with engines had mostly taken over the cargo routes.

Eric Newby had a wonderful way with words and this first book is no exception. He had the ability to make the things he wrote about come alive for the reader.
The only thing that marred the reading of this adventure story for me was all the technical descriptions of sails, masts, ropes, etc. and the techniques employed in their use. Although some of the terms are explained, I soon got lost amid all the technicalities, but it didn’t really matter, because those passages were never too long and I always had some idea of what was happening.

I was delighted to discover through Wikipedia that Moshulu is still afloat and serving as a floating restaurant in Penn's Landing, Philadelphia, USA.

Rating: 4+ stars.

25 November 2007

Mystery author # 41: Ann Granger

Title: Say it With Poison
Series detective: Consul Meredith Mitchell and D.I. Alan Markby
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1991
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur and police
Setting & time: The Cotsworlds, Britain, late 20th century (timeless)

Meredith Mitchell arrives in the Cotsworlds for the upcoming wedding of her cousin’s daughter. D.I. Alan Markby of the local police has been asked to give away the bride. Shortly after Meredith arrives, her cousin’s seemingly nice young neighbour is found murdered, and both Meredith and Alan start investigating.

This is a really good first novel, and a great mystery as well. The two don’t always go together, and it’s refreshing to see a book that has no noticeable symptoms of firstbookitis in neither writing or plotting. The characters are realistically drawn, the writing is good, the mystery has some interesting twists and the clues are devious enough to satisfy even the most demanding mystery lover.

Rating: A refreshingly good first book and a great mystery as well. 4 stars.

Author review will follow when I have read more of Granger’s books.

16 November 2007

Waste of trees and time (and petrol)

This isn’t directly about books, although I have read some that were a true waste of paper and by extension both trees and time.

I participate in two book trading societies on the web: Book Mooch and Title Trader. The books I get from my trading buddies abroad have to go through customs. The customs procedures are incredibly bureaucratic and not nearly as streamlined as they could be.

The system, as delivery concerns, goes something like this: Customs receives my package and the officer decides it could be a delivery from an Ebay seller, and thus fees and taxes would be due. A couple of days later I get a letter, telling me this and asking for permission to open the package to look for an invoice. The law for the protection of personal information is such that they need permission every time. As far as I can tell a standing permission is out of the question for individuals.

I sign the permission and fax it back, with an explanation saying I am being sent the books free of charge, which technically* means I shouldn’t have to pay any fees or taxes. A customs officer opens the package and finds no invoice. Usually my books are then delivered 2-3 days later, unless the customs officer thinks it looks like I’m trying to get out of paying import tax, VAT and a handling fee which alone is about 5 times the worth of an ordinary non-collectible used book. This means I get a second letter, as much as 10 days later, couched in polite phrases but basically telling me I’m a liar and they want that invoice or else they send the package back to the sender. Then I have to write another letter (they no longer take phone calls), explaining about Book Mooch and/or Title Trader. So far, this has worked every time except once, when I had to ask for time off from work to drive across half the city to the customs house to have an eye-to-eye with a customs officer. (In that case it would probably have been cheaper to just offer to pay the handling fee and whatever taxes they wanted, however unfair, but I have principles and one of them is not to let myself be blackmailed).

A couple of months ago I was offered the choice of receiving and answering my package announcement letters by e-mail. Of course I jumped at the chance, but I soon discovered that being this bureaucratic dinosaur, the customs office couldn’t just do it like that. Oh, no: now I get the email, and then 2-3 days later I also get the letter. Last time I answered the e-mail so promptly that I got the package a day earlier than the letter announcing its arrival and asking for permission to open it. So instead of making the system easier and simpler and wasting less paper, the only thing that has happened is that there is now a double announcement system and paper is still being wasted.

*Technically because the law states that only gifts** for special occasions (e.g. wedding, anniversary or birthday) are non-taxable, the unwritten assumption being that gifts that are not for special occasions (e.g. because the giver was feeling generous) should be taxed. The actual working rule is that anything the receiver is not paying for counts as a special gift and is not taxable, and thus Book Mooch and Title Trader books are not taxable.

**Definable as "packages sent by others that contain something you are not paying for".

13 November 2007

Mystery author # 40: Edmund Crispin

Title: The Case of the Gilded Fly
Series detective: Gervase Fen, professor of English at Oxford University
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1944
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Gifted amateur
Setting & time: Oxford, England, during World War 2

An obnoxious young actress is murdered. Several people heard a gunshot, but no-one actually saw a thing, and with supreme assurance of his success, Oxford professor Gervase Fen steps in to solve the case.

The writing is not bad and the plotting is not too bad, but for some reason I found myself not liking this book. Possibly it’s because I have rarely come across a less likeable sleuth (not even Poirot or Gideon Fell), or possibly it is because there is something too smug about the tone of the book for my taste. Also, I dislike books where all the characters are described in detail right at the start, but the clincher was when I was still not able to tell some of them apart without looking at said descriptions. It did have a nice, if improbable, twist at the end, which saved it from being a total loss. Don’t be mistaken, this was not a wallbanger, it was too dull for that.

I’m glad I got the book from the library. I do have another Gervase Fen mystery by Crispin, but it will be some time before I venture to read it. If and when I do, I will post an author review.

Rating: A disappointing mystery. 2 stars.

09 November 2007

Mystery author #39: Michael Pearce

Title: Death of an Effendi
Series detective: Gareth Owen, head of Cairo's Political CID
No. in series: 12
Year of publication: 1999
Type of mystery: Murder, political intrigue, historical
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Cairo, Egypt; 1909

Owen is sent to keep an eye on a Russian businessman during a conference, but the man is short during a bird hunt and Owen suspects it is murder and not an accidental shooting. But proving it is another matter, especially when a man who may possibly have important information is being kept out of reach. It takes some clever manoeuvring to get to him, and what is revealed is a curious story of idealism, business and politics, but it it may be a small thing for Owen compared with the wrath of his girlfriend when one of the witnesses turns out to be a beautiful woman.

Pearce writes with a wonderfully light and airy touch, and his characters are three dimensional and human. He manages to tell a light-hearted story about a very serious matter, in a story that is at once character driven and full of plot. I will definitely be on the lookout for more.

Rating: An excellent twisty murder mystery. 3+ stars.

06 November 2007

Mystery author #38: Elizabeth Daly

Title: Evidence of Things Seen
Series detective: Henry Gamadge, author and expert on rare books
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1943
Type of mystery: Murder, possibly supernatural
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth
Setting & time: The Berkshires, NE-USA; 1940s

Mrs. Clara Gamadge is holidaying in the Berkshires. Her husband is away on government business and she is alone in a rented summer cottage with her maid. The two women feel a bit creeped out by a mysterious, ghostly figure in a sunbonnet that appears at sunset every 2-3 days, but not enough to flee the house. When the ‘ghost’ scares a horse outside the house, causing an accident in which the cottage’s owner is injured, they bring her into the house. During the night she is murdered, and the police seem to suspect Clara of having done it in a fit of madness. Her husband arrives at this point and immediately figures out whodunnit, but he needs proof, and spends the last half of the book looking for it (the villain is only revealed near the end).

It is perhaps telling that now, a month after I read the book, I can’t remember exactly how the story ended, that is, I don’t remember whether the killer was caught, killed or if he killed himself.
The plot is a classic Golden Era style ‘impossible crime’ puzzler, but the writing is unremarkable and the characterisations dull and I felt no compulsion to read it all the way through in one or even several sittings. I took it to work and read a chapter during my lunch hour and never felt I needed to take it home to read more. The killer’s identity was a surprise, for which the author gets a plus point, because he never occurred to me even though in retrospect his identity was obvious.

Rating: Good plot, dull characters, unremarkable prose. 2 stars.

About the author:
In the author intro at the back of the book it is said that Agatha Christie was a big fan of Daly’s, but although Daly’s books are being republished, she isn’t nearly as famous as her disginguished fan is today. I can’t really judge her as an author based on one book, so I think I will not try to analyse her writing now, but if I get the chance to read another of her books I may write an author review for her.

05 November 2007

Reading report for October 2007

I finished 12 books in October, several of them mysteries by authors I had previously not read, so if I can get myself going with the writing, there should be some challenge reviews coming up. About time too, since I want to finish the challenge before the end of the year.

The books:
Anthony Bourdain: Bone in the Throat - hard-boiled crime.
Suzanne Brockmann: Everyday, Average Jones - romance with a touch of thriller.
Edmund Crispin: The Case of the Gilded Fly - murder mystery.
Mary Daheim: Auntie Mayhem - murder mystery.
Franklin Dixon: Frank og Jói á Íslandi - my first (and probably last) Hardy Boys mystery, read because it takes place in Iceland.
Ann Granger: Say it with Poison - murder mystery.
Andrew Greig: Kingdoms of Experience - travel and mountain climbing.
Tony Hillerman: The Blessing Way - mystery thriller.
Eric Newby: The Last Grain Race - memoir.
Nancy Pearl: More Book Lust - lists of reading recommendations.
Barbara Sjoholm: The Pirate Queen: In search of Grace O’Malley and other legendary women of the sea - travel and women’s history.
Jack Turner: Spice: The history of a temptation - social history of spices.