Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September Wrap-Up & P.O.M. Award

I'm enjoying another year of tracking reading progress and statistics for all things bookish on the Block. I will also be contributing to Kerrie's Crime Fiction Pick of the Month. Here's what happened here on the Block in August....
Total Books Read: 18 (that's more like it!)
Total Pages:  4,741
Average Rating: 3.06 stars
Top Rating: 5 stars 
Percentage by Female Authors: 28%
Percentage by US Authors: 56%
Percentage by non-US/non-British Authors:  0%
Percentage Mystery:  83%
Percentage Fiction: 100%
Percentage written 2000+: 11%
Percentage of Rereads: 11%
Percentage Read for Challenges: 100% {It's easy to have every book count for a challenge when you sign up for as many as I do.}  
Number of Challenges fulfilled so far: 19 (45%)'s encouraging to see the numbers up this month, bu there are still way too many books that need reading for challenges and I'm still running a bit behind schedule if I'm going to get 40,000 pages done by the end of the year. And now for the P.O.M. Award in Mysteries.

As mentioned above, Kerrie had us all set up for another year of Crime Fiction Favorites. What she was looking for is our Top Mystery Read for each month. Of the eighteen books read in September, fifteen were mysteries. Here are the mystery-related books read:

Jewelled Eye by Douglas Clark (3 stars) 
Murder by Death by Henry Keating (3 stars) 
The Fourteen Dilemma by Hugh Pentecost (3 stars) 
The Stowmarket Mystery by Louis Tracy (3.5 stars) 
The Brandeburg Hotel by Pauline Glen Winslow (1.5 stars)  
The Bat Flies Low by Sax Rohmer (3 stars)
Swing Low, Sweet Harriet by George Baxt (1.5)  
The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy (3 stars)
The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes (2 stars)
Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout (4 stars)
Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich (3 stars)  
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (5 stars)  
The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl (1 star)  
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (4 stars)
Death Dines Out by Theodora Du Bois (3.5 stars)

September saw only one five-star book, Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. Much as I prefer to use the award to highlight a variety of good authors, I simply must go with the clear winner this time--even though Dame Agatha has already claimed a P.O.M award here at the Block. September 15th was the Queen of Crime's birthday and it seems only right to honor her and her excellent book.

In fact, I not only read Christie's novel, I had myself a regular reading, viewing, and listening extravaganza. Not only did I reread the novel which I have read many times, but I also watched the 1974 star-studded film featuring Albert Finney as Poirot and the 2010 Poirot series version with David Suchet in the starring role as well as listening a BBC dramatization with John Moffatt as the Belgian sleuth.

I remember being amazed by the solution the first time I read it. Christie certainly knows how to surprise and mystify. Express is one of the Christie novels that I can read over and over. It doesn't matter that it is one of the "big" Christie stories--one that once you've read it, you're not likely to forget the solution. There are always new bits and pieces to notice and think about. This time I was reading more carefully, looking for hints and clues that my younger self missed. Nuances in conversation here. A little foreshadowing there. A phrase that upon first reading (or even third or tenth or...) might have slipped by unheeded. And I was delighted again to see how Christie sets the first-time reader up to believe any of a variety of solutions without revealing the truth. A dazzling ★★★★ mystery from the Queen of Crime.

Challenge Commitment Completed: A-Z Mystery Authors

My declared commitment for Michelle's Challenge to complete authors for letters A-M (last name).  I generally go with half the alphabet even though I will try for every letter.  I usually have to cheat on the letter X.  There are few authors whose last name starts with X and even fewer in mystery genres I like--so I'll probably wind up sticking an X wherever it will work.  

Here's my list of commitment authors:

A: The Darling Dahlias & the Cucumber Tree by Susan Wittig Albert (6/5/15)
B: Dine & Be Dead by Gwendoline Butler (3/29/15)
C: Night Train to Paris by Manning Coles (3/14/15)
D: Death Dines Out by Theodora Du Bois (9/30/15)
E: The Cases of Susan Dare by Mignon G. Eberhart (8/10/15)
F: The Great Dinosaur Robbery by David Forrest (5/15/15)
G: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (3/2/15)
H: Playground of Death by John Buxton Hilton (3/18/15)
I: The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes (9/30/15)
J: Murder Past Due by Miranda James (7/13/15)
K: The Ringmaster's Secret by Carolyn Keene (4/16/15)
L: A Stitch in Time by Emma Lathen (2/17/15)
M: Panic by Helen McCloy (2/22/15)

Death Dines Out: Review

Death Dines Out by Theodora Du Bois (1939) features medical investigator Jeffrey McNeill and is narrated by his lovely young wife Anne. Jeffrey and Anne are invited to a dinner party at the home of one of their wealthy neighbors, Clancy Harrison. All the ingredients for a lovely evening are on hand--from the usually delightful guests to the fine food and drink always found a party planned by Clancy's wife Mary. But tension rather than laughter fills the air around the table. Earlier that day, Harrison had words with his nephew and his nephew's fiancee regarding the former's failure of an important medical exam. Harrison has threatened to cut off his nephew's allowance--which would force Bill Frick to leave medical school. Anne is also the focus of negative emotions. David Proust has been flirting with and openly pursuing her and David's wife Nona believes Anne to be seducing her husband.

When Anne is stricken with odd breathing and muscular symptoms during dinner--resulting in a need for her husband's professional skills--and then when that excitement dies down their host is found dead beneath the dining room table, it is unclear if Anne or Clancy was the intended target. The police are ready to fasten on Bill and/or Jane-Lee (fiancee), especially when they learn that Harrison had talked of changing his will to cut his nephew out. Anne is quite sure that their young friends are innocent and Jeffrey will have to use all his investigative skills to find the clues that will prove whether she's right.

Jeffrey is a very active medical investigator. Not only does he doing the scientific bits to narrow down the cause of Anne's symptom's and Harrison's death, but he also dons a disguise so he can make off with the garbage cans of various suspects. He roots around through garbage heaps, catches frogs to use as guinea pigs, and interviews possible murders. 

It took me a while to warm up to Jeffrey and Anne. In the beginning chapter, he seems very dismissive towards her--even chastising her over burnt toast--and Anne seems more than unusually scatterbrained. But as the story progresses their relationship settles down to one of affection and verbal banter. This isn't the first of the McNeill series, but that false-start makes it seem like it.

However, the mystery itself is a good one. Clues are laid on early and the astute reader has ample opportunity to figure out the killer even before Jeffrey does. I managed the who and how, but the clues as to motive managed to slide by me and kept me wondering until the end. Overall, a very solid and enjoyable read. ★★ and a half.

For more information on Theodora Du Bois and her series, please check out The Passing Tramp for a guest post by Lisa Kucharski. Lisa has done her detective work and provides a good summary of Du Bois and her work.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Murder on the Orient Express: Review and Audio-Visual Extravaganza

Curtis over at The Passing Tramp has asked those of us interested in Golden Age Mysteries if we'd like to participate in a new endeavor--which he has christened The Tuesday Night Bloggers in honor of Agatha Christie's The Tuesday Club Murders. Each Tuesday we will submit posts on any and all things Christie. This is my first offering.

Murder on the Orient Express was my very first introduction to that mistress of the mystery plot, Agatha Christie. I found her at an elementary school book fair. Having cut my reading eyeteeth on Nancy Drew, I was intrigued by the combo pack of Christie books that promised me a mystery on the Orient Express as well as At Bertram's Hotel. I have to say that Express was a much better introduction to Hercule Poirot for an elementary-age reader than Hotel was to Miss Marple. In fact, Hotel is one of the few Christie books that I have never reread--it left such a poor impression on me. Perhaps, I should remedy that and see if 40-some-year-old me likes it better than 9-year-old me. Unfortunately, I no longer have those copies--so I post the cover from another version of the book I own, published as Murder in the Calais Coach.

I've recently introduced a friend of mine to Dame Agatha. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people in the world who have never read a Christie mystery. After getting her to read And Then There Were None (with my standard offer of a dinner on me if she could honestly tell me she solved it--I still haven't had to pay up), I just introduced her to Poirot with the same book that gave me my love for the Belgian sleuth and his little grey cells. I'm waiting with bated breath to see what she thinks of this one.

While waiting, I decided to take another trip on the Orient Express myself. Little did I know that it was going to turn into a complete orgy of reading, viewing, and listening. Not only did I reread the novel, but I also watched the 1974 star-studded film featuring Albert Finney as Poirot and the 2010 Poirot series version with David Suchet in the starring role as well as listening a BBC dramatization with John Moffatt as the Belgian sleuth.

The plot is well-known in mystery circles. Poirot has been in the Middle East sorting out difficulties for the French army. He plans to spend a couple of days "as a tourist" in Istanbul, but his plans are changed by a telegram requesting his immediate return to England. He arranges passage on the Orient Express and finds the train unusually full for the time of year--full up with what seems to be a United Nations worth of passengers. There are several Americans, Hungarians on a diplomat passport, a Russian princess, a German maid, a Swedish nurse, a British governess and British colonel and British valet, an Italian salesman, and a French conductor.  One of the Americans, Samuel Edward Ratchett, a businessman who strikes Poirot as a wild animal,

It was as though a wild animal--an animal savage but savage! you understand--had passed me by.

approaches Poirot and tries to hire him. Ratchett insists that he has an enemy on the train and he wants the detective to protect him. Poirot refuses. If for no other reason than "I do not like your face, M. Ratchett." 

The passengers spend a rather event-filled night on the train--Mrs. Hubbard, an American woman, insists that a man has been in her compartment; Ratchett cries out in his sleep and then tells the conductor, in French, that he has made a mistake; a mysterious woman in a red silk dressing gown bumps against Poirot's door, drawing him to peer out into the passageway; and finally the train is stopped by a snowdrift in Yugoslavia (in an area which is now part of Croatia). But when morning comes they find that it has been even more eventful than they imagined. Ratchett lies dead in his compartment, the victim of twelve stab wounds. M. Bouc, Director of the Wagon Lit Company and old friend of Poirot, convinces the detective to investigate the murder so that 

By the time the Yugoslavian police arrive, how simple if we can present them with the solution!....Instead--you solve the mystery! We say, "A murder has occurred--this is the criminal!"

Poirot is persuaded to put his little grey cells to work and begins interviewing the passengers. But the more interviews he conducts and the more evidence he collects, the more impossible it seems it will be to find a solution.

I remember being amazed by the solution the first time I read it. Christie certainly knows how to surprise and mystify. Express is one of the Christie novels that I can read over and over. It doesn't matter that it is one of the "big" Christie stories--one that once you've read it, you're not likely to forget the solution. There are always new bits and pieces to notice and think about. This time I was reading more carefully, looking for hints and clues that my younger self missed. Nuances in conversation here. A little foreshadowing there. A phrase that upon first reading (or even third or tenth or...) might have slipped by unheeded. And I was delighted again to see how Christie sets the first-time reader up to believe any of a variety of solutions without revealing the truth. A dazzling ★★★★ mystery from the Queen of Crime.

The rest of this post is devoted to the visual and audio adaptations of the book. Please know that there are spoilers ahead and those who have not read the book may wish to proceed with caution.

As mentioned, I also watched both the 1974 movie and the 2010 version with David Suchet during my little Orient Express murder-thon. It had been quite a while since I watched Albert Finney play the great Belgian detective and I must admit that with this viewing I found his portrayal to be quite over-the-top and almost lampoonish. It seems to me that Finney went out of his way to make the audience see Poirot as eccentric and larger-than-life. The entire movie has a very campy feel to it with the most pronounced performances coming from Finney's scenery-chewing to Anthony Perkins' Psycho references to "mother" to Ingrid Bergman's presentation of Greta Ohlsson as the impossibly backwards missionary to Wendy Hiller's heavy portrayal of the Princess Dragomiroff.

That said, I did appreciate that the movie was quite faithful to Christie's story in many ways. The Director remains Poirot's friend and he and Dr. Constantine make the choice between the two solutions presented by the detective as they do in the book. Most of the characters follow Christie's descriptions (save for the mentions above). And the doctor is kept out of the suspects altogether unlike the more recent adaptation.

David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot is, generally throughout the series, a much more authentic rendering of Christie's vision of the detective. However, the writers (directors, what-have-you) for the series have made this a much darker, much more guilt-ridden tale than the Queen of Crime ever wrote. Poirot is portrayed here as heavily Catholic, with a strict sense of right and wrong. The story opens with his investigation for the army--which results in the suicide of an officer. As he and a member of the army wait for his transport, the young officer seems to upbraid Poirot for his actions. Poirot is firm that the man knew what he did was wrong and he does not regret investigating and indirectly causing the officer's suicide. After all, it was the officer's choices that led to his end. When Poirot solves the crime on the train, he wrestles with his conscience over which solution to present to the officials. He would much prefer to make all those guilty of the murder face justice. He does not ask the Director to choose--he, Poirot, represents the final word. He must decide whether the truth--which may harm so many--is what is paramount or if what happened on the train represents true justice. There is no sense of this struggle in the novel. Poirot presents the solutions, the Director and the doctor make their choice, and Poirot retires from the case. 

The interpretation of the story as a whole is an interesting one. Not only does Poirot struggle with his sense of right and wrong and justice--but Mary Debenham, the governess, also faces her own moments of moral uncertainty when Poirot confronts her over the vigilante justice that she and the others have meted out. They have this exchange:

Mary: When you've been denied justice... you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God... I think we all did... what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.
Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?
Mary: [long pause, then] But I did what was right. 

But she does not seem certain that doing what was "right" has, indeed, made her complete. This adaptation does not really focus on solving the crime. Instead, it presents a morality play which asks, Is it ever right to take justice in your own hands when it has been denied through official means? It provides a different way to look at Christie's primary story.

My final excursion on the Orient Express was via the BBC's full-cast dramatization of the novel. This was a delightful experience, completely faithful to the novel and cleverly abridged to remove some of the repeated information (when Poirot re-emphasizes certain points to M. Bouc and the doctor, for instance) without losing any critical moments in the story. There is no over-acting or over-moralizing here, just a brilliantly dramatized audio version. John Moffatt is a good Poirot, although one could wish his accent were a bit more on target. The lovely Francesca Annis gives voice to Mary Debenham. I highly recommend this audio version to anyone who would like to enjoy Christie's novel on CD.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Challenge Complete: Book Blogger Recommendations

For 2015 Kristin at the Geeky Zoo Girl took over The Book Blogger Recommendation Challenge, which was hosted by Reading with Tequila but seems to have since disappeared. She put out a call for book recommendations, and then gave us at least 100 titles to choose from.

The rules are crazy simple:
  1. The challenge runs from January 1st 2014 to December 31st 2015
  2. There are five levels to choose from. You can increase your goal as many times as you want, or (because we all know real life happens!) you can decrease your goal once at any point throughout the year.
  3. The full list of books to choose from will go up on New Year’s Eve: Click HERE
  4. You don’t have to commit in advance to your choices, though of course you can plan them if you want to.
The Levels
Bronze – 3 books
Silver – 5 books
Gold – 10 books
Platinum – 25 books
Diamond – 50 books +

I signed up for the Bronze level. I thought I might do more depending on the list--but there just weren't that many on the list that I wanted to try (there were a bunch that I had already read...) I have now completed my three and fulfilled my commitment.

My books:
1. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (9/19/15)
2. The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum (3/22/15)
3. Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (9/28/15)

Crocodile on the Sandbank: Review

Amelia Peabody is a force of nature--a Victorian spinster armed with a more than sufficient independent income to complement her unshakable self-confidence and independent nature. Her late father (from whence comes the income) was a scholar and antiquarian who sparked an interest in Egypt in his only daughter and companion of his waning years. Amelia's brothers pretty much abandoned them, so it was only natural for Father Peabody to leave his surprisingly large estate to her. After suffering foolish suitors (with the gleam of golden riches in their eyes) less than gladly, she decides to venture to the land of the Pharaohs on her own--well, on her own with a maid and a companion. When her companion falls ill and must be shuttled back to England in the company of a handy clergyman and his wife, Amelia most fortuitously manages to rescue young Evelyn Barton-Forbes who has been seduce by an Italian rogue who abandoned her on the streets of Rome as soon as he found out her wealthy grandfather had disowned and disinherited her when she allowed herself to be "ruined."

Of course, Amelia is not put off at all by Evelyn's past--in fact her most pressing question is fairly naughty for a Victorian lady: "Tell me, Evelyn--what is it like? Is it pleasant?" Yes, our Victorian-age heroine wants to know about s-e-x. After sorting all this out*, Amelia takes Evelyn on a s companion and they head off up the Nile to visit various archaeological wonders. They make every effort to elude Alberto--the Italian lover who has mysteriously reappeared, swearing undying love and wanting her back--as well as her cousin Lord Ellesmere (who has gained the title upon their grandfather's death) who also wants to marry Evelyn.

When they reach an archaeological site at El-Armanah, they find the Emerson brothers--grumpy but dashing Radcliffe and amiable Walter--whom they had briefly met in Alexandria. Amelia becomes entranced with the dig and Evelyn and Walter become entranced with each other--but their digging expedition is interrupted by the nightly ramblings of mummy, the refusal of the locals to work on the site because of said mummy's cures, suspicious accidents, a botched kidnapping, and the disappearance of Amelia's faithful Egyptian servant. And the appearance of Lord Ellesmere only serves to confuse the issue more.  Radcliffe and Amelia become convinced that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn. It will take all their ingenuity to outwit the villain or villains behind the mummy's curse.

Miss Amelia Peabody's debut in Crocodile on the Sandbanks (1975) by Elizabeth Peters is delightful. She springs forth in the first chapter, fully formed and, as mentioned above, a force of nature. A force that not even the irascible Radcliffe can resist for long. She is gruff but lovable and a character that I enjoyed very much. Peters writes a very witty and easy reading mystery. It is, admittedly, much more fun than it is mystifying--how Amelia as intelligent as she is could have been hoodwinked by that...oops, that would be a bit baffling. Maybe she was distracted by her verbal sparring with Radcliffe.  Readers looking for an intricate puzzle to unravel should look elsewhere. But if you want interesting characters, a bit of Egyptian mystical mummy adventures, witty dialogue, and a great deal of fun then grab a copy and settle in for a fun read. ★★

*Oh...and Evelyn does answer Amelia's question: "Oh, Amelia, under the right circumstances, it is--in a word--perfectly splendid!"

This counts for the "Animal in the Title" square on the Silver Vintage Bingo Card

Friday, September 25, 2015

Challenge Goal Complete: Travel the World in Books

I started this journey back in 2012 (for 2013).  It was originally sponsored by Stacey over at Have Books, Will Travel as the Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge.  But something happened and her blog seems to have gone away. Tanya over at Mom's Small Victories has adopted it in partnership with I’m Lost in Books and Savvy Working Gal and renamed it the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge. They have graciously allowed those of us who had started the journey with Around the World to claim the countries already "booked" and continue our trip from there.

I am currently in my third year of travels and needed a total of 48 books read by the end of this year to meet my goal. I will, of course, keep reading and any books set in foreign locales will be added to the total towards next year's goal of 60 books read.

Here's my list of books read and location:

1. The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime by Michael Sims, ed (11/5/12) [England]
2. The Bone Is Pointed by Arthur W. Upfield [Australia] (11/16/12)
3. The Three Evangelists by Fred Vargas  [France] (12/15/12)
4. Plum Pudding Murder by Joanne Fluke [US] (12/19/12) 
5. The Man Who Went up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö [Hungary] (1/8/13)  
6. Whip Smart: Lola Montez Conquers the Spaniards by Kit Brennan [Spain] (2/9/13)  
7. The Perfect Landscape by Ragna Sigurdardottir [Iceland] (3/12/13)
8. The Lady Vanishes (aka The Wheel Spins) by Ethel Lina White [takes place on train ride through the "Balkans" which could conceivable be part of several countries. I have arbitrarily decided that the bulk of the action takes place in Bulgaria] (3/17/13) 
9. The African Queen by C. S. Forester [Tanzania] (4/6/13)
    Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye [Tanzania] (6/25/13)
10. Blood Makes Noise by Gregory Widen [Argentina] (4/30/13)   
11. The Talking Sparrow Murders by Darwin L. Teilhet [Germany] (5/6/13) 
12. Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon [Wales] (5/18/13)  
13. Death at Crane's Court by Eilis Dillon [Ireland] (5/23/13)   
14. The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson [Egypt] (5/27/13)   
15. Murder on Safari by Elspeth Huxley [Kenya] (6/8/13)  
16. Devoured by D. E. Meredith [Malaysia (& England)] (6/22/13)

Year One Challenge Goal met! 

17. Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov [Russia] (6/23/13)  
18. The Scarlet Macaw by S. P. Hozy [Singapore] (8/10/13)
19. The Monster of Florence by Magdalen Nabb [Italy] (8/17/13)
20. Andersen's Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen [Denmark] (8/20/13)  
21. Cold Earth by Sarah Moss [Greenland] (10/18/13)  
22. Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell [Sweden] (1/5/13)  
23. The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton [Mexico](1/18/14)  
24. Exit Actors, Dying by Margot Arnold [Turkey] (2/4/14)  
25. Murder in the Vatican by Ann Margaret Lewis [Vatican City] (3/5/14)   
26. The Poisoned Island by Lloyd Shepherd [Tahiti (French Polynesia)] (3/8/14) 
27. The Coral Princess Murders by Frances Crane [Tangier, Morocco] (4/5/14) 
28. Decoded by Mai Jia [China] (4/5/14) 
29. Gale Warning by Hammon Innes [Norway/Norwegian Sea] (4/15/14) 
30. The Lady of Sorrows by Anne Souroudi [Greece] (4/26/14)   
31. 20.12 by Dustin Thomason [Guatemala] (6/6/14) 
32. DeKok & Murder in Ecstasy [Netherlands] (6/27/14)    

Year Two Challenge Goal Met!  

33. The 7 Professors of the Far North by John Fardell [Arctic Circle] (6/29/14)
34. Murder at the Villa Rose by A. E. W. Mason [Monaco] (7/14/14)  
35. The Tattooed Man by Howard Pease [Panama--one of major stops/scenes of action in the sea-faring tale] (7/17/14) 
36. The Dark Ring of Murder by Misa Yamamura [Japan] (11/19/14)   
37. A Dead Man in Trieste by Michael Pearce [Austria] (1/27/15)  
38. Death Over Deep Water by Simon Nash [Malta] (2/8/15)  
39. Into the Valley by John Hersey [Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands] (2/28/15) 
40. The Wilberforce Legacy by Josephine Bell [Trinidad & Tobago] (4/19/15)  
41. Safari by Parnell Hall [Zambia] (4/21/15)   
42. Double Cross Purposes by Ronald A. Knox [Scotland] (6/3/15)
43. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood [Canada] (8/16/15) 
44. Death in Kashmir by M. M. Kaye [India] (8/25/15) 
45. The Bat Flies Low by Sax Rohmer [Egypt] (9/10/15)  
46. The Albert Gate Mystery by Louis Tracy [France & Italy] (9/14/15)  
47. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen [Poland] (9/14/15)  
48. Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich [Brazil] (9/23/15) 

Year Three Challenge Goal Met!

The Poe Shadow: Review

So...the common saying is that "the third time's the charm"--right? Not necessarily. A couple of challenges asked us to give a book we'd never been able to finish another try. So, I decided on The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. I tried to read it a couple of times and just couldn't finish it. This year was the chance to change that. For good measure, I also added it to my TBR Pile list for Adam's challenge. That would ensure that I read the darn thing.

Okay. So, I did. And I didn't like it any better than the other two times I tried. The first attempt came after reading Pearl's The Dante Club--which was an excellent serial killer mystery. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and got The Poe Shadow from the library and started to read it....and came to a screeching halt about 40 pages in. Then when Patty, my friend, gifted me a copy I gave it another go. I managed to get a bit further to my standard 100 pages and gave it up as a lost cause. This time round I finished it. And all I can say is....I'm glad that's over. 

Here's your basic peek at the plot: It's 1849 in Baltimore, Maryland. Edgar Allan Poe has just been buried, virtually unmourned, and his friends and family have all written him off as a drunken sot. Nobody seems to think there was anything odd about what happened to Poe. Except for Quentin Clark. Clark is a young lawyer who thinks Poe was the greatest writer ever and becomes obsessed with investigating the truth of Poe's death. He sets out to find the real August Dupin--the man Poe based his detective upon--to help him get to the bottom of a plot that seems to involve international political agents, a female assassin, and the dark, corrupt slave trade. Quentin will be marked insane and have to prove not only that his suspicions are correct but also that he has all his marbles. Otherwise, he's going to lose his friends, his career, his reputation, and the girl he loves....

This is such a disappointing book after The Dante Club. It's poorly plotted with a pace that moves about as quickly as a herd of turtles. It also makes no sense. Quentin's motivation for his intense obsession and willingness to give up his livelihood is murky at best and not really explained at all. It's very unclear whether all the plots and machinations are really happening or if he's imagining things. Pearl makes a great deal out nothing. And in the end, I just plain didn't care what happened to Poe and whether Quentin could prove it and get on with his life. Not because I don't think the death of Poe wasn't mysterious and that there couldn't be a story in it--but because as far as I can tell, Pearl didn't really make it into a story interesting enough to be worth telling. 

Quentin is also an extremely unsympathetic protagonist. He's annoying and creates difficulties and adversaries where he has no need. And for a lawyer, he's not terribly bright. The Dupin proto-type is constantly pointing out the most obvious things to him. He doesn't just miss the connections that a great detective would make--he misses connections that are all but labeled  "Look at THIS, this is important." One has to wonder why the girl would wait around for him to come to his senses and get his head out of the Poe problem. She can do much better for herself. Not recommended at all to anyone.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

My Blog Name in Books

Over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, the Puzzle Doctor put up this explanation for a bookish meme that he has posted:

"Well, you can blame Cleopatra Loves Books for this one…

Apparently My Name In Books was a meme that went around over the summer (and over my head as well – never noticed it) but I thought I’d give it a go – namely spelling out my name in the titles of my favourite books. Now, there’s an obvious problem with a name like The Puzzle Doctor – can you spot it? But nevertheless, I thought it was worth a go. But try as I might, the only thing I could come up with for Z was Zzzz for any of the Brother Cadfael books. But this is a friendly blog, so I couldn’t possibly say that. Instead, I thought I’d do My Blog Name In Books."

And then The Invisible Event followed suit with

"It got me thinking; I’m sticking to a self-imposed crime focus on this blog, but it might be nice to acknowledge the SF and others that have played significant roles in my reading life.  And so I give you…My Blog Name in Books"

And now I've decided to join in. I had already responded to the Doctor in a comment--with mystery book titles only. But now I shall post that list--with a bit of explanation--as well as a second which will feature the best of the rest that follows The Invisible Event's example.

First up, my blog name in all mysteries. It was a bit of a challenge because I set myself the task of using only books that have earned four or more stars on my rating scale. I've linked my reviews for those books that have been read since I began blogging.

Murder Stone, The by Charles Todd (a gripping historical mystery) 
Yellow Room, The by Mary Roberts Rinehart (a tricky mystery with a bit of romance)

Relic by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child (one of the few thrillers you’ll find on my list) 
Estate of the Beckoning Lady, The by Margery Allingham ( lovely period piece with Albert Campion) 
Abominable Man, The by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (a perfectly paced police thriller) 
Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross (I do love an academically-inclined mystery) 
English School of Murder, The by Ruth Dudley Edwards (see above) 
Rules for Murder by Julianna Deering (written in the Golden Age style--it sets out to break all the rules)  
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (my favorite Wimsey novel)

Bodies in a Bookshop by R. T. Campbell (entertaining characters, brisk dialogue, murder & books!
List of Adrian Messenger, The by Philip MacDonald (classic death by list novel) 
One Step Beyond by Henning Mankell (brilliant, complicated police procedural) 
Champagne for One by Rex Stout (Stout at his best--all the characters shine) 
Key, The by Patricia Wentworth (begins like a spy thriller, but Wentworth never really takes us out of the cozy realm)

The mysteries listed above aren't necessarily my top fourteen crime novels of all time. They are just the top novels with a beginning letter that helps spell my blog name. All are very enjoyable and highly recommended.

And now for the more generalized list--although there will be a lot of science fiction. SF had a huge influence on me from about age 11 through 21:

Martian Chronicles, The by Ray Bradbury (one of my favorite SF authors of all-time)
Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, The by Lewis Buzbe (A delightful little book about books. And booksellers.)

Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov (a collection of landmark stories by SF legend, Asimov)
Excellent Women by Barbary Pym (humorous slice of British life in the 1950s)
Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy (a favorite literary classic)
Dune by Frank Herbert (another SF favorite)
Elegance of the Hedgehog, The by Muriel Barbery (A beautiful and elegant book which asks important questions about what is beautiful in life)
Royal Ghosts, The by Samrat Upadhyay (emotional, touching stories about life in Nepal)
Shatterday by Harlan Ellison (terrific collection by a master storyteller)

Brightness Falls from the Air by James Tiptree Jr. (terrific SF from a very original author)
Laddie: A True Blue Story by Gene Stratton Porter (a favorite children's book)
Othello by Shakespeare (favorite Shakepeare play--about jealousy and treachery)
Changing Places by David Lodge (witty portrayal of academic life; British satire at its best)
Killer Angels, The by Michael Shaara (highlights friendships that crossed battlelines, the anguish and bravery, and heartbreak of Gettysburg).

And once again I realize how the initial letters limit the books I can highlight. So many of my all-time favorite novels start with letters that do not appear in my blog's name....

I hope you've enjoyed this little peek at some of the top-rated books here on the Block. At least top-rated books that can help spell out the Block's full name....