Friday, January 26, 2018

Book Beginning: Ross MacDonald's The Blue Hammer

I drove up to the house on a private road that widened at the summit into a parking apron. When I got out of my car I could look back over the city and see the towers of the mission and the courthouse half submerged in smog. The channel lay on the other side of the ridge, partly enclosed by its broken girdle of islands. the beginning of Ross Macdonald's The Blue Hammer.

This was Ross Macdonald's final novel and the Lew Archer private eye series was well-established by this point. Macdonald had begun to get the acclaim that has since landed him in the Library of America. It seems to me he's not trying anything flashy here at the beginning in this one. The narrator is Lew Archer but we're not told that. (Though it is on the cover of the book.) He's on his way to see a potential client, but we don't really know that either; all we know is that he's on the grounds of a well-to-do southern California house. (Mission, smog.) It's low-key, but still I like it. Though I have to admit, if I wasn't already a Macdonald fan, I don't know that it would sell me.

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. Your reporter is almost on location this week, reporting remotely from (northern) California.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings

Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings (1978) is subtitled A Victorian Murder Mystery and so it is, but not by much. It takes place in 1892.

Three members of the interlocking Mortimer/Collard/Vandervent families are killed by arsenic poisoning. The family's money, widely thought to be considerable, comes from the family business as toy merchants; they also own a pair of spectacularly something houses near to each other at Blackheath. At the time of the poisonings, the matriarch of the family lives in one of the houses with one of her daughters as yet unmarried; her son and daughter with their respective spouses live in the other. Roger Vandervent, a widower, came to his marriage to the other Collard daughter with a son by a previous marriage. Those are the principals.

Whew. Have you got all that?

Roger Vandervent is the first to go, then next that matriarch, Harriet Collard. The daughter-in-law Ysabel Collard is arrested for the murders, is convicted, and sentenced to be hanged, when a third murder occurs, that of her husband George Collard. Since Ysabel is in prison, she's clearly innocent of the third murder, and now it's presumed she's innocent of the first two as well. She's released, and the murders go unsolved in the world of the novel, but a final postscript reveals that, in fact, a rough justice prevailed.

This warmed up as it went along. The initial exposition, which I boiled down to a paragraph above, was pretty leaden and a bit unclear; I had to keep referring back. Also Symons, who is a scholar of the mystery novel tradition among one of his many hats, wears his learning rather heavily in this, clanking along like a full suit of armor to prevent any accusations he didn't know his period. Consider:
She [Ysabel] sat alone in the coach marked "For Ladies Only" and carried with her George Newnes' publication The Strand Magazine. She turned the pages and glanced at the plentiful illustrations which, together with the stories by a writer named Doyle, she supposed to be the secret of the magazine's success. She read nothing, however,...
I appreciate a sly Sherlock Holmes reference as well as the next person, but did we need George Newnes? Ah, well, your mileage may vary...

But the resolution was stronger. The solution was clever and there was even some emotional weight in the denouement. First the doctors and then the police are comically incompetent, and the solution to the case is revealed in that postscript by Paul Vandervent, the son by a previous marriage. Satisfactory, as Nero Wolfe might say.

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Silver Age. What. Means of Murder In The Title

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jorge Carrión's Bookshops: A Reader's History

Jorge Carrión is, among other things, a travel writer, and this volume is, among other things, a volume of travel, travel to bookshops. He imagines a passport which has, instead of the stamps of countries, the stamps of bookshops he's visited and there are bookshops in Buenos Aires, in Istanbul, in London, in New York, in Sydney, in San Francisco, in Santiago. He himself lives in Barcelona and, of course, there are bookshops he's visited in Barcelona. He describes the layout, the shelves, the windows, the signs, and most importantly, the stock.

That, of course, is one of the great pleasures of this book for a book lover: the thought of all those bookshops one (I) could go to. The ones I have been to (say 57th Street Books in Chicago) I now want to revisit; the ones I haven't, well, I've made a list.

But there's also a melancholy tone to the book. Carrión emphasizes early on that book selling is a business even though we as book lovers don't always want to see it that way. I may have been known to hoard a book or two that only my heirs and assigns will ever be able to get rid of, but by definition that can't be true of a bookseller: if they don't sell books they don't last in the business for very long.

And plenty of bookstores fail anyway. Increasingly as his book goes along (and as his writing of it went along--he seems to have been working on this book over the course of ten years) the bookshops he once visited have closed. 

Bookstores also take on other functions. He introduced me to the Spanish neologism cafebrería, that combination of a coffee shop and bookstore, a word that could usefully be imported into English. Of course it's a business and one does what one has to. Are these lists of the world's most beautiful bookstores any longer about books? Or have they become tourist destinations? If selling is necessary then can we complain when booksellers do what it takes? Carrión does not take a stand, but only brings up the question.

Anyway, enjoyable, even if I just lost an hour Googling bookstores that no longer exist where I've spent my time and money...

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Book Beginning: Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings

The extraordinary series of crimes popularly called the Blackheath Poisonings took place in the early 1890s at a time when the Mortimer family had lived in that suburb on the edge of London for nearly half a century. the beginning of Julian Symons' The Blackheath Poisonings: A Victorian Murder Mystery.

Symons' mystery came out in 1978 and as such is going to count for the Silver Age of Vintage Mystery challenge. Symons does not write series novels (which I generally prefer) and I've only just started, so I can't say much at this point. I've liked the other mysteries of his I've read, plus he's contributed mightily to the non-fiction history of the genre.

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. What? It's not book beginnings on Saturdays? Oh, well, better late than never...

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Randal Graham's Beforelife

The Beforelife Delusion is the belief that one previously died before one came to the place of Randal Graham's novel, which goes by the name of Detroit. People arrive in Detroit by rising up out of the River Styx. In Detroit the delusion is mostly treated as a harmless form of madness that for most people seems to go away in time.

But for Ian Brown his earlier memories are particularly specific and important to him: he remembers slipping and being hit by an oncoming train, he remembers his job as a minor bureaucrat, but mostly he remembers his wife Penelope. And he's unwilling to give up his memory of her. He does not believe it's simply delusion, and he's horrified by the thought that his own memories might fade as they do for others.

There's also a plot to overthrow the leadership of Detroit, and Ian Brown is stuck of the middle of it.

Graham's style is jokey and frenetic; his inventiveness just keeps on coming. If you don't like one joke, hang on, another will come along soon, so no need to worry. Here's one I laughed at:
Cathedraphilia, it turns out, is a little-known (and rarely documented) fetish that features numerous sub-fetishes including those relating to bells, spires, and organs. For a more thorough discussion see Bezel Finnigan's popular text, Building Relationships (which, coincidentally, inspired the Non-Ambiguous Title Movement in 14,386 after complaints from Finnigan's unsuspecting readership).
I do have to say, though, that the plot suffered from the ongoing zaniness at times. And there were various oddities. Getting back together with Penelope may be a story you've heard before; I was just brushing up on it recently myself. But that's not exactly what happens here. Also one Napoleon in an insane asylum is not unheard-of, but six? There's only one place I know of for Six Napoleons. I kept expecting them to get smashed one by one. The use of literary allusions can, of course, be playful, but they, too, seemed to run contrary to the story at times.

Anyway, it had some good jokes. I wanted more attention to the story, though.

ARC provided by ECW Press

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Return To Venice

Casanova (yes, that Casanova) has been exiled from his home town of Venice for general bad behavior and he's now a middle-aged man of fifty-three; his looks show the fast life he's been living, as does his pocketbook. All he wants to do, he says, is get back to Venice. There's a chance his friends at home will be able to undo his exile, and he's living in a cheap inn in Mantua near to Venice waiting for what he hopes will be a favorable letter.

While he's waiting he runs into Olivo, an old friend and now a successful vintner, whom Casanova had helped to set up once upon a time and with whose wife, Amalia, he slept before Olivo and Amalia were married. Olivo invites Casanova to his vineyard estate at least for those days he's waiting for the letter. Casanova reluctantly agrees.

Casanova is an aging lecher who says all he wants to do his write his pamphlet against Voltaire and go home, but once in the country, there is Amalia, still longing for Casanova, Amalia's daughter, the neighboring Marchesa, and above all Amalia's niece to provide temptations and engender plots.

Schnitzler was an Austrian playwright and novelist with his first works appearing in the late 1800s. He's perhaps best known for his play La Ronde, with scenes in which A has just slept with B, B with C, and so on up to J, completing the circle at the end when we learn J has slept with A. It was made into a movie a couple of times. This earned him no friends in conservative circles, but Schnitzler was enormously successful at the time. Writing about Casanova hardly qualifies as a breach of taste for him.

This work has a melancholy charm to it that was appealing. Casanova is neither condemned exactly, nor praised. He is, however, left lesser than he started. He's thinking of a literary career, a polemic against Voltaire that will make his name, but which everyone knows will go nowhere. His famous work, yet to come at the time the novella is set, The Story of My Life, is alluded to. Without that, Casanova would probably be no more than a curious footnote instead of the catchword for his type.

The work came out originally in 1918. (This translation is from 1930 by Ilsa Barea.) I don't know what happened to Schnitzler during World War I, but I have to assume the melancholy tone is influenced by the time of its writing.

Near the top of my reading pile at the moment is Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the story of someone else (Marco Polo) longing to return to Venice. It might make an interesting comparison.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Beginning: Italo Calvino's The Baron In The Trees

It was on the fifteenth of June, 1767, that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. the beginning of Italo Calvino's The Baron In Trees. Young Cosimo is twelve and when he's served something at dinner he doesn't like and won't eat, he's told to leave the table. He climbs a tree outside the dining room window and vows never to come back, and he never does. (In his defense, it was snails for dinner.) He conducts love affairs and duels from the trees, is admired by Voltaire, corresponds with Diderot. Napoleon comes to look at him in the middle of conquering Italy.

I love, love, love this book. Sometimes, you just need a comfort read, ya know?

In poking around for a picture of the cover, I also found these images, which I think are pretty cool, and much more fun than the picture on the cover of my edition.

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.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season

N. K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season is the first of a fantasy trilogy that takes place in a seismically active mega-continent. The third volume The Stone Sky came out last fall, which is how I heard of it. In this world, there are people who are attuned to this seismic activity and are able to manipulate it, both with conscious intent, but also as a side effect of their emotional state. With training their control can improve and can be used by others. These people are called orogenes.

Then there are normal humans,  also called stills, who are mostly indistinguishable from orogenes. (There are also stoneeaters, though who exactly they are and what their intentions are remains a bit mysterious in the first volume.)

The orogenes are feared and dreaded by the rest of society; they're either enslaved for their power, or neutered if that power can't be controlled. A few manage to escape to the margins of society, but not many and not necessarily for long. The orogenes are derogatorily called roggas (sounds like...) and I assume the experiences of N. K. Jemisin, the black woman author, inform the role of orogenes in this world's society.

The novel is told in three interlocking time streams which tie together quite successfully in the end. I didn't anticipate the connection and I'm going to avoid saying too much to spoil the surprise. The fifth season is death, a world cataclysm, and in one of the threads, it's started and people are fleeing; in another two mature orogenes are doing what they can until the fifth season is full in swing; the third is the story of a young orogene as she discovers her powers and is taken away to have them trained and/or controlled.

I thought it was very good and I immediately put the second and third volumes on my library hold list, but I'm a little late to the game so I'm going to have to wait. I thought it was very powerful. In some ways it compares to a common trope in fantasy novels, a young person, probably from the provinces, discovers that she has magical talents. Those talents are powerful and can be an object of dread to family and society. Think Wizards of Earthsea or, one I just read fairly recently, Mercedes Lackey's Arrows trilogy. In that young Talia escapes a provincial fundamentalist society to use her power. Demaya is the corresponding character in The Fifth Season and  Jemisin is much more brutal and much more convincing about the complex psychology such a person would feel. She's also much stronger on the relationship between society and the individual.

Now all I need to do is wait for the next two.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Homer's Odyssey (tr. by Emily Wilson)

Emily Wilson's new translation of the Odyssey has been getting a lot of buzz, not least because it seems it's the first published translation of the Odyssey by a woman. This is a little surprising (though, alas, not that surprising) despite the fact Samuel Butler, umm, proved the Odyssey was actually written by a woman.

Well, publicity departments do what they have to, of course. But it should be getting buzz because it's very, very good.

One of the signs of the buzz it has been getting is that it's featured in the window of my local science fiction/fantasy bookstore. Which makes sense, really. It is a fantasy adventure story with monsters and pirates and gods. It's also got one of the all-time great love stories, too. Plus that bit about a young man growing up, a sort of YA opener.

And Emily Wilson's version brings all that across more clearly than any other English version I've read. It's a clear modern English that still feels like poetry. (She writes in blank verse.) Very highly recommended, though treat the introduction as if it were an afterword. You can read the Translator's Note in advance.

From the end of that Translator's Note:
There is a stranger inside your house. He is old, ragged, and dirty. He is tired. He has been wandering, homeless, for a long time, perhaps many years. Invite him inside. You do not know his name. He may be a thief. He may be a murderer. He may be a god. He may remind you of your husband, your father, or yourself. Do not ask questions. Wait. Let him sit on a comfortable chair and warm himself beside your fire. Bring him some food, the best you have, and a cup of wine. Let him eat and drink until he is satisfied. Be patient. When he has finished, let him tell his story. Listen carefully. It may not be as you expect.
And the first line of her translation:
Tell me about a complicated man. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrapup

It's time for the Vintage Scavenger Mystery Hunt wrap-up. I pledged six in both categories (Golden Age mysteries--up to 1960, and Silver Age--1960-1989) and I hit that mark. As I guessed in my initial post I did much better with the Golden Age. It's been a fun excuse to read a bunch of mysteries--not that I need much excuse, but there you have it.

I finished 24 Golden Age mysteries and nine in the Silver Age. Here's the complete list:

Golden Age

Knife. Rex Stout's Over My Dead Body (1940)
Skeletal Hand or Skull. Gladys Mitchell's The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929)
Hat. Edmund Crispin's The Moving Toyshop (1946)
Bloodstains.  Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Deadly Toy (1959)
Bird. Rex Stout's Where There's A Will (1940)
Policeman. E. R. Punshon's The Diabolic Candelabra (1942)
Shadowy Figure. Bioy Casares and Ocampo's Where There's Love, There's Hate (1946)
Flowers. Rex Stout's Black Orchids (1942)
Suitcase/Briefcase. John Dickson Carr's The Case Of The Constant Suicides (1941)
Glove. Patricia Wentworth's Touch And Go (1934)
Jewelry. Winifred Peck's The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)
Hand Holding Weapon. Ross MacDonald's The Doomsters (1958)
Damsel in Distress. Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939)
Cat. S. S. Van Dine's The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938)
Building. Graham Greene's A Gun For Sale (1936)
Revolver. John Dickson Carr's The Man Who Could Not Shudder (1940)
Moon. Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
Car/Truck. Leslie Charteris' Enter The Saint (1930)
Train. Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express (1934)
Any Other Weapon (Bomb). Leslie Charteris' The Last Hero (1930)
Tombstone. John Dickson Carr's To Wake The Dead (1938)
Blonde. Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Lonely Heiress (1948)
Hangman's Noose. Ellery Queen's Ten Days' Wonder (1948)
Brunette. Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case Of The Rolling Bones (1939)

Silver Age

Car/Truck. Chester Himes' All Shot Up (1960)
Written Document. Simon Brett's Situation Tragedy  (1981)
Map or Chart. Carolyn Keene's The Quest Of The Missing Map  (1969)
Bird. Simon Brett's Murder Unprompted (1982)
Any Other Weapon (Pistol). Simon Brett's Murder In The Title (1983)
Bottle Of Poison. Simon Brett's Dead Giveaway (1985)
Body Of Water. Janwillem van de Wetering's The Mind Murders (1981)
Snow/Snowy Scene.  Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up In Tinsel (1971)

Very much thanks to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting this challenge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book Beginning: The Odyssey (tr. Emily Wilson)

Tell me about a complicated man. the beginning of The Odyssey by Homer in Emily Wilson's new translation.

I have to say, I love that opening and so far I think it's a superb translation. The introduction was a bit meandering, though, so I definitely want to think of the first line of the poem as the beginning. I've read the Odyssey before, but even still, there were a few points in this reading I was ready to tear up it was so affecting.

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 (or tall tales or lies about being Cretan) you like.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

2017 Mount TBR Final Checkpoint

The Mount TBR Reading Challenge is a way to get books off one's personal TBR mountain hosted at My Reader's Block. I declared for Mt. Vancouver at the beginning of the year, which is 36 books.

After a slow first quarter start at the climb up my particular mountain, I was on pace at mid-year, and surging by the third checkin. I'm happy to say I'm planting my flag at the top of Mt. Vancouver (4812m) with a few extra books to spare: 42 TBR books in total. The complete list is given at the original post. That, alas, was fewer than the number of books that entered the house this past year, so it's Mt. Ararat for me in 2018.

I didn't write posts for all the books I read over the year, mostly just ones that matched a challenge, so I'm using a few books that didn't get posted on. And then some are from Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt posts only, not TBR posts. I thought about using Rogue Male for all of them, which came pretty close to working, but in the end didn't use it for any...

A Stitch in Time [is] ... Swing Time
Don't Count Your Chickens [before] ... The Claws Of The Cat
A Penny Saved [is] ... Ten Days' Wonder
All Good Things Must Come [to] ... The Big Sleep (True, I suppose, though a little grim.)
When In Rome,...Where Angels Fear To Tread
All That Glitters Is Not ... Twelfth Night (In fact, it's The Merchant of Venice.)
A Picture Is Worth ... A Room With A View
When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get ... Whipped
Two Wrongs Don't Make ... Innocence
The Pen Is Mightier Than ... [the] Boss (Royko would like that one.)
The Squeaky Wheel Gets ... All Shot Up (Someone's feeling a little impatient, are we?)
Hope For The Best, But Prepare For ... The Fire Next Time
Birds Of A Feather Flock ... Where There's A Will

It's been fun (and useful!) Thanks to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 Reading Year In Review

The first of the year and it's summary time. (That's not summery time, at least here in Toronto, alas. There are flurries falling as I compose this.)

The best books I read this year:

Michael Chabon's Moonglow

- This one didn't get a post, but it has become my favorite Michael Chabon novel, and he's a favorite of mine to begin with. 'Mike' tells stories of his 'grandfather'.

Penelope Fitzgerald's Innocence

- This may be only my third or fourth favorite of her novels, but that's still enough to get it on this list

John Dickson Carr's The Case Of The Constant Suicides

- In which the author of this post realizes he's seriously underestimated Carr.

Matthias Enard's Compass

-A love story between socially maladroit intellectuals that left me with a new bunch of books I wanted to read. What's not to like?

Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet

-One of those books I wanted to read after Compass.

That's out of 126 total books for me. Some statistics: 35% of them came from the library (love live the Toronto Public Library!) 26% of them were written by women. Sixty got posts written for them.

There will be a couple of challenge wrap-up posts yet to come.

It was a good reading year. Hope yours was as well, and your next one even better. Happy 2018!