Monday, November 30, 2015

Reading in October and November

I skipped a summary post for the books I read in October. Too busy, too many other posts due at the same time. But this is a practice that I have found fulfilling as long as I have had the blog, so I will make up for it by covering both October and November in this post. In both of those months I stuck to crime fiction.

In October I read:

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest by Peter Dickinson
The Old English Peep Show by Peter Dickinson
Sugar Skull by Denise Hamilton
And Four To Go by Rex Stout
Murder at the Old Vicarage by Jill McGown
Chef Maurice and A Spot of Truffle by J. A. Lang

In November I read:

Season of Snows and Sin by Patricia Moyes
The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne
Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn
Trust Me on This by Donald E. Westlake
The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips
The Small World of Murder by Elizabeth Ferrars
The Last Good Place by Robin Burcell

In the past I have picked a favorite book from each month, but in either of these months I would have difficulty doing that. From October, there are too many favorites. In November, I found almost all of the books equally appealing and none stand out as favorites. All in all, I had two very good months of reading.

One point of interest, to me at least. The last review I wrote was for a very cozy mystery, Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle by J. A. Lang. Right now, I am working on a review for a book that is the exact opposite, at the other end of the spectrum. That book is The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, and although it is set on Christmas Eve, it is the bleakest, darkest book I have ever read. Review coming soon.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Chef Maurice and a Spot of Truffle: J. A. Lang

Description from the author's website:
“They say one should never trust a thin chef. By this measure, Chef Maurice was very trustworthy indeed.” 
It’s autumn in the Cotswolds, and Chef Maurice is facing a problem of mushrooming proportion. 
Not only has his wild herb and mushroom supplier, Ollie Meadows, missed his weekly delivery—he’s missing vital signs too, when he turns up dead in the woods near Beakley village.
In general I don't want a book to be too cozy, and I don't look for humor in my mysteries, but somehow J. A. Lang put those two together and created a book that I found charming.

Why did I read this book? First, because I saw a very, very positive review at the Puzzle Doctor's blog, In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel. Second, because I like to try the occasional book outside of my comfort zone, on both ends of the spectrum. Third, because the author contacted me and asked me to read and review it (back in June of this year, I am very slow). I did, however, purchase my own paperback copy.

This book is about 230 pages long, and about 22 chapters. I think it took me about 3 chapters to settle in. From that point I enjoyed it to the end. Some of the characters are over the top, especially the main character, Chef Maurice. Yet I found the characters to be the most attractive part of the book. Even the sleazy ones. I had a hard time believing I would like Maurice's pet pig, who was adopted from The Helping Paws Pet Sanctuary in Cowton to aid in the hunt for truffles. But I did enjoy Hamilton, the micro-breed pig, and his presence did not dominate the story.

Basically, Chef Maurice is interested in food and cooking and his restaurant. All of his motivations are ruled by his search for good foods, supplies for his restaurant, and ... truffles. This is how he sees the policewoman working on the case...
It was PC Lucy Gavistone, of the Cowton and Beakley Constabulary, and the only member of the force who lived in Beakley itself. She ate at Le Cochon Rouge every Sunday lunch and always tipped well.
Other favorite characters are Maurice's friend Arthur Wordington-Smythe, a food and restaurant critic and Patrick, the sous-chef. Here they have a conversation about Patrick's dinner date with PC Lucy...
“What if she's an awful cook? Should I lie?”

“Never,” said Chef Maurice, who lied all the time.

“Absolutely,” said Arthur, the happily married man. “Make sure to have second helpings too. The way to a woman's heart is through your stomach.”

Patrick looked pained. “Can I at least offer constructive criticism?" 
“Not if you don't want her to retaliate,” said Arthur, patting him on the shoulder. “Especially at a point in the evening when you least expect it.” 
I thought about adding a bit more description of the plot but decided just to point you to other reviews which do cover that in more detail:

At the Scene of the Crime
Euro Crime (by Rich Westwood)
A Crime is Afoot
My Reader's Block

The real test of how much I like a book is whether I am motivated to buy the next book. I am definitely putting #2 in this series on my Christmas list.

Publisher:  Purple Panda Press, 2015
Length:   229 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Chef Maurice #1
Setting:   UK (Cotswolds)
Genre:    humorous cozy mystery

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Funeral in Berlin: Len Deighton

Funeral in Berlin (1964) is the third novel in the Nameless Spy series by Len Deighton. I will confess to being confused about plot points and characters and relationships when reading books in this series. In fact, I was very disappointed in The Ipcress File because I was lost a good deal of the time. In this particular book, there were only a few chapters where Deighton lost me temporarily and later it all began to make sense. This is my favorite so far of that series. (I will be going back to reread The Ipcress File, and probably the rest of the books in the series, once I have finished all the books.)

In this story, the nameless spy is sent to East Berlin to facilitate the defection of an East German scientist. He must work with the Russian security-chief Colonel Stok and Hallam of the British Home Office. An elaborate plan is set up to get the scientist out of East Berlin. This book was published only three years after the Berlin Wall was constructed; in the introduction, Deighton speaks of the time he spent in East Berlin shortly after the wall went up. The setting feels very authentic.

This book in the series had some interesting differences from the first two. There are over 50 chapters and  almost all of them start with a brief tidbit about a move or strategy in chess. For example: "Players who relish violence, aggression and movement often depend upon the Spanish Game." With no knowledge of chess, this meant nothing to me, but it was a nice touch anyway.

This story was not entirely told in first person. From what I remember, the first two books were told only from the nameless spy's point of view and in first person. In this book, there where chapters here and there that were in third person and focused on the story from various character's points of view. I liked that change, although the narration of the nameless spy is one of the best elements of the story.

There are lots of great characters in this story. The aforementioned Stok in East Berlin and Hallam in London are both memorable. Johnny Vulkan is a double agent that has helped the agency before. There is a discussion with the head of the agency regarding using Vulkan on this case:
'The point I'm making is, that the moment Vulkan feels we are putting him on ice he'll shop around for another job. Ross at the War Office or O'Brien at the P.O. will whip him into the Olympia Stadion and that's the last we will see of him...'
Dawlish touched his finger-tips together and looked at me sardonically. 
'You think I am too old for this job, don't you?'
I said nothing.
 'If we decide not to continue with Vulkan's contract there is no question of leaving him available for the highest bidder.' 
I didn't think old Dawlish could make me shiver.
Another element I like in these stories is the addition of footnotes. They are not extensive enough to break the flow of reading but do add bits of information which would not fit in the flow of conversation.

This book was made into a film, as was The Ipcress File. Michael Caine starred in both films. I had seen The Ipcress File film for the first time in May of this year. I enjoyed it; Caine was just wonderful in the role (called Harry Palmer in the films). However, it was only a bit less confusing than the book. I watched the film adaptation of Funeral in Berlin very shortly after finishing the book and I liked this film even better than the first one. Probably because I understood what was going on, plus my increased familiarity with the characters.

Martin Edwards has posted a film review of Funeral in Berlin at his blog Do You Write Under Your Own Name?

I have reviewed Horse Under Water and also all the books in the Bernard Samson series. My review of the last book in the series, Charity, is here.


Publisher:  Reissued 2011 by Sterling (first published 1964)
Length:   270 pages
Format:   trade paperback
Series:    Nameless Spy #3
Setting:   UK, East and West Berlin
Genre:    espionage fiction

Saturday, November 21, 2015

"The People Across the Canyon" by Margaret Millar

Continuing on my goal to catch up with the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge, for the Five of Hearts I read "The People Across the Canyon" by Margaret Millar.

The story starts with Marion Borton worrying about neighbors moving across the canyon. She is not happy about giving up her privacy in the secluded area where she and her husband had been the first to build a home. Her husband, Paul, thinks that this is a good thing; maybe the new neighbors will have some children that their eight-year-old daughter Cathy can play with. In the following days, Cathy reports on meeting the new couple at the house and seems to be obsessed with them. They represent all the things that her parents are not, in her eyes.

The end of the story is very haunting and a bit creepier than I usually like. Yet I enjoyed the way that the story is presented and I didn't expect the twists that it takes.

I selected this story from The Couple Next Door: Selected Short Stories by Margaret Millar.  The book was edited by Tom Nolan, author of the biography of Ross Macdonald (the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar, Margaret's husband). He also wrote the lengthy introduction to this book of short stories which includes a good bit about Millar's life and her writing. This book is part of the Lost Classics Series, published by Crippen & Landru.

This story was originally published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, October 1962. It has since been published in several anthologies: A Century of Great Suspense Stories, ed. Jeffery Deaver; Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics, ed. Denise Hamilton; and most recently  published in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, ed. Sarah Weinman.

The story is available here, read by Douglas Greene, publisher of Crippen & Landru.

My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Murder at the Old Vicarage: Jill McGown

Inspector Lloyd has finished reading a novel in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, and is thinking about spending his Christmas with friends, when he would rather be spending it with Detective Sergeant Judy Hill. Judy, however, is married and will be spending Christmas with her husband and in-laws. It is snowing and they will have a white Christmas. Within the next twenty four hours, there is a murder at the vicarage in Byford, and Lloyd and Judy Hill  are called in to work on the case together.

The victim is the vicar's son-in-law, Graham Elstow; his wife, Joanna, has moved back in with her parents because he has beaten her, and the last time she ended up in the hospital.  Graham and Joanna have met at the vicarage to talk; he is drunk and they fight. Later, he is found in his wife's bedroom, beaten with a poker from the fireplace. Although all of the residents of the vicarage claim to have been out when the murder occurred, the police assume one of them must have murdered Graham.

This book is part of one of my favorite series, the Lloyd and Hill books written by Jill McGown. Each book is different, they are not written to a formula. The relationship of Lloyd and Judy Hill continues throughout the series. I often have an aversion to mystery novels with romances, but in this case I find the relationship between Inspector Lloyd and Detective Sergeant Judy Hill to be an enjoyable addition. It is plausible; they seem like very real people with real problems.

As far as the solution to the mystery, I was fooled even on the second read. I thought I had the villain figured out, and even thought it might be that I was remembering it from the first read. But no, I was totally wrong.

The novel is a homage to Agatha Christie. Of course the title is very similar to one of Christie's novels: The Murder at the Vicarage. Inspector Lloyd is an avid reader of mysteries, a fan of Agatha Christie, and he points out the similarities to some of her plots: the murder occurs at the vicarage, the village is snowbound, etc.

The original title of this book, as published in the UK, is Redemption. Regarding the US title, Jill McGown stated at her website that she did not choose the US title and actually argued with the US publisher that it was inappropriate, since it was so close to the title of Christie's novel. There are many other interesting facts about this novel at Jill McGown's website. Please check it out.

This is the second book in the Lloyd and Hill series of thirteen books. The backstory and the relationship of the main detectives is introduced well, and there is no real need to read the first book in the series, The Perfect Match. However, I loved that book and it was the reason I continued reading the series, so I do highly recommend it. Sergio at Tipping My Fedora reviewed that book recently.

I have reviewed another book in the series, Plots and Errors. Moira at Clothes in Books reviewed Murder... Now and Then recently.

This post is for the Winter Holiday edition of Forgotten Friday Books, which will be featured at Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, on Friday, November 20th. I try to read several mysteries set at Christmas in the last quarter of the year. Sometimes they are merely set around the holiday time and the Christmas element is minimal. Not so in this case. Judy is dreading Christmas because her in-laws are visiting and her marriage is a shambles. George Wheeler, the vicar, is having a crisis of faith and having problems writing his Christmas Eve sermon. This is a Christmas mystery but not saccharine, and not cozy at all.


Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 1991. Orig. pub. 1983.
Length:     246 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Lloyd and Hill, #2
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Police Procedural
Source:     I purchased this book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Deal Me In 2015: More Short Stories

This year has passed by fast for me. Work has been very busy during the second half of the year, and that has meant less time and energy for reading, reviewing, and blogging. I fell far behind on my short story challenge and I intend to catch up because I plan to continue on the challenge in 2016.

For the Ace of Spades, I read "Stella: Red Clay" from Red Clay, Blue Cadillac by Michael Malone. It was a corker. Just wonderful. Set in a small town in the South, it is the story of Stella Dora Doyle, a has-been movie star, and Buddy Hayes, whose father dated her when they were in high school. Stella is on trial for murder after her husband is found shot with her gun outside their mansion.

The story follows Buddy and his encounters with Stella from his childhood into adulthood. Both he and his father have been mildly obsessed with Stella all their lives. It is a brief but telling picture of a small town and how its denizens react to the ups and downs of Stella's life.

The story won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1997.

I covered another story in Malone's book of short stories back in February ("Marie: Blue Cadillac"), and I am going to repeat some parts of that post here.

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.
That description -- "white gloves and makeup and a sweet smile" -- is so true and very disturbing. 

I have also read two of Malone's novels, also set in the South: Uncivil Seasons and Time's Witness.

My list of short stories is hereJay at Bibliophilopolis hosts the challenge.