Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ellery Queen's Double Dozen

This is a collection of short stories by various authors, edited by Ellery Queen and part of his (can you say "his" when there is no real Ellery Queen but instead it's a pseudonym for two people?) series of Mystery Annuals. I'd love to get hold of more of these, sadly I don't think the library has many. Most, if not nearly all, of these stories are forgotten now, but so many of them paint a lovely little picture of what was in at the time. I even kept little notes while reading this so I wouldn't forget my favourite bits, because I'm thinking I need another few labels on the blog to help me find the reading tips I leave for myself. However, I've lost the scrap of paper I was writing on. (Whereupon she takes a break to look for it.) (And doesn't find it.) I'll just ad lib then. Well, there's an L.E. Behney who has three stories set in rural or lower-middle-to-working-class America. They are quite moving and good. I especially liked the first one, about a woman in an abusive relationship who has had enough. There's an interesting one by George Summer Albee about a US agent in Algeria, trying to find a Communist spy. It sorts of precedes the whole current Iraq situation in a way. Disturbing in how it assumes the right for foreign powers to meddle in certain foreign affairs, I thought, but it wasn't my favourite in terms of pure enjoyability. A really clever one was A Paper for Mr. Wurley, by William Farrell, about a young boy who gets caught up in a murder on his way to school and writes about it for his school assignment. Keeps you kind of guessing to the end. There were, in short, many good ones, even though a few were only so-so.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Just my luck

I'm going shopping at Gottsunda Centrum today, with the two-year-old (apparently I don't value my sanity much). Minima needs supplies for her birthday party tomorrow. A good opportunity to pop into the library there and borrow some Peter Dickinsons I've already scouted out that they have.

But since it's Friday they don't open until 12, at which time I plan to be home and napping with Junior. It's so typical.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sue Grafton: T is for Trespass

The blurbs on the cover have this as being one of her absolute best, a gripping thriller that’s so exciting you’ll wet yourself. Now, it certainly isn’t one of her worst, so I'm not complaining. Grafton steps away from the format of only writing from Kinsey’s point of view, and in my opinion that alone can make for a more interesting novel. Here we hear the story from Kinsey (first person narrative)and her antagonist Solana (third person narrative) – a calculating con artist who steals other people’s identities and insinuates herself into the homes of old or sick people, only to bleed them dry and (optional) kill them. One of Kinsey’s next-door neighbours falls prey to the woman when he ends up needing a nurse after an accident. So it is a good story, although I feel that the addition of Solana’s sub-intelligent, over-grown and abusive goon of a son was a bit unnecessary. To me the book is about the race against time – is the neighbour doomed? – and the pitting of wits. However, adding the son did make for a joyously violent and bizarre finale fight. I dare a director to film it, I bet you they’d feel compelled to tone down the dirty, desperate scrappiness of it out of fear of seeming ridiculous.

Absolutely one of her best. But I didn't wet myself.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ngaio Marsh: A Surfeit of Lampreys

I was so pleased to spot this! Such a treat with an unread Marsh novel. This one is about a young New Zeeland orphan who comes to England to live with an aunt (who, by the way and most amusingly writes letters EXACTLY like Lord Peter Wimsey’s miss Climpson. For several pages I was unsure of who’s fiction I was inhabiting…), and first stays with her friends the Lampreys. The Lampreys are a large, eccentric and charming upper-class family who are permanently short of funds and hiding from creditors. Now they are once again in the red, and throw themselves at the mercy of Uncle Gabriel once again, hoping that he’ll help his heirs rather than see the family name shamed. But Uncle Gabriel is not so amenable, and is gruesomely killed. Who did it? The suspects are limited, and our orphan is torn between loyalty and horrible suspicion. I must say that I did not at all see who the killer was, I was fooled completely. Silly really, all the information was there. It’s quite good, and a nice period piece about Britain at the onset of war.

I am copying his draft and posting it anew to circumvent my last post problem. V. annoying.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Ellery Queen: Inspector Queen's Own Case

Ha, I should have read this one before House of Brass, since this is the novel in which our Inspector meets his Jessie. I don't think or suppose I'm spoiling things too much though through inadvertently revealing that they do indeed get married. I like this one a whole big bunch better. This isn't a clever whodunnit, but a more human crime story. It's a lot about emotion - wanting love, feeling inadequate, desperation, hate, guilt. The most interesting part isn't the crime, but Jessie's and Queen's budding relationship. It's a bit to it's lack that the crime, a terrible murder of a tiny baby, gets nudged aside, but it's never really forgotten so I'm not too upset.

I'm still interested by how different in tone it is to those Ellery-themed novels. Those are so clever and whimsical, whereas this is more say, The Bridges of Madison County. I can't think of a film to compare the former with right now, it might come to me. Forgive the halting analogy for now.

The only Queen left now is a collection of short stories. I'll be back.

Well this didn't work out at all.

Remember I had this plan to write a bunch of entries and post them when I had nothing new to post? I thought this would be possible by saving them as drafts and just posting, whereupon they would appear at the top of the page. Turns out they don't, they appear on the date when they were last edited, in that order. So I just posted a new Janet Evanovich post that popped into being on March 21st.

My point is, if you wish to read it you must scroll. But you're not missing much in this case. Stupid Blogger anyway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Another two Queens

So I finished the -68 novel, called House of Brass. It’s not terribly good, and after reading it I was all set for a blog entry on how I was bored with the whole Queen concept and wasn’t sure if it was worth the trouble of reading the last ones I had. However, it’s hard to resist them, when they’ve got such cute tables of contents and lists of characters (not always the latter though). For example, in the House of Brass the table of contents is 14 chapters long, and the chapters are named:

1. What?
2. Where?
3. Why?
4. What!
5. Which?
6. Who?
7. And Where Again?
8. And Why Again?
9. What and Where?
10. Wherefore?
11. Who’s Who?
12. When, Where, Who Why
13. Who and Why?
14. Who, How and Why Finally

This is quite glorious of course – sadly, as I mentioned, the book didn’t live up to it. Inspector Queen is here retired, newly married and just back from his honeymoon when his bride, Jessie, receives a mysterious letter, inviting her to said House of Brass and undersigned Hendrik Brass. She’s led a humdrum life as a nurse and wouldn’t mind a stab at adventure, so convinces Richard that they should go. Once arrived they discover a most eccentric house, host, ditto servant and, predictably, a motley group of guests, all having received the same type of invitation. The host claims to be fabulously wealthy and for various reasons wishes to make said guests his heirs. After drawing up the will, he’s murdered – but where’s the moolah? Search commences, for money and murderer.

My objections to the book are for starters that it’s very much un petit trop, with an overly crazy group of characters, not to mention location. At the same time, there probably were in the -60s (perhaps still are?) many such pockets of weirder than weird places. The author himself refers to it as a “Sleepy Hollow” sort of place, and the House and Host fit right in. Maybe I shouldn’t necessarily fault it. More important is my second major objection: that our Inspector, who in previous novels has seemed quite razor-sharp, only needing his son for perhaps the final imaginative push, here seems to be bumbling about rather, worrying about his impending senility or something.

So after finishing this disappointment I was really ready to just pack it in, but instead read The Finishing Strokes, and was immediately quite cheered. This novel is ten years younger than HoB, and ticklingly enough set mostly in 1929 – right after Ellery Queen, a young man, has published his first novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. Good thing I’d read that, because otherwise it wouldn’t be as funny. The book even quotes a review from Saturday Review of Literature as a prelude to Book Two:

“The Roman Hat Mystery, by Ellery Queen. This ‘Problem in Deduction’ introduces two new detectives, father and son. One is a genial snuff-addict, the other a philovancish bookworm. They are agreeable enough, if somewhat too coy and too chorus-like in their repartee . . . . In spite of minor defects . . . this is a competent piece of work for those who like their detective stories straight.”

Book Two then commences by telling us that although most reviews were favourable, this more acid one cut Ellery to the bone. I think this is a clever twist and it won me over – although I was already won over in Book One. This is surprisingly insightfully and at times movingly (such as it is) written, and describes how Claire Sebastian, in 1905, is injured in a car crash and gives birth prematurely. She dies, and her husband denounces the second twin, claiming the monster killed her. This is background for the rest. And to be honest I don’t know if I loved the rest, but it was fair. Ellery goes to a Christmas house party at young John Sebastian’s (the first twin!), a party that is spoiled by murder and mysterious gift boxes with ominous clues. I suppose, in retrospect, that I could have figured out the clues myself, especially since there were pictures, but I didn’t. I read it with the slight sense of huffiness that comes from feeling stupid. But on the whole I liked several aspects – the dialogue and descriptions of the interactions between the guests were at times very enjoyable for one thing. Apparently people were outrageously flirty in the -20s… Considering.

Janet Evanovich: Plum Lovin’

This is one of those between-series Plum novels that Evanovich occassionally turns out. It starts of dullish but picks up a little. Never rip-roaring funny I’d say. The slightly supernatural plotline is the most memorable thing about it. Some people apparently have “special” abilities, like our villain, who can give people an itch. Hives, that is. And the hero of sorts is called Diesel, who can sense where people are, or something. And so on. It’s the same theme as in the Christmas special novel I remember reading. So I’d not call it an out-of-series book so much as an another-series-book.

Ah I dunno, I suppose it’s cute.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ellery Queen x 2

I got a whole big heap of them, and these are the first two to get randomly read. One of them is the first ever Ellery Queen novel, The Roman Hat Mystery. It’s very different from the other Queen’s I’ve sampled, both in how the characters act and behave and in general tone. It does have a lovely period feel to it, being from 1929 – and by the way, I’m just so tickled by how long this series kept going. It’s like bloody James Bond. The other book, The Player on the Other Side, is from 1963, and I’m currently reading another Queen, this one from -68.

Anyway, The Roman Hat Mystery is a classic mystery crime puzzle. A man is murdered in the theatre, and oddly enough his hat is missing. The hat must be the crucial jigsaw piece – since it’s gone, it must be incriminating, and therefore only the murderer will have taken it. So who could have removed the hat from the theatre right under the noses of the police? All the clues are there, and it is relatively easy to work out whodunnit, although you must read more of the novel to get the motive. As for the Queens, they are somewhat more Europeanly foppish here, especially Ellery. Also, they have some sort of boyish man-servant named Djuna, who reminds me of nothing so much as the witch’s familiar the way he’s talked about. It’s quite absurd and I’m glad he went in later books.

The Player on the Other Side is a bit weirder. According to the terms of an eccentric will, four cousins must inhabit a house each, surrounding a common square, for a certain period of time in order to inherit a vast sum of money each. They are all very different and odd in their own little ways, bar one who is really mad. Then they start receiving mysterious notes, and then they’re killed. The twist of it is that as the reader you know who the killer is all along, but you don’t know who is ordering him to commit the murders. This is revealed at the end, and is a little disappointing. Smacks of sensationalist pseudo-psychology a bit, in my view, and too fanciful. Overtly and in-your-face clever.

What I noticed most in these two novels was that somewhere in one of them a room or office is described as tasteful, with a Constable oil painting. Now, I swear, Constable paintings seem to be The Thing in crime fiction. I’m convinced I run into them all the time, as the epithomy of taste. I must start keeping note of this.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Again, I went overboard

Am working three nights starting tomorrow night, so went to the library to stock up. I had seen in the online catalogue that there were several Queen's in the open archive section in the cellar. So I brought home six books by that author. Also a Nick Hornby I hadn't read, a ditto Val McDermid (though I hesitated, since it's neither about Lindsey Gordon nor Kate Brannigan, and those are my faves, also it's a bulky hard-back), a Caroline Graham (had almost forgotten that I like her), a cultural alibi in the form of a short story collection by Annie Proulx (how do you pronounce that name?), and finally, what I'm most excited about, a previously unread novel by Ngaoi Marsh. Oh joy. That makes eleven books, and a heavy bag. I still haven't read the Evanovich I have at home, but I figure that won't take long. And I'm working my way through T is for Trespass.

I spent some time now updating my link list with a few more author blogs. I think I need to badger mr Bani more about helping me tweak the blog, I'm not happy with the way it is but I doubt I can do much about it on Blogger...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Carol O'Connell: Shark Music

This instalment in the Kathy Mallory saga is also known as Find Me, according to Fantastic Fiction, a website as ugly as it is informative. I'm not sure right now which ones I've read, but I can see I've blogged about none. Definitely the first one, Mallory's Oracle, and I'm also sure of no. 3, Killing Critics, 4, Flight of the Stone Angel, 5, Shell Game and 6, Crime School. In this trip down memory lane I am aided greatly by this page at Dancing Badger. Said Badger is very positive towards the novels in question, something I myself am not. Or no, that's not right. I like these novels, I think they're well written on the whole, the characterization is generally good, the mysteries are clever, and the heroine herself, Mallory, is compelling, ok, granted. But she is a bit too much. And at least in Shark Music her character is not made clear to us so much as by what she does as by the author telling us over and over again what she is. She is compulsively tidy - this we know not so much from descriptions of Mallory's person and surroundings (except briefly when her flat is described at the start, and towards the end when she starts to come undone and forgets proper maintenance). And this niggles at me when I'm reading, and confirms my impression of Mallory as a too-much character. She is so exceptional that the author has to rely on other people saying that "oh boy, she is something else" or just third-person telling us. I've never really understood, for example, why Riker (her partner) calls her a sociopath. Okay, so I'm a sloppy reader, but none of Mallory's actions really stood out for me as truly sociopathic. More like she was logical to the point of being somewhat autistic sometimes.

The Dancing Badger link I posted gives a much better review and summary than I can, so I'll spare myself the trouble. My opinions though are pretty much what I wrote above about the entire series. I found it a bit hard to get into the flow and grip of the book. It felt a little like the book was a box of building blocks that a child emptied out on the floor. A lot of separate little bits that didn't make a whole, and in themselves didn't have enough information to show the entire house that could be built. I'm not sure the metaphor entirely pans out, but it does descripe how I felt... slowly the blocks sorted themselves into piles of colours and shapes and I was able to discern a fuller picture and get the story straight in my head. These are not complicated novels, not by any stretch of the imagination, so it's just something to do with how they're written that makes it a bit cumbersome getting into them.

The biggest impression the Mallory novels have made on me is an overall, dark and somewhat Gothic idea of a New York with crumbling gargoyles on old sky-scrapers, gargoyles that more often than you'd think fall down and hit someone on the head. Also I have a vivid memory of reading one of the Mallory novels just after or before reading a Jeffrey Deaver novel with a similar theme - magic, or rather illusionists. As the link shows, I didn't even remember which novel it was at the time. I've also read the none-Mallory novel Judas Child, which I remember much more clearly. A very disturbing, sad, original story. One of the themes of Shark Music is Mallory's search for her father, in other words a continuation of the book where she returns to her childhood Louisiana to settle the score on her dead mother's account. I thus can't help but think of the former book, and become profoundly annoyed by the fact that I can't remember the important details of it, like how Mallory's mother was killed. Very irritating! But it says something about the series - it's uneven, in my opinion.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Jaqueline Winspear: An Incomplete Revenge

Oh, I had to borrow it. It was new, I hadn't read it. And what does it matter then that I'm not keen on the Maisie Dobbs books really - it compulsive. In this one the mystical Maisie Dobbs heroine-worshipping super-woman image really goes into full swing, with Maisie sensing the aura of death all over the place, and in a retro play for explanation we find out that her grandmother was a gypsy, which apparently (not that it's spelled out) explains her psychic feelers.

She investigates a series of odd happenings in a village where her benefactor's son wishes to buy a brickworks. The incidents all take place during hop-picking season, which gives Maisie's assistant a good reason for going.

I can sort of see that Winspear wants to descripe a lost world and way of life, like the hopping. But I so feel like she's rubbing my nose in it. The book covers are lovely though.

By the way, my daughter is reading Lord of the Flies for school, and also watching the film (the new one). Only when she saw the film now did she become really disturped to be honest, the book did not grip her the same way. But anyway, she goes on and on about Roger and Simon and Maurice and Piggy - I simply have to re-read this, I remember nothing. Except Piggy. And a fire. And wild pigs and death.

Kathy Reichs: Bones to Ashes

There are a few moments left of Sunday, so I'm sitting here stuffing myself with chocolate (not even particularly good chocolate to be honest) before it's Monday again and my Lenten conscience starts nagging me. It often doesn't stop me from, shall we say indulging, sadly, but it smarts, it smarts. Anyway, the plan is to eat all the chocolate and write several blog posts. I've only just realised that's what a lot of smart bloggers do - they write the posts in advance and keep them saved, so that when they don't have time to write they can publish from the stash and maintain an active and updated blog. This is clearly the way to go. My blog is what I in Swedish would call a "sorgebarn", i.e. something that causes me a lot of grief and anxiety. I'd like it to be so much better, by which I mean that I'd like to do the books more justice. In the beginning I tried keeping notes while I read but I couldn't keep it up. I must devise some sort of method though, because it frustrates me to remember what I meant to write about a particular novel three days later, and then forgetting AGAIN. Also, letting posts pile up and then quickly writing something to get rid of the queue is a sure-fire way to short and meaningless posts. One of the reasons why I don't read other reader blogs is that I'd feel much to inferior. Ha.

Anyway, none of this has any bearing on Bones to Ashes. It did have bearing on something else, but I've forgotten my point long ago. It's not going to make me press delete though, I mean what the hell. If my few readers have waited so long for my update I'm sure they feel that the more words the better, right?

Back to the book. I do like Kathy Reichs, and the books are SO much better than the absolutely dreadful tv series based on her novels. I mean, it's good enough to watch as re-runs at 3 am when working nights (not that tv3 are airing such re-runs at the moment, but I'm just saying it'd work), but not entertaining enough for the 8 p.m. slot which it mysteriously occupies. The tv version of Temperance Brennan has none of the charm of the novel one. In the novel we have a middle-aged (well, past 40 anyway) woman with a lifetime of experience and a quick wit and real relationships. On tv we have a slip of a girl who seems to be mildly autistic or something. But what the hell, I don't begrudge Ms Reichs the extra income. And Boreanaz had to do something after Angel, after all.

This was a typical Temperance Brennan story, with lots of different plotlines that tie together at the end in a fashion I frankly don't find altogether satisfying. Here, it starts with a Canadian childhood friend of Tempe's who disappeared long ago, and whom she has always remembered fondly (yet never before tried to locate, despite having worked in Québec for so long? I don't buy it). Also there is a skull that a rural cop uses as a paperweight, and a string of teenage abductions and murders. All of these turn out to be sort of connected, and like I said, it's a little too convenient. But it doesn't matter much. Reichs is still very readable. The banter between Brennan and Ryan is still quick and fluid, and the shop talk bits are very educational. As usual with a Reichs novel there is a strong undercurrent of real pathos, since these books are written by a woman who has worked in the crime business and seen the actual horrors first-hand. This is a strength in her work. She's not selling gore, I feel like she wants to instill empathy. I'll remain loyal to the fan club.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Jeanette Winterson: Gut symmetries

I have to confess that at the moment I am not sufficiently awake, creative and imaginative to fully understand all of what Winterson is writing. There is always a slightly unreal and of-the-mind-solely quality to everything she writes, and you need to be sharp to completely follow. Worst case scenario is of course that you simply scoff and label it as pretentious. That would be a mistake, because all that poetic discourse is firmly rooted in real emotion, real experience, real class awareness and struggle. She may soar into what you might see as bohemian fantasy, but she remembers acutely the scrubbed threadbareness of working-class. This gives what Winterson writes soul. I like her work even though I skim bits because of my own short-comings as a reader. Sometimes you know with whom the fault lies…. Right now my mind focused on the narrative mostly. At the centre is Alluvia Fairfax, an English physicist who has an affair with a married colleague and then falls in love with his wife, but the book spans the life of their parents too. I was also pleased by the theme of the philosophical nature of modern physics. I wasn’t aware of this when I borrowed it. It’s funny though, since several of the Le Guin short stories I read had similar themes. It’s not really what my brain can currently grasp, but I still like it, seeing as how physics for me is still school physics: very tangible and Newtonian, push and shove, reaction and counterreaction. This relative and quantum stuff sends the mind reeling and makes everything possible.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Le Guin round-up plus Lessing

Okay, I have to return all these books to the library now, so it's time to summarize. Let's start with the odd one out, the 4th (because none of the first three were available) in Lessing's Canopus in Argos series, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. I had no idea that Lessing had written science fiction, which goes to show that I'm a) not very widely read, after all, and b) that I'm specifically not terribly interested in Lessing. I've read The Fifth Child and - I think - The Golden Notebook, but neither of them made an impression on me, apart from a vague memory of something tense and depressing. Admittedly, I was young and probably just not in the right place in life to appreciate them. Therefore it's doubly tragic that I tried to read the novel currently on the stand, because God in heaven was I bored with it. We have a happy planet with a constantly warm and pleasant climate, whose lithe and brown inhabitants frolic and dance together in the sun. When Canopus, the alien race who engineered their own, tells them to build a tall wall around the planet they do it, and gradually find out that this is because their planet will experience an unplanned ice age, and the wall is to hold off the ice until Canopus can save the population by moving them to a planet that is being made ready. That's the story. And then it's all a bunch of navel-gazing, with our narrator (a representative of the people) discussing and pondering the changes in temperament in the people now that they are frozen and meat-eaters and without hope. I skimmed it to be honest, after a while I just couldn't give an arse. The most interesting thing is the afterword by Lessing, which is about mostly Scott's Antarctic expedition but also about those changes in atmosphere in a culture that can make yesterday's taboo today's truth. I might try reading the first in the series sometime, but it's not at the top of my list. If one is to read novels that are meh they might as well be powerfully narrative-driven, in my opinion.

Then we have The Telling by Le Guin. Sutty is a Terran observer on the planet Aka. Before she came to Aka she briefed herself on what was known, that it had a unique system of beliefs that coloured every aspect of day-to-day life. When she arrives after all those light-years there has been some sort of revolution, and the old customs and beliefs have been outlawed. People are now primarily consumers in the Corporate State. Surprisingly Sutty receives permission to travel to a smaller town in the countryside, and even more surprisingly she discovers that the old ways are not dead and forgotten, and as she starts to reconcile with her past she starts to discover what it is the Ekumen are missing in their attempts to really communicate with the Akans. Although frankly that last bit is late in the coming, it's only the last few pages really that contain that pay-off.

It's a very philosophical book, less narrative than descriptions of the culture. It's not bad, but I can't call it my favourite. In my opinion it falls into the trap of wanting to invent a sort of utopian religion, which frankly makes it a little preachy to someone as cynical as myself. It's not at all as obvious as in the Dark Materials series, which completely degenerated into an anti-religious manifesto more religious in tone than an essay by the Pope. But it's fairly grating all the same.

So the next book, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, was older, a collection of short stories that was published in 1994. I liked this better. There were two obviously humorous stories which I found less funny than one of the Churten drive-themed ones (Dancing to Ganam). My absolute favourite is The Rock That Changed Things, because it is superbly alien, even though steeped in feminist vibes.

Finally, the most epic fruit of Le Guin's imagination, Always Coming Home.

I'm not sure how to write about this novel. It wasn't to my taste, but I'm having trouble pin-pointing why. What it is is more a collection of tales about this people called the Kesh. The Kesh inhabit what's left of California sometime in the future, when the world has been altered by some devastating war, and the cultures as we know them are all gone. One tale is longer and more prominent, and that is the one about a woman called North Owl/Woman Coming Home/Stone Telling, who goes to her father's misogynist, monotheist and war-mongering people, where she stays seven years before she can make her way back home. It's an anthropologist's book, slightly disconcerting in it's dogged adherence to the secondary universe created within the covers. There are some short articles in which the author, naming herself Pandora, almost seems to be arguing with herself over how to write about the Kesh, or else describes herself talking to a member of the people. It's quite odd. I don't know what to make of it - is it genius or just a bit mad? Somehow I feel like I don't see the relevance. And, to be honest, I have huge problems with the Kesh being so obviously modelled on many Native American traits. Why are they? We never learn enough about HOW the world came to be where it is today, which to me is essential to understanding it and/or caring. I'm just reading about this culture, with practically no historical context, and then the fact that it seems so Native American really bothers me because I can't understand why that particular way of thinking survived.

Oh I don't know. Google it, smarter people than I discuss it.