Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Spring Challenge

I have been meaning to join this challenge for a couple of weeks now. It is a shorter challenge, only for the months of Spring (actually, the days of Spring, March 20th – June 19th).

There are several versions of this challenge... see the rules and sign up here.

I am choosing the option:
a. Read books where the first word in the title begins with each letter in the word SPRING.

At this point I have already read three of the books I need to finish the challenge and I know which ones I will probably read for the rest. Right now I am actually reading In the Woods by Tana French for this challenge, so I thought I should go ahead and sign up.

Second Violin
Political Suicide
Redbreast, The
In the Woods
Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street
Green for Danger

Links to reviews:
  1. Green for Danger by Christianna Brand (read March 22, 2012)
  2. Second Violin by John Lawton (read April 4, 2012)
  3. The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo (read April 8, 2012)
  4. In the Woods by Tana French (read May 1, 2012)
  5. Political Suicide by Robert Barnard (read May 12, 2012)
  6. Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street by William S. Baring-Gould (read May 28, 2012)
Completion of Challenge: I completed this challenge on May 28, 2012, when I finished reading Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep: Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block started publishing mysteries in the early 1960s. This first entry in the Evan Tanner series was published in 1966.

From the description of Evan Tanner at a UK publisher, No Exit Press:
He is 34 years old and hasn't slept a wink since a piece of shrapnel destroyed the sleep centre in his brain during the Korean War. Tanner loves lost causes and beautiful women.
This is a very entertaining caper novel. I went into it thinking it was the first book of a spy series, and in a sense it is. But it is more of a spoof than a real spy story, and much less realistic than most spy novels I read.

For the first half of the book I was thinking the story was just too fantastic, even though it was an easy read and entertaining. In fact, it did remind me of fantasy novels I have read where the most unusual things happen and the hero gets in lots of deep water and is rescued time and again magically. At about the half way mark, the story becomes a bit more realistic -- just a bit.

Even when I was having problems with the plot or the whole impossibility of the situations he gets into, I still found this a fast, entertaining read. I have the next book in this series, The Canceled Czech, and plan to read it. At that point, we will see if I continue on

An interesting note: Most of the book is a wild, funny ride. But parts of this book are set in Turkey, and a large part of the plot depends on Tanner's research related to the Turkish massacres of Armenians during and after World War I. Before reading this book, I did not know much on that subject. I discussed it with both my son and my husband, who are more knowledgeable of both history and current events than I am. And did a little research on my own.

A quote from the book:
But it was during World War I, when Turkey fought on the Axis side and feared her Armenian subjects as a potential fifth column, that the Armenian massacres reached their height and the phrase “Starving Armenians” found its way into our language. In mid-1915 the Turks went berserk. In one community after another the Armenian population was uprooted, men and women and children were massacred indiscriminately, and those who were not put to the sword either fled the country or quietly starved.
I don't read mysteries to educate myself, I read them for entertainment. But knowledge gained from reading fiction is a welcome side effect. There is an afterward by the author describing his circuitous route to coming up with this plot.

I have read some books from two of Lawrence Block's other series: the Matthew Scudder series, which is very dark, and the Bernie Rhodenbarr Burglar series, which is funny. I read those books long ago and have plans to re-read them soon (gradually, over time). I like his writing no matter whether it is light or heavy.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
A-Z Challenge
1st in a Series Challenge
Merely Mystery Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge

Friday, April 27, 2012

Book Beginnings: In the Woods

Today I am participating in Book Beginnings on Fridays over at Rose City Reader, for the first time.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a meme with this theme: Share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The best part is visiting the post at Rose City Reader and viewing the other links and getting glimpses at books you may not be familiar with.

This is the first sentence in the book I am currently reading:
Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue.

The book is In the Woods by Tana French.

So far, I am loving this book. I am at page 59. The Prologue and the first chapter pulled me in immediately. The first two sentences are beautiful and intriguing, although the tone of the novel changes quickly.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

2012 WWI Reading Challenge: Books Read

In late March I joined the World War I Reading Challenge at War Through the Generations. My goal is to read at least 4 books that have World War I as a major theme. Either fiction or non-fiction can be included and you can even include one or two movies to reach the goal.

My joining post is HERE.  I am tracking my list of books and films below.
  1. The Fighting 69th (a film)
  2. A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd
  3. Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear
  4. Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear
  5. Joyeux Noel (a film)

A Duty to the Dead: Charles Todd

For me, the main attraction of this book is the picture it gives us of life during World War I in England. The main character, Bess Crawford, is a nurse on the Britannic, a hospital ship, when it sinks. She survives, but an injury forces her return to England on leave. Each new book that I read about World War I or World War II leads me to new knowledge about those time periods and events.  I had no knowledge of hospital ships and know little about women's roles in those conflicts.  I did not know that the Britannic was a sister ship to the Titanic and that she also sank.

Bess has experienced nursing many men injured in the fighting and watching men die of horrible wounds. She is not a part of the fighting but she has been close enough to see the horrors that the soldiers have to experience. The author uses Bess's experiences to contrast with those at home who cannot sympathize with what the men have experienced in war.

After recovering from an injury incurred during the sinking of the ship, Bess is allowed to go home on leave, and plans to follow up on a request by a soldier to deliver a message to his family.  She had grown close to the soldier, and she ends up getting involved with his family. Her dedication in her nursing career gets her more and more deeply involved.

Did I like this book? My opinion is in the lukewarm range. The mystery itself was not compelling, but I did enjoy the story. It was more psychological suspense than whodunit. The actual crime committed is not clear until deep into the story. The writing was too slow for me, but I persevered and was rewarded. Several reviews described it as an old-fashioned mystery, and I suppose that fits with the time and setting. I found it somewhat unbelievable that the protagonist is able to successfully investigate the mysteries she is confronted with and that her family would (reluctantly) support her in this. But I don't usually require that mysteries be totally realistic and believable. Most interesting novels are not realistic, but take us to a place we haven't been.

Charles Todd is the pseudonym for a mother and son writing team. They have written three other books for this series (one to be published in June 2012) and also have written an earlier series about Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard Inspector suffering from shell shock following World War I. The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear is similar, although Maisie comes from the lower classes and that series takes place after World War I. I have read the first book in all of these series and I plan to read more of them.  So far I like the Maisie Dobbs series best.

This is an in-depth review of  A Duty to the Dead, with more background on the authors. A little warning: It has more detail about the plot than I like to know before reading a book.
At Open Letters Monthly.

Reading this book has inspired me to learn more about nurses in World War I and hospital ships in general.
  • This review at lists other fiction set in this period and resources for more information on the Britannic.
  • The website for the Women in World History Curriculum has reviews of many historical mysteries featuring women. Here is a review for A Duty to the Dead.
This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
Cruisin' Thru the Cozies Challenge
1st in a Series Challenge
Merely Mystery Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge
World War I Reading Challenge

This book has been been on my TBR pile for about a year. But I was motivated to read it at this time by the 2012 reading challenge at War Through the Generations. I cannot say enough good things about this site. Not only does it encourage reading about history and war, providing lists of resources for both non-fiction and fiction books, it allows participation.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Fighting 69th: a film review

The Fighting 69th
(1940 - Warner Brothers - 90 minutes). Starring James Cagney, Patrick O'Brien, and George Brent.

I watched this film as a part of my commitment for the World War I reading challenge at War Through the Generations. It is part of a DVD set (James Cagney: The Signature Collection) and it is the first I have watched from the set.

This movie is a film about events in World War I produced by Warner Brothers in 1940, at a time that the second World War was escalating in Europe. I found this movie to be a confusing mix of propaganda, humor, and depictions of the grim realities of war. Since it features a real regiment, with some characters who really fought in the war, it does give us a picture of that time.

The movie starts with a group of new recruits (to the 69th Infantry Regiment) arriving at a base; it  takes us through the training process, establishing relationships between various members of the Squadron.  Jerry Plunkett (Cagney) is just one of the recruits; he is a misfit who has a chip on his shoulder and just wants to get into battle as soon as possible. Once they reach the front, he finds the realities of battle overwhelming.  Several of the characters in the movie were real people, including Father Francis P. Duffy, Major "Wild Bill" Donovan, and  Sergeant Joyce Kilmer (the poet). Father Duffy, a major character in the movie, was a highly decorated cleric in the U.S. Army.

I approached this movie with expectations of liking it... a lot. James Cagney is one of my favorite actors, although I lean toward the movies where he dances.  I knew a movie produced in 1940 would probably be a propaganda piece, and I was prepared for that slant. I was not prepared for the religious overtones. The movie was just too heavy-handed in that area for me.  As my husband said, it is a movie of its time.

For the most part, the acting was just OK, although James Cagney did well in his role, despite playing a very unappealing character. From what I know of World War I, it seems that the scenes in the trenches are fairly realistic and portray the horror of the that war.  I had never heard of the Irish heritage unit, the 69th Infantry Regiment.

From the article on Wikipedia:
The outbreak of World War I saw a resurrection of the old spirit of the 69th. Doubled in size by new War Department regulations, its ranks were filled with Irish-Americans and New Yorkers detailed from other regiments, and it was sent over to France in October 1917 as part of the 42nd "Rainbow" Division of the American Expeditionary Force. All National Guard regiments received new "100 series" regimental numbers at that time. The 69th was renumbered the 165th Infantry Regiment, but retained its Irish symbolism and spirit...
This site has detailed information about the regiment, from the Civil War up to today:

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dying Light: Stuart MacBride

From the Book Description at Goodreads:
On the coast of Scotland, in the "Granite City" of Aberdeen, Detective Sergeant Logan MacRae is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Bumped to the homicide department's "Screw-up Squad" after a sting operation gone wrong, Logan will do anything to prove that he doesn't belong there…even if it means working overtime on two baffling cases: a fatal act of arson in a squatter's apartment and the murder of a prostitute in the city's notorious red-light district.
I really did not enjoy reading this book. I had read the first book in the series and liked it well enough to buy the next 3 in the series (when I found them at a good price). For some reason I could not get into the story. Out of roughly 400 pages, I enjoyed about 30 in the middle, and maybe 100 at the end.

I do like that the protagonist, MacRae, is fallible and not superhuman, but he really messed up a lot in this story and I had a hard time figuring out why he had the reputation as a capable policeman. Part of his problems seem to be in dealing with relationships and jumping to conclusions. In the end, it almost seemed accidental that they actually caught the bad guys.

A warning. The book (and the series) is very gritty. With a lot of swearing and graphic violence. I don't mind swearing (in books or in real life); I can handle violence to a certain extent in fiction. But I need something else to keep me going. I felt like the book moved slowly and I was not that interested in the characters and their plights. Maybe both Logan MacRae and I were having a bad week. (His was way worse than mine.)

A quote from this review (which was overall very favorable):
I do have to say that MacBride increases the graphic nature of the sexualized violence here beyond anything found in Cold Granite or in the Ian Rankin canon.

I have come to the conclusion that I like my books a little less gritty than this one. I like to read all kinds, from cozies to thrillers to spy fiction, but I do need some softening around the edges. However, I have read a lot of reviews that praise this book and the rest of the series highly, so I am not giving up on it.  I will read the next one.

To assure you that a lot of other readers enjoyed this book:
Review at Euro Crime
At Book World In My Head

What I learned about Scotland:
This series is set in the city of Aberdeen. This book (and the one before) gives one the impression that Aberdeen is dark and cold and full of crime.  I guess it is relatively cold, and like any large city, has plenty of crime.  If you check out this page on Aberdeen at Undiscovered Scotland, it looks beautiful and light and full of delightful attractions. I would love to visit.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
Merely Mystery Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge
European Reading Challenge
2nds Challenge

Saturday, April 14, 2012

New Author Challenge: Books Read

In late March I joined the New Author Challenge at Literary Escapism. My goal is to read 15 books by authors that I have never read before. If I aim at two new authors a month, I can accomplish this. We will see.

My joining post is HERE.  I am tracking my list of books by authors new to me below.
  1. The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo
  2. Cop Hater by Ed McBain
  3. In the Woods by Tana French
  4. The Guards by Ken Bruen
  5. Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath
  6. The Information Officer by Mark Mills 
  7. The Suspect by L. R. Wright
  8. Lament for the Bride by Helen Reilly
  9. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley 
  10. The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
  11. The House Without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
  12. The Greene Murder Case by S. S. Van Dine
  13. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
  14.  A Trace of Smoke by Rebecca Cantrell
  15. The Cape Cod Mystery by Phoebe Atwood Taylor

The Redbreast: Jo Nesbo

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo is a complex police procedural, following the story of a Norwegian detective investigating neo-Nazi activities in Oslo, with flashbacks to events during World War II on the Eastern Front. It is a very long book (my copy was a mass market paperback with 567 pages of small print) but I enjoyed almost every page of it.

Nesbo has written nine Harry Hole novels, and this is the third in the series. As yet, the first two in the series have not been published in English. I did not find it difficult to start the series with this book, although there were references to earlier exploits.

Harry Hole has many of the typical problems of policemen (at least the fictional ones): struggles with alcohol and smoking, depression, talented but has difficulty taking orders and dealing with co-workers. But I found him likable and interesting. He had integrity; he was confident of his abilities but not full of himself; and he was vulnerable. I liked the developing relationship with a single mother and her child.

There is a large cast of characters and they are convincingly written. I cared about what was happening to them.  I liked the short chapters and the headings for each chapter noting time and place.

I have recently become very interested in World War II and in reading both fiction and non-fiction on that time period. There is so much to learn. Although I was aware of the term "quisling," I was not fully aware of the origins of the term nor how many Norwegians aligned themselves with the Germans during World War II. This books was very educational for me, and entertaining at the same time.

The unfolding of two story lines at the same time and the fact that one of them was during World War II doubled my enjoyment of this book. However, I liked the contemporary sections a lot, and I am sure I will enjoy future books in the series whether or not they share this element.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge, Read Your Own Books Challenge, A-Z Challenge, Chunkster Challenge
European Challenge, Merely Mystery Reading Challenge, Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge, New Author Challenge, First in a Series Challenge

Note: Even though this is not technically the first in the series, I am counting it because it it the first book in the series available (at this time) in English.

I am also participating in the April Challenge (Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Group) at Goodreads, and this book counts for that challenge.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Second Violin: John Lawton

Description from Publisher's Weekly review:
"Lawton's engrossing sixth entry but the first chronologically in his Inspector Troy thriller series (Black Out, etc.) chronicles the major events leading up to WWII--Germany's annexation of Austria, Chamberlain's peace efforts, Kristallnacht--while providing a disturbing picture of anti-Semitism and class frictions in England at the time."

In my review of the fourth novel in the series, Bluffing Mr. Churchill, I noted the quandary regarding whether to read the novels in order by publication or in chronological order. I read the first four books in this series in publication order, then decided to jump to the #6 in the series based on reviews I had read that suggested reading that one first.

Based on my experience, I am going with reading the series in order of publication. Others disagree. They are all great books. In reading reviews for the last book published, A Lily of the Field, it appears that it starts even earlier than this one, then ends in 1948.  One review I read (at Mysteries in Paradise) for that book suggests some difficulty with starting the series with that book.

And from this review of A Lily of the Field at The Independent:
"Inevitably, the series's habit of doubling back on itself means that there are some nuances which will not occur to someone who picks up one of the later books as their first excursion into Lawton's fog-gloomed world."
Personally I would suggest reading at least the original three first. I am glad I read the first four in the series first, because I liked coming to this one knowing something about most of the characters. I might have liked it just as well the other way around. Impossible to know at this point. My favorite book in the series so far was Bluffing Mr. Churchill, and this one was a close second.

John Lawton states, on a page of Q&A at his website, that he does not see his novels in this series as mysteries.
"I don't like whodunits.  I don't write them.  I don't read them. I accept the label 'mystery' because the U.S. needs a label to market me.  The English don't tag me that way."
I agree, they are not merely mysteries, but I see them as historical novels with elements of the police procedural, since the main recurring character is a member of Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad. Most of the series are a mix of historical novel, mystery, and espionage. This one, however, lacks the espionage component, and the mystery is subordinate to the main story, which is not unusual in Lawton's books.

This book also features much more background on Troy's family, primarily his father, a newspaper publisher who immigrated from Russia, and his older brother, a journalist. In this book I enjoyed the portions that covered historical events more than the mystery elements.  Troy features in both parts.

From March 4th through April 4th of this year I have read 6 fiction books with World War II as a major theme. Two were written during the war (Heads You Lose and Green for Danger by Christianna Brand) and four were historical novels (three of those were mysteries).  World War II and the events leading up to and following the war are among my favorite reading topics; thus I was predisposed to like this book. It met or exceeded all my expectations.

If you are looking for a whodunit, a straight mystery, this book might not appeal. If you lean more towards cozy mysteries, this one is not in that sub-genre. Otherwise, I would definitely recommend this book.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
A-Z Challenge
Finishing a Series Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Bluffing Mr. Churchill: John Lawton

Description from review at Publisher's Weekly:
"In this stimulating prequel to Lawton's acclaimed Inspector Troy series (Black Out; Old Flames; etc.), London is in the middle of the blitz and 25-year-old Freddie Troy is a Scotland Yard sergeant, chafing at the limits of his post. As the novel begins, he is relegated to the background, the focus instead on a gawky American named Calvin Cormack, who has come to London to help find and debrief Wolfgang Stahl, a top aide to Hitler's SS chief, Heydrich, and a spy for the Americans who has been forced to flee Germany for England to avoid capture..."

This book was the fourth book published in the Inspector Troy series by John Lawton -- and the fourth book I read in the series.  It was my favorite of the four I have completed. I found the first three confusing and slow at times. And the characters seemed less sympathetic. (It could have been me and my frame of mind when reading the books.) However, I persevered through each of the books and found the journey rewarding.

It is worth noting that Bluffing Mr. Churchill is set in 1941. Thus, chronologically it precedes the first  book in the series, Black OutBlack Out was set in 1944 (at the end of the Blitz). The second book, Old Flames, moves ahead to 1956, when Britain is still suffering the after effects of the war. The third book, A Little White Death, jumps forward to 1963. But if you order the series chronologically, A Little White Death is the seventh book in the series.

Some reviewers have suggested reading the series chronologically rather than in the order published. That disagrees with my personal rule: Always read a series as published. For this series, there are probably pros and cons no matter which way you go. Yes, you get back story on many of the characters in later books in the series, and, if you remember the details of the earlier books, you may know things about the characters you don't want to know. So far, it has not caused a problem for me. After this book, I decided to read Second Violin next, which begins in 1938, but was the sixth book published. I actually think I preferred reading them in this inverted order. In Second Violin, we get more background on Wolfgang Stahl and other characters central to this book ... So, I say ... maybe the order of reading does not matter.

On a page of Q&A at John Lawton's website, he answers the question about why the books jump around in time. Paraphrasing, he started out intending to write a trilogy, then later another author (Ariana Franklin) suggested he fill in the gaps. Which he has done with four additional books.

But to get back to my thoughts on this book. This one kept me interested throughout and I really liked all the "secondary" characters, although, as pointed out in the Publisher's Weekly review, a large part of the book covers Calvin Cormack and his relationship with Sergeant Stilton and his family. I have not felt that any of the books ended "happily" but they are not depressing. Realistic, I guess.

This book combines two of my favorite topics (especially in mystery novels): World War II and espionage.  I like books about the Cold War and this series covers that time period too. The British class system and the resentments it engenders are addressed, and we see the impact from both sides. That continues in Second Violin. The discrepancies in attitudes of the British and Americans in the early 1940's are also a focus.The fact that John Lawton writes so well makes it all the more enjoyable.

Lawton sees spies as the bad guys, as he states in this article: "I write what I call 'anti-spook' novels..."

"As Cormack told his tale, Troy found himself responding to it with a prism of feeling--to the end of the rainbow and all the way back again. He'd never understand the spooks if he lived to be a thousand. It seemed to require a degree of patriotism he could not imagine, a faith in one nation that defied intelligence. At the same time it was the biggest lie of all--all spooks were playing parts, all spooks were liars. Who, Troy wondered, did they see when they looked in the mirror?"

For me, this is a re-readable series. I have two more books to read after Second Violin. But I can easily see re-reading the whole series someday.

Another small thing that is unusual in these books is the way the chapter divisions are handled. The book is divided into a lot of very short chapters. This made it easy for me to read in short sessions when necessary and not lose the flow of the plot.  Sometimes with books that I cannot break away from easily, I end up stretching the book over several days when I can find longer periods to read.

This counts as one of my books for the following challenges:
Mt. TBR Challenge
Read Your Own Books Challenge
A-Z Challenge
Finishing a Series Challenge
Merely Mystery Reading Challenge
Mystery & Suspense Reading Challenge