TTT: Summer Reading

Since I told you in my last entry that I managed to get sunburnt in Dublin you might have guessed that sun and heat don’t really agree with me. I usually the summer hiding in the cellar and trying to distract me from the heat. So my summer reading list includes books set in icy cold places so that at least my brain can cool down a bit.

Kai Meyer: Frostfeuer1. Kai Meyer – Frostfeuer (Frost Fire)

Unsurprisingly, things get cold in this retelling of The Snow Queen, set in St. Petersburg. Sadly, it hasn’t been translated in English but some of Meyer’s other books have. Including the more sun- and beach appropriate Wave Walkers trilogy which is set in the Carribean.

Ekaterina Sedia - Heart of Iron2. Ekaterina Sedia – Heart of Iron

It’s not always cold in this book but Sasha’s journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad leads her…well…through Siberia. Where it is very cold.

Arnaldur Indriðason: Silence of the grave3. Arnaldur Indriðason – Silence of the grave

While it’s not set in the middle of a deep Icelandic winter, things do get pretty chilly in this crime novel.

Henning Mankell: One Step Behind4. Henning Mankell – One Step Behind

While I could never share the love every crime novel reader seems to have for the whole Wallander series, I think some of the books are great and One Step Behind is brilliant. (And while it’s set in Sweden it takes place over Midsummer so it’s a proper summer-read).

Tommy Krappweis: Das Vorzelt zur Hölle5. Tommy Krappweis – Das Vorzelt zur Hölle

Another book with no English translation but this topic is surprisingly hard. And this one is properly holiday-themed: The author writes about the campaign-holidays of his childhood and how much his parents loved them. He, on the other hand, was less fond of tents and questionable sanitary conditions but had very little input on the choice of holiday destination. That makes it all sound a lot less funny than this book is because I laughed out loud repeatedly while reading this.

Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile6. Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile

And if you are one of those strange people who enjoy hot weather and even want to read about people being in very hot places while you are in a very hot place: here’s a book set in Egypt.

Carola Dunn - To Davy Jones Below7. Carola Dunn – To Davy Jones Below

Just like Poirot, Lady Daisy also can’t go on holidays without falling over a dead body. And that makes for some perfect holiday-reading 😉

Tony Hawks - Round Ireland with a fridge8. Tony Hawks – Round Ireland with a Fridge

In case you’re into unusual holidays, you will enjoy the tale of the man who went round Ireland with a fridge. It’s hilarious.

Foreign Bodies9. Foreign Bodies

Perhaps you want to match your holiday-reading with your destination. In that case, one of the stories in Foreign Bodies might meet your requirements, as it brings you crime-stories from places like Russia, Japan, France, the Netherlands, and Mexico.

K. M. McKinley - The City of Ice10. K. M. McKinley – The City of Ice

And to close things of another icy read. Though only one of the plotlines takes place in the eponymous city (and the characters need quite a while till they get there). Another is about worker’s rights in a place with very average temperatures. (And yet another is about…a BDSM loving god. It’s an odd book but very good).

Dublin

I was in Dublin (and came already back two weeks ago but…well I was busy …or possibly  lazy. Who knows?)

So how was it? Great! I got a sunburn. In Ireland. (Not that it was my first Irish sunburn…and I also managed to get one in Wales and in autumnal Prague so really, my skin isn’t made for sun). Fortunately, Dublin has some great museums in which you can hide from the sun 😉

Well, and bookstores:

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From left to right/top to bottom

  • Poldark novels 2-6
  • British Crime Library Classics: Impossible Crimes
  • Celtic Design patterns for cross stitch/embroidery etc.
  • Lindsy Van Gelder & Pamela Robin Brandt: Are You Two…Together?: Gay and Lesbian Travel Guide to Europe (less actual travel guide and more ‘amusing stories that happened while traveling lesbian’)
  • Robert Thorogood: A Meditation on Murder (it’s either a Death in Paradise tie-in or part of the series the show is based on. The blurb doesn’t make it clear…and I also watched like three DiP episodes so far but it sounded fun)
  • Morses Greatest Mysteries
  • Ursula K. LeGuin: Left Hand of Darkness (I am a fantasy-lover who still hasn’t read LeGuin and really I should change that)
  • Murder at Shandy Hall, a true crime book about Dr. Phillip Cross
  • Robert Webb: How Not to be a boy
  • A Dr. McCoy magnetic bookmark
  • Motherfoclóir: Dispatches from a Not So Dead Language

So, how does the project Conquer the tbr-pile go?

Badly. Very badly. But it had already gone badly before the holidays because I couldn’t resist the ‘SFF from around the world’ collection from Storybundle. I knew I had lost back then, but couldn’t quite bring myself to admit it.

However, when I came home I had a long, hard look at my pile and threw quite a few books from it in the ‘donate to next church sale’-box. I have a tendency to pick up books I feel I should read because they are Important(TM) or Famous(TM) book that Clever People(TM) read. These books then lie on my tbr-pile and stare at me judgingly because I really should read them. I also have a tendency to stick with series/authors far beyond the point I enjoy them. These books then also lie on my tbr-pile and stare at me judgingly because ‘hey, you liked this once!’. I also have great friends who know how much I love to read and give me books. Sometimes they are really on point, sometimes…not so much. These books then also lie on my tbr-pile and stare at me judgingly because ‘think of how disappointed [friend] would be if they knew you still haven’t read it!’.

Well, most of those judgemental stares are now in the donation box. I even managed to throw out more than I got in Dublin, so that is definitely a plus.

But I still decided to officially abandon my ‘For every five books read I get to buy a new one’-project. That is far too much hassle, especially the way I ‘played’. (Wait…was this an audiobook which doesn’t count? When exactly did I buy this aka is it part of my tbr pile or the pile of shame I acquired later?) It wasn’t fun anymore and reading should always be fun.

I still plan to do something about my tbr pile but that way clearly didn’t work.

 

Blood on the tracks

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“Never had I been given a tougher problem to solve, and never had I been so utterly at my wits’ end for a solution.”

A signalman is found dead by a railway tunnel. A man identifies his wife as a victim of murder on the underground. Two passengers mysteriously disappear between stations, leaving behind a dead body.

Trains have been a favourite setting of many crime writers, providing the mobile equivalent of the “locked-room” scenario. Their enclosed carriages with a limited number of suspects lend themselves to seemingly impossible crimes. In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true, yet the railway detective has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century.

Both train buffs and crime fans will delight in this selection of fifteen railway-themed mysteries, featuring some of the most popular authors of their day alongside less familiar names. This is a collection to beguile even the most wearisome commuter.

Rating: C+

I have to say I love the sentence “In an era of cancellations and delays, alibis reliant upon a timely train service no longer ring true”. Clearly, nobody has been hit harder by the decline of the railways than poor mystery writers who have lost such a great plot-device…

While one might think that ‘railway related mysteries’ limits the type of stories one can include in this book there is some variety. In many cases, they are simply a sub-set of locked-room mysteries: somebody (or something) disappeared from a moving train (but the how is different every time). Sometimes the train provides the murder-method (or the means of masking the murder) and sometimes the train is mere coincidence (The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face opens in a train but the actual crime had been committed somewhere else and was in no way connected to a train or the railway).

Of course, the stories also vary in quality. No matter how popular railway mysteries were, not every writer did his best work in (short) railway fiction. (Sayer’s story is nowhere near as brilliant as her long fiction). My personal preferences also play a role (I’m not a big fan of mysteries told from the POV of the killer. Or of occult detectives).

Continue reading “Blood on the tracks”

E.C.R. Lorac: Fire in the Thatch

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The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon – renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion.

When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke – and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

Rating: B-

It’s no part of my duty to get murdered. From the point of view of detection that’s merely making a mess of it.

In Bats in the Belfry, a lot of people repeat “Detective novels are different from real life” and how a real murder isn’t the fun puzzle mystery novels make it out to be. It comes over as very condescending and didn’t work for me at all. In Fire in the Thatch people also exclaim “this isn’t a detective novel” but they do so as a reaction to one character suggesting that the body that was burned beyond recognition in the fire might not have been the tenant of the thatch. That was in all likelihood also the thought most experienced mystery-readers had. Unrecognisable bodies are always suspicious. But now? Is this really a detective novel that’s not like the other detective novels? Or is it a bluff?

Inspector Macdonald has his own opinion on this question. And a few other ideas about what is and isn’t important in this investigation. Admittedly, he’s rather quick to make these decisions and dismisses some clues for no discernible reason but it is a rather short book (by a very prolific writer). Besides Macdonald’s character makes up for much of this. He’s no genius eccentric or laugh-out-loud funny guy but he has a dry humour that makes for very enjoyable reading.

The setting also adds some unusual elements: not many mysteries are set mid-World War II. And while the location – rural Devon – doesn’t suffer from bombings like London or other big cities, the war has many indirect effects on the people (and the plot), which makes a nice change to many of the murders committed country-houses that are frozen in time and have nearly no connection to the outside world.

ARC received from NetGalley

Top 10 Tuesday: May 29: Bookish Worlds I’d Never Want to Live In

1. Westeros (George R. R. Martin: A Song of Ice and Fire)

This should surprise hardly anybody. Living there increases your chances of dying a slow, horrible, and painful death by about 800%

2. Isles des Zephyrs (Curtis Craddock: The Risen Kingdoms)

Now as far as fantasy-worlds go this one isn’t too horrible. It is, however, also a world of hundreds of islands, floating in space and travel from one place to the other is only possible by airship.
I’m afraid of heights and avoid planes if possible. I would not enjoy my time there at all.

3. The Dherzi Empire (Carol Berg: Rai-Kirah )

The empire is built on slavery. Its whole economy only works because of a shit-ton of slaves. Since very few people aspire to being slaves, they keep invading other countries to take slaves or turn their free subjects into slaves for such slights as ‘standing in the vicinity of someone who had a bad thought about the emperor’. So chances are that I would also end up as one which is not a good prospect.

4. Balaia (James Barclay: The Chronicles of the Raven)

Balaia isn’t like Westeros; full of waring fractions and psychopaths who enjoy skinning people alive, baking them into pies or do other fun things to them. It is, however, haunted by one magical catastrophe that leads to mass casualties after another. So while, unlike Westeros, death might be quick it still would be very likely.

5. Morse’s Oxford (Colin Dexter: Inspector Morse Mysteries)

Have you seen the murder rate there? Especially if you have some connection to the university it is very likely that you will end up dead.

6. Middle Earth (JRR Tolkien: Lord of the Rings)

Yes, I know. Compared to some of the worlds here it looks like Disneyland. Though it’s not like Tolkien shied back from describing war, but if I’m honest that’s not the reason why I put it on this list. The truth is: I think wizards are cool. And if I’d be transported into a fantasy world I want the chance to end up with magical powers myself. And with so few wizards in Middle Earth, the chance would be quite slim.

7. English Country Houses in the 1920s (any golden age mystery).

Much like Inspector Morse’s Oxford: the mortality rate is very very high.

8. The Hundred Kingdoms (KM McKinley: The Gates of the World)

Well, this isn’t exactly bad-bad but still very unpleasant with angry Gods walking around and magical disasters happening frequently.

9. Riva (Andrzej Sapkowski: The Witcher)

I have only read the first two books but from those, I got the impression that this world is full of beings that want to kill/eat/do other unpleasant things to other.

10. Camorr & surroundings (Scott Lynch: The Lies of Locke Lamora)

Another fantasy world full of powerful people who will do horrible things to you if you piss them off for some reason.

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of Moscow

Ekaterina Sedia: The Secret History of MoscowEvery city contains secret places. Moscow in the tumultuous 1990s is no different, its citizens seeking safety in a world below the streets — a dark, cavernous world of magic, weeping trees, and albino jackdaws, where exiled pagan deities and fairy-tale creatures whisper strange tales to those who would listen. Galina is a young woman caught, like her contemporaries, in the seeming lawlessness of the new Russia.

In the midst of this chaos, her sister Maria turns into a jackdaw and flies away — prompting Galina to join Yakov, a policeman investigating a rash of recent disappearances. Their search will take them to the underground realm of hidden truths and archetypes, to find themselves caught between reality and myth, past and present, honor and betrayal … the secret history of Moscow. 

Rating: B-

The blurb makes it sound like a relatively ordinary fantasy novel: protagonist sets out to find a disappeared loved one and discovers a magical world. But it’s not quite. Usually, in these kinds of set-ups, the protagonists take a long time to accept that there is really something supernatural going on. Here, it takes Galina, Yakov, and Fyodor three chapters until they decide that all the disappeared people must have turned into birds and crossed through a portal that appeared in a puddle to a different world. Then they come to the obvious conclusion that they are too large to fit through the puddle-portal and that they need a larger one. Fortunately, Fyodor knows just the place and a few pages later they are in an underworld in which they don’t just meet old Russian Gods and spirits but also humans – from the time of the Golden Horde, the pogroms under Alexander III, the Decembrist revolt and the Stalinist Terror – who also passed through a portal and now live in this underworld. They don’t question any of those things. In fact, it doesn’t take them long to discuss which spirit would be the most likely to be helpful or trust solutions that appeared to them in a dream.

And because they didn’t question these things, I didn’t either. Often enough I do get frustrated when characters just know things or just accept something extraordinary without complaining but here I just rolled with it. More than once I was reminded of Peter S. Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song, another book that doesn’t bother much with complex worldbuilding (or going deep into the characters’ motivation) but I felt that it wasn’t necessary for the story.  And similarly, when Galina and the others go and question a celestial cow about the missing people’s whereabouts I just shrugged and went ‘Yeah. Seems a reasonable thing to do.’

What did bother me was that the book doesn’t make much difference between the main and the side characters. Once they appear for the first time, we get their backstory of how they ended up in the underworld but each gets the same amount of detail. It doesn’t matter if the person ends up being important for the plot or just appear this once. It feels like some of the backstories are just there to give the reader a small history lesson about a certain era. I would have preferred to get to know some of the other characters better, especially since there were loose ends in some of the storylines.

I saw that a lot of people didn’t enjoy the book at all and I can understand that. The ‘just roll with it’-attitude won’t work for everybody but for me it did and so I got a charming and magical story.

Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek

Cover: Bill Pronzini: Son of Gun in Cheek
Author: Bill Pronzini
Title: Son of Gun in Cheek: An Affectionate Guide to More of the “Worst” in Mystery Fiction

A humorous and good-natured study of alternative crime fiction, the Edgar Award-nominated Gun in Cheek celebrated the neglected classics of substandard mystery writing. After years of additional research into comically awful literature, author Bill Pronzini returns with Son of Gun in Cheek, a compendium of even more twisted treasures for connoisseurs of hideous prose. Pronzini’s lively commentary offers background on each of the stories he cites, providing an informative survey of the genre and its writers, crowned with hilarious excerpts. His lighthearted look at the best of the worst in crime fiction will amuse not only mystery buffs but also anyone with a taste for ham-handed drama.

Rating: A-

I had read about one-third of this book when I went and bought Gun in Cheek, the author’s first book about the worst mystery fiction, as audiobook. That way I could listen to it during all those times when I needed my hands and/or eyes for something else and couldn’t read my copy of Son of Gun in Cheek. That already tells you how much I enjoyed this.  I already talked about my love of bad books and pulp fiction of any kind is obviously a treasure trove of this; after all many authors wrote dozens of books per year, that doesn’t leave much time for elaborate plotting (or much revision).

Still, not everybody who writes a lot writes truly bad. Many of them will just have plots that are somewhat ridiculous with some odd phrasing thrown in. Chances are that if you pick up any pulp fiction mystery to read it you will be bored most of the time and smile slightly in some places. Or at best find a few truly hilarious phrases in an otherwise meh book.

And this is where Bill Pronzini comes in. Because he has done all that work for us and now writes about all the mystery plots that aren’t just unrealistic but defy logic and common sense in every possible way (and often also break the scientist), villainous schemes that only work because the victim a) has an incredibly obscure habit and b) is extremely stupid and “heroes” who can’t interpret the obvious clue until it is (almost) too late to save the damsel in distress (who is of course required in all good bad mysteries). And if the stories aren’t as noteworthy but contain phrases like “she apostrophized”, “corpses were falling around us like pulpy persimmons from the tree” or describe a woman’s breast as having “nipples like split infinitives” he’ll write about that.

If you want to look for faults you could argue that this leads to a slight jumble: you get chapters that focus on specific authors, chapters that summarize the plot of a few novels in great detail, chapters that summarize the plot of several novels in a few paragraphs each, chapters that consist mostly of quotes, and chapters that have a bit of everything. But then it’s not possible to treat every book the same if different things stand out every time (and Pronzini says as much in the introduction and adds that the chaoticness should be considered an homage to the books he’s writing about since those were also very chaotic).

I don’t mind the lack of cohesion that much. Much more important is that Pronzini is never needlessly cruel or mean. Sure, he makes fun of the stories but he never suggests that a pulp fiction author should be held to the same standards as a writer who takes one or two years to finish one novel. He also calls out sexism, racism, and homophobia and does so quite harshly (which honestly surprised me, since this is a re-release of a book written in the 1980s and I had not expected that level of awareness at that time).

In case you are still not convinced: I am currently considering getting Six Gun in Cheek, which does the same for Western pulp fiction despite the fact that my knowledge of Western begins and ends with The Magnificent Seven. I’m sure that wouldn’t stop me from finding this just as hilarious.

ARC provided by NetGalley