Sunday, March 1, 2015

Reading in February 2015 and Pick of the Month

I started out the year reading nine books in January. In February I slowed down and read six books. Somewhat intentionally, but partly because work is a bear and my mind needs to rest more at night. Two of the books were non-fiction and four were mystery novels.

Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel by Barbara Gregorich is described thusly at Goodreads: "For those contemplating writing a mystery novel and those who have written one or more but are looking for fresh and invigorating insights into the approach, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel provides an overall view of how to think like a writer in general and a mystery writer in particular." I have no plans to write a mystery novel but I am interested in the process, so when the author asked me to review the book, I agreed. It was an enlightening read and enjoyable too. Review to come soon.

What Makes this Book So Great by Jo Walton was also enlightening and enjoyable, so it was a good reading month for non-fiction. I love books about books and I have enjoyed reading some of Jo Walton's books. This book gathers a selection of Walton's posts at between July 2008 to February 2011. The majority of those posts are about re-reading fantasy novels. But there are some wonderful pieces included here about reading in general. A review will follow (sometime).

These are the mysteries I read this month. Only two of them have been reviewed here. I still have reviews from December and January to catch up on.

Dancing with the Virgins by Stephen Booth

Cookie's Case by Andy Siegel

Murder in the Raw by William Campbell Gault

Too Late to Die by Bill Crider

I had a difficult decision picking a favorite between Murder in the Raw (1955) and Too Late to Die (1986). The two books were written about 30 years apart but there are some parallels between them.

Both books feature male sleuths with few hangups and fairly normal lives. OK, Brock Callahan is a former professional football star and he is setting up as a PI in Beverly Hills, California, but still he is a decent guy trying to make an honest living. The authors do a great job of evoking a sense of place. Too Late to Die features Dan Rhodes, who is up for reelection to the job of Sheriff of Blacklin County, Texas. The action takes in several small towns in that area. Each book is the first in a series and I am eager to continue reading both series. So both of the books will share the honor of Pick of the Month.

The Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme is hosted at Mysteries in Paradise. You can go HERE to see other posts and choices for favorite crime fiction reads.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Deal Me In 2015: Story #4 ("Marie: Blue Cadillac" by Michael Malone)

Every other week I draw a random card to determine what short story I will read for the Deal Me In Short Story challenge. My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

This week I drew the 2 of Spades, which corresponded to the story titled "Maria: Blue Cadillac" from a book of twelve stories about Southern women, Red Clay, Blue Cadillac. The stories are all written by Michael Malone. It shows how much I admire his writing when I purchase a book of his short stories, all very Southern in flavor, or so the reviews say. I usually avoid Southern literature.

"Marie: Blue Cadillac" by Michael Malone

I am discovering that a person's reactions to a short story is a very personal thing. (Sounds obvious but I am new to this.) In reviews I have read on this book of short stories, some reviewers pick this as the best story, others don't like it at all. 

On my first read of this story, I did not care for it at all. It felt like it had no structure. It seemed more like a vignette, like a small snapshot. I had a hard time getting into it and it ended somewhat ambiguously. 

I don't know if I read it too fast or I was too tired, but on a second read, I found it does have more depth.  The characterizations are good; some of the descriptions are wonderful. This story seemed like two stories intertwined. Marie is a beautiful young blonde, driving to Graceland in a blue Cadillac convertible to fulfill her mother's last wish. Braxton is "a high-tech sales rep going home to Memphis for his mama's sake to eat Thanksgiving dinner." His stewardess wife has just left him for a Brazilian oilman. They end up spending a few hours together.

January Magazine featured a very long article by J. Kingston Pierce on Michael Malone's books, including an interview, in December 2002. Here is a extract from the interview related to Red Clay, Blue Cadillac.
Can you tell me what, in your mind, distinguishes Southern women from those reared in other parts of the United States?
They're like women in other parts of America, just more so. As Gloria Steinem said about Ginger Rogers: She was doing everything Fred Astaire was doing, just doing it backwards in high heels. Well, Southern women are doing and enduring what other women have to do and endure, but (at least until recently) they had to do it in heels and hats and white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile, with maybe a glass of bourbon and a cigarette to get them through the magnolia part of being a steel magnolia. The women in Red Clay, Blue Cadillac are all very strong people. Sometimes they have to pretend otherwise.
By the way, I hear that Sourcebooks had another title in mind for this collection of stories.
They wanted to call it All the Wrong Women, but I told them that you obviously don't know Southern women. Just because they murder their husbands doesn't make them bad people.
That statement -- "white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile" -- is so true and very disturbing. My feelings about that subject probably mean I would benefit from reading more books about and set in the South, not less.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Three Years of Blogging

Today is the third anniversary of my first blog post. I went back and read that post. This was the paragraph that described my reading interests at the time.
I read mainly mysteries. And have been since my late teens and twenties. I enjoy vintage mysteries and newer mystery series. I prefer more traditional mysteries, but there are thrillers I have enjoyed, and the line between mystery and thriller is often blurred. My favorite vintage mystery author is Rex Stout. Currently my favorite contemporary writer of mysteries is Elizabeth George. And I am often inspired by reading mystery blogs to try new authors and sub-genres. 
I was surprised. Rex Stout is still my favorite vintage mystery author, but Elizabeth George is entirely off my radar. Her latest mysteries have been very, very long and the stories don't maintain interest for that length.

So which authors have become my favorites in the last three years?

My second entry on the blog was a review of Berlin Game by Len Deighton, and in March 2012  I reviewed (very briefly) Mexico Set, London Match, and Winter by the same author.  Since then I have read five more books by that author.

Other authors I really enjoy are John Lawton and Olen Steinhauer.  In the last year I discovered Mick Herron, reading one from each of his two series. I am sure there are others I am forgetting at the moment.

I have discovered Canadian authors that I really enjoy. My favorites are L. R. Wright, Maureen Jennings, and John Brady. But again, too many good ones to list them all.

I have added more science fiction and fantasy books to my reading in the last couple of years, as I discovered challenges featuring those genres. I especially enjoy books that combine mystery plots and science fiction or fantasy, such as the Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters or the  PC Peter Grant series by Ben Aaronovitch.

The best thing about blogging continues to be the community of book bloggers who share discoveries and ideas. As someone who always has a book going and devours mystery novels, it is wonderful to be able to communicate with and learn from others who share my passions.  I thought I knew a lot about older mystery novels (pre-1960's) before I started blogging, but blogging opened my eyes to how much I do not know about mysteries written during that time period.

For this post, I have featured two old editions of books I purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale 7 or 8 years ago. Both are in very bad condition but appeal to me. The Rex Stout is a book club edition. I plan to read them sometime this year. Of course, the Rex Stout book will be a re-read.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Calling: Inger Ash Wolfe

Excerpt from the dust jacket description:
Detective Inspector Hazel Micallef has lived all her days in the small town of Port Dundas and is now making her way toward retirement with something less than grace. Hobbled by a bad back and a dependence on painkillers, and feeling blindsided by divorce after nearly four decades of marriage, sixty-one-year-old Hazel has only the constructive criticism of her old goat of a mother and her own sharp tongue to buoy her. But when a terminally ill Port Dundas woman is gruesomely murdered in her own home, Hazel and her understaffed department must spring to life. 
This book is set in northern Canada, in Ontario. Usually, there is not a lot going on in Port Dundas, crimewise. It is a small town, and the small town relationships and expectations are an element in the story. Hazel and her staff are not adequately supported by her superiors in Toronto when violent crime comes to Port Dundas.

The author describes Hazel, the main character:
Hazel Micallef was a 62-year-old interim police chief on a small-town force, an investigator by training, who lived with her mother, the larger-than-life ex-mayor of the town. Hazel was divorced and not particularly likeable, with an imposing body that was racked by pain. She was intelligent, tenacious and, because convinced of her own moral rectitude, in constant conflict with others.
If all this novel had was Hazel's character, it would still be great. But the novel has much more; the supporting cast of characters that she works with (or against) also push the novel up a notch. There are established members of the police department of Port Dundas who have worked with Hazel for years and new arrivals sent to help out with the overload. Even the glimpses we get of some of the victims or other persons who have dealt with the killer are convincing, realistic portrayals.

The novel is a serial killer story and thus not my favorite type of read. I usually find that serial killers are too obsessed or crazy to provide the kind of tension I like in a novel. The actual identity is often not the issue but how to stop them. The deaths are often grotesque, disgusting, and dwelled upon more than I am comfortable with. Whether the subject matter and the manner of the deaths in this book would be offensive to some readers, I am not sure. I did not find this one very offensive in that area.

This novel had me entranced from the beginning. The story was compelling and the twists and turns made the 371 pages seem like half of that. Highly recommended, unless you really cannot take serial killer books.

Inger Ash Wolfe is a pseudonym for Canadian author Michael Redhill. He announced he was the author of the Hazel Micallef series in July 2012, the same month that the third book, A Door in the River, was published.



Publisher:   Harcourt, Inc., 2008
Length:       371 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Hazel Micallef #1
Setting:      Ontario, Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Books of 1955: Murder in the Raw by William Campbell Gault

William Campbell Gault started out writing stories for pulp magazines. According to the entry for this author in Paperback Confidential by Brian Ritt, he was writing for the "spicy" pulps and sports pulps in the 1930's and wrote for the detective pulps in the 1940's and 1950's.

Gault's first novel was Don't Cry for Me, published in 1952. It won the Best First Novel Edgar for that year. In 1955, he published Ring Around Rosa, the first in a series of novels featuring Brock Callahan, an ex-LA Ram football player, who becomes a private detective in Beverly Hills, California. That novel was later published under the name Murder in the Raw. The paperback edition I read had that title.

In this first book in the series, Callahan has just started his PI business and still wonders if he has it in him to go back to a year or two more of football. Although he has some contacts with the police in the area, in general they give him a hard time. Brock is doing his best to be an honest detective and stay within the law.

The basic story is that Callahan sets up his business and the first client who walks into his office is Juan Mira, a retired Filipino boxer. Juan wants to hire Callahan to find his missing girlfriend, Rosa Carmona, a dancer in a nightclub. Callahan does not want to take his money; he thinks Juan just wants him to make his girlfriend return to him. Juan talks Callahan into trying to find Rosa and things rapidly get more complicated.
Juan stood about five-four and would now weigh about a hundred and thirty. He wore a neat and creamy tropical weave suit and white buck shoes and a big-brimmed leghorn hat with an extremely colorful band. There are not many Miras in Beverly Hills; Juan was out of his league.
The cover of my edition describes the book as a hard-boiled classic. This book seemed to have less sex and violence than many books in that genre.

Brock often referred to his car as his "flivver." I am familiar with the word but haven't seen it used a lot, in books of any vintage.
My flivver is what is known as the Victoria model and it has really deluxe upholstery in white and green plastic. Tufted and buttoned and with beaded edges, I was so proud of it. 
I opened the door and turned sick.
Somebody had really worked the upholstery over with a knife. It was slashed viciously, both the front and rear seats. It was ruined.
The definition of "flivver" from the Urban Dictionary:
A 1930s (Great Depression era) slang term for a old, dilapidated, and/or otherwise ragged-out automobiles; appears commonly in 1930s literature like Jack Conroy's "The Disinherited."
Many of the books written by Gault feature sports. In addition to football, there is boxing, racing, and golf. In the mid-1960's and the 1970's he turned to juvenile fiction, often featuring sports, which was more lucrative. In the 1980's he returned to the Brock Callahan series and other crime fiction novels.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and I am glad I finally sampled this author's work. I will be looking for more in the Brock Callahan series and also plan to try some of his other mysteries.



Publisher:   Charter Books, 1988 (orig. pub. 1955 as Ring Around Rosa)
Length:       191 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Brock Callahan, #1
Setting:       Beverly Hills, California
Genre:        Hard-boiled mystery
Source:       Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2013.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015 (4th Year)

This is the fourth year I will be participating in the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block. I have been working on the challenge in spirit since January 1st  but today I join in officially.

My goal this year will be  Mt. Ararat: 48 books. As I look back at the last three years, my total of books read from my TBR piles, boxes, shelves is always around 50, so 48 is fairly safe. I usually read around 100 books a year, so I don't know why my count of TBR books is only about half of that. This year I plan to pay closer attention to that.

I am always complaining about my TBR piles but really the problem is that I keep buying books. How can I resist, when I see other bloggers' recommendations for books and authors that I had missed before of maybe just forgotten about?

You can check out the rules at this post. The goals start at 12 books and go up to 150+ books. Bev is allowing re-reads to count this year, but only under certain conditions.

I have already made a good start on the TBR piles, because I am reading only from my TBR piles in January - March 2015 for the TBR Double Dog Dare Challenge at James Reads Books. The only exceptions have been two ARCs from NetGalley and there will be one or two more of those.