Sunday, December 31, 2017

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Rolling Bones

The Case Of The Rolling Bones is a Perry Mason mystery of 1939. I use 'a' deliberately. Though I didn't actually check, I doubt it was the only one. Are Gardner's books the only ones that also give the month as well as the year of publication? He may be one of the few authors that needs it. For what it's worth, this was Gardner's book of September, 1939. (An otherwise ominous month.) It was *probably* the only one that month...

On the whole it was a medium good entry. Alden Leeds is an elderly man with a somewhat mysterious past who struck it rich in an Alaska gold rush in 1906. He's unmarried and the rest of his family likes it that way. Then he takes it into his head to marry a girl he knew from a dance hall back in Alaska--she's younger than he is, but not young--and the family decides, conveniently, he must be crazy. It's this that brings Perry into the case.

Leeds is also being blackmailed over that mysterious past and it's the blackmailer who gets killed. And Leeds is the prime suspect, and it's up to Perry to get him off.

There was some reasonably well-done fair-play cluing in this one, which is not a thing I usually associate with Gardner's mysteries. And the old coot quotient was high in this and they were amusing. It's Gardner and I could hunt up examples of slapdash construction, but if you know the Perry Mason series at all you wouldn't be surprised. Enjoyable.

That's very definitely the 1969 version not the 1939 model on my cover, but either way she's a:

Brunette. Golden Age. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Terry Pratchett's Hogfather

Hogfather is Terry Pratchett's statement of Christmas spirit. Pratchett is rather a sentimental satirist, and while in this he's making fun of many of the accompaniments of Christmas that message of Peace (and a little benevolent chaos) on Earth and Goodwill to All is a thing he will want to affirm.

The basic setup is this: the Hogfather is the book's stand-in for Santa Claus and somebody wants to murder him. They hire an Assassin to do the job. How do you murder a myth, assuming the Hogfather is a myth? Well, you get people to quit believing. So somebody has to act the part of the Hogfather/Santa Claus character, convincing the children he does exist, until the case can be unraveled, and the spreader of skepticism and cynicism discovered. Then the children can go back to their belief.

The someone who decides to act the part of the Hogfather is Death, a recurring character in the Pratchett Discworld universe. His granddaughter, with various helpers, tracks down the assassin and reveals the plot. They succeed, and the Hogswatch holiday is saved.

I thought this was a relatively weak entry in the Discworld series and that was sad, because Pratchett's Death is one of my favorite characters in the series. The plot in this was too complicated, with mysterious tangents to it. We see very little of the Assassin's interaction with Christmas things and far more with the Tooth Fairy. I'm not entirely sure why that happened.

Also, while I don't usually assign too much import to the old MFA bromide "Show, Don't Tell," it could have been applied here. One of the best things about the character Death is his desire to give up the scythe and long black robe and live a more normal existence. He's curious about human lives, but has this, umm, well-defined relationship with humans that keeps getting in the way. In previous books in the series, this provides a number of comic situations. But here we kept being told about Death's characteristics, mostly by his granddaughter, rather than seeing them in their funny excesses.

Anywho...amusing enough, but I had higher hopes.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Book Beginning: Randal Graham's Beforelife

Ian died at midnight on a Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday. He couldn't be sure which, come to think of it, and now that he was dead the point seemed moot. the beginning of Randal Graham's Beforelife.

Beforelife is the debut novel of Canadian lawyer Randal Graham, and as such it comes free of expectations. Well, there's a description on the back cover, which I did read--the novel takes place in an afterworld, more heavenly than George Saunders' Lincoln In The Bardo, but still not quite heaven enough for Ian. I think the opening isn't bad, with some humor and a bit unexpected, though it does depend on the fact that we know stories like this: Saunders, say, or Our Town. Anybody have any thoughts?

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August

The Guns of August (1962) is Barbara Tuchman's history of the opening of World War I. The first ninety or so pages in my edition of just under 500 pages are devoted to the situation in the main combatant countries in the years before the war. The rest of the book is devoted to the first month of combat and mainly to that on the Western front. The book ends with the end of August, 1914. The German assault on France has failed to take Paris or to destroy the French army, and the war will now settle down into the trenches in which the bulk of it was fought.

Basically Barbara Tuchman covered the militarily exciting bits and then stopped.

But that first month was exciting and Tuchman does an impressive job with it. It's touch and go whether the Germans would capture Paris and knock out the French in their opening push, and while we know the outcome, both sides were uncertain until the last minute.

Tuchman has clear favorites--she's an Anglophile and clearly likes Generalissimo Joffre of the French--but her irony undercuts and complicates her favoritism, especially in the battle scenes. Of one British officer, she writes: "...with that marvelous incapacity to admit error that was to make him ultimately a Field Marshal." She's good on the fog of war, the incapacity to make happen what you intend, to even understand what is happening. "Arguments can always be found to turn desire into policy," she writes of the German navy, but it could very well serve as a catchphrase of the book.

I do wish my edition had better maps; I'm reading the one that looks like that above, the paperback printing from the sixties. There are maps, but they're grainy and hard to make sense of. I also wish she'd done more with Austria-Hungary, which, after all, is where the war actually started. I'd recommend Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers on the opening of the war before battle, who's also very good and more sympathetic to Austria-Hungary's situation.

But very good indeed.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Book Beginning: Terry Pratchett's Hogfather

Everything starts somewhere, although many physicists disagree. the beginning of Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. 

I'm not sure I think that's an especially engaging opening--it's the whole opening paragraph, not just the opening sentence--but I'm not sure I think openings are Terry Pratchett's strength. The Hogfather is the Santa Claus-like figure of Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, though that's Death taking his place on Hogswatch Eve on the cover of my edition. It seems the Assassin's Guild has something to do with that.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Happy Hogswatch to all!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Back To The Classics 2018 Signup

The idea is to read twelve classics over the next year corresponding to categories listed below. It's hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate (what a lovely combination!) and it sounds like fun, so I'm trying it this year.

I'm sure I'll futz with the selections I've made--probably all year long--but here are the categories and the tentative choices I've matched against them:

A 19th Century Classic: Silas Marner by George Eliot

A 20th Century Classic: The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch

Well, I was going to (still intend to?...) read The Death Of Virgil, but got distracted by:

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We

A Woman Author: Adam Bede by George Eliot

A Classic in Translation: Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland
--I've been reading some other WWI stuff lately

A Children's Classic: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

A Crime Classic: Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley

A Travel Classic: A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

A Single Word Title: Romola by George Eliot
--Hmmm....I seem to have a yen to read George Eliot this year

A Classic With A Color In The Title: Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson

A Classic By An Author New To Me: The Leopard by Giuseppe Tommasi di Lampedusa

A Classic That Scares Me: Dracula by Bram Stoker
--A lot of people pick long books for this one; but I'm easily scared by scary things. Hence Dracula!

Reread A Favorite Classic: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, or Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Well, both of those still sound good, but I got to this one first:

Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Friday, December 15, 2017

Book Beginning: Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. the beginning of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August, her history of the opening of the first World War.

I was pretty taken with that opening, the grand spectacle, the last moment of concord before the coming storm of her subject. Perhaps the writing is a little overwrought, but it did involve nine living kings and one dead.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. Week #3!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up In Tinsel

I was looking at a list of Christmas-themed books and realized I already owned this and hadn't read it. Good enough! It moved to the top of my chair-side pile.

Tied Up In Tinsel (1971) is a late Inspector Roderick Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh. Alleyn himself is rather late in arriving in this one--he's wrapping up a case in the Antipodes--and is represented by his wife Troy, who is doing a portrait of Hilary Bill-Tasman, the owner of the country house where events take place.

The story starts in the days leading up to Christmas as guests arrive and it will culminate with a rather pagan festival in which Bill-Tasman's uncle Fred, dressed as a druid, pulls a sleigh loaded with gifts off the lawn and in through the French doors for the waiting children of the neighborhood.

It's a country house murder. Just in case you were worried about outsiders sneaking in, the house is surrounded by new-fallen snow that evening.

The most amusing thing about this is in the early setup. Bill-Tasman has just bought and restored the old family estate; he needs servants for it; but servants are expensive and hard-to-find. So Bill-Tasman hires released murderers, not habitual murderers, but 'oncers', because he can claim to be rehabilitating them and because they're cheap. Do you smell red herring, whatever that might smell like? Me, too.

Uncle Fred's valet goes missing after the Christmas performance. A bloodied poker is discovered, and then eventually the body.

Of course, Marsh adheres to the rules (Van Dine's #11) and it is not a servant who committed the crime, however murderous they may have been in the past. Which, I'm afraid, was the main problem with this. Quite a lot of the business in this was taken up with making the servants look possibly guilty. The formerly murderous servants are certainly convinced everyone will assume one of them is guilty. And the local constabulary as well as the guests do assume one of them is guilty. But Roderick Alleyn does not, and we don't either. So the middle of the novel is hard to take seriously and then the wrap up--there aren't that many guests in the house--is too swift. But Marsh is an old pro, she'd been writing these for almost forty years at this point, and the show must go on and does. (Theatrical double entendre definitely intended.) It's a success, though perhaps not her strongest.

That's Alf Moult, Uncle Fred's valet, on the cover, looking blue and frozen and quite dead in the snow in a story-appropriate, but not very appealing, cover photo for my Fontana edition.

Silver Age. Snow/Snowy Scene. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

European Reading Challenge 2018 Signup

This is a challenge to read and review books as a tour of Europe. It is hosted by Gilion at RoseCityReader. One author, one country, one book with fifty countries to choose from. I'm going to shoot for at least five (Deluxe Entourage). Here's the list of countries to choose from:

Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vatican City.
The number of countries I can cover without rereading or acquiring new books (i.e., already on my TBR list) is more than I really care to think about, though, in fact, I have been thinking about just that.

1.) The Odyssey (tr. by Emily Wilson.) Greece
2.) Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Return To Venice. Austria
3.) Jorge Carrión's Bookshops: A Reader's History. Spain
4.) Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees. Italy
5.) Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille. Belgium
6.) George Eliot's Silas Marner. UK
7.) Duc de la Rochefoucauld's Maxims. France
8.) Olga Tokarczuk's Flights. Poland
9.) Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. Russia
10.) Herta Müller's The Land Of Green Plums. Romania
11.) Ismail Kadare's Broken April. Albania
12.) Dubravka Ugresic' Fox. Croatia
13.) Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe. Switzerland
14.) Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca. Monaco
15.) Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. Germany
16.) Antonio Tabucchi's Time Ages In A Hurry. Hungary

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars

Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars is one of his so-called juveniles, a genre we might now call middle grade or possibly young adult. This one dates from 1956. It's the first of his juveniles I've read.

Humans have explored and colonized Sol's existing planets and now it's time to think about exploring the rest of space. But the distances are long. How do ships stay in contact with each other or with Earth? How do they report what they find? The Long Range Foundation suspects that when identical twins say they each know what the other is thinking, it's more than metaphor. It turns out that, yes, ten percent of identical twins are actually telepathic and communicate instantaneously. Tom and Pat are one such pair of twins.

Tom tells his story as half of a communication team. After some complications, it's Tom who sets out with the spaceship, the Lewis and Clark, or, as she's familiarly known, the Elsie, and Pat who is left on Earth to receive reports and forward on news and new directives. The ship lands on a couple of candidate planets, one of which features the dinosaur-looking animal on the cover.

But in fact the encounters with alien lifeforms are not the real point of interest in the novel. Rather it's the tensions on board a ship that is isolated to its crew of two hundred, and the relationship between the travellers and those back home.

Two things struck me about this. Having just read an Ellery Queen mystery where psychology was an important motif, it was interesting to see it here, too. Of course, a psychologist would be important to make sure a crew of two hundred confined to one ship all got along, but the psychologist in this was treated as more all-wise and benevolent than I suspect any psychologist would get treated today. A skepticism about psychotherapy has appeared that just wasn't there in 1956.

The other thing that struck me about this is the melancholy tone. Tom, traveling at near the speed of light, ages much more slowly than do all of his friends and family back on Earth. The people around him die; it's a dangerous mission. Of course, melancholy and book-reading teenage boys--the presumed audience for this--are not exactly unrelated, but I was a little surprised to see it indulged. I thought they were supposed to like their adventure more pure...

Heinlein's politics are what they are, of course. It was a little odd to hear a sixteen year old boy grousing about those gummint bureaucrats, and suddenly I was aware of Heinlein as narrator rather than Tom, but mostly it was a story told well.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Book Beginning: Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars

According to their biographies, Destiny's favored children usually had their lives planned out from scratch. Napoleon was figuring out how to rule France when he was a barefoot boy in Corsica, Alexander the Great much the same,  and Einstein was muttering equations in his cradle. 
Maybe so. Me, I just muddled along. the beginning to Robert Heinlein's Time For The Stars of 1956.

I have to say I was pretty amused by the sly way in which the narrator compares himself to Napoleon, Alexander, and Einstein. Two conquerors and a scientist. It's a boy's adventure, but for a boy good at math. We'll see if it can maintain that high level.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Monthly Motif 2018 Signup

I saw this at MyReadersBlock and I thought this challenge from girlxoxo looked like a fun way to add some other categories to my reading list, so here I go with another challenge.

The challenge is to read one book for each of the twelve monthly categories listed below.

I'll pick as I go along because if I tried to decide now I'd change my mind for sure. But Alan Hollinghurst and James Baldwin are floating high in my TBR pile at the moment, so January will likely be one of those two. (James Baldwin would double count in the category!)
JANUARY – Diversify Your Reading
Kick the reading year off right and shake things up. Read a book with a character (or written by an author) of a race, religion, or sexual orientation other than your own.

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season
FEBRUARY – One Word 
Read a book with a one word title.

I'm in the middle of three books with one word titles as I write this, but the shortest one got finished first...

Amélie Nothomb's Pétronille
MARCH – Travel the World
Read a book set in a different country than your own, written by an author from another country than your own, or a book in which the characters travel.

Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station (Spain)
APRIL – Read Locally
Read a book set in your country, state, town, village (or has a main character from your home town, country, etc)

Matt Cohen's The Bookseller
MAY- Book to Screen
Read a book that’s been made into a movie or a TV show.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard

We got this from the local video store a couple of years ago when the Other Reader (cf. Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night A Traveler) read it. The DVD was flawed and we got our money back, but from what we could see, it was a great movie. They're doing an Italian retrospective at TIFF Lightbox here in Toronto over the summer, and I'm planning on seeing it properly on the big screen when it appears later this summer. Burt Lancaster as the Prince, and Claudia Cardinale, too!
JUNE- Crack the Case
Mysteries, True Crime, Who Dunnit’s.

E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case

Should be an easy category for me; this is the first mystery I read this month.
JULY – Vacation Reads
Read a book you think is a perfect vacation read and tell us why.

Mary McCarthy's The Group

Because I get to read undistracted at the cabin!
AUGUST- Award Winners
Read a book that has won a literary award or a book written by an author who has been recognized in the bookish community.

Muriel Barbery's The Elegance Of The Hedgehog

It won several French prizes on its way to becoming a bestseller.
SEPTEMBER- Don’t Turn Out The Light
Cozy mystery ghost stories, paranormal creeptastic, horror novels.

What better than....
Bram Stoker's Dracula
OCTOBER- New or Old
Choose a new release from 2018 or a book known as a classic.

How 'bout a Nobel Prize winner?

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe
Books where family dynamics play a big role in the story

Let's restructure the family according to our new dystopian principles!

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
DECEMBER- Wrapping It Up
Winter or holiday themed books or books with snow, ice, etc in the title or books set in winter OR read a book with a theme from any of the months in this challenge (could be a theme you didn’t do, or one you want to do again).

Nicholas Blake's The Corpse In The Snowman

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder

Ten Days' Wonder is an Ellery Queen mystery from 1948. Though it starts briefly in New York City, it quickly becomes a Wrightsville mystery, that small New England town where Ellery has to do without his homicide detective father, and all of his father's apparatus.

Howard van Horn is suffering from something at the beginning of the novel and is subject to amnesiac spells. What is that something isn't quite clear, but it's clear he is suffering. After the latest spell he ends up in a Bowery flophouse; on coming back out of it, he hunts up Ellery to ask his help. Ellery agrees to go to Wrightsville.

It's clear to Ellery from the very beginning that Howard is hiding something.

In the immediate postwar period, the cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee became interested in psychotherapy; it was in the air; psychotherapeutic analysis in general takes off in the U.S. at the time. The first DSM manual of mental health is issued in 1952, for example. There are several Ellery Queen novels in which psychotherapeutic explanations are important; in the next Ellery Queen mystery, The Cat of Many Tails, one of the main characters in the mystery, Dr. Cazalis, is a psychologist.

And in this mystery psychological explanations feature as well. Ellery is quite sure that there is a psychological explanation for Howard's amnesia that could be solved by a good analyst. Ellery is both right and wrong about this.

In fact Ellery turns out to be quite wrong in this one for a long while. Dannay and Lee use Ellery himself to supply wrong theories as a red herring not infrequently. It's sometimes said this is a feature of middle period Ellery Queen, and it is, but it goes back at least to The Greek Coffin Mystery. The consequences of Ellery's errors, though, are greater in the mysteries of this period, and especially in this one. Indeed, Ellery says at the end to the murderer, the actual murderer, "You've damaged my belief in myself. How can I ever play little tin god? I can't. I wouldn't dare.... You've made it impossible for me to go on. I'm finished. I can never take another case."

Though, of course, he does. This scene occurs early in that next novel, The Cat of Many Tails:
"I don't want to hear about a case," Ellery would say. "Just let me be."
"What's the matter?" his father would jeer. "Afraid you might be tempted?"
"I've given all that up."
But then his father gets assigned the case of the Cat, and Ellery is lured in.

Anyway, Ten Days' Wonder is very satisfying. I did find the psychology a little heavy-handed here; it's handled with more subtlety in other Queen novels. There's an ill-conceived project that Ellery goes along with for a while; the last step in that project, it's hard to see how or why he would. Still the final reversal was very good and very well setup. Recommended.

And surprisingly the cover was actually designed by someone who had read the novel. Oh, dear, I want to say why that cover's so good, but anything I can think of to say, feels like it might be a bit spoiler-y. In any case, that is a:

Hangman's Noose, Golden Age. My Readers' Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt.

I have the feeling I've read this one before, but the computer says I haven't, and since the computer never lies, it's also...a Mount TBR book.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Book Beginning: Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder

"In the beginning it was without form, a darkness that kept shifting like dancers." the beginning of Ellery Queen's mystery of 1948, Ten Days' Wonder.

It sounds like it ought to be the beginning of some religious or philosophical text, but in fact it's the beginning of a description of a massive hangover on the part of the main character Howard van Horn. Or is it? Things that look like religion but aren't quite upon investigation is a trick Ellery Queen uses more than once.

Book Beginnings on Fridays is a bookish meme hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. To play, quote the beginning of the book you're currently reading, give the author and title, and any thoughts if you like. This is my first time in, and it seems like a fun thing to do.