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

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.

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

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?

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.

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 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.

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.