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


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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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