31 December 2008

Congratulations Sir Terry

Terry Pratchett has been knighted. Congratulations, Sir Terry!

While the honour comes from his services to literature, he seems to be shaping up to become a spokesman for Alzheimer's research, which could very well have won him the honour in a few year's time, if he had not got it for his writing.

28 December 2008

Mystery author #52: Qiu Xiaolong

Title: A Loyal Character Dancer
Series detective: Chief Inspector Chen Cao
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2002
Type of mystery: Missing person, murder, organised crime; police procedural
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Shanghai, China; 1990s

Story:
Chief Inspector Chen, a young officer and rising star in the Shanghai police deoartment, is ordered by his superior to accompany and entertain an American police officer, U.S. Marshal Catherine Rohn. Rohn has come to China to escort to the USA the wife of a man who is an important witness in a case against a human smuggling ring that both the USA and China want to break up. But the woman has gone missing, and Chen is torn between the need to find her and wanting to solve an apparently gang-related murder. Rohn is not ready remain inactive while the Chinese police conduct the search for the missing woman, which complicates matters, as does a growing attraction between her and Chen and the attempts of Chen’s political enemies within the police department to catch him doing anything improper that could halt his progress up the promotion ladder.

Review:
The story has some good twists in it, but the attraction between Chen and Rohn is not credible and the old formula of the unlikely partners working together has been done much better by other writers. There simply isn’t enough conflict between them for either device to work well. There is a TSTL moment that is not believable, a rather stupid decision made by Chen, which, while it does make for an interesting little action scene, is out of character for someone who has been painted up to that point as being very careful and always planning ahead. The narrative progresses in stops and starts, being interrupted by Chen quoting or thinking about poetry, sometimes at unlikely moments, or by occasional infodump passages that slow down the flow.

What does make the story interesting and fascinating is the look into Chinese culture and politics. Chen is a presumably loyal member of the Communist Party who has risen very fast through the ranks of the Shanghai police (where he was placed by political decision despite having no training for the work) and it seems that his superior, who is more of a politician than a policeman, is grooming Chen as his replacement. While Chen doesn’t seem 100% happy with it, he does go along with it and manages to tread the very narrow path between being a good cop and a good cadre.
As I am not qualified to comment on anything related to Chinese culture, I will not comment on that, except to say that the descriptions of it in the book come across as believable, and I have no reason to doubt they are true. I will say that the city of Shanghai is as much a character in the book as Chen is, and Qiu makes it come alive on the pages.

Verdict: 3 stars. A flawed police procedural that is interesting for the glimpse it gives the reader into modern China. An author to watch. I am now waiting to get the first book in the series from the library.
--

The challenge is now officially finished and it has “only” taken 2 years. I have actually discovered more than 52 new mystery authors in this time, but I chose not to review them all as part of the challenge. Finding Qiu Xiaolong was a blessing, because he is (correct me if I am mistaken) the only mystery author I read for the challenge who is not the product of European or American culture. I did try to get my hands on books by other Asian authors and a couple of interesting South-American ones, but was unsuccessful, and I was unable to find any mysteries written by African authors about Africa or Middle-Eastern authors about the Middle-East. However, I'm sure they exist, and I would appreciate some recommendations.

17 December 2008

Bibliophile reviews The Twelve Deaths of Christmas by Marian Babson

Year of publication:1979
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, England; contemporary

Story:
Over the space of 12 days leading up to Christmas a murderer is on the loose in London, killing at random with whatever weapon is at hand. We know from the beginning that this is someone who suffers from pathological headaches that bring out a switch in personality from a respectable citizen into someone whose grip on sanity has been loosened to the extent that they act on the little annoyances that occasionally drive all of us to commit murder in our imagination, while still being able to look and act normal. When they recover from the headache, they don’t remember what they did, so there is no suspicious behaviour to give them away. The second thing we are allowed to know is that this person lives in a boarding house in London, but which one of the inhabitants is it?

Review:
This is not what I would call a cosy mystery. Its tone is too nasty for that, with innocent (if rude) shopkeepers, children and Christmas shoppers being gruesomely killed for minor or even imagined slights. This is definitely not a book to read for Christmas cheer or a happy ending, so if that’s what you want out of a Christmas themed book, don’t read this. Instead I recommend Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod, which at least is funny, or the Mary and Carol Higgins Clark books I reviewed on Monday, both of which are capable of getting you into the Christmas mood.

This is one of those interesting whodunnits where, although we get to see the police hard at work on the case, it ends up solving itself. The reader is merely along for a nasty roller-coaster ride and gets to play the guessing game based on little clues, both narrative and textual, that the author sprinkles here and there.

This is a short book, only 170 pages, and the characterisations are drawn in sparse and bold strokes, in favour of giving frequent stream-of-consciousness looks into the killer’s mind, showing how they get increasingly more psychotic as each day passes.

Rating: A nasty little Christmas mystery that is quite capable of killing the holiday mood, but will deliver plenty of suspense and room for speculation. 3 stars.

16 December 2008

Added another batch to BookMooch

This time it‘s a mixed bag of humour, action, romance, science fiction and picaresque.

Kingsley Amis:Lucky Jim
Alan Dean Foster:Jed the Dead
Carl Hiaasen:Double Whammy
Valerie King:A Christmas Masquerade
Stephanie Laurens:A Comfortable Wife
Alan Parker:The Sucker's kiss
Nina Porter:A Matchmaker's Match

15 December 2008

Bibliophile reviews two Christmas crime novels by Mary & Carol Higgins Clark

I decided to review these two Christmas themed crime novels together, as they were written by the same author team and belong to the same series, or actually two series, one by each author. I think Mary started writing her Christmas novels with Silent Night (which I haven’t read), but the first one I read was All Through the Night, which I think is her first Christmas novel to feature lottery winner and amateur sleuth Alvirah Meehan. The subsequent Christmas novels have been written in co-operation with her daughter Carol, who is a writer in her own right.

Deck the Halls appears to be their first collaboration, but since then they have written a number of Christmas novels together, featuring Alvirah together with Carol’s series sleuth, Regan Reilly and her boyfriend (later husband) Jack.

These two (and All Through the Night) are not mysteries, but rather suspense novels with caper elements. The reader knows the whole time who the criminals are and the viewpoint swings between the sleuths and the villains. They are what I would call “extreme cosies”, i.e. they are a blend of humour, no murder, hardly any violence, and while there is plenty of danger, it is of the kind where no-one gets seriously hurt. There is also an abundance of holiday cheer, the good guys celebrating the holiday together at the end of the stories, with the bad guys safely in the slammer. The fun in reading these books is finding out not whodunnit or howdunnit, but howsolvedit. In fact, I would say they are perfect books to introduce older children or teenagers to the suspense genre.

I’ll review both books together as the good and bad points of both are the same.

Title: Deck the Halls
Year of publication: 2000
Type of mystery: Kidnapping
Setting & time: New York, USA; contemporary

Story: Alvirah Meehan and Regan Reilly meet in a dentist’s office a few days before Christmas and Alvirah witnesses when Regan gets a ransom call from 2 men who have just kidnapped her father. Together the two women, along with Jack Reilly and the NYPD police, search for clues to the identity of the kidnappers and the possible whereabouts of Regan’s father and his chauffeur who was kidnapped along with him.

Rating: A clean suspense novel with a well-developed Christmas theme. 2+ stars.
---

Title: The Christmas thief
Year of publication: 2004
Type of mystery: Theft
Setting & time: Vermont, USA; contemporary

Story: Alvirah and her husband and a friend, Olive, go to Vermont just before Christmas, along with the Reillys and Jack, to relax at the Von Trapp Family Lodge. Meanwhile, the thief who 13 years before scammed Olive out of her lottery winnings is also heading to Vermont to recover a fortune in diamonds he hid in a tree just before he was caught by the police and sent to jail. The tree just happens to be intended for Rockefeller Center, and this puts the crook’s plan all out of whack. When Olive spots him and he kidnaps her to keep her from notifying the police, Regan, Jack and Alvirah get involved. The crook and his henchmen don’t stand a chance after that…

Rating: Another, even more Christmassy suspense story that delivers plenty of twists and Christmas cheer. 2+ stars.


Review: First, what I liked about both books: the style is easy and deft and makes the story run smoothly. Without textual analysis you can’t tell who wrote what, although logic suggests that Mary must have written the Alvirah and Willy viewpoint scenes and Carol the ones featuring the Reillys. The plots have unexpected twists and red herrings galore, and there is suspense, mostly of the "what will happen next?" variety. The humour is partly due to interesting side characters and spectacularly unlucky and/or stupid villains, and partly because of comical plot twists.

Now for the bad parts: both contain instances of blunt foreshadowing that is clearly meant to act as a hook to make the reader continue reading, but is really superfluous as the preceding sentences are in both cases loaded with the same meaning and the foreshadowing just takes the edge off it. And while there is certainly suspense, the ending is never in doubt, as the criminals are just too darn stupid and unlucky to be much of a match against the clever heroines. It’s funny, but it takes away some of the suspense, because for suspense to really work, the reader must be given reason to doubt that good will prevail. With villains like these, much of the doubt is removed. Another botheration is that there are just too many damn coincidences that deliver clues into the sleuth’s hands. They hardly have to do any sleuthing at all, just wait for the next clue so they can do some clever deducing and wait for the next clue. Because of all that, I can’t give either more than 2+ stars, and the + is their ability – in spite of the flaws – to deliver some genuine Christmas cheer to the reader.

12 December 2008

Added more books to my BookMooch inventory

This time it's a stack of Regency romances someone gave me just as I was losing interest in the genre. Some of them appear to have never been read.

Titles:
Claire Darcy: Elyza
Barbara Hazard: The Calico Countess
Sandra Heath: A Matter Of Duty
Elizabeth Hewitt: Marriage By Consent
Judith A. Landsdowne: Lord Nightingale's Triumph
Dorothy Mack: The Steadfast Heart
Anita Mills: Scandal Bound
Patricia Oliver: Lord Gresham's Lady
Mary Evans Porter: Toast Of The Town
Margaret Summerville: Fortune's Folly
Sheila Walsh: The Rose Domino
Joan Wolf: A Double Deception

10 December 2008

Christmas presents for book lovers

It seems everyone is offering Christmas gift suggestions for those without a clue as what to give their loved ones...and here is another one:

The obvious thing to give a book lover for Christmas is a book (or two). However, if you don’t know the person’s reading tastes well enough or are unfamiliar with which books they already own and you feel that book tokens or a book store gift certificate is not personal enough, here are some suggestions. First the practical ones:
  • a reading light, either a clip-on battery-operated travel model or one they can put on a desk or stand on the floor.
  • a book stand or book holder. They come in different shapes and sizes, from big stands made for reading in bed to small travel models designed to hold books open.
  • a reading pillow. The luxury model looks like the back and armrests of a comfy chair, while the cheaper versions look sort of like breastfeeding pillows.
  • book marks.
  • personalised book plates.
  • a book case.
  • removable book covers to protect the books they carry around with them.
  • a book bag.
  • bookends.

Here are some more ideas, ones that will help your book lover proclaim their love of books to the world (be careful giving these, as they might offend):
  • a t-shirt, apron, scarf or tie with a bookish message or picture.
  • book jewelry, for example a pin or some earrings.
  • book wallpaper.
  • a book-themed rug, throw or dishcloth.

And, finally, here are some books it may be safe to give your book lover, whatever their taste in reading is like:
  • a reading journal.
  • one of Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust books.
  • a gorgeous book-themed coffee-table book like At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries by Ellis, Seebohm and Sykes, or Living with Books by Alan Powers.
  • a literary reference book. It can be something general like a companion to literary characters, or something more specialised like a guide to superheroes or worlds that only exist in books, or even more specialised ones like a guide to a specific author’s works, or to an era or a place. One of my favourite literary reference books is What Jane Austen ate and Charles Dickens knew by Daniel Pool, a guide to things you might see mentioned in novels set in 19th century England (although there are a few inaccuracies in it, it is for the most part a fascinating look into 19th century British society).
  • a book of literary essays or quotations. One I like is A Passion for Books : A Book Lover's Treasury of Stories, Essays, Humor, Love and Lists on Collecting, Reading, Borrowing, Lending, Caring for, and Appreciating Books, edited by Rob Kaplan.


Dear reader: What do you plan to give the book lovers in your life for Christmas?

08 December 2008

Once more, with feeling:

Read my words:
I
do
not
accept
spam
comments.


I consider you telling me about your book to be borderline spam. I realise it's a tough market and you want to sell as many copies as possible, but if you think a smarmy comment telling me how wonderful my blog is will get me to buy your book or advertise for you for free, you are mistaken. If you ask me nicely, I may publish information about your book, but don't count on it.

Furthermore:
I consider a publisher telling me about a book they've published to be spam.
Telling me about a website that is not book-themed is spam.
Telling me about a book-themed commercial website is spam.
Trying to sell me anything is spam.

So save yourselves the trouble and don't sent me spam comments. I will not publish them.

Please do:
Let me know about your non-commercial book website (I don't mind if you have an Amazon store or mild advertising).
Tell me about other people's non-commercial book websites.

Thank you.

TBR challenge

I came across an interesting challenge in a book column on the Wall Street Journal website: save money by reading a book that you own but have never read, through the Guardian books blog, via BookNinja's blog.

I think it's excellent advice. Although I am still not suffering much from the local financial crisis, I know that in the coming months my mortgage payments are going to go up, and necessities are already getting more expensive, leaving me with less play money. Therefore I am going to take up the challenge and try to make inroads on my TBR stack instead of buying more books. It's no hardship, considering that I own around 4-500 books I have not read and have a library TBR list of several hundred more.

However, I will continue to mooch and give away books, at least until postage gets prohibitive.

Bibliophile reviews Death of a Hussy by M.C. Beaton (mystery)

I wrote this review ages ago, but for some reason I never got round to posting it until now.

Series detective: Constable Hamish Macbeth
No. in series: 5
Year of publication: 1990
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Lochdubh village, Scotland, contemporary
Number of murders: 2
Some themes: Family ties, money, inheritance

I was familiar with M.C. Beaton in her guise as romance writer Marion Chesney long before I read this book. I enjoyed some of her light-hearted Regency romances, but knew her to be a very uneven writer after having read an Edwardian romance of hers that was such a horrible collection of bad clichés that I ended up throwing it in the trash (I wrote a review, but upon reading it over I thought it was unfit for publishing. Let's suffice to say that I do not recommend Chesney's Kitty to anyone, not even her most ardent fans).

My first attempt at reading an M.C. Beaton mystery ended with me returning the book to the library unfinished. This was an Agatha Raisin novel that I simply couldn't get into, but this didn't stop me from picking up this Hamish MacBeth mystery – having first tested it on my mother who has a similar taste in mysteries as I do. So without further ado:

Story: Hamish MacBeth's post as village constable has been eliminated and he is unhappily serving on the police force of a bigger town and missing peaceful Lochdubh. The inhabitants organise a crime wave to get him back, but soon enough a real crime is committed and laid-back Hamish uses his natural curiosity, his way with people and his considerable insight into human nature to solve the case.

Review: The writing is deft, the story is funny and the character descriptions well-drawn and rounded. I may have found another series to glom.

Rating: A light and humorous mystery with an endearing sleuth. 3+ stars.

06 December 2008

Reading report for November 2008

It seems like November has gone by in a flash, in spite of, or perhaps because of, having been a very busy month for me. In addition to Christmas gift-making and -shopping and my bookbinding classes, I finished reading 12 books, mostly genre fiction and a couple of travel books. I made it to author no. 51 of my reading challenge, and have started on the last author.

There was only one reread this month: Pratchett’s Thud!, which I read instead of finally sitting down with Making Money which I have still not been able to work up the enthusiasm to read. I may not read it until I actually have Unseen Academicals (which Pratchett is currently writing) in my hands, as I have a dread of running out of new Discworld books to read.

The high points of the month were Henry Miller’s rambling and enthusiastic travel memoir of Greece at the beginning of World War 2, and Connie Willis’ very funny time travel adventure.

The books:
Mary Balogh: Slightly Wicked (historical romance)
Caroline Graham: Death of a Hollow Man (mystery)
Ann Granger: A Season for Murder (mystery)
Simon Hoggarty & Emily Monk: Don't Tell Mum (collection of funny and alarming e-mails home from gap-year travellers)
Donna Leon: Through a Glass, Darkly (mystery)
Henry Miller: The Colossus of Maroussi (travel, memoir)
Terry Pratchett: Thud! (fantasy, mystery)
J.D. Robb: Seduction in Death (mystery)
Nora Roberts: Rising Tides, Inner Harbor & Chesapeake Blue (romance, famly saga)
Connie Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog (sci-fi, romance lite)

04 December 2008

Old Mills & Boon covers

Mills & Boon celebrates its 100 birthday this year, and there is a book out to celebrate it: The Art of Romance: Mills & Boon and Harlequin Cover Designs by Joanna Bowring and Margaret O'Brien. Click on the link in the post title to see some of the covers.

The first one is especially interesting - definitely a child of its time. I can't tell if he's supposed to be on the verge of attacking her or if he's supposed to have just found her, but I would like to find out.

There is also a contest in which you can win a copy of the book if you come up with a good title for one of the covers.

Bibliophile reviews To Say Nothing of the Dog, or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis

Year published: 1998
Genre: Science fiction, alternative reality, time travel
Setting & time: Oxford, England, 2057 and southern England, late Victorian era

The Story:
Due to under-manning, 21st century historian and time traveller Ned Henry is sent on an important mission to 19th century Victorian England, despite being an expert on the 20th century. Due to time-lag he is not quite sure what his mission is, but with a little rest and some detective work and help from Verity Kindle, another 21st century historian, he is able to discover what it is that he is supposed to do. At the same time, he is trying to avoid of Lady Shrapnell, a rich aristocrat who is trying to rebuild Coventry Cathedral (in Oxford) and wants him to find the artifact mentioned in the book’s subtitle, so he can recover from the time-lag and continue the search.

Technique and plot:
Here is a book I would not hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys science fiction, historical fiction and romance, and appreciates literary allusions. The writing is skillful and Ned is a likable, if slightly confused, narrator, a fish out of water who shows remarkable adaptivity when left to fend for himself in an era he does not know enough about to feel comfortable in. The main romance is interesting and humorous without getting sappy and the secondary romance is laugh-out loud funny at times precisely because of the sappiness of the characters involved. The back-story, of Lady Shrapnell and the search for the Bishop’s bird stump, is so wonderfully ridiculous that it kept me chuckling whenever either was mentioned.

I like science fiction best when the futuristic aspects and speculative science is used as a device to further the progress of the narrative rather than to replace story or act as plot filler, so this was a perfect sample of the genre for me. The science is kept firmly in the background, it never gets baffling, and the explanations are kept brief and given on a need-to-know basis only.

Having the story take place in an alternative version of this world rather than a completely different one gives Willis ample opportunity to pepper the story with layered allusions to literature many readers are likely to recognise, mostly to mystery novels and 19th century poets, and of course to the book from which the title of this story is taken.

The plot, while complicated, never lags, and although the book is nearly 500 pages long, I wouldn’t cut a word of it, which is more than I can say of certain other long books I have read.

Rating: An excellent mixture of science fiction, romance and historical novel. 4+ stars.

01 December 2008

I have added more books to BookMooch

Diane Mott Davidson: The Last Suppers
Diane Mott Davidson: Prime Cut
Diane Mott Davidson: Tough Cookie
Alex Duncan: The Diary of a Country Doctor
Susan Dunlap: Diamond in the Buff
Ann Granger: A Season for Murder
James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
J.J. Marric: Gideon's Week
Anne Perry: Bluegate Fields
Anne Perry: Seven Dials
Anne Perry: Southampton Row
Arthur W. Upfield: Boney and the Mouse
Arthur W. Upfield: Murder Must Wait

Bibliophile reviews A Season for Murder by Ann Granger

Going through my library to cull books, I discovered a number of novels, novellas and a couple of short story collections with a Christmas theme. While Christmas mysteries can be read year round, and are, in fact, sometimes best read at any other time of the year – at least if you like the holidays untarnished by thoughts of dark deeds – other Christmas fiction is usually best read in December, which is why I decided to embark on a reading spree with a Christmas theme. I am not one to let mysteries disturb me, so I am including some of those as well as the science fiction, fantasy and romance Christmas stories I found. Here is the first review.

Ann Granger was my mystery author #41, and I promised I would review her as an author once I had read some more of her books. Since this one is part of the same series as the previous one, I will leave the review for until after I have read A Rare Interest in Corpses, which is from another series of hers, a historical one.

Series detectives: Consul Meredith Mitchell and C.I.D. Alan Markby
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1991
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur and police
Setting & time: The Cotsworlds, England, contemporary

Story: It’s almost Christmas and Meredith Mitchell has been called for home duty by the Foreign Office and faces a year of commuting between her rented cottage in Pook’s Common, a tiny hamlet in the Cotsworlds not far from Bamford, where her old acquaintance, Alan Markby, is stationed. She hardly has time to meet and form a liking for her neighbour, Harriet Needham, before Harriet is killed in what at first seems to be an accident caused by a fox-hunt protester spooking her horse, but which turns out to have been made fatal by a large doze of sedative that no-one who knew Harriet believes she would have knowingly taken. Alan starts to investigate the death, and so does Meredith.

Review: This was a promising mystery right up until the resolution, which was unfortunately based on coincidence rather than detective work. Granger continues developing Meredith and Alan as characters, and shows a possible romantic rerlationship that may blossom in future books if she doesn’t stop being so sensible and he so careful. I am looking forward to seeing how that turns out, but I was disappointed with the resolution, which is hurried and could have been made much better.

Rating: 2+ stars for being mostly an okay mystery.
--

I started reading a second Christmas mystery, We Wish You a Merry Murder by Valerie Wolzien, but it failed the 50 page test*, so I put it in my moochables stack. Next I will probably try The Christmas Thief by Mary Higgins Clark, or possibly Miracle and other Christmas stories by Connie Willis. Which reminds me: I have a review of her To Say Nothing of the Dog coming up.

*The 50 page test: If, after 50 pages (or 1/4 of a long book), the book has not started being interesting, stop reading and find something else. Life is too short to waste on uninteresting books.

30 November 2008

Major library cleanup

I've been having a major cull of my library and have added some 17 books to my BookMooch inventory, and will be adding more soon. The rest of the culls (mostly heavy books that cost to much to mail abroad) I will be donating to a library.

The books are:
Margery Allingham: Death of a Ghost
Mary Balogh: Slightly Wicked
Agatha Christie: A Pocket Full Of Rye
Stuart Kaminsky: Murder on the Yellow Brick Road
Karen Kijewski: Alley Kat Blues
Pamela Labud: Spirited Away
Donna Leon: Through a Glass Darkly
Charlotte MacLeod: The Luck Runs Out
Anne Perry: Rutland Place
Ellery Queen: The Siamese Twin Mystery
Nora Roberts: Chesapeake Blue
Nora Roberts: Inner Harbor
Nora Roberts: Rising Tides
Nora Roberts: Sea Swept
Dorothy L. Sayers: Lord Peter Views The Body
Arthur W. Upfield: The Battling Prophet
Valerie Wolzien: We Wish You A Merry Murder

I have another 70 books in my inventory, mostly mysteries and romances with a few non-fiction books thrown in.

Click on the title of this entry to see my BookMooch inventory.

25 November 2008

Mystery author #51: Donna Leon

I think it was Maxine who first recommended Donna Leon to me, and after that I got several more recommendations for her books, so I decided to include her in the challenge.

Series detective: Commissario Guido Brunetti
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Venice, contemporary
--

Title: The Death of Faith (alternative title: Quietly in Their Sleep)
No. in series: 6
Year of publication: 1997

SPOILERS ahead

Story:
A young nun who has left her order comes to Commissario Brunetti with a story of some deaths at a nursing home where she worked that she finds mysterious but that at first appear to be perfectly normal. She seems to suspect that members of her order or of the Catholic church may be involved. When Brunetti starts digging, the nun is attacked and Brunetti’s boss tries to have him stop the investigation, which just makes him more determined to get to the bottom of the case.

Review:
The writing and characterisations in the book are very good. The characters come alive on the page, which is always a bonus in any book. There is a nice mixture of humour and seriousness, and the story is tightly plotted and intriguing. So far, so good. Then Agnus Dei pops up.

Have I ever mentioned that one of the three things in mysteries that I hate more than unrealistic suicide endings are secret societies? I don’t mind having a member of a secret society doing their thing independently of the society or a leader of such a society being taken on with the understanding that their capture will destroy the whole organisation, but several members acting on orders from mysterious untouchable higher-ups takes away the one-on-one struggle between the detective and the villain and reduces the story to one about a hopeless struggle against an unbeatable enemy, which is not what I want to read about in a mystery. From the appearance of Agnus Dei onward the plot plunges inevitably towards the second thing about mysteries that I hate more than suicide endings, namely that justice is not served, stopping on the way at the third thing I hate more than suicide endings: the device of the froth-at-the-mouth insane person whom the villain uses as an instrument of murder.

Stock plot elements do not have to become cliches when skillfully used, and they are used with some skill here. Unfortunately they happen to be exactly the kind of devices designed to put my hackles up, meaning that I couldn’t really enjoy the book. Yet I read on, hoping that Brunetti would find a way to see justice done, but it didn’t happen. There is a feeble attempt to draw the reader’s attention away from the lack of resolution by introducing a side-plot where justice does get served, but it is not a successful one. An additional annoyance is a minor plot thread that is left dangling, almost as if the author didn't think of the angle that immediately occurred to me when I realised it would not be resolved.

Rating: Probably not the best of Brunetti books to begin an exploration of this author. 1+ star.
--

One of the unwritten rules I set myself when I began this reading challenge was to give authors a second chance if I happened on a book I didn’t like, so I did read a second Brunetti book:

Title: Through a Glass, Darkly
No. in series: 15
Year of publication: 2006

Story:
A woman seeks advice from Commissario Brunetti about her father, who has repeatedly threatened her environmentalist husband with harm or death should he set foot inside the family glass foundry on Murano island. While Brunetti is inclined to think the man unlikely to follow up on the threats, he does a little unofficial investigating just in case, which puts him on the trail of nefarious doings on the island that have led to murder. Just when it seems the investigation has reached a dead end, a coincidence puts Brunetti back on the trail.

Review: I liked this book better than the previous book. For one thing it delivers what the other book didn’t, namely justice. While this justice admittedly takes place off stage, it is clearly suggested that the villain does not get away scot free, as he (or rather they) did in the other book. This time around, it’s the plotting that is weak, something I could not say about The Death of Faith, which I disliked because it veered into thriller territory, contained plot devices I detest, and didn’t give a satisfactory ending, but at least the plot was tight and somewhat suspenseful.

In this book, it meanders all over the place, and does not deliver on the momentous environmental scandal that the build-up promises, instead falling down limply into a resolution involving what is really just the personal tragedy of someone whose ancestor's sins come back to haunt him with a vengeance.

Rating: A mystery that struggles for greatness, but falls short. 2+ stars.

Verdict:
After all the recommendations, these two books were a disappointment. If they are anything to judge from, Leon would seem to be a somewhat uneven author, and not always in the same area of the writing craft. I am hoping the basic formula* I noticed both books have in common is not a feature of all her books, because if it is, I would have to cross her off my list of authors I want to read more books by. However, she writes interesting characters and has managed to make the fascinating city of Venice into a definite character in both books, which is why I am giving her a third chance. Next time I will try to find her most highly regarded book to read and review.
--

*This is the formula, for those interested: someone asks Brunetti to investigate something seemingly innocuous, which leads to the discovery of something more suspicious. His superior tries to shut down the investigation, and Signorina Elettra blithely conjures up some classified information to help the case along.

Yours truly,
The (Very Grumpy) Reviewer

24 November 2008

Thanks for the laugh!

On the Book Design Review last Friday there was a post about an article on the Guardian books blog about the value of reading bad books. In the post, BDR author Joseph Sullivan mentions a bad book that he once read, and, well, I guess you'll have to read it to find out why it was so funny: take me there.

I recommend reading the Guardian article as well.

14 November 2008

Mystery author #50: Caroline Graham

At first I hesitated to include Caroline Graham in this challenge, as I have seen at least a dozen episodes of the television series based on the characters from the Barnaby books. However, I think I am justified in including her, since books and television are different mediums and I have not seen the episodes based on either of the books I read for the review (although I did watch Death of a Hollow Man after I read the book).

The first book in the series, The Killings at Badger’s Drift, made it onto the British Crime Writer’s Association list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, despite having won neither the Gold or Silver Dagger, but it must have come close because the books that did get these awards that year are also on the list. Clearly it was a very good year for the Daggers.

About the series:

Series detective:Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Causton, a fictional town in southern England, and the surrounding area; contemporary

The reviews:

Title: The Killings at Badger’s Drift
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1987
Type of mystery: Murder

Story:
An elderly woman sees something she shouldn’t have in the woods near the village of Badger’s Drift and ends up dead. Her friend convinces Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby to investigate her seemingly natural death as suspicious. An autopsy reveals that she was poisoned and an investigation of her house reveals that she was killed by someone who took great pains to make her death look accidental, but none of the neighbours seem to have seen anyone enter the house on the day of her death. Just as Barnaby is about to give up on the case another murder takes place, one that will lead him to a successful solution.

Review:
This is a near-perfect example of the Golden Era-type cosy mystery. It is deftly written, has an interesting cast of characters, all of them skilfully and sometimes humorously fleshed out, a complicated plot with a number of red herrings, and a thrilling, if somewhat melodramatic, resolution. It also has an ending of the kind that I hate with a passion, but in this particular case the author has managed to actually make it just realistic enough to be plausible.

Rating: A beautifully written and plotted cosy. 4+ stars.
--

Title: Death of a Hollow Man
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1989
Type of mystery: Murder

Story:
A clever murderer tampers with a prop, thus making the victim, an actor, do the actual dirty work of killing himself during the first performance of Amadeus by the Causton Dramatic Society. Barnaby’s investigation is both helped and hindered by the fact that he knows all the suspects, but finally he manages to sort out the tangled threads of the case and trap the killer into confessing.

Review:
Here Graham cleverly uses a number of classical mystery elements and plot twists, among them the theatre setting with a murder on stage in front of an audience, a victim who is made to carry out the actual murder, and one other classic element that I will refrain from mentioning, since the solution depends on it. The character descriptions and the descriptions of their interactions, while well written and even interesting as such, are too long and strike me as being filler material. This makes the lead-up to the actual murder too long – it takes place only after we have gotten to know the characters too intimately, after the middle of the book.

The use of flashforwards as blunt hints as to who did or didn’t do it is something a skilful mystery writer should not have to resort to, but Graham uses this device several times, and never as a red herring as one would expect from a story of this kind. This is very annoying (contrary to the previous book, where a flashworward is skilfully used to provide foreshadowing). That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but the long lead-up to the crime and the character descriptions makes it more of a novel of manners than a murder mystery.

Rating: An enjoyable novel with too much description and not enough plot to be a really good mystery. 3 stars.

P.S. I loved the TV version.

Verdict:
I will definitely be on the lookout for more of Graham’s books, and will continue to watch the TV series.

12 November 2008

Reading report for October 2008

I got through 10 books in October. 3 were rereads and 3 I had been reading for several months. I also discovered that Jennifer Crusie is becoming one of my favourite comfort read authors, and I am now trying to get hold of those of her books I don’t already have.

Here are the books:
Scott Adams: The Dilbert Future (humour, philosophy, comics)
Isabel Allende (text), Robert Shekter (illustrations) & Panchita llona (recipes): Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses (food, erotica)
Caroline Graham: The Killings at Badger's Drift (police procedural, murder mystery)
Donna Leon: The Death Of Faith (police procedural, murder mystery)
Sigurður Ægisson (text) & Jón Baldur Hlíðberg (illustrations): Íslenskar Kynjaskepnur (Meeting with Monsters) (bestiary)
Jeffrey Steingarten: It Must've Been Something I Ate (food, article collection)
Marion Trutter, ed.: Culinaria: Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan (culinary geography)

And the rereads:
Jennifer Crusie: Faking It (romance)
Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men (fantasy)
Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky (fantasy)
--

Meeting with Monsters deserves a special mention. It is an illustrated bestiary of Icelandic folk tale monsters, some of which people still believe in. The author of the text is a folklorist and the artist is Iceland's best known illustrator of natural history books. The book is published in Icelandic and English, and I think I have also seen a German version. If you visit Iceland, it will make an unusual souvenir or gift for those who are more interested in folklore or cryptozoology than in landscape photography and woollen sweaters.

Bibliophile reviews The Withdrawing Room by Charlotte MacLeod

Title: The Withdrawing Room
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1980
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur & semi-pro
Setting & time: Boston, USA; 1970´s

Story:
Following the deaths of her husband and mother in law (see The Family Vault), Sarah Kelling is stuck with 2 houses and 2 killer mortgages that may or may not be illegal, but it will take months or perhaps years to sort them out, so until then she is close to broke. Being a practical person and not as proud as her richer society relatives, she turns her townhouse into a boarding house, accepting only people with good references. Soon, however, one of her boarders is murdered, and another one soon afterwards. The case is solved with the help of a bag lady and Max Bittersohn, who has returned to the scene and rented a room in the house.

Review:
Some of what I wrote about the previous book in the series may be applied to this one as well, except the plotting is even more intricate. The author subtly points the reader – and the reader alone – in the direction of the solution, but one has to be reading the book in literary analysis mode to figure it out. Sarah does some detective work in the book, but it is Max and the police who solve the case, and unfortunately, since the viewpoint is Sarah's alone, that happens off stage, so while the readers are supplied with literary hints that the sleuths do not have access to, they are cheated of some of the actual clues the sleuths did find and therefore not on an even footing with them. As in the earlier book, elderly relatives of Sarah’s provide some humourous interludes.

Rating: An entertaining mystery with a twist in the tail. 3 stars.

08 November 2008

Book crafts: A purse made out of books

Check this out: book purse

I share Penwiper337's opinion of Reader's Digest Condensed Books. However, while I do loathe them, I do think their gilded faux leather bindings look good enough for using as decorations (as long as no-one has to be victimised by the contents), and I think this is a pretty damn good idea. My only concern is that it would be a bit heavy to carry around, but of course it could just be used as decoration by dedicated purse collectors.

05 November 2008

Bibliophile reviews Steel Guitar by Linda Barnes

Series detective: Carlotta Carlyle
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1991
Type of mystery: Blackmail/murder
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Boston, Massachusetts, USA, late 20th century

Story:
Cab-driving PI Carlotta Carlyle runs into her former friend Dee Willis who is now a famous blues singer. Despite ambivalent feelings towards Dee, Carlotta accepts an assignment from her: to find their old friend Dave. At first Dee is unwilling to tell Carlotta why, but then admits that Dave seems to be trying to blackmail her. When Dee's recently fired ex-bass player is found murdered in Dee’s bed, she wants to cry off the search for Dave, but by that time Carlotta has become personally interested in finding him and discovering the truth, and enlists the help of another old friend.

Review:
While I have read one other book by Barnes (thus making her ineligible for the reading challenge), this was my first book about Carlotta Carlyle. I found the style snappy and the story quick paced, with some interesting characters and twists. Carlotta is a semi-hardboiled PI with a heart of gold, and I wouldn't mind reading more about her adventures.

Rating: A nicely done mystery/thriller. 3+ stars.

02 November 2008

Addictive website: Lists of Bests

Not only will you find people's personal lists there, but also all sorts of other lists, including lists of award winners and official Best of... lists, and you can choose items on the lists to indicate that you have read the book, seen the movie, been to the place, eaten the dish, etc.

Clicking the post title will take you directly to the website, clicking the link below will open in it a new window.

Lists of Bests

30 October 2008

Mystery author #49: Karen Kijewski

Title: Katapult
Series detective: Kat Colorado
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1990
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Private investigator
Setting & time: Sacramento, California, USA; late 20th century

Story:
Private investigator Kat Colorado is upset and angry when John, her friend and cousin by informal adoption, is found murdered. Their grandmother (John’s real and Kat’s informally adopted gran) sends Kat on a quest to find John’s killer and discover the whereabouts of his sister, who has been missing for 4 years. Kat is soon in over her head, dealing with determined criminals who will stop at nothing to stay out of jail. There is also a family drama brewing and a young streetwalker who needs to be rescued.

Review and verdict:
Kat Colorado is a typical hard-boiled female PI with a nose for trouble, a heart of gold and a troubled past that she wears like a medal. Unlike Jill Smith in Susan Dunlap books that I reviewed earlier, she is an almost instantly likable character with a distinct voice and personality (and a sense of humour). Kat’s “grandmother” is an indomitable old trooper who I am sure will remind many readers of their own grannies, but John’s sister is made out to be an unbelievable innocent who on top of that behaves like a spoiled rotten 14-year old, which I find rather implausible after all that is supposed to have happened to her.

The plot is well written and there are some unexpected twists in it that make the story an entertaining read, even if the main plotline itself is predictable for the most part. All in all, I would not mind reading more of the Kat Colorado books. 3+ stars.

28 October 2008

Reading rut

I’m in a reading rut. After my reading marathon in September I first did not pick up a book for 2 weeks, then went into a rereading cycle which is what I do to jump start myself when I temporarily lose interest in reading, and now I have fallen into an old familiar rut where I start reading one book after another but after the first session I don’t feel like reading any more of the book, put it down somewhere and start reading another book. And another. And another. It’s pathetic, but I can’t help it.

In addition to the usual half-dozen or so books I am reading page-by-page or chapter-by-chapter over a long time (3 years in one case, and I’m only halfway through), I have several of these start-stop books scattered around. The book that started the rut, Clive Barker’s Abarat, I put down when I discovered halfway through that it was the first episode in a 5 book series, the last of which is still being written. I think I will shelve it and not read it until the last book is published and I have them all together, because it’s the kind of story one wants to read all the way through in as few sessions as possible.

In the last seven days I have started to read and then put down one book a day, all of which are scattered around my apartment, asking to be finished, but I just continue to go and get more books. I loved the magic realism of Alice Hoffman’s The Probable Future and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Mistress of Spices, but found myself uninterested in picking either up again after reading about 20 pages of one and 100 of the other. Fortunately I think I have finally found one that can help me break out of the rut – it will become apparent when I go home this afternoon, but it’s looking good, because as I am writing this (during my lunch break at work) I am thinking about the book and that is always a good sign.

27 October 2008

This is pretty cool: Wordle

I Wordled this blog, and this was the outcome:



Click on the image to see the large version.

04 October 2008

Mystery author #48: Camilla Läckberg

The first book in this Swedish series, The Ice Princess, was published in English earlier this year, and according to Amazon.co.uk, this one will be published (in hardcover) in February 2009, under the title The Preacher.

Icelandic title: Prédikarinn
Original Swedish title: Predikanten
Series detective: Patrik Hedström (assisted by his colleagues and his girlfriend, writer Erica Falck)
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2003
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Fjällbacka, Sweden, contemporary

Story:
The corpse of a young woman is found in a ravine in the small Swedish town of Fjällbacka and beneath the body lie two skeletons of young women who had disappeared more than 2 decades earlier. All three had been tortured in similar ways before dying of strangulation, so everything points to the same killer. Patrik Hedström of the local police heads the investigation while his heavily pregnant girlfriend deals with invasions of visitors seeking to stay in their house (Fjällbacka is a popular summer resort), and a local family seethes with passion and resentment as old wounds are opened up by the discovery of the bodies.

Review:
Wow! This mystery totally blew me away. Not only is it excellently written (and well translated), but also beautifully plotted and none of the characters, however insignificant, is a stereotype. I don’t often read a book in one sitting, but I did this one and even found myself skimming the occasional passage in order to get to the resolution faster. I can’t wait to read the other books in the series. As others feel the same, I may have to go on a waiting list at the library to get the other two that have been translated into Icelandic, or I may just go out and buy them.

Rating: A fantastic mystery/thriller. Highly recommended. 5 stars.

30 September 2008

Reading report for September 2008

I have been on leave from work with nothing to do except exercise for 50 minutes 2-3 times a day, eat my meals and attend the occasional lecture designed to improve my lifestyle. This has given me time to read voraciously. I therefore got through 20 books in September (I could have read a book a day, but I was pacing myself). This is not a record number of volumes for me but I am sure it comes close to being a record number of pages (or words) I have read in one month, since I only started reading 3 of the books before the beginning of the month, and some of the books were above average length. Only one was a reread (I think you can guess which one, at least if you read this blog regularly). I doubt I will be able to keep this up in October, as I will be going back to work then and starting an exercise regime where I work out for a minimum of 60 minutes a day, meaning I will have 60 minutes less potential reading time. But my health comes first, so I will be on the lookout for interesting audio books to listen to while I exercise.

Linda Barnes: Steel Guitar (murder mystery)
William Dalrymple: City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (travelogue, history, India)
Susan Dunlap: Too Close to the Edge (murder mystery)
Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts (travelogue, Europe)
Karen Kijewski: Katapult (murder mystery)
Camilla Läckberg: Prédikarinn (The Preacher) (murder mystery)
Lonely Planet: Lonely Planet Egypt (guide book)
Charlotte Macleod: The Palace Guard; The Convivial Codfish; Rest You Merry; The Luck Runs Out; The Corpse In Oozak's Pond; Wrack And Rune. (murder mysteries)
Barbara Michaels: Other Worlds (supernatural novellas)
Manuel Vázques Montalbán: Hressingarhælið (The Spa) (murder mystery)
Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club (historical murder mystery)
Elizabeth Peters: The Curse Of The Pharaohs (historical murder mystery)
Terry Pratchett: Monstrous Regiment (fantasy)
Patricia Wentworth: Poison in the Pen (murder mystery)
Susan L. Wilson: Culture Shock! Egypt (guide book)

27 September 2008

Mystery author #47: Charlotte MacLeod

I have read 7 of MacLeod’s books so far, but I am only going to do full reviews the first book from each of her 2 series. I will also list the others with short reviews. I may do full reviews of some of them later on.

The Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn series:
This series deals with the adventures of Sarah Kelling (later Bittersohn) and Max Bittersohn. She is a member of one of Boston’s old blood families and starts out as a housewife and later becomes the owner of a boarding house, and Max is a private investigator who specialises in art and jewellery.

The series starts out with Sarah as the main sleuth and Max as the helper, but in the 4 books I read (in order of publication) the focus shifted gradually towards having Max as the main sleuth and Sarah as the helper. This is perhaps natural, as Max is a kind of private detective, and as a matter of fact art and/or jewellery feature in all 4 murder cases.

The books are full of funny and eccentric characters, many of whom belong to Boston’s high society and are Sarah’s relatives by blood or marriage. Being an insider in this social class, Sarah knows a lot about their secrets and scandals, and is able to find out more by knowing whom to ask, whereas Max, as an outsider, sometimes observes things about them Sara doesn’t notice, and thus they complement each other as sleuths. The stories are highly entertaining and often very funny, and in the books I read the plots are puzzle plots with twists and occasional red herrings.

I recommend reading at least the first 4 books in the order of writing, as they form a story arc dealing with how Sarah and Max meet, fall in love and finally get married.

Title: The Family Vault
Series detective: Sarah Kelling & Max Bittersohn
No. in series: 1 (of 12)
Year of publication: 1979
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur & semi-pro (he’s an investigator, but of art theft, not murder)
Setting & time: Boston, USA; 1970’s

Story:
When an old Kelling family vault is opened for the burial of an eccentric old relative and the skeleton of a famous stripper, 30 years dead, is found inside, witness Sarah Kelling starts investigating and uncovers some deeply buried family secrets and story of embezzlement, blackmail and murder. Unfortunately the opening of the vault also sets off a series of murders, and Sarah may be next. Art expert Max Bittersohn helps Sarah solve part of the mystery, and always seems to be there when she needs help the most.

Review:
I loved this story. It is a puzzle plot in the grand old tradition of the golden era of the mystery novel, and delivers melodrama, humour, romance and mystery in abundance. Sarah’s eccentric old relatives add spice to the story. The reader and sleuths have equal chances of solving the mystery, with the villain cleverly hidden in plain sight. While I did have him pegged before too long, I was in doubt for much of the story and if I had been in a different thinking mode I might not have discovered his identity until Sarah did. The writing is straightforward and free of unnecessary descriptive passages, the plotting is perfect and the humour by turns subtle and laugh-out-loud funny.

Rating: A very good mystery in the old tradition. 4 stars.

Other books in the series I have read:
The Withdrawing Room: An entertaining mystery with a twist in the tail. 3 + stars.
The Palace Guard: Fun to read, but the solution was unconvincing. 2+ stars.
The Convivial Codfish: Entertaining characters but a cheap solution. 2+ stars.

--

The Peter Shandy and Helen Marsh Shandy series:
This series takes place in fictional Balaclava County, named after the founder of Balaclava Agricultural College where Shandy is a professor of botany. He meets his future wife, librarian Helen March, in the first book in the series. In the three books I read in the series, Helen did not take an active part in the investigations, but in each case she unearthed important clues.

Like the other series these books also feature colourful characters, some of whom are decidedly kooky. They are also whimsical and full of unusual and funny situations.

While I do recommend beginning with book number one, I otherwise do not see a reason to read them in order of publication.

Title: Rest You Merry
No. in series: 1 (of 10)
Year of publication: 1978
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateurs
Setting & time: Balaclava Junction, Massachusetts, USA; 1970´s

Story:
Tired of the Christmas festivities in Balaclava Junction, professor Peter Shandy takes a Christmas cruise, but the ship breaks down and he returns after only 3 days, only to find the body of his neighbour’s wife on his living room floor. While the police and the doctor are convinced the death was an accident, Peter and the husband are not so sure, and Peter starts to investigate. But it is not until another murder is committed and the attractive new librarian at the college library discovers something interesting that the wheels really start to turn.

Review:
Some of what I wrote about the previous book may be applied to this one as well. It is funny and has colourful and interesting characters and a wonderfully twisted puzzle plot. The villain is better hidden here, but becomes rather obvious to the reader before Peter becomes certain of his identity.

Rating: An entertaining mystery with a twist in the tail. 3 + stars.

Other books in the series I have read:
The Luck Runs Out: An entertaining mystery with a far-fetched solution. 3+ stars.
Wrack and Rune: Entertaining, funny and twisty. 4+ stars.
The Corpse in Oozak’s Pond: A very good mystery, but not as funny as the previous books in the series. 3+ stars.
--

Verdict: I have put all the remaining books in both series on my BookMooch wishlist. I want more of those colourful characters and funny situations!

19 September 2008

Mystery author #46: John D. MacDonald

Title: One Fearful Yellow Eye
Series detective: Travis McGee
No. in series: 8 (of 21)
Year of publication: 1966
Type of mystery: Blackmail and other nefarious business
Type of investigator: Private detective
Setting & time: Chicago, Illinois, and Florida, USA; 1960s

Story:
Travis McGee responds to a call for help from his former lover, Glory Doyle Geis, and flies up to Chicago to meet her. Her brain surgeon husband had died a long, slow death and while he was dying he had managed to turn most of his assets into money which then disappeared. His grown children by his first wife are deeply suspicious of Glory, who wants to find out what happened for her own peace of mind and to prove her innocence in the matter. Travis immediately suspects blackmail, and when he starts digging he uncovers a sordid trail of blackmail and violence.

Review:
When I picked up this book to read it I knew I was about to meet one of America’s most famous fictional PIs, but I didn’t know I was in for a stylistic treat as well. MacDonald’s style is literary and erudite and Travis McGee is a philosopher who uses his brain and understanding of human nature more than muscle power to solve this case.

While the author has tried to show that McGee loves, understands and respects women, his attitude towards them comes across as paternalistic to me, which was an annoyance, but otherwise I enjoyed the book and will read more of his novels should they come my way.

Rating: A stylistic treat as well as a well plotted mystery with a though as nails detective and thriller elements. 4 stars.

13 September 2008

Reading report for August 2008

I was slightly above my average reading level in August, with 14 books, perhaps subconsciously trying to make up for June and July. I started all but one of the books I finished within the month, which is unusual. The exception was the Heyer biography which I had been reading on and off for more than a year.

I have been on a travel book kick lately, finishing 3 within the month and I have started 2 more which I expect to finish in September. I also added 2 more authors to the reading challenge. Susan Dunlop I have already reviewed, and I am planning to read a couple more of Charlotte MacLeod’s books before I post a review. I am beginning to see a light at the end of that particular tunnel and will hopefully finish the challenge by the end of the year.

Ideas for a new challenge are welcome. I am leaning towards a travel book challenge, but it may be difficult to implement as I want to read about a new country every week and don't want to read guide books.

In the months to come you may notice books featuring Egypt in some way popping up on these reading lists, and for good reason: I am planning to go there, either next year or in 2010. Any recommendations are welcome – not just for guides but for travelogues (books or blogs), history, archaeology, novels, cookbooks, websites, movies and TV shows, and in fact anything you can think of that can help me plan my trip and keep up my enthusiasm for it.

The Books:
Mary Higgins Clark: My Gal Sunday (short crime stories/mysteries)
Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer: Agnes and the Hitman (romantic thriller)
Deborah Donnelly: You May Now Kill the Bride (murder mystery)
Susan Dunlap: Karma (murder mystery)
Joann Fletcher: Ancient Egypt: Life, Myth and Art (popular history/archaelogy)
Jane Aiken Hodge: The Private World of Georgette Heyer (biography)
Charlotte MacLeod: The Family Vault & The Withdrawing Room (murder mysteries)
Larry McMurtry: Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (travel)
Mary Morris: Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone (travel)
Eric Newby: Slowly Down the Ganges (travel)
Ellis Peters: Black is the Colour of My True Love's Heart & Never Pick Up Hitch-hikers (murder mysteries)
Nora Roberts: Sea Swept (romance)

07 September 2008

Mystery author #45: Susan Dunlap

Title: Karma
Series detective: Jill Smith
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1981
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Berkeley, California, USA; 1980s

Story:
Jill Smith is off duty when she witnesses the mysterious murder of a guru at a Buddhist temple, but as the first officer on the scene she gets to lead the investigation, which soon turns out to be anything but simple. A number of people have various reasons for wanting the victim dead, most of them have something to hide, and none are willing to reveal all they know.

Review:
This is an enjoyably twisty mystery, plot driven with a nice old-fashioned puzzle plot. There are a number of red herrings, and like in so many good detective novels, the murderer is hiding in plain view all the time.
The negative thing is that Jill, the investigator, is in no way a unique character. She is just a typical stereotypical literary cop: married to her job, divorced because of it, seems to have few friends (all of them cops), lives like a slob because nothing matters except her job, etc. Her voice – this being a first person narrative – is in no way special, simply a straightforward storytelling that could just as easily have been written in the third person, and worst of all: the author seems to have neglected to give her a sense of humour. I hope Dunlop will allow her to grow a real personality in the following books.

Rating: An enjoyable puzzle plot with a bland lead character. 2+ stars.


Title: Too Close to the Edge
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1987
Type of mystery: Murder

Story:
Jill Smith helps a wheelchair-bound activist home after a minor accident. The next day she is called to the scene of the woman’s murder, at the edge of an old landfill currently occupied by transients and old hippies, but intended as a future building site for an apartment complex for disabled people. The woman turns out to have been involved in the scheme, and as Jill delves deeper into the case and the woman’s personal life, it turns out that either or both could have been the cause of the murder.

Review:
This time around there is humour, mostly of the “I so know what she’s talking about” kind. Jill has developed a personality (of sorts), but I have discovered that I just don’t like her, perhaps because I see in her some negative traits that I don’t like in myself (never mind which ones). The plot is tight and well-thought out, and while I had my suspicions about the identity of the killer and their reasons (which turned out to be right), it was fun to see the plot unfold and some pretty good thriller elements pop up near the end.

Rating: Another good plot-driven puzzle mystery. 3 + stars.

Verdict: I don’t feel like doing an analysis so I will let it suffice to say that I recommend the above books, and expect the rest to be of similar quality. I will definitely be reading more, but since neither book is a keeper, I think in the future I will get Dunlap’s books from the library.

20 August 2008

Reading report for June and July 2008

The period from the last week of June, the whole of July and the first week of August was an incredibly busy time for me. First came a 3 week intensive summer school in Croatia, during which time I read only 3 books, then a 12 day stop at home, followed by a 10 day holiday in the USA, during which I read a total of 1 book. I am surprised that I managed to read as many as of 16 books in June and July, but of course most of them were June reads.

Of the June books, 2 were rereads.

Books I read in June:
B.M. Gill: Seminar for Murder
Nick Hornby: High Fidelity
Linda Howard ofl.: Under the Boardwalk
Tim Moore: Spanish Steps
J.D. Robb: Betrayal in Death & Interlude in Death
Margaret Truman: Murder in the Smithsonian

Rereads in June:
Jennifer Crusie: Anyone but you & Bet me

Books I read in July:
Polly Evans: On a Hoof and a Prayer
Georgette Heyer: Powder and Patch & April lady
Timothy Holme: The Neapolitan Streak
Hrafn Jökulsson : Þar sem vegurinn endar
Jerry Stanley: Children of the dust bowl

Reread in July:
Georgette Heyer: The Unknown Ajax

13 August 2008

Bibliophile reviews Roads: Driving America’s great highways by Larry McMurtry

Year published: 2000
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: USA, 20th century

At the end of the second millennium acclaimed author Larry McMurtry set out to drive along some of America’s interstate highways. Each month he would choose one or more interstate, fly to the end of the road or a handy stop along the way, rent a car and drive home to Texas. Most of the roads he chose were ones he knew already, but a few he had not been on before. The trip was mostly made without any stops other than the necessary ones for sleep, food or restroom breaks, and generally at or above the maximum speed limit.

If this sounds like an unlikely premise for a travelogue, I agree that it is, but McMurtry has managed to write a readable book about it nonetheless, as have others, like the previously reviewed books by Rosie Thomas and Tim Cahill.

Roads is not a book for people who like authors who stay in one place for long stretches of time and really get to know a place. Neither is it for people who want to read about positive travel experiences written by optimistic and upbeat writers.

If you like the “getting there” part of travel as much or more than the “being there” part, if you appreciate the experience of just driving somewhere without feeling the need to stop at every roadside attraction (as people will do when they have been there a dozen times before), you have experienced the American interstate highway system first hand or want to find out what it is like, you like to learn about new authors and books or new things about authors you know, and you can tolerate writing that is occasionally grumpy and judgmental and frequently negative, but also sometimes funny, insightful and even inspiring, I recommend this book.

As can be read between the lines of the above description, this book is an uneven read. It gives the impression that the author didn’t quite know what he wanted to do with it. The core is his often brilliant descriptions of what it’s like to drive, aimlessly or purposefully, along the interstates, to the point that the roads become like characters in a novel, each with a distinctive personality, but then it jumps to recommendations or short discussions of authors (and their books) who live or lived in places he passes on his journeys, to his likes or dislikes of places, to personal introspection and recollections that sometimes are connected to the journey, but often have nothing to do with it - just the kind of thoughts that often pop into one's head when driving alone. He does seem to be drawing a parallel between journeying on the roads and his own journey of rediscovery after he suffered what he calls “loss of personality” following his heart surgery in 1991, but those passages are too few to really constitute a major theme in the book.

I enjoyed reading Roads on some levels, having had personal experience of some of the roads and places he visited, but on other levels I found it confusing, due to the reasons already stated above. It is going on my keeper shelf for now, as it is the most modern American road trip book I own and I would like to have it as a reference for a road trip I am planning in the USA, but as a reading experience I can only really give it 2 1/2 stars (out of a possible 5).

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Now I think I need to go and read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways, about driving the little roads of the USA.

10 August 2008

Bibliphile reviews Strangled Prose (mystery) by Joan Hess

Series detective: Claire Malloy
No. in series: 1
Year of publication: 1986
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Amateur, aided and thwarted by police
Setting & time: Arkansas, USA; mid 1980's


I recently found this review which I wrote ages ago, but then put aside as I wasn't certain I should publish, as it may seem a bit too much like a rant. I decided that I would publish it, as it illustrates something that really nags me, not only about the occasional mystery, but also about some romances. It concerns behaviour that is designed to really make me lose all sympathy for characters guilty of it.

Story: Claire Malloy, in spite of her unflattering opinions of romance novels, agrees to host the publication party of her friend Mildred's (aka Azalea Twilight) latest offering, Professor of Passion, a torrid story about amorous goings-on at a university. A militant feminist member of the faculty invades the party and reads passages from the book that draw up an unflattering image of three faculty members: Claire herself, the teacher she has been dating, and her late husband. A couple of hours later the author is found strangled to death in her house, and suspicion falls on Claire and the two teachers. Claire struggles to prove her innocence and begins an investigation, which is alternatively helped and thwarted by police lieutenant Pete Rosen, for whom she forms an almost instant dislike (romance readers will know what that means).

Review: This is Joan Hess' first novel, and in some ways it shows. The trademark enjoyable wry humour is already there, and so is the heroine with a streak of independence a mile wide and a streak of stubbornness even wider. The twists are good too, even though I saw at least two of them coming. There is also one conspicuous case of firstbookitis, which is a problem with tenses.
The narrative is in the first person, and that person is Claire. While she is clearly telling the whole story after the fact, there is a confusion of tenses when she speaks of Mildred while the woman is still alive in the narrative. It's as if Hess couldn't decide whether the victim's identity was supposed to be a secret or not, which is ridiculous because not only is it immaterial who is murdered in most mysteries as long as there is a murder, and secondly because it is revealed in the back cover blurb who got killed. Mildred alternatively was or is, which is not good and only confuses the reader. This was the first offense, which a good editor would have caught and corrected.

SPOILER for A Really Cute Corpse follows.

There is, however, a second offense that is rather more serious, but only if looked at retrospectively. I forgave Hess for Claire's attack of TSTL (see the glossary) in the fourth book in the series, A Really Cute Corpse, but now I fear I must withdraw my forgiveness. The following rant is really about that book, not this one, but I am putting it here since it was through this book that I discovered the felony and unfortunately it affected my enjoyment of this book. In fact, had the incident not happened in the final pages this would have become my second wallbanger (see glossary) of 2006. (I will spare you a review of the other one, which was so offensive I still can't believe I actually finished it before throwing it at the wall and then into the trash).

The offense is not a case of firstbookitis, which I tend to forgive whenever there is not too much of it, but merely a well-chewed cliché writers of all fiction genres have been using since the beginnings of the novel and will continue using long after I am dead. But that is no excuse for the same character to do it twice. Perhaps she even does it in the two intervening books and the following ones as well? I do know that if I find it in one more book in the series – and I have two lined up – I will stop reading the Claire Malloy books. It is one thing to blunder repeatedly into danger without meaning to (this merely makes a character look silly, but does not necessarily earn them a TSTL stamp), but is quite another to deliberately walk alone and without anyone's knowledge (that one knows about, because obviously the cavalry arrives at exactly the right moment) into danger when one suspects that one will be faced with someone who has already killed at least once and is probably desperate to keep their identity secret. A character who does this once can be excused on the basis of having misread the situation, but a series character who does not learn from her mistakes is unforgivable, and it is especially bad because she perpetrates exactly the kind of folly that makes many romance heroines look like stupid twits in need of (a man's) protection and which has drawn the disapproval of many romance readers and helped create a bad reputation for the genre. It is no less offensive in a mystery than it is in a romance.

*Damn, I should never write reviews just after I've read a book that upsets me.*

Rating: Would have got a 3+ if it had not been for already having read a later installation in the same series where the same TSTL behaviour was perpetrated by the same heroine. As it is, I feel I can only reward it 2 stars, even though I really should withdraw a star from A Really Cute Corpse instead of witholding one from this one (I will not, however, as the star reflects my enjoyment at the time of reading). Read it anyway, especially if you don't mind TSTL incidents.

Mystery author # 44: Margaret Truman

Margaret Truman, who died in January of this year, wrote a number of non-fiction books, mostly dealing with the White House and her parents, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. She also wrote a series of mysteries that take place at various landmarks in Washington D.C. In the Wikipedia article on her it is said that it has been claimed that the books were ghost-written, I suppose because someone decided it was beneath her to write mysteries.

The books in the Capital Crime series can be divided into two sub-series: those that feature Annabel Reed and/or Mackenzie Smith as the detectives, and those that don’t. I read one of each, not out of any particular choice, but because those were the ones I owned.

Title: Murder at the Library of Congress
Detective: Annabel Reed-Smith
No. in series: # 16 in the Capital Crimes series; # 8 in the sub-series featuring Annabel Read (-Smith) and Mackenzie Smith
Year of publication: 1999
Type of mystery: Murder, stalking
Type of investigator: Amateur (lawyer, but not in a professional capacity)
Setting & time: Washington, D.C., USA; 1990s

Story:
Small-time thieves steal a seemingly worthless painting from a museum in Florida, by commission. Meanwhile, Annabel Reed-Smith is in the Library of Congress, researching an article for a magazine about a man who was the companion of Christopher Columbus on his first three journeys to the New World. A very unpleasant and unpopular but brilliant scholar on the subject is murdered at his desk and Annabel is drawn into the investigation when she discovers the body. A hard-nosed news reporter starts sniffing around and uncovers some interesting information connecting the two cases, and a scandal looms over the library.

Review:
I found this book to be full of deftly drawn if somewhat stereotyped characters and offering some interesting twists and turns, but the clues were too obvious for someone who likes to test their mettle against the investigators. The first 2/3 of the book is slow going, mostly a gathering of clues, and then finally the pace quickens. I kept expecting a final twist, but it never came: all my guesses as to who was the killer, who was the other villain and who the creep, were correct, so my anticipation was all for nothing.

Rating: A mystery with an interesting setting but somewhat too obvious a solution. 2 stars.
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Title: Murder in the Smithsonian
Detectives: Captain Mac Hanrahan of Washington Metropolitan Police Department; Heather McBean, museum curator
No. in series: 4
Year of publication: 1983
Type of mystery: Murder, theft
Type of investigator: Police, aided by an amateur
Setting & time: Washington D.C., USA, 1980s

Story:
Shortly after learning a dangerous secret but before he can reveal it, Dr. Lewis Tunney is murdered at a reception in the Smithsonian Museum. His fiancée, Heather McBean, arrives in D.C shortly afterwards, determined to find his killer. When she is attacked and mugged and her hotel room searched, it becomes apparent that whoever killed Lewis thinks she has information that can incriminate them. A shadowy acquaintance of hers may know something, and so may some of the museum staff, and in the end the only person she can trust is Captain Hanrahan of the Washington D.C. police and together they try to solve the case.

Review:
This is a much better mystery than the previous one I read by Truman. The characters are more rounded, although some still smack of stereotyping, the twists and red herrings are clever and well done, and the story moves fast from beginning to end. I was in doubt the whole time as to who the villain was, and I only found out for certain at the same time as Heather did, while still getting a fair opportunity to solve the case ahead of the sleuths.

Rating: An excellent mystery thriller with historical overtones. 4 stars.
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Verdict: I’m not going to analyse Truman’s writing style or plotting abilities, but will let it suffice to say that I will read more of her books should they come my way.

24 July 2008

Bibliophile reviews On a Hoof and a Prayer: Around Argentina at a Gallop by Polly Evans

Year published: 2006
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Argentina, 21st century

Polly Evans seems to have settled into a career as a travel writer, seeking out one adventure after the other. I don’t know what her journey in China was like, or her bike ride around New Zealand, but I know that her trip to Argentina was a typical whirlwind tour of tourist travel destinations. That she managed to squeeze out of it a semi-interesting travelogue is mostly due to 2 things:
1. She dug up some fascinating snippets of Argentinian history that she used to spice up the narrative.
2. She included horses and her efforts to learn to ride them.

Without the historical tidbits and the descriptions of her riding lessons and her subsequent rides and relationships with horses and her increasing confidence as a rider, I don’t see how On a Hoof and a Prayer could possibly have been stretched to book length, or even been made interesting enough to get published.

Much as I enjoyed her first book, It’s Not About the Tapas, I find this one to be little more than a book-length “what I did on my holidays” essay, something anyone could have done. She visits some interesting places, but it is mostly the historical snippets that make them interesting, not what she saw and did there. The writing is good, and she does manage to give a few poignant descriptions of places, nature and animals, but unfortunately her journey simply isn’t all that interesting. Gerald Durrell, Michael Palin and Tim Cahill have written more interesting accounts of their visits to Patagonia, for example (and I am sure Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux have as well, but I haven’t actually read their Patagonia books, so I can’t comment on them).

By the way, if you expect to read about hair-raising adventures on horseback and exciting fast rides, don’t bother opening the book. I am of the opinion that the subtitle, Around Argentina at a Gallop, refers to her speed of travelling, because she spent relatively little time actually galloping on horseback over the pampas.

Rating: A mildly interesting travelogue about a typical tourist holiday in Argentina. Mostly recommended if you are not familiar with Argentina or haven’t read some of the more interesting travelogues written about the country. 2 stars.

22 July 2008

Bibliophile reviews Seminar for Murder by B.M. Gill

Series detective: Detective Chief Inspector Tom Maybridge
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 1985
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: London, England; 1980s

Story:
D.C. Maybridge is asked to hold a lecture on ballistics at a seminar for mystery writers. When the man in charge of the seminar is found dead, his body mutilated after death, with a taunting note to Maybridge pinned to the headboard above his body, there are a number of possible suspects, and Maybridge and company have to unravel a tangled web of alibis and find the truth.

SPOILER WARNING
From here onwards there may be spoilers, hopefully not serious ones, but you never know.


..
.
..


I did warn you…

Review:
Not giving the readers a chance to test themselves against the detective is one of the few infractions agains the principle rules of mystery writing that I can not abide by in a straight (i.e. not supernatural or sci-fi) mystery. A deus ex machina solution is another. Some authors have got away with breaking these rules by being entertaining enough or bold enough to be forgiven, but Gill fails on both accounts. The story is only mildly interesting, the plot starts to fall apart somewhere around the discovery of the second body, and the characters are bland and forgettable. Maybridge, for example, is a stock character with few if any characteristics to distinguish him from a hundred other fictional detectives cast from the same mold. The story starts well enough, with a group of writers and a police officer gathered at a seminar on mystery writing, but Gill fails to make the most of it. Then there is the breaking of a third principal rule, one which I think I will not mention, as it would give away too much. Suffice to say that if you like mysteries that pit you, the reader, against murderer and detective in a game of wits, you will probably not enjoy this book, as both detective and reader are in the dark for about the same length of time.

Rating: A bland and uninteresting mystery that breaks too many author to reader courtesy rules. 2- stars.

16 June 2008

Bibliophile reviews Tim Moore’s Spanish Steps: Travels with my donkey

Year published: 2004
Genre: Non-fiction, travel
Setting & time: Spain, 21 century

The Story:
In 2002 or 3 or thereabouts, travel writer and journalist Tim Moore set out to trace the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim trail from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela in Spain, with Shinto, a pack donkey, in tow. Unable to find stabling for Shinto in St Jean, they actually stated the journey about 10 km up the road. What followed were 40 days and 750 km. of slow travelling. While some of the dangers braved by medieval pilgrims were no longer available, such as robbers, bears and wolves, the weather was still there to inconvenience them just like it did their predecessors, sometimes with blistering heat and sometimes with pouring rain, as were such age-old annoyances as snoring roommates and moochers. Then there were hardships undreamt of by the pilgrims of old, such as cars and the overpowering heat of asphalt under the sun. On the other hand, there was the fact that the next eatery or supermarket was never more than a few hours walk way, the hostels, while often primitive, had running water and electrical lights, and it would have been easy to abandon the journey at any time and be home in a few hours, a luxury the pilgrims didn’t have, so it really was impossible to experience the journey in the way the medieval pilgrims did. And Moore doesn't pretend to, which is good. He describes people, mostly other pilgrims he met upon the road, with a deft pen, sometimes kindly, sometimes mockingly, not sparing himself when he thinks he deserves it, and writes good-humouredly about his almost constant battles to get Shinto to cross bridges and to stop the donkey from following him into every building he enters.

Technique and plot:
Here is finally a book by Tim Moore that I am almost completely happy with, apart from his not knowing when to end a running joke that stopped being funny after chapter 4, if it was ever funny in the first place (if you like zoophilia jokes, it will no doubt keep you entertained for longer than it did me). I enjoyed Frost on my Moustache but thought Moore was trying too hard to imitate Bill Bryson, and I thought French Revolutions, while occasionally funny and full of interesting trivia about the Tour de France, was too whiny over all to be a really good travelogue. But Spanish Steps is neither. It is one of the best travelogues I have read in recent years, a nicely balanced blend of humour and seriousness, past history and personal growth, peppered with descriptions of landscapes, events, people and animals encountered along the way.
If you are looking for a tale of enlightenment and religious experiences, this is not that kind of book. Moore didn’t do the pilgrimage for religious reasons, and he didn’t have any religious experiences along the way, although some of his fellow travellers seem to have.

Rating: An enjoyable and honest travelogue. Recommended. 4 stars.

P.S.
Apparently his most recent book is about the people who came in last with zero points in the Eurovision Song Contest. Should be interesting.

14 June 2008

Reading report for May 2008

I was slightly over my average in May and finished 16 books, all but one that I started reading within the month, which may be a record for me. The classic of the month was one of the minor Icelandic sagas, that of Bárður snæfellsás. This particular saga reads like a myth, as the central character becomes a sort of god or godly protecting presence. That is not to say he didn't exist at one point - the story may well be based on one of the original Nordic settlers of Iceland - but it has become a hero tale that mixes fact and fiction, much like the saga of Grettir the strong.

I am abandoning The Canterbury Tales, as they have become a chore and I am not enjoying them as I should. I will try again when I am in the right mood.

Bárðar Saga Snæfellsáss
Suzanne Brockmann: Hot Target
Rita Mae Brown: Rest In Pieces; Catch As Cat Can
Carol Higgins Clark: Decked
Jennifer Crusie, Eileen Dreyer, Anne Stuart: The Unfortunate Miss Fortunes
Dara Joy: Rejar
Marian Keyes: Further Under The Duvet
Connie Lane: Reinventing Romeo
Susan Elizabeth Phillips: Nobody's Baby But Mine; First Lady
Mary Roberts Rinehart: K
Nora Roberts: A Little Fate; Jewels Of The Sun, Tears Of The Moon, Heart Of The Sea

13 June 2008

Collecting bookmarks

I have been slowly but surely accruing a collection of bookmarks over the years. Some are plain and utilitarian, several are adverts for books, publishers or bookstores, some are library marks, others are works of art. I have never really considered myself a collector of bookmarks – but being an avid reader, I grab them when and wherever I come across them, especially when they are free. The reason, of course, is that I keep losing them, usually inside books. Still, I have managed not to lose some of them and I estimate that I have maybe around 40, tucked away inside books and in my bookmarks holder.

A couple of years ago I got the idea of buying souvenir bookmarks when I travel, and the first ones I got are some lovely ones with panoramic photos of American national parks I visited last spring. This, however, is the farthest I have taken bookmark collecting. Perhaps it’s because I do not want to end up like my grandmother, whose postcard collection has taken over her larder and numbers somewhere high in the five digit range, but the main reason is that I would rather have room for more books. However, postcard collecting is a serious hobby for some:

This guy's collection made it into the Guinness Book of Records:
Frank Divendal. All I can say is WOW!

I found the article on Divendal on a website dedicated to bookmarks: Mirage bookmark


And here are some Flickr groups dedicated to showcasing bookmarks:

Bookmarks

Vintage Bookmarks

Advertising Bookmarks

Amazing Bookmarks

12 June 2008

Have you read all those books?

Do you hear this on a regular basis? Does it annoy you or do you answer with a smile?

I dread the day when my (rapidly growing) reference library starts drawing this question. I think that to ask someone whose library is a work tool (such as a teacher, lawyer or writer or indeed a translator like myself) this question shows both ignorance and bad manners. I’m sure mechanics or dentists don’t often get asked if they really use all their tools, but display a wall of bookcases full of reference books and sooner or later someone will in all earnestness ask you if you have really read them all. I mean, come on, how many people do you know who have read the entire Oxford English Dictionary?

As for book collections meant mainly for pleasure reading, what the people who ask this question don’t realise is that for someone whose main hobby is reading, the point of having many books is not that you have read them all and are now proudly displaying your accomplishment, but that you don’t ever want to run out of something to read. This I smilingly explain to those who ask. After all, they are probably expressing admiration or wonder rather than disapproval (I hope).

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P.S. How can you tell you have too many books?

A possible answer: When you can no longer open the refrigerator or use the toilet because of the books stacked in front of them, and you live in constant fear of bookslides.

Honest answer: A true bibliophile can never have too many books.