30 June 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: The Steam Pig by James McClure

Year of publication: 1971
Series and no.: Kramer & Zondi, no. 1.
Genre: Police procedural
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: A fictional city in South-Africa, 1970s.

The clever murder of a young woman is discovered by accident and Lieutenant Kramer and his assistant, D.S. Zondi, are handed the case. They discover a number of surprises about the young woman, who had lived a double life, and the people who might have wanted her dead.

Review and rating:
This is the first book in a series featuring the unlikely but efficient detective team of Kramer and Zondi. The story takes place in Apartheid-era South-Africa and Kramer is an Afrikaner and Zondi a Zulu, which makes for a complicated, layered relationship. Kramer is careful to maintain an outward appearance of being a proper white supremacist, but when more closely examined the relationship between the two men is really one between a senior officer and a loyal junior one and clearly based on mutual respect and recognition of each other's talents and shortcomings rather than on racial status.

The story not only reveals a good, solid working relationship between a black man and a white man in a racially divided country, but it is also a stinging criticism of the prejudices, contradictions and miseries of Apartheid.

The story combines the hard-boiled violence and gritty realism of the noir genre with the conventions of the police procedural, and gives us characters that come alive in the telling and an exciting narrative full of gallows humour, clever twists, red herrings and other surprises. 4+ stars.

Books left in challenge: 97. This is not another miscount – I got Grisham's A Time to Kill from the library and was no more than a few pages in when I realised that I had already read it. The story came back to me in enough detail that I don’t find it necessary to reread it.

Awards and nominations: The CWA Gold Dagger, 1971.

28 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 27

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other people have lent me.
Anatole France

27 June 2009

TBR list cull

I’ve decided to cull The Book Club and take if off the TBR challenge list without finishing it. It passed the 2 chapters/50 page test, but by chapter six I realised it wasn’t keeping my attention as it should. None of the characters felt really sympathetic, their stories were falling into predictable grooves, and I only found one of the five storylines appealing. In short, it was becoming tedious to read and I found myself skipping paragraphs - a sure sign I'm not enjoying a book.

I’m replacing it with the next book I feel like reading that isn’t on the list but fits the challenge.

26 June 2009

Mystery review: An English Murder by Cyril Hare

Genre/sub-genre: Country-house mystery
Year of publication: 1951
Type of investigator: Amateur
Setting & time: A country manor, England; mid-20th century.

A man is murdered in a snow-bound country house at Christmas, and it is up to a rather unusual sleuth to put together the pieces of the puzzle of a murder with a peciliarly English motive.

This is one of only a handful of books that have really surprised and delighted me this year. The story is well written, light, sparkling and excellently plotted and the characters, while all more or less based on certain stereotypes readers of Golden Age mysteries are familiar with, nevertheless are realistic enough to satisfy the literary critic’s demand for rounded characters. What delighted me most, however, was the playful combination of the familiar with the unexpected.

Hare showed with this novel that he really knew the mystery genre inside and out and could manipulate its conventions to produce a novel that is at once both thoroughly traditional and that breaks – or rather broke – with the tradition. The setting could hardly be more traditionally Golden Age English: a country manor house isolated by bad weather, a small number of suspects who all had reasons to want the victim (and in some cases each other) dead, high drama (or melodrama), hidden secrets, and a genteel, bloodless murder.

Then there are the untraditional, unexpected aspects. For one, the crime might actually have been committed by a servant (whether it was or not, I will not reveal). As I have mentioned before, I have never come across any evidence that the "butler did it" rule about the crime not being committed by a servant or other "socially inferior" person is based on a common plot element. I think it is merely based on what the rule-makers, generally middle class or higher placed socially, saw as common sense, so there right away is one unusual aspect. Another is the breakdown of the class order that becomes apparent as the story unwinds. Then there are the motive, the sleuth, and the manner in which he uncovers the motive. Depending on how you look at it, these points might be considered either quite unexpected or entirely predictable. Certainly the motive is, as far as I know, quite unique.

All these points come together to produce a delightful and entertaining mystery.

Rating: An excellent story that twists the traditional cosy country manor mystery into something rare and interesting. 5 stars.

P.S.: I have another Cyril Hare mystery lined up in the Top Mysteries challenge. It will be interesting to see how it compares with this one.

25 June 2009

Holiday reading and mislaid book

I don't know what I was thinking when I packed for my recent holiday.

I have a rule - a very good one, in my opinion - of travelling with books: when going abroad, take as many as are needed to take you through the "getting there" stage, i.e. the whole trip from home to hotel. This usually means three books, although for a flight to the US I might take five, or load some audio books into my mp3 player. Then, once I get there, I go shopping for more books. When I travel, it's usually with someone else at the wheel, be it on an aeroplane, ship, train, bus or car, giving me ample time to read while being transported from place to place.

When packing for this camping holiday, in a fit of reader's optimism I took something like 15 books with me, forgetting that this time I was driving myself. The plan was to read for 30 minutes or so before bedtime, at mealtimes and whenever the weather was too bad to sight-see or hike. I ended up finishing one book, because at the end of the day I was usually just too tired to read, and my meals were mostly hurried affairs taken sitting behind the wheel of the car. It was a great holiday anyway, but next time I'll only pack 2 books.

BTW, I've mislaid Penny Black, so the promised review will be delayed until I can find and finish it. This is what can happen when one takes too many books on holiday. It's probably lurking somewhere in the car, or possibly at the bottom of the tent bag.

Quotation of the day no. 26

One sure window into a person's soul is his reading list.
Mary B. W. Tabor

24 June 2009

Wednesday reading experience #25

Try a book by Halldór Laxness.

He was, and still is, the undisputed laureate of Icelandic literature and our only Nobel Prize winner. His best known novel, both at home and abroad, is Independent People, but to a first-time reader I recommend the shorter historical novel Iceland’s Bell or the coming-of-age story The Fish can Sing.

23 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 25

Read to me - Jane Yolen

Read to me riddles and read to me rhymes
Read to me stories of magical times
Read to me tales about castles and kings
Read to me stories of fabulous things
Read to me pirates and read to me knights
Read to me dragons and dragon-book fights
Read to me spaceships and cowboys and then
When you are finished- please read them again.

22 June 2009

21 June 2009

Mystery review: The Case of the Velvet Claws by Earle Stanley Gardner

This book is getting downgraded - seems the Top Mysteries List I started working with had some errors in it and this book had been put on the list by by a fan who felt it belonged there. No matter, it's a good mystery anyway.

Year of publication: 1933
Series and no.: Perry Mason, no. 1
Genre: Mystery
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Lawyer
Setting & time: Los Angeles, USA; 1930s.

A woman comes to Perry Mason to get help in keeping certain facts from being printed in a sleasy tabloid, facts that can hurt not just her marriage but also the career of a local politician. But then her husband is murdered and things get complicated.

Before starting reading this book, my very first Perry Mason story, I had assumed that I would be reading a legal mystery-thriller, perhaps something that would take place at least partially in a courtroom. This belief comes from my mother, who was a fan of the Perry Mason TV show when she was younger and always talked of him as if he were a younger version of Ben Matlock. For the purpose of this particular story he could just as well have been a private detective - not an entirely scrupulous one. I confess my surprise at finding someone who it seems certain was modelled on Sam Spade, except with a greater sense of loyalty to his clients. (There are more parallels with The Maltese Falcon, but I'm not in the mood to write a comparative essay. If you're interested, you'll have to have a look for yourself).

The tone of the book is unmistakably hard-boiled, and there are hard-boiled story elements in it, such as the detective who can just as easily use brawn as he does brain, a femme fatale in the Brigid O’Shaughnessy mold (plus a familiar, loyal, nice girl secretary for contrast) and a sleasy journalist, on top of enough double-crossing to make one’s head spin. Of course, there isn’t really enough violence, sex, slease and cynicism to make it a real hard-boiled novel, but it has the veneer of one. As a matter of fact I find the style ever so slightly grating, but the plotting makes up for it.

Like so many other detective novels I have read, there is a definite "before and after the murder" element to the story. I don't just mean the regular lead-up and subsequent detective work, but two different but connected stories with a change of pace in between. The before part, the blackmail plot, is a tightly plotted but relatively straight-forward thriller and has Mason using his muscles and threatening people in true hard-boiled fashion, while in the "after" part the pace slows and the hard-boiled elements are toned down and Mason's brain gets a workout in a traditional puzzle plot mystery.

This story is very much plot-driven, and most of the characters are close to being cardboard cutouts or handy stereotypes, including Mason and Miss Street. I am looking forward to seeing how and if they develop into more distinct characters in subsequent books.

Rating: A thrilling, plot-driven mystery with a veneer of the hard-boiled. 4 stars.

Awards and nominations: None that I’m aware of.

20 June 2009

19 June 2009

Review: The Night the Gods Smiled by Eric Wright

Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 1983
No. in series: 1
Type of investigator: Police
Series detective: Inspector Charlie Salter
Setting & time: Toronto and Montreal, Canada; 1980's

When a college professor from Toronto is murdered in Montreal, the Montreal police request help from the Toronto police, as the man spent his last hours in the company of his Toronto colleagues, who have all returned home. The case is assigned to Inspector Salter, whose career has stalled because of office politics. He sees this as his chance to get back in the promotions game and starts work on what turns out to be a complicated case, not the least because many of the witnesses have something to hide.

Review and rating:
This is a nice little detective story, not quite a police procedural and not quite a cosy, but something in-between. In Charlie Salter, Wright has managed to create a very likeable character, and it’s refreshing that while there is some minor conflict within his marriage, it is of the kind that gets solved by the end of the book rather than lead to the separation/divorce one has come to expect when a police detective is having marriage troubles. (BTW, why on earth do authors have to bring the personal lives of their detectives into the story? Most of the time is serves little or no purpose). The mystery is intriguing, the author plays fair with the reader, and the humour is subtle and often ironic and lightens up the story. It's well worth looking for if you like gentle mysteries starring police detectives. 4 stars.

Awards: The New Blood Dagger Award, 1983; The Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for best novel, 1984; The City of Toronto Book Award, 1984.

18 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 22

When I am dead, I hope it may be said,
His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.
Hillaire Belloc (1870-1953)

17 June 2009

Wednesday reading experience #24

Try some good horror novels or supernatural thrillers.

I have enjoyed:
Shirley Jackson: The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw
Edgar Allan Poe's short stories
Algernon Blackwood's short stories and novellas, e.g. "The Willows" and "The Wendigo"
H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories
Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla”
Bram Stoker: Dracula
Mary Shelley: Frankenstein
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
William Blatty: The Exorcist (the last horror novel I read that kept me up awake at night)
Stephen King’s short story collection Skeleton Crew and his novel The Shining
Clive Barker: Cabal
Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor
Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory
Anne Rice: Interview with the Vampire (I haven’t read any of her other books, but I am told that the Vampire Chronicles get increasingly more tedious as the series wears on)
Laurell G. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series up to The Killing Dance. From then on it degenerates into horror porn, which does not interest me.

I’m looking forwards to reading some of Poppy Z. Brite’s books, and I have at least one horror novel lined up in the Top Mysteries challenge, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin. I am also planning to read some of M. R. James's ghost stories.

Other possible authors include Richard Matheson, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, John Saul and Barbara Vine.

I also recommend Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, a great study of horror literature and movies and why we enjoy it.

Finally, here are some websites to guide you in choosing an appropriate books or books:
A Guide for Horror Lovers
A Guide to Supernatural Fiction
The Literary Gothic
Sweet Despise

Please post your own suggestions for enjoyable horror novels in the comments.

P.S. If you're Icelandic: Gleðilega þjóðhátíð!

16 June 2009

Happy Bloomsday!

Today Dubliners and James Joyce fans celebrate Bloomsday, dedicated to Joyce and his creation Leonard Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses.

15 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 21

Libraries are reservoirs of strength, grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm nor cold, light nor dark. The pleasure they give is steady, unorgastic, reliable, deep and long-lasting. In any library in the world, I am at home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.
Germaine Greer (b. 1939)

13 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 19

There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love.
Christopher Morley (1890 - 1957)

12 June 2009

Top mysteries challenge review: Sadie When She Died by Ed McBain

Year of publication: 1972
Series and no.: 87th Precinct, #26.
Genre: Police procedural
Type of mystery: Murder
Type of investigator: Police officer
Setting & time: Isola, a borough in a fictional city in the USA (based on New York), 1960s or 70s.

Story: A woman is murdered and although the fingerprints of a junkie burglar are found on the murder weapon and he confesses to the killing, Detective Carella is still suspicious of her husband, who seems bent on implicating himself in the murder.

Review: This is a tense story, atmospheric, almost claustrophobic at times, with psychological undertones. McBain had a certain style and way with words that lifted his police procedurals above the average and brought him deserved fame, and he was in fine form in this book. The main plot is good, although a bit far-fetched, and the side-story about Detective Kling’s love life balances it nicely.

Rating: Another good offering from the master of the police procedural. 4,5 stars.

Books left in challenge: 100

Awards and nominations: None that I am aware of.

11 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 18

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.
-Oscar Wilde, in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

10 June 2009

Wednesday reading experience #23

If you haven’t discovered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, do give it a try.

Good starter books include the first books in each sub-series:
  • Equal Rites, which starts the Witches subseries. Good if you like female protagonists. This particular book is full of magic, but there is less magic in the books that follow, but plenty of good witches vs. evil people, vampires, witches, elves and so on.
  • Guards! Guards!, the starter book in the Guards subseries and a good place to start for a mystery fan. The books center on Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork city watch, and his trusty men, who have to solve various problems, ranging from a marauding dragon to civil war.
  • Mort, the starter book in the Death sub-series - if you’re interested in the supernatural.
  • The Colour of Magic starts the Rincewind subseries, and is the first Discworld novel, but I would only advice a purist to begin there, as it and its sequel, The Light Fantastic are not as good as some of the later novels. I do recommend starting with them if you want to follow the world-building in the series.

Of the books that do not belong to a sub-series, I recommend starting with Small Gods if you’re into religion and philosophy; or Moving Pictures if you like slapstick humour and movie references.

Gentler and less interwoven with cultural, cinematic and literary references (but just as entertaining) books in the series include the young adult novels about trainee witch Tiffany Aching, starting with The Wee Free Men, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, which is a non-series story with a Discworld setting. Both can be read without previous knowledge of Discworld, but The Wee Free Men is better if you have read the books in the Witches sub-series.

I thoroughly recommend the website L-space Web, which contains more information than any neophyte can possibly want about Pratchett and his books, and not nearly enough for the hard-core fans. I suggest starting with the Books & Writings chapter and continuing on from there. There is also a newsletter, which will start making sense once you have read the books.

Readers who want to get to know Pratchett without reading Discworld, can either read the Johnny Maxwell trilogy or the Bromeliad trilogy, both of which take place in fantasy versions of our world. Both are written for teens but are enjoyable for adults.

His latest novel is Nation, a non-Discworld YA fantasy novel. I haven’t read it, but am looking forward to doing so.

09 June 2009

Quotation of the day no. 17

To read a book for the first time is to make an acquaintance with a new friend; to read it for a second time, is to meet an old one.
Chinese saying

08 June 2009

I'm off on holiday

I am going away on holiday today and will not be posting much or at all for the next couple of weeks. Neither will I be able to approve or answer any comments, but don't let that stop you from commenting - I'll get to it when I come back. The Wednesday reading suggestions will post automatically while I am away, as will one or two reviews I have already written.

06 June 2009

Quotation of the day

The best stories I have heard were pointless, the best books those whose plots I can never remember, the best individuals those whom I never get anywhere with.
Henry Miller (1891-1980), from The Colossus of Maroussi

05 June 2009

Quotation of the day

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island.
Walt Disney (1901–1966)

04 June 2009

Quotation of the day

That is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed with profit.

Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)

03 June 2009

Wednesday reading experience #22

Read a book or two of poetry. I recommend reading one anthology from cover to cover, for example one of the Norton or Oxford anthologies (or something shorter) and following it up with a book of poems by an author who is included in the anthology, preferably not a “collected works” or “best of” kind of book but an original cohesive publication, like William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (or Experience depending on your mood), Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portugese”, Langston Hughes’s The Dream Keeper and other poems, Silvia Plath’s Ariel, or Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope, to name but a few.

If you find it hard to choose an anthology, think about what eras and authors you like in literature – e.g. if you like Shakespeare, you could try an anthology of Elizabethan poetry, if you like reading about the Jazz Age choose an anthology of that era, etc.

If your language is not English, choose similar works in your own language.

If you have never read poetry before, or have always found it boring, stick with it. You might be surprised at the variety of poetic forms, the colourful use of language and varied subjects – in spite what some seem to think, poetry is not all about larks and daffodils and romance.

How about this one, for example:

This Be the Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

This is verse one from a slightly longer poem by Philip Larkin. Not exactly love and roses, eh?

02 June 2009

Quotation of the day

The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you'll go.

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, 1904-1991)

01 June 2009

Reading report for May 2009

I read 22 books in May. Five of them were travelogues, which is perhaps not surprising, as I am planning my summer holidays and being tickled by the travel bug. I also read four literary novels, or perhaps five, depending on how you categorise Emma Donoghue's book, which can be called either a novel or a collection of interconnected short stories.

The challenges are going well:
  • Top Mysteries: 4
  • Icelandic books: 4
  • TBR for over a year: 9

The books:
  • Birgitta H. Halldórsdóttir : Háski á Hveravöllum (romantic thriller)
  • *Truman Capote: In Cold Blood (true crime)
  • *Sarah Caudwell: The Shortest Way To Hades (murder mystery)
  • Emma Donoghue: Kissing the Witch (fairy tales/fantasy)
  • Einar Már Guðmundsson : Riddarar hringstigans (novel)
  • Martha Gellhorn: Travels with myself and another (travelogue)
  • Knut Hamsun: Pan (novel)
  • *Michael Innes: Appleby on Ararat (murder mystery)
  • Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer: The Phantom Tollbooth (children's fantasy)
  • Norman Lewis: A Dragon Apparent (travelogue)
  • Jeff Lindsay: Darkly Dreaming Dexter (murder mystery/thriller)
  • *Peter Lovesey: The False Inspector Dew (murder mystery)
  • Frances Mayes: Bella Tuscany (travelogue)
  • Sharyn McCrumb: The Windsor Knot (murder mystery)
  • *Nicholas Meyer: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (mystery-thriller)
  • François Rabelais: Gargantua (novel)
  • Colette Rossant: Apricots on the Nile (foodie memoir)
  • Snjólaug Bragadóttir frá Skáldalæk : Holdið er torvelt að temja (romance)
  • Patrick Süskind: Sagan af herra Sommer (novel)
  • Svava Jakobsdóttir : 12 Konur (short stories)
  • Colin Thubron: The Hills Of Adonis (travelogue)
  • Honor Tracy: Winter in Castile (travelogue)

I am planning to go on a 2 week camping holiday during the second and third weeks of June. I expect my reading pace will slow down considerably during that time. I will be taking with me a number of books, all of them challenge reads except the Icelandic Roads Handbook and the Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland, which I plan to write a review of when I get back. I hope and pray that I will have good weather during this time, since it it unlikely that I will be able to find indoor accommodation at short notice, considering that most hotels and guesthouses are booked up throughout the summer. The economic problems Iceland is facing have made it very expensive to travel abroad, leading to many more Icelanders taking local holidays this year.