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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.