Sunday, September 24, 2017

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen

I enjoyed this story of a young girl who was taken in by her aunt and uncle because her own parents cannot afford to support all their children. Thus, Fanny Price grows up in a much wealthier and educated family than the one she was born into. As she grows up, Fanny is made very much aware that she is less educated and not of the same station as her cousins. She misses her parents and her siblings, especially her older brother, William. Her new family has two girls and two boys and all of them are older than she is. Fanny is befriended by one of her male cousins, Edmund, who is six years older. The others pretty much ignore her.

The first three chapters (of nearly forty) cover from the time Fanny joins the Bertram's at Mansfield Park at about 10 years of age until she is about 16 or 17. At that point, her cousins Maria and Julia are looking for husbands and the rest of the story covers the ups and downs of their flirtations, courtships, and marriages.

Both because of her younger age and because she is  not of the same social status as her cousins, Fanny does not expect to be a part of the associated festivities and is usually more of a looker on. Although Fanny has had many of the benefits of being raised at Mansfield Park, there is a clear difference between her and her spoiled cousins, who are demanding and think little of others. Fanny has turned into a lovely and kind young lady, but is often treated as more of a companion and a servant to her two aunts.  Especially by her Aunt Norris, who doesn't want to see her get any special treatment at all.

Complex relationships develop between the Bertram daughters and sons and other young people in the area. A wealthy brother and sister, Henry and Mary Crawford, move into the area. Fanny's two female cousins (Maria and Julia) are both in love with Henry and in competition for his affections, even though the eldest already has a fiancé. Mary Crawford is attracted to Edmund Bertram, but isn't happy with his lower prospects financially as a younger son.


A very interesting part of the story for me was the plans by the young people to perform a play. Tom, the eldest son, starts up construction in one part of the house to have a stage for the performance. Fanny's uncle, usually very much in charge of the events in the household, is away in Antigua and Edmund and Fanny are sure that he would not approve the performance of a play in his home. But even Aunt Norris, who has been left in charge while Lord Bertram is gone, supports the endeavor. In the end there are ruinous relationships and broken friendships.

Later, Fanny returns to live with her own lower-middle-class family for several months. In this section the chasm between her family and her adopted family is very clear. Her main joy in this visit is seeing more of her favorite brother William but he is quickly shipped off to sea on a new assignment. She is shocked by the rowdy and rude behavior of her siblings and sees the reality of life without the luxuries of Mansfield Park where there were servants to cook and clean.

There are several very interesting (and maddening) characters. Lady Bertram has hardly any interest in her children and is very passive, refusing to make decisions. Her sister, Aunt Norris, is a busybody, controlling and manipulative, and very unkind to Fanny.

I personally liked Fanny a lot, but some readers find her bland. At one point she rejects a proposal of marriage because she does not care for the young man, nor does she believe that his sentiments are sincere, and I respect her sticking to her convictions. Some Bertram family members are disappointed with her behavior. I would have liked her to share her opinions and speak up for herself, but due to her upbringing and being treated with little affection for so many years, I  can see how this could have shaped her quiet, submissive behavior.

So far in my reading of Jane Austen's books (this book and Pride and Prejudice), it seems the stories focus on marriage and the importance of the proper choices of mates (with sufficient resources). All of this was very important in those times, and the book highlights the limited options for women. Another theme is family relationships, especially those between parents and children.

I bought an annotated copy of Mansfield Park to read, but I found it really wasn't useful for a first read. Too distracting from the story. Luckily I had another copy to read. But afterwards, I did enjoy reading through some of the notes and picking up more information on facts and attitudes of the times. This is a book I am sure I will reread and probably enjoy even more on a second read.

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Publisher:   The Folio Society, London, 1959 (orig. pub. 1814)
Length:      364 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copies.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hammett: Joe Gores


Joe Gores was an admirer and a student of Dashiell Hammett's writing. Both had been private investigators before they  became full time writers. Both had lived and worked in San Francisco. Thus Gores was the perfect person to write this fictionalized version of events in Samuel Dashiell Hammett's life, set in 1928 when Hammett was no longer a private detective and was trying to support himself with his writing.


In this novel, Hammett is approached by Victor Atkinson, a private detective he had worked years before.  He wants Hammett to join him in an investigation of corruption in the San Francisco police department and government. Hammett refuses, stressing that he is not interested and not up the task after many years away from the profession. When Atkinson is killed very soon after that, Hammett gets involved.

Gore's story telling sucked me in. He provided a wonderful picture of San Francisco in the late 1920's. I enjoyed both the view of Dashiell Hammett at that time and the mystery plot. The descriptions of the corruption in San Francisco at that time were fascinating.

The New York Times obituary for Joe Gores has this to say about Hammett:
In “Hammett“ (1975) Mr. Gores skillfully blended fact and fiction, inventing a murder case for his protagonist to solve at the time the actual Hammett was finishing “Red Harvest.” Critics praised Mr. Gores’s evocation of Hammett’s literary style and character, as well as his fictional world.
On the dust jacket of the hardback edition, a quote from Joe Gores:
"I wanted to paint a fictionalized, yet honest portrait of the man who created an authentic and original voice in American literature and to paint that portrait against the backdrop of his times--the 1920’s--and his city--San Francisco." 
The Author Notes at the end of the book about Hammett's life and San Francisco history were almost as enjoyable as the book itself. Those notes got me interested in reading more books by Hammett. So far I have only read The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

After reading the book, I then watched the film adaptation from 1982, directed by Wim Wenders. The executive producer was Francis Ford Coppola, and Ross Thomas was one of the screenwriters. It was not the first time we had seen the movie, so I already knew I liked it. But viewing it after reading the book, I noticed how different it was from the book. Some of the basic story was there, and it was still about corruption and vice in San Francisco, but the story in the film was not nearly as realistic as the book felt. Still, we enjoyed viewing the movie again.

I liked Frederic Forrest as Dashiell Hammett, and Marilu Henner was very good as a neighbor and friend. Peter Boyle is one of my favorite actors and he had a good role as Hammett's old friend, a former Pinkerton detective. That role is much bigger in the film than in the book. And Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as a taxi driver.

Here are some interesting links regarding problems in the production of the film:

Writers Who Worked on The "Hammett" Screenplay at The Thrilling Detective

Wim Wenders Sets The Record Straight at IndieWire


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Publisher: Putnam, 1975
Length:    242 pages
Format:    Hardback
Setting:    San Francisco
Genre:     Historical Mystery
Source:    Purchased.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Busman's Honeymoon: Dorothy L. Sayers


I was surprised that Dorothy Sayers wrote only eleven mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. I have read them all, but for most of them it was a long time ago. Of these, only four feature Harriet Vane as Wimsey's love interest.

Busman’s Honeymoon was the last novel in the series. After five years of being wooed by Peter, Harriet Vane has finally said yes, and we get a peek at the wedding planning, the nuptials, but most of all their first few days of marriage while on their honeymoon at Talboys, where a dead body is discovered.

The story begins with a series of letters and extracts from the diary of the Dowager Duchess of Denver (Peter's mother). That part of the story is lovely, entertaining, and gives the reader a good picture of the issues with Lord Peter choosing to marry a commoner and a woman who has been previously involved in a murder trial.

Following that, Harriet and Peter leave for Talboys, a farmhouse in the country that Harriet had dreamed of owning when she was a child. Peter has just purchased Talboys and has arranged for it to be habitable for them for their honeymoon. Things go very wrong, and when they arrive the house is locked, and not close to ready for them to take it over. They find the previous owner's niece, who lets them into the house, which is in disarray. The next day, as they all (but mostly Bunter, Peter's loyal manservant) work hard to get it into shape, a body is discovered. Of course, Peter and Harriet inevitably get involved in the investigation.

There is much good to say about this book. Sayers excels at characterization, both in the major and the minor characters. In this book, Harriet and Bunter are getting used to their new roles in relationship to each other. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Superintendent Kirk, of the local CID, who investigates the murder, and his concern for his police constable, Joe Sellon, who seems to  be implicated in the murder.

The body is not discovered until one third of the way into the book, and this story is like many of Sayer's books concerning the couple in that it is not really the mystery that is given the most attention, but the story around the mystery. Some readers like this, others don't. I am mostly neutral on this point, except that I think in this case both the mystery plot and the discussions of Harriet and Peter's new relationship go on too long. The book has interminable stretches where characters discuss the intricate timing of alibis and there is way too much dialog between Peter and Harriet about their relationship (not to mention that much of it is in French). I would have liked a shorter version of this book much better.

I reread this book because we had purchased a copy of Haunted Honeymoon (1940), the film adaptation starring  Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey and Constance Cummings as Harriet. We had taped a copy when it showed on TV years ago and were glad to be able to watch it again. The story was not too changed, although in the film the couple have sworn off of detecting and are not too much like the characters in the book, in my opinion. But still a lot of fun to watch.

Other resources:

Most posts that discuss this book or the entire set of books featuring both Harriet and Peter, do contain spoilers to the early books, so if you haven't read any of the books starting with Strong Poison, you may want to wait to read the following posts.

These three posts discuss Busman's Honeymoon: At My Reader's Block, Classic Mysteries, and crossexaminingcrime.

These two posts discuss all the books with Peter and Harriet: At Clothes in Books and Criminal Element.



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Publisher:  Avon Books, 1968 (orig. publ. 1937).
Length:      318 pages (of very tiny print)
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Peter Wimsey, #11
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Dr. No: Ian Fleming

At the end of From Russia with Love, James Bond had been poisoned. At the point that Dr. No begins, Bond has just returned from months of recuperation and M is eager to send him off on an assignment.

M and Bond are having relationship problems. M thinks that Bond may have lost his nerve or made poor decisions in the last case. The doctor does not want Bond put out in the field so soon after his recovery, but Bond is ready and willing to get back to work. However, he does resent it deeply when M forces him to use a new type of gun, a Walther PPK instead of his Beretta.

M asks Bond to go to Jamaica to follow up on the disappearance of two agents, one of them being the Head of Station in Jamaica, John Strangways. This is considered a "soft" assignment, almost a test of Bond's abilities, and thus Bond feels even more resentment. When Bond decides to investigate some suspicious circumstances on Crab Key island, he sets out with a guide and doesn't bother letting M or anyone else in Jamaica know his plans. Thus when the situation on Crab Key gets rough and dangerous, there is no hope of rescue.

This was a very entertaining novel. Now that I am used to the fantastical aspects in the James Bond novels, I can just go along with that and enjoy the fun. There are some standard elements in each James Bond book: a powerful supervillain, a beautiful and sexy love interest, and lots of action and violence.  Here we have the sinister Dr. No on Crab Key island and Honeychile Rider, the young and naive woman collecting shells on the beach at Crab Key. Quarrel, a Cayman Island fisherman, first met in Live and Let Die, takes Bond to the island. Bond, Honey, and Quarrel discover Dr. No's nefarious plans but don't realize how much of a maniac he is.

Other elements that routinely show up in the Bond stories are racism and sexist attitudes, and this book is full of those. If you can get past those, it is a fun adventure novel, with a fairly accurate view of the place and the time.

I was also biased towards this novel because Dr. No is one of the films that I am most familiar with. As the first adaptation of a Bond novel, it is extremely memorable and I am very fond of it. I was glad to see that the novel and the film are very much alike.

One difference is the presence of Felix Leiter, CIA agent, in the film, and my favorite actor in that role, Jack Lord. The action starts to diverge some after Bond and Quarrel get on Crab Key island, and Dr. No's motivation is somewhat different in the film. Ursula Andress as Honey is very fitting in the role. Since this was the first film adapted from the books, it also benefits from the absence of an overload of gadgets or unbelievable physical prowess on Bond's side.

Other resources: See this post at Killer Covers which features many different cover illustrations for Dr. No.  Also Moira's post on this book at Clothes in Books.

Next I will be moving on to Goldfinger, maybe before the end of the year.



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Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1971 (orig. pub. 1958) 
Length:       216 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       James Bond, #6
Setting:      Jamaica
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The A.B.C. Murders: Agatha Christie

The A.B.C. Murders, also published as The Alphabet Murders, is a book in the Hercule Poirot series, published in 1936. An added plus for me is that Captain Arthur Hastings and Inspector Japp join him in this investigation. And in this case, there is another official assigned to the case, Inspector Crome, who, as usual, underestimates Poirot's abilities.

Captain Hastings is visiting Poirot, back from his ranch in South America. Poirot receives a letter hinting that a crime will take place in Andover. Thus begins a series of murders, each set in a different city. The case is unusual for Agatha Christie because it is a hunt for a serial killer, and that was not very common in the 1930's.

As I have been reading more books by Agatha Christie in the last few years, I have found every one of them to be an entertaining read, never boring. And this one was no different on that score. It was not my favorite but it has many things to recommend it.

I like the Poirot novels that are narrated by Captain Hastings; the two have a nice relationship, teasing each other but always supportive. In this case there are sections of the book not told from Hastings viewpoint, and we are warned of this. But I did not find that approach quite as effective. There seemed to me to be more characters than usual and I did get confused trying to keep track of them. Even so, I guessed what was going on, and who did it, but not the motive.

Even though I would not put this on my list of top novels by Agatha Christie, it has made many top 5 or 10 lists of Christie novels so I still would recommend it, especially if you are a Christie fan. If you are new to Christie, maybe it is not the place to start.

See other posts about this book at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist..., A Crime is Afoot, and Wordsmithonia.



This post is submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Train" category.

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Publisher:  Pocket Books, 1966. Orig. pub. 1936.
Length:     188 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Hercule Poirot
Setting:     UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Red Bones and Blue Lightning: Ann Cleeves

When I wrote a post on the first two books in the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves, Raven Black and White Nights, I had difficulty explaining exactly what I liked so much about the books. After having read the next two books in the series, I think it is a combination of good storytelling, good characters, and the wonderful setting of the Shetland Islands. And another big plus is that there is variety in each book.

In Red Bones, Jimmy Perez is called to the small island of Whalsay because his deputy's grandmother has been killed. The death appears to be a tragic accident, caused by a neighbor who was shooting rabbits nearby, but there is still a lot of resentment between the families involved. This book was especially interesting because the focus was on dysfunctional family relationships.

In Blue Lightning, Perez has gone to Fair Isle with his fiancée to see his parents. A reception honoring the couple is held at the bird observatory on the island. The next day, Perez is called in because the leader of the institute has been murdered. Perez is on vacation, of course, but the island is socked in due to weather conditions and there is no one else to handle the situation. I liked the immersion in the birding community (which Cleeves knows a lot about); the ending was very much of a surprise, and makes up for the slow pace of the investigation.

Perez is not a troubled detective but his character is very brooding. He follows police procedure in handling the crimes, but it seems that the resolution of the crimes is solved mostly by intuition. The pace is slow and Perez spends a lot of his time (in both books) thinking about his personal life and relationships.

I like everything I have read by Ann Cleeves. Other than the first four books in the Shetland series, I have read two Vera Stanhope mysteries and two Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries. The Vera Stanhope series is my favorite so far, but the Shetland series is very, very good. For mystery lovers who like police procedurals or mysteries with unique settings, I would definitely recommend these books. However, if you are bothered by too much of a character's personal relationships in a mystery, this may not be for you. I am neutral on that topic; for me, it really depends on whether the writer can carry if off.

I read these two books recently because we wanted to watch the Shetland TV series. For some reason, they started the series with an adaptation of Red Bones. The series is different from the books in many ways, but mostly the crime and the resolution is very similar to the books, so I am glad I read the books first. The actor playing Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) is very different from the character in the book, at least physically, and the stories are more like police procedurals, with more focus on his co-workers. Here Jimmy Perez is portrayed as widowed with a teenage daughter. Even with the differences, I enjoyed the episodes very much. Honestly, in the TV series, setting is the big draw for me. I could watch the shows just for the beautiful scenery and a look at life on the Shetland Islands.

More reviews here:



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Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2009 and 2010
Length:       392 and 357 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Series:       Jimmy Perez, #3 and #4
Setting:      Shetland Islands, Scotland
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased the books.