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).

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.