Tuesday, February 28, 2017

More Short Stories in February

Here is a summary to conclude my short story reading in February, inspired by a suggestion from Richard Robinson at Tip the Wink. Since my last update on February 18, my short story reading has slowed down but I still got quite a few read before the end of the month.

Almost as soon as I finished Michael Gilbert’s Game Without Rules, consisting of eleven stories about two middle-aged spies, I purchased the second book, titled simply Mr Calder and Mr Behrens. I thought I would finish that book before the end of the month too, but I decided to slow down and savor the stories, as there won’t be more when I finish this book. I will be rereading them later I am sure.

The stories I have read so far are:
  1. "The Twilight of the Gods"
  2. "Emergency Exit"
  3. "One-to-Ten"

I finished up all the stories in Miniatures by John Scalzi. The remaining stories were all very short and very silly. I mainly bought the book because it was illustrated. Some of the earlier stories in the book I enjoyed, these later ones not so much. But I am still a fan of John Scalzi, his novels are just fine.

The stories I read are:
  1. "To Sue the World"
  2. "How I Keep Myself Amused on Long Flights: A Twitter Tale"
  3. "How I Keep Myself Amused on Long Flights: Part II: The Gremlining"
  4. "Life on Earth: Human-Alien Relations"
  5. "Morning Announcements at the Lucas Interspecies School for Troubled Youth"
  6. "Your Smart Appliances Talk About You Behind Your Back"
  7. "The AI are Absolutely Positively Without A Doubt Not Here to End Humanity. Honest."
  8. "Important Holidays on Gronghu"
  9. "Cute Adorable Extortionists"
  10. "Penelope" (poem written in 1991)

Mattaponi Queen is a book of short stories by Belle Boggs, set in Virginia and about life on and around the Mattaponi Indian Reservation. The book is described as a collection of linked stories, but I have not gotten far enough along to notice that yet. I have read the first three stories and liked them all. And what a gorgeous cover!

I read:
  1. “Deer Season”
  2. “Good News for a Hard Time”
  3. “Imperial Chrysanthemum”
I had forgotten how much of Southern culture revolves around hunting (possibly because I grew up in a big city). "Deer Season" was an interesting look at that.


This month I got a copy of Mississippi Noir (ed. Tom Franklin) especially because Megan Abbott's Edgar-nominated short story is in that book, plus the added bonus that I grew up in Alabama, and I have cousins in Mississippi, and visited them and their parents in a small town in Mississippi (Batesville) during my childhood.

All these stories are from the section titled Wayward Youth:
  1. "Uphill" by Mary Miller
  2. "Boy and Girl Games Like Coupling" by Jamie Paige
  3. "Oxford Girl" by Megan Abbott
  4. "Digits" by Michael Kardos
The story by Megan Abbott was very, very good, about a pair of lovers in college, told from both of their points of view. And (another bonus), the setting of the story is set in Oxford, MS, but the female protagonist is from Batesville, which I did not know beforehand.



I also recently found a copy of New Orleans Noir: The Classics, edited by Julie Smith.

I read six stories from that book:
  1. "Rich" by Ellen Gilchrist
  2. "Spats" by Valerie Martin
  3. "The Man With Moon Hands" by O'Neil De Noux
  4. "Rose" by John Biguenet
  5. "Mussolini and the Axeman's Jazz" by Poppy Z. Brite
  6. "GDMFSOB" by Nevada Barr

All were good stories, and very, very noir. I have been curious about O'Neil De Noux, and I was very pleased with his story. "GDMFSOB" was the first thing I have every read by Nevada Barr and it was not at all what I expected.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Five Years of Blogging

Today I am celebrating the fifth anniversary of my first blog post.

In the last year I have blogged less but enjoyed it just as much as ever. I am basing this mainly on numbers of posts; my average number of posts on the blog in 2016 was 8 a month. In 2015 I posted on the average 11 posts a month. I have noticed that my posts are longer now, more verbose, even though one of my goals is to cut down on the length of the posts. But I will continue blogging as long as I enjoy writing up my thoughts on the books, along with including some background on the authors.

What do I like best about blogging?

  • The community of book bloggers. It is wonderful to be able to learn from others who share my love for books and reading. 
  • The process of organizing and writing down my thoughts about the books I read. 
  • Reminders of authors I need to check out or get reacquainted with.
  • Discovering new authors. I thought I knew a lot about older mystery novels (pre-1960's) before I started blogging, but I am constantly amazed at how much more there is to learn.

Two vintage authors that I just read about recently were Christopher Bush (at Vintage Pop Fictions) and Roy Vickers, specifically The Department of Dead Ends (at Tip the Wink).

And I will end with some lovely books covers of books I hope to read this year.

                                      Reviewed at The Thrilling Detective.

                                                  Reviewed at Clothes in Books.


                                                 Reviewed at The Dusty Bookcase.


                                      In the Spotlight at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Laura: Vera Caspary

I came to the novel Laura by Vera Caspary by two routes. Not too long ago, I purchased the two volume set from Library of America titled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s. One of the nine novels in this set is Laura. When 1943 was selected to be the year for the Crimes of the Century meme for February 2017, I decided it was time to read this book.

I had avoided this novel for years. Although I had never seen the movie based on the book, I thought I knew the story, and assumed the story was spoiled for me. That was a mistake; even if I did know one or two main points of the story, there was much there to surprise me and I loved the way the story was told. Laura is a wonderful read and not to be missed.

In this novel, Laura Hunt, a successful career woman working for an advertising firm, has been murdered in her apartment. She was shot at close range with BB shot as she opened the door of her apartment to a visitor. Mark McPherson starts his investigation of the case by interviewing the two men who cared for her most, Waldo Lydecker, her friend and mentor, and Shelby J. Carpenter, her fiance.

For the most part, Laura is narrated in the first person by several different characters. The first section starts off with Waldo Lydecker's description of his meeting with Mark McPherson. Waldo is a middle-aged, overweight journalist who gave Laura her start in advertising. The second section is narrated by McPherson as he continues working the case. Another section is a "stenographic report of the statement made by Shelby J. Carpenter to Lieutenant McPherson."

I enjoy stories with alternating narrators, and Vera Caspary handles that aspect very well. Caspary also explores feminist themes. Laura has struggled with the conflicts of balancing a demanding career and a fulfilling love life. That is difficult for women today, but in the 1940's it was much more so.

How does this book reflect the year it was published? Actually the story was published first as a 7-part serial in 1942 titled Ring Twice for Laura. It was published in novel form the next year. While reading the book, I did not notice much evidence of the time. However, there is this reference to the war when McPherson looks for a newspaper article about Laura's death:
"There was nothing on Page One. A new battle on the Eastern Front and a speech by Churchill had pushed her off the front pages. I turned to Page Four. There was her picture..."

A year after the book was published, the film adaptation starring Dana Andrews as the detective and Gene Tierney as Laura was released. The problem with my viewing of the film is that I watched it too soon after reading the book. important characters in the book are written and portrayed much differently in the film, and I kept noticing those differences too much to fully enjoy the movie. In the film, Waldo Lydecker is portrayed as Laura's Pygmalion, teaching her about society and manners. In the book, this may be implied but not so strongly. Laura's aunt is also portrayed quite differently in the film. On the other hand, Vincent Price as Laura's fiance fit the role closely enough for me.

However, having said that, I do think the movie is very well done and very entertaining. It just does not convey the depth of the book at all. I won't say more than that because if you haven't seen the movie or read the book, I don't want to spoil the fun.

I confess that I bought another edition of Laura, published by The Feminist Press. It is a part of the Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp series, which restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century. This edition of Laura has a foreward titled "Women Write Pulp" and an afterward exploring Vera Caspary's life and fiction by A. B. Emrys. In my opinion, the essay at the end of the book is worth the price of admission.


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Publisher:    The Feminist Press, 2005 (orig. pub. 1943)
Length:        194 pages
Format:        Trade paperback
Setting:        New York
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased my copies.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hide and Seek: Ian Rankin

Hide and Seek is the second book in the John Rebus series featuring a Detective Inspector in the Edinburgh police. The series, written by Ian Rankin, started in 1987 with Knots and Crosses, and seemed to end in 2007 with Exit Music, the 17th Rebus novel. Rebus returned in 2012 in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and there are now over 20 novels in the series.

Description from the back of the book
In a shadowy, crumbling Edinburgh housing development, a junkie lies dead of an overdose, his body surrounded by signs of Satanic worship. Inspector John Rebus could call it an accident―but won’t. Now he’s got to scour the city―from the tunnels of its dark underbelly to the private sanctum of the upper crust―to find the perfect hiding place for a killer.
John Rebus is the first detective on the scene after the body of a young man is discovered.  The case seems straightforward enough, but Rebus follows up by talking to the young woman who reported the death. She and the victim had been living in the boarded up house where he was found She tells him that the body was in a different location in the house when she found him; also she is worried that someone is trying to kill her. All of this enforces Rebus's feeling that something more is going on.

Just as Rebus gets interested in this case, he is pulled off regular duties to work with a new drugs task force, which will have him socializing with some of the rich and powerful citizens of Edinburgh. He does continue looking into the death on the side, as the task force work is delayed. Thus Rebus is dealing with both the poorest people in the city and the richest in this case.

Rankin does not paint a pretty picture of the police force in Edinburgh. This is the dark and gritty side of Edinburgh. The plot deals with corruption in the police department and in city government. I always like a story about corruption and how people deal with it.

There are hints of personal issues in Rebus's life but they never come to the forefront in this book. Two continuing characters are introduced:  Detective Sergeant Brian Holmes, who does footwork for Rebus, and his boss, Detective Superintendent Watson. I especially enjoyed the sections involving Holmes.

This is our introduction to Rebus in this book:
John Rebus stared hard at the dish in front of him, oblivious to the conversation around the table, the background music, the flickering candles. He didn't really care about house prices in Barnton, or the latest delicatessen to be opened in the Grassmarket. He didn't much want to speak to the other guests—a female lecturer to his right, a male bookseller to his left—about… well, what ever they'd just been discussing. Yes, it was the perfect dinner party, the conversation as tangy as the starter course, and he was glad Rian had invited him. Of course he was. But the more he stared at the half lobster on his plate, the more an unfocussed despair grew within him. What had he in common with these people? Would they laugh if he told the story of the police alsatian and the severed head? No, they would not. They would smile politely, then bow their heads towards their plates, acknowledging that he was… well, different from them.
This is not the best police procedural I have ever read, nor is it the worst. I found it believable, interesting, and it kept me turning the pages. I plan to continue reading the series, not the least because I have the next eight books in the series, plus a few more. And I have heard that the series gets better and better.

This is my first submission for the Read Scotland 2017 challenge hosted by Peggy. Peggy is now blogging at Peggy's Porch.

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Publisher:   St. Martins Paperbacks, 1997. Orig. pub. 1991.
Length:       210 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       John Rebus, #2
Setting:      Edinburgh, Scotland
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Short Story Reading in February 2017, Part 1

In late January, Richard Robinson at Tip the Wink suggested Short Story February, where we will focus on short stories during that month. I have read a couple of books for previous commitments this month, but for the most part, I have been reading short stories this month.

I finished one book of short stories by Michael Gilbert, Game Without Rules. There are eleven stories in this book, and they are all about the spies, Mr Calder and Mr Behrens. Both are in their fifties, and called upon when needed to handle special projects and missions. It is a wonderful book and I loved all the stories. I cannot even name a favorite. I will do a separate post on this book later.

The stories in this book are:
  1. "The Road to Damascus"
  2. "On Slay Down"
  3. "The Spoilers"
  4. "The Cat Cracker"
  5. "Trembling's Tours"
  6. "The Headmaster"
  7. "Heilige Nacht"
  8. "Upon the King..."
  9. "Cross-Over"
  10. "Prometheus Unbound"
  11. "A Prince of Abyssinia"

The rest of the books I sampled stories from, although I do hope to finish one of two of them before the end of the month. They are:

Miniatures by John Scalzi
Miniatures is a small book full of very short stories. The stories are all science fiction, but of the ones I have read so far, they are all so light and humorous that they really don't feel like science fiction at all.
  1. "Pluto Tells All"
  2. “Denise Jones, Superbooker”
  3. "When the Yogurt Took Over"
  4. "The Other Large Thing"
  5. "The State of Super Villainy" ( follow-up to Denise Jones, Superbooker)
  6. "New Directive for Employee-Manxte Interactions"


IN SUNLIGHT OR IN SHADOW
Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper
edited by Lawrence Block
  1. "Girlie Show"  by Megan Abbott
  2. "The Story of Caroline" by Jill D. Block
  3. "Soir Bleu" by Robert Olen Butler
  4. "The Truth About What Happened" by Lee Child
  5. "Rooms by the Sea" by Nicholas Christopher
I especially liked "Girlie Show", a story about a woman who is forced by her husband to pose for the painting he is working on. A dark story with a very good ending.
And "The Story of Caroline" about a daughter who wants to see her birth mother.
And "Rooms by the Sea", which is about an unusual family with an unusual house, with elements of magical realism.


Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics
edited by Lawrence Block
  1. “Mrs. Manstey’s View” by Edith Wharton (1891) – This was the author’s first published short story.
  2. “A Poker Game” by Stephen Crane (1902) – Didn't really get this story.
  3. “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry (1906) – Dark with an ironic ending.
  4. “Spanish Blood” by Langston Hughes (1934) – Set in Harlem,during the Prohibition era.
  5. “Sailor off the Bremen” by Irwin Shaw (1939) – A tale of revenge, very noir. Lots of violence, the darkest tale so far.
  6. “My Aunt from Twelfth Street” by Jerome Weidman (1939) – A strange story about a young boy who visits his aunt, a Galician, who refuses to live in the same neighborhood as her relatives and others of the same background. 
OxCrimes (introd. by Ian Rankin, ed. by Mark Ellingham and Peter Florence)
  1. "Buy and Bust" by Simon Lewis
  2. "I’ve Seen That Movie Too" by Val McDermid
  3. "Caught Short" by Anthony Horowitz
  4. "An Afternoon" by Ian Rankin
All of those stories were very good. The Anthony Horowitz story was darker than I expected from him. The story from Ian Rankin was unusual in that it was written before he had begun writing crime fiction novels. It was interesting but a bit confusing to me, but I did enjoy the comments by Rankin that followed the story.

I had read the first two stories in this book earlier:  "The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us" by George Pelecanos and "Case of Death and Honey" by Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed both of those stories also.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mildred Pierce: James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce is a novel by a crime fiction author, James M. Cain, but it is not a mystery. It is the story of a divorced mother of two girls who struggles to support herself and her daughters during the Great Depression. The novel was made into a movie with Joan Crawford in 1945 and a TV miniseries starring Kate Winslet in 2011, so probably most people know about this book and it needs little introduction.

  • Main characters: Mildred Pierce, mother of two daughters, Veda and Ray. Bert Pierce, her husband at the outset of the novel.
  • Setting: Glendale, a major city in the Greater Los Angeles Area. Currently Glendale is the third largest city in LA County, with a population of about 200,000. When this book was written, the population was only about 80,000.
  • Time: 1930's. Begins in 1931, during the Great Depression. Veda is eleven and Ray is seven. 

As the book opens, Bert Pierce is doing yard work. He comes indoors, and soon he and his wife Mildred are having an argument over his contribution to the marriage and his continuing involvement with another woman. Mildred asks him to move out, and thus begins her effort to find a way to pay the mortgage and support her two daughters.

The family had been used to having money. In his youth, Bert was lucky enough to inherit some land, and became a partner in a housing development. He invested the money in AT&T and the Pierces had plenty of money.
But then came Black Thursday of 1929, and his plunge to ruin was so rapid he could hardly see Pierce Homes disappear on his way down. In September he had been rich, and Mildred picked out the mink coat she would buy when the weather grew cooler. In November, with the weather not a bit cooler, he had to sell the spare car to pay current bills. 
Thus times are desperate for the Pierces. Bert has no money and has not been successful at getting a job. Mildred sells cakes that she bakes herself, but that won't pay the bills for long. She begins looking for a job but doesn't have the skills for any jobs other than housekeeper or waitress, which she considers too menial. And this is when we discover that her horror of taking a job like housekeeper or waitress is because Veda, her eldest daughter, will be ashamed of her.

From this point on, it seems that almost every choice Mildred makes is in service of Veda, to buy her clothes or piano lessons, or so that she will be the mother that Veda will be proud of. Veda is haughty and snobbish, even at the age of 11, and Mildred knows that she will choose to live with her father and his parents if things don't go her way. The younger daughter Ray is just a normal child, but very much in Veda's shadow.

The story continues on through another 10 years at least, with Mildred working hard and investing money in Veda's musical career, and continuing to seek her love and approval. It was hard for me to feel sympathy or empathy for any of the characters. That is not a requirement for a good book, of course, but it does usually lead to more enjoyment in reading in my case. I have heard of parents who are blind to their children's faults, but Mildred is not blind to Veda's manipulative behavior or her willingness to use people. She actively supports almost anything Veda wants, knowing what kind of person she is. Veda despises her mother but continues to take her money and her support. Even though Veda behaves appallingly, Mildred has only herself to blame for any suffering she experiences.

There were aspects I liked about this book but I cannot say it was a pleasant read.  I did find this a good portrayal of life in the US in the 1930's and appreciated Mildred as a strong female character, with drive and ambition, although not an admirable one. I liked the novel best when the story was concentrating on Mildred's abilities in setting up a restaurant and running a business, and the help she got from friends and acquaintances.

Many people who have seen the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford assume that the book is much like the movie. I thought the same until a couple of years ago. The movie is a film noir, and it has murder mystery plot. Much of it is told in flashbacks with Mildred telling the police her story. That structure is not at all like the book. I do remember liking the acting and, of course, the movie is beautifully made.

This post is a submission for Friday Forgotten Books at Pattinase, hosted by Patti Abbott. On February 17th, the theme is Children Gone Wrong. Mildred Pierce is not a forgotten book but Veda Pierce definitely fits the description of an extremely difficult child. I don't know that she is monstrous or even wicked so much as self-centered to the extent of caring for no one but herself.

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Publisher:   Vintage, 1989 (orig. publ. 1941).
Length:      238 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Glendale, California
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      Purchased at the Planned Parenthood Book Sale, 2014..