Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Inner City Blues: Paula L. Woods

From the description of this book at W. W. Norton:
Meet Detective Charlotte Justice, a black woman in the very white, very male, and sometimes very racist Los Angeles Police Department. The time is 48 hours into the epochal L.A. riots and she and her fellow officers are exhausted. She saves the curfew-breaking black doctor Lance Mitchell from a potentially lethal beating from some white officers — only to discover nearby the body of one-time radical Cinque Lewis, a thug who years before had murdered her husband and young daughter. Was it a random shooting or was Mitchell responsible? And what had brought Lewis back to a city he'd long since fled?

Published in 1999, Paula L. Woods' debut novel won the Macavity Award for Best First Mystery in 2000. This is an excellent mystery which also gives us a look at what it felt like to be on the police force protecting the city during the riots and what it felt like to be black during that time of heightened tensions over racial disparities in the legal system.

I am not overly fond of detectives that come into a book with baggage, and Charlotte has a lot of that. She lost her husband and young child in a drive-by shooting, and ten years later she is still mourning them. Yet she is proud to be a police detective, even though the choice wasn't a popular one with her upper class parents and siblings. She is a believable and sympathetic character. Some of the harassment by male officers that comes her way is as much because she is a woman as that she is  black. I like the way Woods uses the structure of the mystery novel to insert subtle social commentary without preaching.

I have a weakness for series that use song titles for the book title. Two others I like are Martin Edwards' Harry Devlin series and Ed Gorman's Sam McCain series.

These are the remaining titles in the Charlotte Justice series:
Stormy Weather (2001)
Dirty Laundry (2003)
Strange Bedfellows (2006)
In Stormy Weather, Charlotte investigates the death of black film director Maynard Duncan, a pioneer in his field. I look forward to seeing where that story takes her.


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Publisher:  Fawcett, 2002. (orig. pub. 1999)
Length:     318 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Charlotte Justice, #1
Setting:     Los Angeles
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     Purchased at Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love & Treasure: Ayelet Waldman

This is a story about World War II, its aftermath, the Holocaust, displaced persons in camps, and the looting of the belongings of Jewish families.The story begins with a Prologue set in 2013 when Jack Wiseman is dying. He passes a pendant that he took from the Gold Train collection on to his granddaughter, with a request to return it to its rightful owner. What follows is essentially three linked novellas, each a self-contained story, depicting some events related to the pendant.

The first section follows Jack in Salzberg as he is assigned to catalog and guard the items that arrived on the Hungarian Gold Train. He meets and falls in love with Ilona, a Hungarian refugee and survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. During his assignment in Salzburg, Jack wrestles with the dilemma between his duty to the US Army and his belief that the items on the train that were taken from Jewish families should be returned to the rightful owners. The middle section features Jack's granddaughter, Natalie, as she works with Amitai, an art dealer who recovers lost World War II art pieces, to determine the provenance of the pendant. The last section is the most bizarre, but also the most entertaining and disturbing. Set in 1913 in Budapest and told from a psychoanalyst's point of view, we see the early history of the pendant. That section is especially interesting because it focuses on two young women of the time who are interested in having careers, and also are working towards women's suffrage.

There are so many things I liked about this book. First of all, the writing. Without good writing, the experience might be educational but boring. The story itself is told beautifully, and the characters in each section are fully developed and I cared about them.

I like the structure of the book. By dividing the book into three distinct stories, each provided some illumination of different topics related to Jewish life and anti-semitism over the course of 100 years. Although my favorite section dealt with Jack and the aftermath of the war in Europe, the other two sections expanded on the themes and gave the story more depth. There are no tidy endings here, and I liked that too.

I learned so much about World War II and its aftermath without it feeling at all like a history lesson. I have read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, but the focus of that book is on art treasures that were saved, and this book focuses on the everyday belongings (watches, jewelry, silverware, china) that were confiscated by the Hungarian government from Jewish families. I had known nothing of the Hungarian Gold Train until I read this book. Plus the section set in the early 1900s was especially interesting, a time period I have read little about.

Other resources:



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Publisher:   Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Length:       331 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Settings:     First part in Salzburg, Austria; 2nd and 3rd parts mainly in
                   Budapest, Hungary. Also some of the 2nd part was in Israel.
Genre:        Historical fiction
Source:       I purchased my copy. On my TBR pile since 2014.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Last Billable Hour: Susan Wolfe

Susan Wolfe is a lawyer, and in this book she writes about a Silicon Valley law firm filled with sleazy and / or very ambitious lawyers. She writes well about this subject; I hope she hasn't ever had to work in such a corrupt firm.

Howard Rickover is an inexperienced lawyer and has only been at Tweedmore and Slyde for a few months when one of the founders, Leo Slyde, is killed. Homicide detective Sarah Nelson enlists his help in uncovering the murderer by requesting that he keep an eye open at the firm and let her know if he hears or sees anything useful. That is not an orthodox approach but it works.


The story is very engaging. The first quarter of this very brief book (182 pages) is about the huge amount of work that Howard takes on in his first weeks at the firm, and the dog eat dog world of the legal firm he works for.  In fact, Howard's story was just as interesting as the mystery for me. It is pretty clear that everyone dislikes Leo Slyde, but when the police interview the employees at Tweedmore and Slyde, everyone but Howard says that Leo was loved by all.

I liked this book a lot, even though it is an amateur sleuth mystery. Yes, there is a police detective who plays a prominent role in the story, but Howard is the real star of the show. The book won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1990. It is a real shame that the author did not continue with more books about this pair.

I first discovered this book at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan. See Bill Selnes' review there, and his later post on the author, who has now written a second mystery.



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Publisher:   Ivy Books, 1990 (orig. pub. 1989)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Paperback
Setting:      Silicon Valley, California
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy at a book sale in 2015.



Sunday, February 11, 2018

Reading in January 2018


So in February it only took me until the 11th to get a reading summary up for January's reading. In January I stuck with crime fiction, although the first book I read in 2018 was a mix of fantasy and mystery.

I am reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo throughout the year as a part of a read along, one chapter a day. I really did not know what to expect, If I ever knew anything about the story I forgot it long ago. So far it has been very interesting, especially reading it in small chunks. Some days I get a bit ahead, sometimes I fall a bit behind. Check out the sign-up post at One Catholic Life for more details.


These are the nine crime fiction books I read in January and all of them were very, very good.

The Big Over Easy (2005) by Jasper Fforde
This is the first book in The Nursery Crime series. DCI Jack Spratt and Sergeant Mary Mary investigate crimes within the world of nursery rhymes. Here, they investigate the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty. The book is clearly a fantasy / mystery crossover with lots of humor, puns, and satire. My son read this first and recommended the book, and I enjoyed it very much. A review will follow... sometime soon. 
Grey Mask (1928) by Patricia Wentworth
The first book in the Miss Silver series. I was very pleasantly surprised. Book review here.
Hit List (2000) by Lawrence Block
Hit List is the 2nd novel in the Keller series. I read the first book, Hit Man, in December and liked it so well I started this one while reading another book. Keller is a hitman living in New York City; he gets his jobs or assignments from Dot, who works for a man who brokers (arranges) hits for his clients. As I said in my summary of Hit Man, it was a very enjoyable read but it is an adjustment to get used to a killer being the main focus.
Death of a Red Heroine (2000) by Qiu Xiaolong
The story is set in Shanghai in 1990 just after Tiananmen Square, with Chief Inspector Chen Cao as the lead character. The author was born in Shanghai, China, in 1953, but has lived in the US since 1988. I primarily enjoyed this book for the picture of life in Shanghai in the 1990s. I will be returning to the series.  
The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933) by Stuart Palmer
The fourth book in the Miss Hildegarde Withers series. It was a lot of fun because of the setting, on Santa Catalina island off the California coast. Book review here, with  some comments on the film adaptation.
Cold Cold Heart (2017) by Christine Poulsen
A medical thriller with two story lines: one set at an Antarctic research base, and the other set in the UK. I loved the detail of the daily life on the base during the winter months when no one can leave and no one can fly in. Review here.

The Whip Hand (1965) by Victor Canning
Although I have read only three books by Victor Canning, I have become a big fan of his writing. This book is along the lines of a James Bond thriller, although the protagonist, Rex Carver, is a private eye and not a spy. He does do some side jobs for a British secret service department. Carver is hired to track down a missing au pair in Brighton. 
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter (2013) by Malcom Mackay
This is the second book I read this month about a hitman, a man who kills for a living. Calum Maclean has been an independent agent, taking jobs as he needs the money. Then he is offered a temporary job working for Peter Jamieson, head of a crime organization in Glasgow, while the regular hitman is having a hip replacement. The first in a trilogy and I will be reading the 2nd and 3rd books also.
Metzger's Dog (1983) by Thomas Perry
Chinese Gordon and his friends Immerman and Kepler break into a lab at the University of Los Angeles to steal some pharmaceutical cocaine, worth a lot of money. But Chinese also takes some papers a professor has compiled for the CIA, which include a blueprint for throwing a large city into chaos. The CIA decides that a band of terrorists has stolen the papers... and go overboard in their attempts to rectify the situation. Very funny at times, entertaining, with a wonderful ending.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Death in the Stocks: Georgette Heyer

Last October, I read Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer. It had been a long time since I had read any of her mysteries, and I really enjoyed it. So, I decided to try another one, Death in the Stocks, the first of the novels featuring Superintendent Hannasyde as the detective. And, as luck would have it, I enjoyed this one just as much as Envious Casca. That may have been because I knew what to expect this time.

In a small English village, a man with a knife wound in his back is found dead, clapped in the stocks in the town square. The victim is identified as Arnold Vereker, who has been renting a cottage in the village and using it on weekends. The local police don't feel up to handling the investigation, and Superintendent Hannasyde of Scotland Yard is called in to work on the case. At first, suspicion falls on the dead man's half-sister, Antonia, who was at his house outside the village on the night he died. Her brother, Kenneth, is also a prime suspect because he is heir to Arnold’s considerable fortune. And they both freely admit that they despised Arnold. Their friends, lovers, and relatives provide some other suspects, but no one stands out as the culprit. Most of the investigation takes place in London, since all the suspects live there.


Of the two books by Heyer I have read recently, both are peopled mainly by unlikable characters.  Many of them are rich, or aspiring to be rich. I don't mind unappealing characters as long as they are entertaining, and that is true here. The dialogue between Antonia and her brother and their friends is very good and sometimes unbelievably odd.

I have also enjoyed the portrayal of servants in Heyer's books. In this one, Antonia and Kenneth's housekeeper and cook, Murgatroyd, is a wonderful character. She is is cranky and outspoken, but quite likable, always trying to keep Antonia and Kenneth in line.

The main draw of these mysteries is the combination of humor with a good mystery. They are also light-hearted romances, keeping you guessing as to who will pair with who. If you like mysteries in that vein, I think you would enjoy this story.

Other Sources:
Sparkling Murder at Tor.com
Reviews at Vintage Pop Fictions and In so many WORDS


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Publisher:  Sourcebooks Landmark, 2009 (orig. publ. 1935)
Length:     314 pages
Format:    Trade paperback
Series:      Superintendent Hannasyde #1
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy


Monday, February 5, 2018

Six Degrees of Separation - From Lincoln in the Bardo to 9Tail Fox

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six other books, forming a chain. Every month she provides the title of a book as the starting point.

This is my first month to join in. It is not a requirement that the books be ones I have read, but this month I have read all of the books in my chain, although I have not reviewed them all.

The starting point this month is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have not read Lincoln in the Bardo but my understanding is that much of the novel takes place in the "bardo", a Tibetan term for the Buddhist "intermediate state" between death and reincarnation.



That leads me to my first book in the chain, The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. That book shows another version of life after death, and is divided between two settings. One is the City,  a sort of afterlife where those who have died reside as long as they are remembered by one living person. The second is Antarctica, where a woman is trapped alone in a research station, running out of supplies.



My next book is also set in two locations, one of which is Antarctica. This is Christine Poulson's new book, Cold, Cold Heart, in which Katie Flanagan, a medical researcher and doctor, stationed at a remote research base in the Antarctic. The second story line is set in and around Ely in the UK, where a patents lawyer investigates another scientist's research into a cancer cure.

From Cold, Cold Heart, I move to Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox, whose protagonist, Dr. Anya Crichton, is also a doctor, in this case a pathologist and forensic physician. This book is set in Sydney, Australia, which leads me to...



A book by Katherine Howell, The Darkest Hour, also set in Sydney. In the Ella Marconi series, Ella,  a police detective, is the main protagonist, but each book also features a different paramedic who becomes involved in a crime. The author worked as a paramedic for 15 years, so the scenes with the paramedics feel very authentic. This book is primarily a police procedural, which leads me to...

...the first book in an urban fantasy series, Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. This is a police procedural with a difference. The protagonist, Peter Grant is a constable in the Metropolitan Police Service in London. He ends up working with Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, in a specialist unit that deals with ghosts, spirits, vampires, you name it, when they are disrupting the peace in London. A wonderfully entertaining series.

And finally I link to another novel which is blend of fantasy and police procedural, 9Tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.



Bobby Zha, a Sergeant in the San Francisco Police Department in Chinatown, is gunned down while investigating a crime. When he awakens in the body of an accident victim who has been comatose for the last twenty-odd years, in New York City. He returns to San Francisco in his new body to investigate his death, and along the way he discovers a lot about himself.

So, my chain has taken me from Lincoln in the Bardo to 9Tail Fox. It makes sense that the chain has as much fantasy as mystery novels in it, but not what I expected.

I do hope to read Lincoln in the Bardo someday, when I encounter a copy and the time is right.