About Me

My photo
Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Friday, December 14, 2018

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio Conclusions

Major General George Kitching

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio - In my previous post I started a review of 21 Days in Normandy which examines the 4th Canadian Armoured Division's battles to close the Falaise Gap in the summer of 1944 and the conduct of the battles by their General, George Kitching.

Operation Totalize, the attack intended to close the gap, was their first major battle. The innovative night attack produced a breakthrough.

In the morning the Canadians paused. Those at the point of the attack wanted to press on but their commanders refused citing concerns over a planned bombing that could have endangered them and the need for supporting forces to catch up. There were massive logistical issues as they were operating on a narrow front creating a major bottleneck. It is Caravaggio’s opinion that the narrow front was a key impediment to break out.

Caravaggio further believes the tanks wanting to advance would have been stopped by German anti-tank defences but they never tried. The commanders below Kitching did not know what to do with unexpected success. There can be little doubt that aggressive German or American leaders would have attacked. There is no evidence that Kitching was even consulted by subordinate officers on the decision to stop the advance.

The Canadian Army, despite a year of fighting in Italy in WW II before the invasion of Normandy, was not yet ready to exploit success. The direction of Simonds that there be no holding back in Operation Totalize was not the Canadian army way at that time.

Within the Canadian army the 4th Division was even less ready.

The officers commanded by Kitching in the 4 Armd had varied backgrounds and experience. One officer, Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Booth, was to become infamous in Normandy. At least one fellow officer considered him a poor brigadier before the Normandy campaign. During the battle Kitching found him asleep and drunk in his tank. Kitching verbally lashed him but left him in command. Kitching should never have excused such dereliction of duty and his decision reflects on his ability to make hard decisions in combat.

During this battle Kitching was not close enough to the front at the point of breakthrough and later was too close to the front when he was needed at Division HQ.

In Tractable, the second battle for the Gap, Kitching was hampered by confusing and shifting and inappropriate orders from Simonds. It appeared to me Simonds had lost confidence in Kitching by Simonds’ attempted micro management of the battle.

Considering the problems with his orders I believe Kitching effectively commanded his division in Tractable.

In both battles subordinates let Kitching down. At pivotal moments they were slow to get underway. At the same time Kitching did not find ways to drive them. He was a good man but not the man to lead and exploit a break out.

I did appreciate better that sending an armoured division into its first battle was bound to have challenges and the division not to be as effective as a more experienced division.

Of all the Canadian generals at that time I think only Bert Hoffmeister had the combination of drive and iniative and sense of battle to have closed the Gap on time. Hoffmeister was still in Italy.

Caravaggio clearly admires Kitching and thinks he got a raw deal in Normandy. He finds it hard to offer than the odd minor criticism of Kitching. The book is an interesting perspective on the battle, especially with regard to Simonds, but did not convince me Kitching performed well in the battles to close the Gap. It is difficult for a biographer to be objective, even more challenging when the writer likes his subject.

I do agree Kitching was made a scapegoat for the failure to close the gap as expected. He did not lose the battles. Kitching’s failing was that he did not win them as fast as commanders above him planned.

The book makes clear that the other generals in Totalize and Tractable from Simonds through the generals commanding other divsions such as the Polish Armoured Division had their own problems and contributed to the perceived lack of success but they were not replaced. It was easiest to sacrifice Kitching.
****
21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio

Thursday, December 13, 2018

21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio

(24. – 954.) 21 Days in Normandy by Angelo Caravaggio – Over the past 15 years I have been reading about the Canadian army in Normandy. In particular, I have read several accounts about the Canadian Army’s efforts to close the Falaise Gap in August of 1944. It was the moment during the war when the Canadian army had the opportunity to change the war. Closing the gap quickly would have meant the capture and destruction of the German army in Normandy. It was rare that the Canadian army had a chance to play such a significant role.

Canada did close the gap but it took longer than most historians felt needed which allowed tens of thousands of German soldiers to escape.

In the battles to close the gap the tip of the Canadian army was the 4th Canadian Armoured Division (4 Cdn Arm Div). Their leader, Major General George Kitching, was relieved of his command as the battle ended. Caravaggio argues he should not have been removed.

In 21 Days in Normandy there is a detailed exploration of the structure and makeup of the Canadian army. That section is slow going and could have been significantly reduced with much of the information consigned to footnotes or appendices for those readers wanting such detail. (There were already detailed and extensive footnotes and appendices.)

It was useful to have background information especially about the woeful state of the Canadian army in 1939. Canada was ill-prepared for armoured warfare. When WW II commenced Canada had a mere “sixteen outdated British Light Mk VI tanks and twelve Carden-Lloyd carriers”.

Unlike most books on battles there is extensive discussion on how army bureaucracy can help or hinder the troops fighting the battles.

The Canadian army of WW II had an enormous number of reports and orders flowing up and down from division HQ. With regard to the functioning of the division in Normandy:

Breakdowns in situational awareness, common intent and battle procedure would plague the 4 CDN Armd Div in its first major battle.

Kitching trained and served in the British Army before coming to Canada in 1938. He joined the Canadian Army in 1939 as a 2nd lieutenant. By February of 1944 he was a Major General in commanding the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. It was a series of promotions not uncommon in the rapidly expanding Canadian army of WW II. It was not considered necessary that the commander of an armoured division have experience in an armoured division. Kitching was an infantry officer.

Simonds worked well with Kitching in Sicily and Italy and wanted Kitchings to be with him in northern Europe. Each highly respected the other.

It was a surprise that the division had no actual division scale exercises prior to being deployed to France.

They arrived in France well after the invasion on June 6.

They prepared for battle and moved into position in early August to lead the attack to close the gap.

(My next post will contain the rest of my review.)


Saturday, December 8, 2018

Discussing "why" with Chris Hammer


With the aid of Abigail Novak from Simon & Schuster I sent  a message to Chris Hammer about his book Scrublands. He was able to reply. Our exchange is below. I appreciate the thoughtful response of Chris. I hope he writes more books with "why" at the heart of the book.
****
To: Chris Hammer

I am requesting your publisher forward this note to you. I have written a pair of posts about Scrublands. Here is a link to the first post – http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.com/2018/11/scrublands-by-chris-hammer.html

The second post, which will be put up in a couple of days, is below this message.

Living in rural Saskatchewan, another vast thinly populated land, your depiction of life in the small community of Riversend felt right to me but it was not the country setting that I wanted to ask you about with regard to Scrublands.

I would be very interested in knowing “why” you put “why” as the quest in Scrublands.

As set out in my second post “why” is a question of never ending interest to me.

I thought the book brilliantly written and was very glad I received the opportunity from your publisher to read the book.

Thank you for considering my question. If you are able to reply and willing to let me publish your response in my blog I would post this letter and your answer.

Thanks.

Bill Selnes 
****

One reason I like reading crime books - and writing them, as it turns out - is they can encompass so much more than just a plot.

Don't get me wrong; the plot is essential. It's hard to imagine a successful crime book without a good plot. But there is room for so much more. And in particular for nuanced, complex characters, including characters that change over the course of a book.

I hope that is the case with my protagonist, Martin Scarsden. He's a different man at the end of Scrublands than he was at the beginning.

So why 'why'? Most contemporary crime books involve murder, often committed by regular members of the community (as opposed to mafia hitmen etc.). So it's not enough to simply reveal who did it; to make it credible and satisfying read, you need to at least suggest why they did it. Was it greed, jealousy, hatred? Or was the motivation more complex?

For me, the questions of 'why' can be more intriguing for the reader than 'who' and 'how'. Because at the end of any crime book, the reader should know for certain who the killer was and how they committed the crime, but the question of 'why' can be more subtle, even ambiguous. More can be left tot he reader's imagination. They can ponder whether the murder was in any way justified and wonder if there were any alternatives if events had played out slightly differently.

So for me the 'why' is always more important, not just to explain the actions of the killer, but to explain the actions and interactions of the other characters as well.

Chris Hammer
****
Hammer, Chris - (2018) - Scrublands and "Why" in Scrublands

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

World Without End by Ken Follett

With reading going slowly I am putting up a review I wrote for myself 10 years ago.
****

20. - 430.) World Without End by Ken Follett - The story of Kingsbridge Cathedral resumes 200 years after its construction. Over the second quarter of the 13th Century we follow Merthin, the oldest son of impoverished nobility, and Caris, the younger daughter of a prosperous wool merchant. The book takes us from their youth through to old age (an era when anyone surviving to their 50’s was considered old). Around them swirl a colourful set of characters (the book would make an excellent television mini-series). Merthin is a skilled architect and builder. Caris is a bold independent thinker with a talent for healing and leading. They face credible life challenges. I had forgotten about the complexities of societal relationships between the religious (monks / nuns / general clergy), townspeople (merchants / labourers / tradesmen / artisans), famers (serfs / tenants) and nobility (lords / ladies / squires). Amidst the triumphs and tragedies of regular life the Black Death descends upon them with an unbelievable ferocity for which there is no modern equivalent. It has been a long time since I read a saga. It is a wonderful portrait of life. Hardcover. (May 20/08)
****
It did become a mini-series in 2012. I did not watch the series.

I am thinking it is about time I read another saga.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton


(39. – 969.) The Two Sisters of Borneo by Ian Hamilton – Ava Lee is at the third wedding she has attended in her life. She is maid of honour for her friend, Amanda Yee, who is marrying her half-brother, Michael, in a lavish Hong Kong wedding.

Hamilton provides a vivid description of the ostentatious lifestyle of wealthy residents of Hong Kong. The wedding meal will cost US$700 per person for almost 1,000 guests. Cash gifts to the newly weds are expected to total US$700,000.

At the same time Ava is pre-occupied by Uncle who is dying. The end is coming too quickly for her but taking place in slow motion. While his body fails his mind is as sharp as ever.

Business intrudes upon Ava. May Ling Wong, the business partner of Ava and Amanda, advises Ava that millions of dollars have been lost in one of their business ventures.

The trio had invested $25 million into a furniture manufacturing business in Borneo. It had been owned by two brothers and two sisters. The brothers, more concerned with an expensive and idle lifestyle, had little active role in the business. Their sisters, Ah-Pei and Chi-Tze especially Ah-Pei, had built it into a successful venture.

The business is now on the edge of bankruptcy because it had sold all its $20 million inventory to a long standing Dutch customer. However, contrary to good business practice the brothers agreed to terms that provided no deposit or security.

The Dutch company has now gone bankrupt and there is a secured creditor for $20 million.

The deal stinks and Ava, having retired from “debt recovery” Chinese people around the world, now returns to investigating fraud.

She is soon in the Netherlands where rigid bankruptcy laws give priority to the secured creditor.

When Ava finds out there are essentially no other secured or unsecured creditors she is certain the deal is corrupt. No business goes bankrupt with such an alignment of creditors.

In the Netherlands she finds an interesting private detective, Jacob Smits, a short man rotund and fond of Dutch beer. He undertakes to seek out financial records.

In Borneo Amanda and May Ling hire a lawyer to go after the brothers.

As usual with the series the story unfolds in multiple countries over several continents.

I was glad to see much of the book unraveling financial intrigues.

At the same time violence does play a significant role in the book. I appreciated the violence was not overwhelming.

The triads of which Uncle was chairman for a period of time are always lurking in the background. The series engages in a delicate balance. The scammers cannot be dealt with by conventional legal redress. Yet using organized crime to take them down takes Ava into an informal association with the triads. She has some unease over her relationship with the gangs but they are so useful when violence is the solution.

The Two Sisters of Borneo is engaging and the story flows swiftly. The series is strongly progressive. Readers miss a lot if they just dip into the series. While not a cliffhanger the ending sets up an interesting plot line for the next book.
****

Sunday, November 18, 2018

E-Mail Exchange with Susan Wolfe


Since reading Escape Velocity by Susan Wolfe I have exchanged emails with Susan. I appreciate her response. As a practising lawyer I can appreciate the "time" challenges she writes about in her reply. Our exchange follows.
****
Susan

I have been practicing law in Saskatchewan since 1975 and write a book review blog called Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

I just read Escape Velocity and greatly enjoyed the book. I would have read it sooner but did not see it in Canadian bookstores. Earlier this year I requested the Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore in Toronto to get me a copy. I believe they got it through your American distributor.

I had previously read and appreciated The Last Billable Hour and hoped you would write more legal mysteries.

I was curious to try to find out why you had not written more books after The Last Billable Hour and went on an online search to find out more about you. My quest proved more difficult than I expected. I did end up writing a pair of posts on my search.

Here are links to my posts concerning your books and yourself:

Wolfe, Susan – (2014) - The Last Billable Hour; (2014) Who is Susan Wolfe?; (2017) - This is Susan Wolfe; (2018) - Escape Velocity and Georgia Griffin and Ken Madigan in Escape Velocity

I would be interested in knowing if you were trying to keep a low profile when I was searching or whether my internet sleuthing skills are simply deficient.

In reading the bio on your website it refers to you bailing on the practice of law and then returning to practice. Could you advise what took you into being a lawyer?

I have found a couple of interviews you have done online since Escape Velocity was published.

In a blog talk radio interview you advised the length of time between your books was a reflection of family financial need sending you back to work as a lawyer and the challenge of balancing “baby, book, law”. I am familiar with that challenge. During most of my legal career I have written a sports column. Writing time was easier to manage for me as it was a weekly column. Late most Sunday evenings while my sons were growing up I would write my column. To have tried to write more would have been impossible.

I expect most writers of legal fiction would have made Georgia a lawyer. I thought you could have written Georgia as a young lawyer instead of a paralegal. Why did you choose to have her a paralegal?

From what I read in one interview the book you are working on at this time is not a legal mystery. I do hope you will consider writing another book featuring Georgia and Ken. I thought they were an amazing legal team.

If you are able to respond and willing I would post this letter and your reply.

All the best.

Bill Selnes
**** 
Hello Bill,

Thank you for your interest in my second novel, Escape Velocity, and my writing career so far. I will try to answer your recent questions.

After I published The Last Billable Hour in 1989, I found it necessary to return to being a lawyer full-time. We had a second daughter that year, and we needed two incomes to support our family in Silicon Valley, which was fairly expensive even then. I very much wanted to write a second novel as well, and for many years my dilemma (trilemma?) was “Baby, book, law. Baby, book, law.” At one point I decided to go to Starbucks two mornings a week from 5:30 to 7am in order to write, and my 8-year-old daughter came with me to give me support. She would quietly sit and do homework so that I could concentrate. Unfortunately, I became a little frantic after a couple of months, because those writing sessions squeezed the last seconds of free time out my schedule. So I gave up and went back to just “Baby, law.” I do, however, remember those writing sessions with my daughter very fondly.

So I worked full-time and enjoyed my work and then, when our finances permitted, I stopped practicing law entirely and wrote Escape Velocity.

You asked whether I was trying to keep a low profile between my two books. My first answer was no, I was just busy. But may on some level I did want to keep a low profile. It was painful for me not to be writing, and maybe I just didn’t want anyone to remind me what I was missing.

You asked why I became a lawyer. I felt I was a serious person who needed a career, and law was a good choice for me because it involved writing, focused analysis, and justice. I am glad I chose it. I’ve been very happy with my legal career.

You also asked why I made Georgia a paralegal instead of a lawyer. That was strictly dictated by my plot. I needed to have a main character whom other people would underestimate, even forget about, because that allowed her to be a fly on the wall for many very senior meetings she would otherwise not have access to. The executives treated her as invisible. I don’t believe they would have treated even the most junior lawyer in such a dismissive manner. Note, however, that the real hero of the book is Georgia’s boss, Ken Madigan. He is based on a boss I had when I first went in-house, and I dedicated the book to him.

I hope these answers are helpful to you and your blog readers. Please let me know if I can be of further help. It’s always a pleasure to talk about my books.

Best regards,
Susan

Sunday, November 11, 2018

"Why" in Scrublands


As I read Scrublands by Chris Hammer I thought about why I was so caught up in the plot. I realized it was because the plot is focused on a favourite theme of mine in crime fiction. Scrublands is about “why”.

As set out in the opening to my review of the book in my last post Martin, who has come to Riversend to write a year after follow up on the murders by the local priest Byron Swift, finds himself in the midst of a different story. Mandalay (Mandy) Blonde cannot understand why Swift killed five men outside his church Sunday morning.

There is no “who” or “how” to be determined in Scrublands. Those questions at the heart of many mysteries are resolved before the end of the second page. But there is not a bit of “why” to the murders for even for those who lived in Riversend.

A year later Mandy is still haunted by “why”. She is not alone in being troubled by the lack of “why”. It is as an irresistible question for me as it is for Martin.

Through my life “why” has fascinated me. I expect I plagued my parents as a boy with constant questions of “why”.

I know that as a sports columnist it is my favourite question. Why was a certain play called? Why did a play succeed or fail? Why was a player in or out of the lineup?

As a lawyer when a client, whether facing a criminal charge or a civil suit, comes to the office I want to know the “why” of the facts told to me.

Thus in reading crime fiction I am invariably intrigued when “why” is at the heart of a novel.

When I spoke at the book launch of Volume 3 of A Literary History of Saskatchewan about my essay on crime fiction I told the gathering that one of the reasons I love crime fiction is because so many fine works in the genre delve into the “why” of the murder.

There is good reason, in fiction and in real life, to doubt someone has commited murder without a reason to kill.

Even as Martin learns more and more facts about Swift and the residents of Riversend the “why” of the killings is frustratingly elusive.

You would think it should be obvious. Police, except for the local officer, were content with the explanation that Swift killed for a reason related to his alleged molestation of children. Yet “why” would he kill to protect himself from wrathful parents or outraged community members when he could simply have left town,

Were it one or two killed the “why” may have related to unknown personal conflicts but there were five.

Potentially more promising was Swift’s mysterious past but “why” would problems in his life before Riversend, whatever they might be, have caused him to kill five local men.

I appreciate not everyone wants to know “why”. I have seen readers and bloggers express disinterest, even disdain, for the “why” of a murderer, especially a serial killer.

Some years ago I read an absorbing book, Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum. In that book he explored 20 people who had sought to explain the “why” of Hitler’s decisions. Some explored “why” the innocent baby Hitler, as shown on the cover photo of the book in this post, had grown up to be one of history’s worst mass murderers.

Among the those covered in the book were two who took starkly different positions on “why”.

Claude Lanzmann, the creator of the acclaimed documentary Shoah, fiercely asserted there should no attempt to explain Hitler. He dogmatically states it is obscenity to try to understand:

“…. Why are the Jews being killed? Because there is no answer to the question of why.” Because, in other words, any answer begins inevitably to legitimize, to make “understandable” that process.

Lanzmann refers often to a remark by an Auschwitz guard – “Here there is no why”. He objects to even discussing “why”.

Auschwitz survivor Dr. Louis Micheels, the subject of a thinly veiled attack by Lanzmann, simply and eloquently argues in favour of “why”:

He explains the remark was accurate in Auschwitz, a world so “different and so foreign …. another planet, light-years away. It was inhabited by creatures that had little if anything in common with what we consider human beings …”

Micheels continues:

“However, in the civilized world to which so few of us, including Primo Levi, returned, there should be – da soll ein warum sein. Without an attempt, no matter how difficult and complex, at understanding, that very world, where truth is most important, could be lost again.”

“Da soll ein warum sein”: There must be a why.

On “why” with regard to murders, whether singular or serial or mass, I will always wants to know “why”.

I was glad there was a “why” in Scrublands. As to the “why” revealed I was satisfied.
****
Hammer, Chris - (2018) - Scrublands

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Scrublands by Chris Hammer


(38. – 968.) Scrublands by Chris Hammer – What an opening. As journalist Martin Scarsden visits with lovely young bookstore owner, Mandalay “Mandy” Blonde she seeks to convince him that local priest, Byron Swift, did not kill five people outside his Church on a Sunday morning because he had been a pedophile. She is certain because he cared:

     Martin doesn’t know what to say.   
     He sees the passion on her face, 
     hears the fervor in her voice. But a 
     mass murderer who cared?

Martin is in Riversend, a small town in Australia, suffering from prolonged drought. As in The Dry by Jane Harper the Australian heat dominates the setting of Scrublands.

It is a year after the killing and his editor has assigned him to write a follow up story on how the town is coping.

Martin is 40 years old, acutely conscious of the physical signs of middle age in face and hands, and haunted by the memories of being almost killed in the Gaza Strip where he spent 3 days in the trunk of a car.

In a town uninterested in talking to any journalist he is gifted a Page One story. In his first interview on the killings the local police officer, Robbie Haus-Jones, tells Martin about rushing to the Church after the shooting and confronting the priest and killing him when he raises his rifle and fires at Haus-Jones.

Seeking local colour on the town a year after the shooting he interviews a shabby Harley Snouch, drinking cheap port in a boarded up wine saloon. Such saloons were drinking places for men who were WW I veterans:

They were all over the place, these wine saloons, in the bush and in the cities. Every country town had one. It was different in those days. No Medibank, no Medicare, no cheap medicine. They self-medicated. It weren’t no table wine they served in wine saloons, it was plonk: flagon port and cooking sherry and home-stilled spirits. Nasty, cheap, and effective. This is where they came, the walking ghosts who weren’t welcome in the Commercial fucken Hotel.

Ready to leave Martin is drawn into the life of the community by stepping up to assist community members in a pair of emergencies.

The second involves a bush fire in the Scrublands, an area of wasteland near Riversend. In one of the most compelling scenes I have read in a long time he is caught, with two other men, in a house as the fire sweeps up to and into the house. It is terrifying.

Gradually he learns why the police are being so forthcoming to a journalist.

Swift’s penchants for shooting, drinking, telling dirty jokes and smoking marijuana are incompatible with his position as an Anglican priest. Gradually Martin learns Swift’s pre-Riversend personal history is far more complicated than he had anticipated.

The police, the journalists and the residents are battered by the revelations unleashed when Martin strives to find the answer to the “why” of Swift’s actions. My next post will explore “why”.

When more bodies are found he is at the forefront of a story riveting the nation of Australia. He is riding the crest of a journalist sensation that can return him to fame and even possibly fortune. Yet what will be the costs to personal relationships he has established in Riversend. For his help in two emergencies he has become trusted by the residents.

As information comes his way Martin becomes challenged by ethics. What is ethical as an investigative reporter comes into conflict on what is ethical in personal relationships. Should a journalist play God in telling but some of the truths of a story?

Hammer writes of journalists with such feel for them and the details of their reporting that I knew he had been a journalist before reading of his personal history.

The shifts in the story throughout the book are not so much twists or surprises. They are the unfolding of an intricate, clever and absorbing plot. I was reminded of the complex driving plot being revealed as I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. Hammer's skill drew me deeply into the community and people he created. It takes great talent to provide such drama with, what seems, a casual ease.

Scrublands is a strong contender for my Bill’s Best Fiction of 2018. 

Already a great success in Australia I forecast Scrublands is about to sweep onto the bestseller lists of North America. After it is published in Canada and the U.S. in January Hammer had best be ready for a torrent of attention is about to descend upon him.