Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Awakening by S. J. Bolton

Bernadette's review (see below) reminded me that I read this book last year but didn't review it, a lack of action that fills me with guilt since the author was kind enough to send me an inscribed copy after I correctly answered a quiz on her web site. I'm prone to slumps in writing especially when I can't figure out where to start but that's no excuse.

In partial atonement, let me start by saying that I enjoyed this book immensely and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a crime/mystery/gothic thriller. Please read the four excellent reviews to which I have linked below and I hope will steer you toward this author and this book.

Some Thoughts of my Own on Awakening

In her review, Bernadette says how she picked up Awakening thinking she would have a 10 minute read then finding herself on page 162 and staying up way too late. The exact thing happened to me. The author hooked me and I kept telling myself, "just one more chapter." Her first person narration keeps the story moving and since we only know what Clair Benning knows we want to find out what she will learn next.

Clair is a veterinary surgeon in charge of a wildlife hospital in an English village. The way she describes the creatures she works with, ecological issues, people's reactions to wildlife, and the countryside had a strong effect on me. And she does it very well.

Nearly all reviewers describe the character Sean North, a world famous herpetologist who travels the world with a camera crew, as Steve Irwin-like. That was my first reaction as well but I saw him more of a blend of Irwin's showmanship and a serious scientist like Joesph Slowinski, a scientist-adventurer who died after being bitten by a krait in Burma. There is an interesting book about Slowinski, The Snake Charmer. I like books that make me want to research a topic and Awakening did that.

Bolton works a bit of the Gothic into the story: a ruined church, an abandoned house, a charismatic cult leader, dark family secrets. Apparently, the English village is a lethal place to live, something I should have thought of as my wife and I drove around the U.K. last fall. I should have been on guard. The Gothic aspects contribute to the thriller aspect of the story and personally, I like a touch of the dark and mysterious.

S. J. Bolton can be found at at Her first book was Sacrifice and her latest is Blood Harvest, currently available in trade paperback as part of Waterstones three-for-two promotion.

Now, go read these reviews:
Bernadette's Review at Reactions to Reading
Dorte's Review at DJs Krimiblog
Lesa's Review at Lesa's Book Critiques
Corey Wilde's Review at The Drowning Machine

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Sands of Windee by Arthur W. Upfield

This is a Australian selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Date & Location: October, 1924 - December 1924; Windee Station in western part of New South Wales. Broken Hill is south of Windee and within a day's drive.

While in Sidney finishing up a case, Bony (Napoleon Bonaparte), the half-caste detective inspector, happens to see a photograph of an abandoned automobile. The investigating officer believes that the driver, who had just left Windee Station slightly drunk, ran off the road, became disoriented, and wandered off into the bush. Bony sees something in the photograph that only an Aborigine would recognize and determines that a murder took place. This is the kind of case Bony craves, no body, little evidence and an apparently unsolvable mystery. He convinces the Chief Commissioner of N.S.W. to let him investigate. With only Sergeant Morris, the local police officer knowing his real identity, Bony heads to Windee to work undercover.

This is the second of Upfield's Bony novels. The first is The Barrakee Mystery which I discussed here. Like the first, The Sands of Windee has a touch of the melodrama, events of the past coming back to haunt the station owner, a young woman at the station seeking her true love.

Where The Barrakee Mystery does give us a detailed description of Bony's methods (keen observation and inductive reasoning), the mystery and the investigation are more tightly presented here. The chain of events flows better.

The reader won't have much difficulty figuring out the driver's disappearance but the solution does have an interesting twist. Someone who worked with Upfield while working on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence tried to apply Upfield's method for disposing of a body. Upfield had to testify at the trial. The prosecution seemed surprised that Upfield spent time thinking of ways to dispose of bodies. Upfield later wrote about this event in The Murchison Murders. The Murchison is an area of Western Australia noted for mining.

The Sands of Windee is also interesting in that particular emphasis is placed on Bony's inner turmoil with the two sides of his nature, the Aborigine and the white. While the whites at Windee accept Bony without much consideration of his half-cast status, Bony develops a relationship with the station owner's daughter that has a significant impact on the conclusion of the case and threatens to compromise Bony's need to maintain his reputation for never failing to solve a crime.

Upfield manages to infuse his Bony stories with a visual sense of place, of the environment. You see how a station is run, the economics, how tenuous the existence can be. Upfield worked on the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence I was interested in how he describes the threat that rabbits represent to the station. Upfield also works in some good action when lightening touches off a range fire and everyone (including the local Catholic priest) mobilize to halt the fire and save the sheep.

Modern readers might have a problem with the overly elaborate language and racism but these books are a fascinating look at a world that is alien to most of us.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Barrakee Mystery by Arthur W. Upfield

First published by Hutchinson of London in 1929. Published in the U.S. with the title, The Lure of the Bush.

This is a Australian selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.

Location: Barrakee Station in the North Western part of New South Wales on the Darling River, 75 miles up-river from Wilcannia, probably between Wilcannia and Bourke, March 1927.

Four significant and related events happen at Barrakee Station. William Clair, a sundowner (tramp) gets a job at the Station; King Henry, an Aborigine returns after 19 years on the run from a white man, now reported dead, who wanted to kill him; Ralph Thornton, 19 years old, the son of the station owner and his wife (but not natural son), returns from college; and King Henry is killed during a fierce thunderstorm, his skull caved in.

Though Clair is the obvious suspect but he has an alibi and the investigation into the death of King Henry stalls. The police of NSW request the loan of Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), a half-cast detective inspector from Queensland, with highly developed powers of observation and deduction. Bony identifies himself to Mr. Thornton and is hired to work undercover as an employee of the station.

Upfield was well qualified to write about the Australian bush and life on the stations. He "humped his swag," worked on stations, and rode the no. 1 rabbit proof fence. See the biography linked below for more details on his life.

Upfield took a risk making his character a half-cast(the term used then). There was a public prejudice and a marked tolerance to violence toward Aborigines. Upfield himself appears to have had a great respect for the Aborigines but he reflects the times when he has Mrs. Thorton, the much loved, dear little mistress of the station say "Do you mean to tell me ... that you are still worrying about the killing of that black fellow." And a man say to a police sergeant "Are you telling me Sarge, that you are a-chasin' a white man for knocking an abo on the head?"

By contrast, Upfield gives Bony a Master of Arts degree from Brisbane University and make him a much respected detective-inspector. His skills as a bush detective were so respected that he never served as a common policeman. Though his skin is a ruddy black, he has European features and Mr. Thornton accepts him without hint of prejudice.

Bony has a Holmesian approach to solving a crime, observation and inductive reasoning. He has another Holmesian characteristic, he will only take on interesting cases. If it isn't a challenge to his skills, he isn't interested. He is a detective, not a policeman he like to say.
To Bony the case afforded mental exhilaration. because the rain had wiped out the letters and words stamped on the ground, Bony cried blessings on the rain. It was not now a humdrum case where good tracking only was required. To clear up the case successfully demanded inductive reasoning of a high order..."
Adopting my original and exclusive methods of detection, I shall proceed to take a name [of possible suspects] and prove the innocence of the owner by inductive reasoning.
This also sounds a bit like Hercule Poirot, doesn't it, eliminating the suspects one by one. Like Poirot, Bony has absolute confidence that he is the greatest detective.

Bony is a man of two worlds, white and Aboriginal and he is compelled not to let either side down. His abilities are a combination of his genetic make-up.
The habit of observation is the first essential, knowledge of the native of the wild the second, and reasoning power the third. Whilst the first and third essentials make a white man an efficient tracker, the second essential, combined with supervision, makes the black man and expert tracker. And through his black mother and his white father, Bony possessed the three essentials, plus abnormal vision; which was why he was a king of trackers.

I'm certain that Bony's knowledge of weapons and analysis of footprints and a scar on a tree would have drawn an admiring nod from the Great detective.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of soap opera plots will figure out where the story is going within the first few chapters. I put the story in the melodrama/romance category with prose at the purple end of the spectrum.
nd as the light fell upon the soul of Kate Flinders, revealing it to herself, showing her that at last she knew what love was, knew that she loved Frank Dugdale and had always loved him.

The story has three distinct aspects.

The first is the investigation and I've given examples of Bony's investigative approach earlier.

Second is life in the bush and on a station. Upfield excels here and his love of this part of Australia shows. I'd say this aspect dominates the story. Besides showing what the day-to-day life is like, Upfield has several very well done action sequences. In one, young Ralph chases down a dingo that has been preying on the stock. Another describes a mad dash on horseback across the bush trying to say ahead of flood water. Very visual and griping.

The third is the melodrama surrounding the Thorntons, what is the secret of Ralph's birth, how are they connected with William Clair and King Henry.

Despite the stilted prose and predictable story, I enjoyed The Barrakee Mystery. the character of Bony and the descriptions pastoral Australia made this an enjoyable read.

If this review interests you I have to warn you that this is a difficult book to find. I had to request it on interlibrary loan because available copies are too expensive.

The Wikipedia entry on Arthur Upfield is an OK starting point but I recommend Travis Lindsey's Biography of Arthur W. Upfield. A 2005 thesis submitted for his PhD. Lindesy's thesis is interesting reading. He puts Upfield's writing in context and has chapters on Aborigines in Society, Aborigines in Australian Literature, and The Genesis of Bony.

This is also an interesting site -- Unofficial Arthur W. Upfield & Inspector Napoleon Bonapart Home Page

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mystery Man by Colin Bateman

Location: Belfast, Northern Ireland. Present day.

This is another contribution to the European selection for Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge

No Alibis (slogan: Murder is our Business) is a Belfast, Ireland mystery bookshop next door to a detective agency. When the detective goes missing leaving open cases, the clients naturally assume that the unnamed owner of the bookstore is involved in the business and come to the store for resolution. Mystery Man happily takes on small case such as stolen leather pants and harassing graffiti to supplement the lack of income from operating a bookstore.

Two things happen to complicate his life. He finally speaks to Alison, a sales clerk from the jewelry store across the street. He had been following her from afar until a book event puts them together. She is surprisingly interested in the detective business and attaches herself as sidekick. The case of the missing publisher's wife takes dangerous turn and his detecting is no longer a diverting pass time.

Our Mystery Man hero is cowardly, paranoid, obsessive compulsive, and lives with his unseen mother. I have a mental image of him looking like Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. He also delivers wonderfully snarky comments:
... the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you are a moron.

I found the book humorous in a "I'm going to read passages out loud to my wife until she gives up and moves to another room" way. Mystery Man serves Chianti and fava beans for Serial Killer Week and along the way offers sardonic observations about the independent book business, the customers, well-known crime authors, and publishers. Highly recommended.

I loved this book, good black humor and a decent mystery, a perfect fun read. The sequel, The Day of the Jack Russell, is available through The Book Depository with a 10 June 2010 paperback publishing date. Speaking of The Book Depository, did you know that they have a web page that plots books purchased on a world map in real-time? Just now someone in New Zealand bought The American Indian. Oddly compelling to watch.

I learned about Mystery Man by way of Declan Burke. Here is his review in

Another good review is at Crime Scene NI

Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde

The cover on the left is the U.K. edition and the one on the right is for the U.S. market. I purchased the U.K. version because I generally prefer the U.K. covers for Fforde's books and because I was afraid they would change the spelling for the American readers. Changing the spelling really annoys me.

It is nearly five hundred years since Something That Happened took place and the Britain we know is gone. That event is not explained but it changed the way the world operates. Society is organized by colour perception. The status of citizens of the Colourtocracy is determined by the percentages of the spectrum they are able to perceive. The Greys are at the low end of society. Marriages are arranged with the goal of being able to move "up spectrum" but relationships between complementary colours is absolutely forbidden -- if you remember your color theory, blending complementary colours produce white, grey, or black. Doctors have been replaced by swatchman who use flashes of colour (Chromaticology) rather than drugs to treat people.

This is the world of Eddie Russett. He accompanies his father, a swatchman, to the Outer Fringe town of East Carmine. His father is to take over temporarily for the previous swatchman who it is believed accidentally overdosed on a powerful sedative shade of green.

In East Carmine, it doesn't take Eddie long to come into conflict with the town elite, a dangerous situation. Complicating matters is his attraction to a strange, mysterious, aggressively antisocial young Grey woman named Jane (Fforde does love to play with names). As Eddie settles in he begins experience unease with the conditions in East Carmine: the swatchman may not have accidentally overdosed, the Greys are badly mistreated, and Jane's rebellious nature begins to look like a reaction to the rot at the core of the whole of society, the Collective.

I became a fan of Jasper Fforde with the Thursday Next series. There he created an amazing world where literature and reality crossover. The books are a delight for literature majors and anyone who loves to read.

Shades of Grey takes place in an apocalyptic world and is darker than the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series. In the Acknowledgements he apologies for the tardiness of the book and says that "it proved rather more difficult to get on paper than ...anticipated." I believe it. Fforde put considerable care in developing the structure of this world. You can enjoy reading without looking into the background but it is more fun if you know some things:

Fforde has a nice web site for Shades of Grey with lots of fun stuff and I recommend you visit it here. You will also find a contest based on Shades of Grey. Unfortunately, I found out about it after I read the book but I was pleased that I knew the answers to several of the questions. You can see the quiz and the answers here.

Two more books are planned in the series: Shades of Grey 2: Painting by Numbers; and Shades of Grey 3: The Gordini Protocols. We'll have to wait, though, as the next book will be One of our Thursdays is Missing, January 2011.

For me, Fforde's books are both entertaining and mentally stimulating and Shades of Grey satisfies is both areas.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kindred in Death by J.D. Robb

Nora Roberts uses the name J.D. Robb when writing the In death series.

A sixteen-year-old girl is tortured and murdered. Her father, a decorated police officer, requests that the investigation be assigned to Lt. Eve Dallas. The killer left no physical evidence and the disks from the home security system are gone. How did the killer gain entry to the home of a police officer? Did the girl know the killer? Dallas assembles her usual team to find the killer. The pressure is on Dallas to close the case; an attack on one of their own cannot go unpunished.

This is the twenty-ninth in the In Death series and I've read every one. I used to say that they are my guilty pleasure but I've decided to come clean and say that I don't feel guilty at all. I enjoy these novels. They are a quick and entertaining read.

Are the books in this series formulaic? Sure, there are elements that you can pretty much count on: the case, some social event that Eve has to deal with that brings in her non-cop friends, several steamy sex scenes with Eve and husband Roark, and some good cop banter.

The police procedural aspects of the story are good, better than some more mainstream police procedurals. I read some complaints that the investigation in Kindred was too slow. Me, I appreciate that Roberts allowed the investigation to proceed at its own pace. Regardless that the In death stories are set in the future, most of the investigation in accomplished the old-fashioned way: viewing the crime scene, interviewing witnesses, re-interviewing witnesses, staring at the murder board. I liked the way Kindred started with no clues but but as the police began to identify details, links started to emerge. There is a good example of this involving shoes but I'm afraid it would be a spoiler.

Data mining for connections and electronic forensics also play a part in the stories but not in a SciFi way.

Kindred is dark and doesn't bring in much of the playful interaction with secondary characters like Mavis who Eve once arrested but is now a pop singing star with a baby and a flamboyant fashion designer husband. While I missed that aspect of the story as well, I liked the focus on the hunt for a sadistic killer and didn't mind the reduced light interludes.

Roberts' romance writer side comes out with Roark. He's unbelievably handsome, wealthy, brilliant, an illegal past that he gave up to be with Eve, a single name, and still has a bit of an Irish accent. He is also completely devoted to Eve and still carries a button that came off her jacket the first time they met. Though there have been twenty-nine books so far, only two years have passed since Eve and Roark met. I've read some complaints that there isn't much change in the characters but I disagree. Eve and Roark both have strong, assertive, independent natures and in the early book they often clashed. They both have dark back-stories that have been revealed gradually that have helped them understand each other. With Kindred, we see two people more at ease with each other, able to accept help, recognition of the strengths the other brings to the relationship.

The next in the series, Fantasy in Death, is available now. It involves computer gaming and I'm interested to see Roberts take on where the industry is heading.