Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Light Fantastic: Terry Pratchett

Most people, or at least most readers of book blogs, know about the Discworld series of books by Terry Pratchett. However, I did not know until three or four years ago what that world was like so I will share a short description with you. As described in this book, the Discworld is a flat disc-shaped world "carried through the starry infinity on the backs of four giant elephants, who were themselves perched on the shell of a giant turtle. His name – or Her name, according to another school of thought – was Great A'Tuin."

For the second time recently, I have read a fantasy novel where I was lost for the first few chapters. This time I have a bit of an excuse. The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett is a sequel or continuation of The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld Book, which I have not read. Although Pratchett does bring the reader up to speed, I still found the set up, the style of writing, and the structure confusing.

The basic story is that a red star has appeared in the sky and is going to collide with the Discworld. There appears to be only one person who can save that world: Rincewind, the wizard. However, he is an incompetent wizard and he doesn't even know that imminent destruction is on its way. He is travelling with Twoflower the tourist and The Luggage. Later in the story they meet up with Cohen the Barbarian and Bethan, a young girl about to be sacrificed by the Druids.

This book was very clever and funny and entertaining, after I stopped being confused. I read it as an introduction to the Discworld books, and it filled that function well, although now I wish I had read The Colour of Magic first. Parts of this book reminded me of Douglas Adams' The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except that this is fantasy, with wizards and really weird stuff like talking luggage and Cohen the Barbarian (a very old version of Conan).

There are numerous suggestions online for ways to approach the Discworld books. Since I am a novice in this area, I will just note that some people say read them in order of publication, other suggest starting with various groupings of books, such as the Night Watch series, the Death series, or the novels centered around the Witches. If you want a description of some of the story arcs within the Discworld books, see the article at Wikipedia.

My plan is to read Mort next, the first book in the Death series. I also have the book that follows that, Reaper Man. Then I will move on to Guards! Guards!, the first novel featuring Sam Vimes and the City Watch, a series that has been highly recommended.

I just recently discovered this article at NPR Books which is titled There's No Wrong Place To Start Reading Pratchett.

Also see the reviews at read_warbler for The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.


Publisher:   Signet, 1988 (orig. pub. 1986). 
Length:       255 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Book #1 in the Discworld series
Genre:        Fantasy
Source:      Borrowed this book from my son.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Perfect Spy: John le Carré

This is a very long book. The edition I read was a mass market paperback, 517 pages of very small print. I loved reading every page and I did not want it to end. I am very thankful to Mathew Paust at Crime Time who offered to send me the copy he had read. Otherwise, who knows when I would have gotten around to reading this book.

Magnus Pym, a British spy assigned to an important post in Vienna, has disappeared. After he gets a call that his father has died, he leaves for the funeral in London, but he doesn't return when expected. His wife is worried but his fellow agents are even more concerned and mount a search for him. Being the gifted spy that he is, Pym easily eludes them for the majority of the book.

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré revolves around Magnus Pym's relationship with his father, Rick, a con man who uses everyone in his life to achieve his own goals. Pym's mother died when he was young, so Rick has been the major influence in his life.

Pym's wife and son also feature prominently, as do various people in the espionage and diplomatic community who want him located as soon as possible. Le Carré keeps the reader guessing throughout. Where has Pym disappeared to and why? My sympathies were with the young Magnus, mostly ignored by his father but occasionally useful to him, and with Mary and Tom, his wife and son.

The tale is told in alternating chapters. One chapter is Magnus writing the story of his life for his son, the next puts the focus on a family member or a colleague who is attempting to track him down. More than one reviewer talked about being initially put off by this structure, but this is exactly the type of book I love. And the alternating chapters serve a purpose. The story Magnus tells us is complex and illuminating but can also be a bit overwhelming; the switch to the pursuit of the missing spy gives a needed change of pace.

Some reviewers say that A Perfect Spy is not espionage fiction so much as it is the story of a man's life (and his relationship with his father). However, there is plenty of spycraft going on in this book, enough to keep me happy.

This story is mostly autobiographical. John le Carré's mother died when he was very young and his father was a con man who spent some time in prison.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1987. Orig. pub. 1986.
Length:     517 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     UK, Vienna
Genre:      Espionage fiction
Source:     A gift.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Reading in September 2016

I cannot believe it is already October and only three more months left in the year. I do love this time of year. The promise of cooler weather coming (but not here yet for sure). Many holidays coming up. Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving holidays, and a long break between Christmas and New Year's Day.

In September I read seven books total. Two of the books were not crime fiction. The first book I read was a classic novel written for children, The Wind in the Willows. My first time reading it and I enjoyed it a lot.

The second book I read in September was also not crime fiction although it does have elements from that genre. Death Warmed Over by Kevin J. Anderson is mainly classified as a novel in the urban fantasy genre. The protagonist is a zombie who was formerly a private detective before becoming undead.

Then I moved on to straight crime fiction books:

The Diamond Feather by Helen Reilly
Helen Reilly wrote over 30 mystery novels between 1930 and 1962 and almost all of those were police procedurals featuring Inspector McKee.  This was her first Inspector McKee novel, and my favorite of the ones I have read so far.
A Deadly Thaw by Sarah Ward
This is Sarah Ward's second novel featuring Detective Inspector Francis Sadler and his team. It is a good police procedural, focusing as much on some of the people related to the crime as on the investigative team.
Thirty-Three Teeth by Colin Cotterill
Set in the 1970s. Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year-old medical doctor in Laos has been appointed the national coroner under the new Communist regime. This is the second book in a series. Very enjoyable, but it was heavy on supernatural elements. 
Grifters & Swindlers edited by Cynthia Manson
A collection of 17 short stories taken from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The stories all center on tricksters and con artists who are plotting to cheat someone of their money or valuables. The contents are variable, but there were several stories I liked a lot, and all were worth reading. The stories were published between 1950 and the late 1990s.
Quoth the Raven by Jane Haddam
This was a reread. Quoth the Raven is the 4th book in a long-running series about Gregor Demarkian, retired FBI agent, living in Philadelphia. I discovered this series in 2005 and read the first 20 books in three months. This one is set in rural Pennsylvania at a small college, where Gregor has been invited to give a lecture. Set around Halloween.
I have been participating in the R.I.P. event in September and continuing in October. That event celebrates reading of books of mystery, suspense, dark fantasy, and horror. All of the books listed above except for The Wind in the Willows -- which I finished in early September -- fit into that type of reading. Four were on my list of proposed books for the event. In October I have read two more: The Coffin Dancer by Jeffrey Deaver and Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers. And I am now reading another from the list: All the Lonely People by Martin Edwards. So that event has been good for motivating me to read several books that have been on my TBR stacks for years.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

From Russia With Love: Ian Fleming

This is the  introduction to this novel from the Signet paperback edition published in 1964:
The Russians wanted to liquidate James Bond -- ace British secret agent -- in a way that would embarrass England.  So they lined up their best team to pull off the job: 
         Tatiana Romanova -- an alluring brunette seductress who looks like Garbo although her heart belongs to the State. 
         Red Grant -- a renegade Irish hired assassin, who likes to kill for kicks. 
         Rosa Klebb -- head of Otydel II, department of torture and death, a hideous woman with a lust for inflicting excruciating torment. 
      The master conspirators devise a trap designed to eliminate Bond on a perilous journey from Istanbul to Paris via the lush Orient Express.  A trip on which Bond makes passionate love to one of his captors as he fights desperately to protect his life from the others, while the train speeds towards its ultimate, awful rendezvous with death!

And here is a quote from Anthony Price...

‘Mr Fleming is in a class by himself. Immense detail, elaborate settings and continually mounting tension, flavoured with sex, brutality and sudden death' 
So with that introduction and Price's thoughts, you have a pretty good idea of this book.

The other three Bond books I have read recently seem more adventure stories than spy fiction. This one is a more straightforward spy story. This one also has a different structure with Bond only entering the book after about 90 pages (out of 260 in my edition). The first ten short chapters focus on various agents of SMERSH: Red Grant, an assassin for the organization; Tatiana, who is pressed into service to lure Bond to his death, and Rosa Klebb, one of the masterminds of the nefarious plot. I loved these chapters; for me they added depth to the story.

There were many other parts of this book I enjoyed. The portion of the story set in Turkey featuring Darko Kerim is well done, although Kerim is incredibly racist and sexist. I am fond of books featuring train trips, and Bond and Tatiana leave Turkey on the Orient Express. That part of the book could have been longer.

This is definitely my favorite of the books I have read so far. I may be biased because I love the movie so much and the book is very close to the movie.

I did not become a Bond movie fan until I met my husband.He had the wonderful opportunity to view the first three James Bond films, Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger in the theater when they came out. His father performed maintenance of theatrical equipment for many years, and as a child my husband would tag along to his jobs. He often got to see movies in the theater when they first came out.

It was fun to watch the film version after having read the book. For the most part the story is very close, certainly much closer than most of the film adaptations. In the film, Kerim is much more likable; he is still pretty sexist, but it is toned down quite a bit. SPECTRE is introduced in this movie, and that organization does not figure in the book. The only enemy organization in the book is SMERSH.

I enjoyed Robert Shaw in the role of the assassin, and Daniela Bianchi was a lovely Bond Girl. Lotte Lenya as Rosa Klebb was superb. Of course, Sean Connery will always be my favorite Bond actor. The exotic settings are a plus also.

This post at Classic Film and TV Café notes many interesting facts about the film and the actors.

Moira at Clothes in Books has featured From Russia With Love twice: here and here.


Publisher:   Penguin Books, 2010 
(orig. pub. 1957) 
Length:       259 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       James Bond, #5
Setting:      UK, Russia, Turkey, and more
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Deadly Thaw: Sarah Ward

The dead body of a man is found in an abandoned mortuary, located in an overgrown area outside of Bampton, Derbyshire. DI Francis Sadler is one of the first on the scene and he recognizes the body. The deceased was a childhood acquaintance; unfortunately he was supposedly murdered twelve years before. His wife, Lena, confessed to the crime and served a ten year prison sentence.

Thus begins an unusual case which puts stress on all involved.  Because the newly discovered body exposes mistaken identification in an old case, there will inevitably be a further investigation into whether the proper procedures were followed at that time. As the inquiry proceeds, it becomes obvious that there is a larger department-wide investigation going on... which only top officials are privy to. The plot is very complex but not at the expense of the reader's enjoyment.

The police detectives (Sadler, DC Connie Childs and her partner, DS Damian Palmer) are a significant presence in the story, but other characters related to the crime also play a big role. Lena, the murdered man's wife, and her sister Kat, a psychotherapist, are questioned about both cases. Kat is shocked by the revelation of years of secrets in her family. Connections are made to other members of the community.

The story does address some social issues, which I will not describe here because they are gradually revealed throughout the story and integral to the plot. This part was well done and the issues do not overwhelm the story.

I was impressed with the structure of this novel. I like the short chapters; they keep the story moving. There are flashbacks interspersed throughout the story, taking the reader back to key points in the time when the first crime occurred and events that led up to it.  The story is seen from multiple points of view, primarily Kat's, and the detectives. This approach to storytelling works well for me but would not be to everyone's taste.

A Deadly Thaw is Sarah Ward's second novel and the second in the series featuring Francis Sadler and his team. It was released in the UK on September 1, 2016, and in the US on September 27, 2016.

In summary, my thoughts on this book agree with my assessment of the first book in the series, In Bitter Chill. This is a good police procedural, showing not only the investigative techniques but also the interactions between the members of the team and the upper level policemen, and how this can enhance or hamper their efforts. The story of the people affected by the crime is also a strong element. And, more important, the writing is very good, keeping me interested throughout. I look forward to more in this series.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2016 (orig. pub. in UK)
Length:       375 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Derbyshire, UK
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:      Provided by the publisher for review

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Grifters & Swindlers: edited by Cynthia Manson

Grifters & Swindlers is a collection of 17 short stories taken from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The stories all center on tricksters and con artists who are plotting to cheat someone of their money or valuables. Like most short story collections, there were several stories I liked a lot, some stories that seemed predictable, and the rest were in between.

All of the stories were well worth reading. My favorites in the collection:

The selection by William Campbell Gault, "The Cackle Bladder", was very close to the final con in the movie The Sting, except it had a different twist. Of course, Gault wrote his story in 1950, years before The Sting was produced.

This is what Publisher's Weekly had to say about this story:
William Campbell Gault's 1950 "The Cackle Bladder'" will appeal to readers who relished the central setup of the 1973 movie, The Sting , except that Gault's description of the phony betting parlor, the characters and the scam are even more vivid.
David Morrell's story, "The Partnership", concerns two partners in a contracting firm who can't get along and scheme to get rid of each other. I liked this one because the ending was truly surprising and entertaining.

My absolute favorite story in the book was by Robert Halsted. As "Hostile Takeover" opens, the con artist narrator and Joy Sue have recently escaped from her home town. She is a country girl with little formal education; they form a partnership of sorts. I liked that the story kept me off balance; I could not figure out where it was going or who was up to what. I loved the way the story unfolds and the ending.

A few of the stories in the book were between 20 and 30 pages. Donald Westlake's story,  "Just the Lady We're Looking For", was a very short one at less than 7 pages. It was different and had a nice twist.

The other stories in the collection are:

  • "The Frightening Frammis" by Jim Thompson 
  • "Passing for Love" by Bill Crenshaw 
  • "One of the Oldest Con Games" by Robert L. Fish 
  • "How to Trap a Crook'' by Julian Symons 
  • "The Man Who Flim-flammed Hiwassee County" by William M. Stephens
  • "The Big Bunco" by William Bankier 
  • "Playing it Cool" by Simon Brett 
  • "Thieves' Bazaar'' by W. L. Heath
  • "T'ang of the Suffering Dragon" by James Holding 
  • "The Western Film Scam" by Francis M. Nevins, Jr. 
  • "A Left-handed Profession" by Al Nussbaum
  • "The Messenger" by Jacklyn Butler

The only problem I had with this anthology was reading a lot of stories on the same theme in a relatively short period of time. I think I might have enjoyed some of them more if they had been in a mixed bag of stories with no theme, so that I was not expecting the con (or the twist on the con).


Publisher:   Carroll & Graf, 1993
Length:       287 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Genre:        Mystery, Short Stories
Source:      I purchased this book.