About Me

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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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald

Another Margaret by Janice MacDonald – The most unusual academic mystery I have read. Another Margaret is a nice surprise which will confound your expectations.

The opening paragraph establishes this book will not be a blood drenched thriller:

Whoever said “when things get rough you can always fall back on teaching” probably had not considered the rigors of pedagogy. Of course, they probably had no idea what the word pedagogy meant in the first place.

Randy, officially Miranda, Craig labouring away as a sessional instructor at Grant MacEwan College is startled to hear a new Margaret Ahlers book is about to be published. She knows Ahlers could not have written a new book. How does she know?

Twenty years earlier, back in the late 1980's, Randy had decided to enter the world of academe by turning her undergraduate English degree into a M.A. Choosing the University of Alberta in Edmonton she casts around for a suitable topic for a thesis.

Randy is intrigued by Margaret Ahlers who is a rising presence in Canadian literature. Ahlers has written three novels, all well received by critics and readers. She is a contemporary author. A quick search shows few other graduate level theses on Ahlers.

Most important, Professor Hilary Quinn at the U. of A. has written a number of scholarly articles about Ahlers. Randy contacts Professor Quinn who agrees to be her supervisor.

Randy undertakes a thesis on “place and belonging in Ahlers’ fiction within the context of Canadian regional dictates”. The books are clearly set in Western Canada but in an unnamed area.

Her research is hampered by the reclusive nature of Ahlers. Biographical notes are non-existent. There is no way to directly contact her. Ahlers is a mystery woman.

More important Quinn is not helpful, Randy becomes grad student paranoid over the little feedback she is getting from her supervisor. Is Dr. Quinn playing a godgame with her:

“A godgame. You know, one where you are the player, but you don’t know the rules. You try to go one way, and the god who is the game-master lops off your arm because you’ve somehow transgressed an unwritten law.”

Randy, through an exhaustive analysis of the books, concludes the Ahlers books have been set in the Peace River country of northwestern Alberta.

In a trip to the Peace River country Randy cannot find any proof of Ahlers but learns that Professor Quinn is well known, even a touch notorious, in the area.

As Randy pursues her thesis on her own she is startled when a new Ahlers book appears that is completely different from the earlier books in that it is a mystery. There is consternation in the academic world for Ahlers has written a work with “a ‘sub-literary’ text” rather than another work of “literary fiction”.

Does Ahlers remain a suitable study for a Master’s thesis? Randy says to herself that she is no longer writing about either the next Margaret Laurence or the next Margaret Atwood but the next Margaret Millar. Those who recognize those 3 names have a solid knowledge of Canadian literature. MacDonald challenges readers with literary, mainly Canadian, references throughout the book. Doubt on whether one is on the right course for the thesis appears to dominate the grad student experience.

Randy does persevere and proceeds to analyze the fourth Ahlers book.

Randy’s study of the quartet of Ahlers’ books is as creative writing in crime fiction as I have encountered in a long time. To credibly have Randy doing a detailed study of each book MacDonald has effectively written extensive plot lines for four additional books (five when the later Ahlers book is published) within Another Margaret. MacDonald is so effective I found myself wishing I could read the fiction of the fictional Ahlers.

A short time later Randy is shaken when Ahlers’ publisher announces Ahlers has died. As with her life there are no details about her death.

Randy’s working theory on how Ahlers died is the weakest part of the book. In all but this section of the book Randy is a clever perceptive woman.

After revealing what happens to Ahlers the book returns to the present where Randy is reluctantly helping organize a 20 year reunion for English Masters and Honours students.

There are numerous deft comments for those who love English to appreciate in the book. An example involves the list of invitees Randy is working on for the reunion:

Who knew there that many English majors in the world? You’d think there would be far fewer apostrophe problems on signage.

Describing herself as an ambivert Randy does well speaking to groups on topics she knows well but is uncomfortable in settings of a few people she does not know well.

The best part of her life is her relationship with Edmonton Police Services detective, Steve Browning. They have had a good and caring relationship. Knowing he will be with her at the reunion calms her anxiety at meeting former classmates two decades later.

There is an unexpected dramatic conclusion to Another Margaret that had one too many twists for me.

While I have noted a couple of flaws Another Margaret is an excellent book. The setting of urban and rural Alberta is well done. The exploration of contemporary academic life is outstanding.

MacDonald, in Randy Craig, has created a memorable academic sleuth who is the Alberta equivalent to Gail Bowen’s character, Joanne Kilbourn, from Saskatchewan. I am going to read more in the series.
****
This review is part of a blog tour organized by the publisher, Turnstone Press. In addition to my review today I will be posting Q and A with the author this coming Saturday as part of the tour. I encourage readers to check out the thoughts of other bloggers participating in the tour. The full tour is:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Where is the Walt Longmire Series Headed?

In my last post, a review of Any Other Name by Craig Johnson, I expressed regret over the direction of the Sheriff Walt Longmire series especially with regard to the use of violence.

In the early books of the series Walt solved mysteries with a mix of intelligence, diligence and occasional violence. His interactions with the Cheyenne people of Wyoming were important parts of the stories.

In the opening book, The Cold Dish, I summed up:

The author captures the sense of rural America, the feel of the weather and the language of the people. Absoroka County is alive in the same way Louise Penny created Three Pines, Quebec.

In Death Without Company Walt explores the death of a Basque woman residing in the same seniors home as former sheriff, Lucian Connelly. The investigation requires Walt to gain an understanding of Basque life in Wyoming and the methane gas industry. I did say the solution is effectively determined by the bodies left standing at the end.

Kindness Goes Unpunished, the third book, sees Walt and Henry Standing Bear in Philadelphia where his daughter, Cady, is recovering from a major head injury. It involves an intriguing character, a “white” Indian who is a white man that adopted Indian ways while in prison. I said:

The investigation involving small notes with Indian themes reminds me of the cleverness of Michael Connelly and the early Laurie R. King books. The solution brings Wyoming to Philadelphia brilliantly.

In Another Man’s Moccasins Walt is dealing with the death of a Vietnamese woman. The investigation flashes him back to his time as a soldier in Vietnam. It delves into his spiritual side:

Moving back and forth in time Longmire also occasionally finds himself in the spirit world. Ruby, his long time administrative assistant, says he cares more about the dead than the living

While I enjoyed The Black Horse it was the first book in the series that made me feel alittle uncomfortable. Walt goes on a solo quest to a neighbouring county and goes undercover posing as an insurance investigator. It was not really plausible he would be able to be unknown so close to his home county.

In Junkyard Dogs I was impressed that Walt was actually impacted by cumulative physical injuries and forced to go through a physical examination. He was not an impervious hero.

Hell is Empty is not an investigation. It is a thriller chase with mystical elements. I accepted it as Johnson not merely following a formula.

As the Crow Flies reassured me Johnson was returning to solid mysteries with Walt investigating a murder on the Cheyenne reservation. I said:

The murder investigation proceeds on the reservation. The story provides the best look at a contemporary Western American Indian reservation since I read one of Tony Hillerman’s books featuring Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. 

It was A Serpent’s Tooth that really made me feel uneasy about the future of the series. Walt is investigating a death related to a polygamous Mormon community. I concluded:

However, Sheriff Walt is in danger of becoming the stereotype of the lone American lawman riding, now driving, into bloody confrontations with the bad guys. In earlier books the Sheriff was more balanced. His keen intelligence is little utilized in this book as he barges around from fight to fight. It reminds me of the later Spenser mysteries when violence became the first option to solving issues.

Any Other Name follows the path of A Serpent’s Tooth rather than earlier books. Walt is on a solo quest using violence readily.

Not yet fully recovered from the injuries he suffered in A Serpent’s Tooth he is injured repeatedly in Any Other Name. After awakening in a hospital bed he even pulls out his IV and rushes to the chase. There is little recognition that he is a man at least 60 years old.

Three of the last four books in the series have seen Walt outside Absoroka County and the last two books have little interaction with the Cheyenne people. It is time for Walt to attend to crime in Absoroka but at the end of Any Other Name he was headed to Philadelphia.

More important, I hope the trend of violence to solve the mystery and individual ventures in law enforcement do not continue in the series. They are certainly less complex to write but risk Walt becoming an average fictional hero. It is the trend I found disconcerting with the later Elvis Cole books by Robert Crais. Walt is not Hollywood. I do not want to see Walt being a modern Lone Ranger.
****
Johnson, Craig – (2007) - The Cold Dish; (Best Fiction of 2007); (2008) - Death Without Company; (2008) - Kindness Goes Unpunished (Third Best Fiction of 2008); (2009) - Another Man’s Moccasins; (2011) - The Dark Horse; (2011) - Junkyard Dogs; (2012) - Hell is Empty; (2013) As the Crow Flies; (2013) - Longmire T.V. Series; (2014) - A Serpent's Tooth; (2015) - Radio in Indigenous Mystery Series; (2015) - Any Other Day; Hardcover

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson - Former Absaroka County Sheriff, Lucian Connally, calls upon current sheriff, Walt Longmire, to go with him to Gillette, Wyoming which is in neighbouring Campbell County.

Walt is reluctant to go because his daughter, Cady, is about to have a child in Philadelphia and wants her father with her. He has committed to being in Philadelphia a few days later. Still Walt goes with Lucian

Lucian and Walt meet with Phyllis Holman, long crippled from an auto accident, who wants them to investigate the death of her husband, Gerald Holman. He had been the Cold Case Task Force for Campbell County.

Gerald had been found dead in a local hotel room killed by a shot from his .357 revolver. The County conclusion had been suicide. Phyllis cannot believe Gerald would ever kill himself.

Lucian warns Phyllis that:

        “I want to warn you that if you put Walter on this you're
        going to find out what it's all about, one way or the other ......
        You're sure you want that? Because he's like a gun, once you
        point him and pull the trigger it's too late to be change your  
       mind."

After looking at the reports and examining the hotel room Walt believes Gerald did kill himself. Still he will find out why Gerald would decide to commit suicide. What puzzles Walt most is that there were 2 shots. The first had gone through his cheek. The second killed him.

Walt and Lucian stay at the same motel where Gerald died. In an example of Lucian’s direct action when impatient, after the waitress fails repeatedly to notice they want a second cup of coffee with breakfast, Lucian shoots the coffee urn in front of them and fills his cup from the coffee spouting out. Walt is left to apologize to the owner and replace the urn.

After a short confrontation with Gerald’s replacement, Inspector Richard Harvey, who is resentful of Walt’s presence in another county the files Gerald had been working are turned over to Walt.

He is surprised when he discovers Gerald was looking into 3 cases of women who had disappeared from the County fairly recently. There are no apparent connections but Walt is troubled by the disappearances.

How could missing women relate to Gerald's suicide?
 
At the same time he is getting urgent calls from Cady that he cannot be late for the arrival of the child.

The investigation takes Walt and Victoria into Western South Dakota at Deadwood where Henry Standing Bear joins them. Victoria has physically recovered from the wound she sustained in the last book.

Walt and Henry get caught in a vicious snowstorm conducting a chase. Reminiscent of Napoleon “Bony” Bonaparte, Henry demonstrates impressive tracking skills when he determines there are no more tire tracks before them despite the blinding snow:

        The Cheyenne Nation shrugged. "Did not see it - I felt it. And
        heard it; the snow feels and sounds different when it has not
        been driven on." He raised a hand again. "Stop." We slid and
        then rocked back and forth like a moored boat as the Bear
        unclicked his seat belt. "They went off the road here".

There is another fascinating weapon of the Old West involved in the story. In the opening book of the series it was a Buffalo Sharps rifle. In this book it is the legendary 1847 Colt Walker revolver, 15 ½” long and weighing just under 5 pounds.

Walt remains an engaging character. After watching Robert Taylor play him in the T.V. series, Longmire, he is my image of Walt. Lou Diamond Phillips will never be Henry Standing Bear for me.

The book continues to reflect the setting of rural Wyoming and is clever and easy to read. While Johnson drew me swiftly through the book I have some regrets.

Walt continues to use more violence than I believe needed or deserved for his character. My next post will further discuss the issue.

Except for Walt’s foray to Philadelphia in Death Without Company I have not thought the books that see him on personal ventures in other settings are as good as those set in Absaroka County. He is a Sheriff not a lone Western lawman. The books where he works with his deputies are the best books in the series.

It remains a good series but I recommend the earlier books over the later books. I keep hoping Walt will return to being a lawman not an action figure.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Women v. Men in Clothing Descriptions

Vicki Delany aka Eva Gates needing more
than a paragraph to describe
 
Moira, my friend at her excellent blog Clothes in Books, has made me more conscious of the role of clothes in books. Prior to reading her blog I was more conscious of the descriptions of settings and the physical features of characters. Probably as a male I am also less aware of clothes.

The last book I reviewed, Booked for Trouble, was partially notable for me now in how clothes helped define characters. 

Booked for Trouble is a cozy with the primary characters being women. I expect the book is more credible because of the attention paid by many women to their clothes.

The first book in the series, By Book or By Crook, saw the sleuth, Lucy Richardson, who is 30 years of age and a recent Bostonian, now resident on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, going through her wardrobe for the perfect outfit for a first date with the Mayor. As quoted in my review Lucy sets out her choice:

It was unadorned, cut without much shape, but made of excellent linen. If I wore it with the black leather belt that had come with the yellow dress, it would give me some much-needed curves. But stark black seemed so ….. Boston. I eyed a three-quarter-sleeved yellow sweater, cropped at the waist that I’d bought for something to throw on over shorts if a summer evening turned cool. The sweater would give the outfit a pop of color.

In Booked for Trouble, Lucy displays a sense of style that is evident in her casual summer work wear as a librarian:

I wore my summer work outfit of black pants cut slightly above the ankle, ballet flats, and a crisp blue short-sleeved shirt, tucked out.

Lucy’s mother, Suzanne Wyatt Richardson, is a Bostonian society member who grew up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Suzanne dresses to maintain her image of perfection even for a day at a resort:

This morning she again wore Ralph Lauren. White capris, a black-and-white-striped sleeveless, scooped-neck T-shirt. A white linen jacket with black lapels, collar and cuffs was hung neatly on the closet door. For today’s jewelry, she’d chosen diamond stud earrings, a thick silver necklace, and a matching bracelet.

For a family supper:

Mom, as could be expected, was flawlessly turned out in an oatmeal pantsuit with a bright pop of color provided by a red shirt and ruby earrings.

Suzanne's perceptions, more accurately prejudices, of people are evident from her comments on how other women are dressed. Lucy has good taste but not enough for Suzanne. Looking at her daughter on a Sunday morning, when Lucy is not working, Suzanne’s first reaction is to Lucy’s clothes:

“You need a sweater or a jacket to wear over that T-shirt. The sleeveless look is not all professional, never mind that the First Lady seems to be able to get away with it. Much larger earrings would look better on you. I have something you can try.”

Suzanne is a woman for whom clothes define the standing in society, all she really cares about, of a woman.

Lucy is less driven by appearances though she wants to look her best.

What is striking is that the clothing worn by men are barely noted. Hotel manager, George Marwick:

      He wore a dark suit with a name badge that said GEORGE,
      MANAGER.

When one of Lucy’s suitors, Mayor Connor McNeil arrives for a quiet drink with Lucy at the Lighthouse Library (after hours) his appearance is summed up in:

      His tie was askew and his top shirt button was undone.

Later Connor is described as:

He looked suitable for meeting his date’s mother in crisply ironed gray slacks and an open-necked blue shirt

Alas, while a paragraph may be needed to describe what one of the women are wearing the men’s clothes are lucky to generate a sentence. Maybe there will be more in the next book of the series.

Having seen how little attention was paid to what the men were wearing in Booked for Trouble I shall have to see whether men’s clothing have a role in future reading.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Booked for Trouble by Eva Gates

Booked for Trouble by Eva Gates – It is summer time on the Outer Banks of North Carolina which means it is tourist time. Lucy Richardson is back for the second book in the Lighthouse Library mystery series.

Lucy is content in her position at the Bodie Island Lighthouse Library and then her mother, the redoubtable and lovely Suzanne Richardson, arrives abruptly from Boston. Mother has been known to take sudden long trips in her car when she wants “me time” but Lucy doubts her mother has simply come to visit Lucy and Suzanne’s sister. She is correct. Mother wants Lucy to end her summer “fling” in the Outer Banks and return to Boston to marry her former fiancĂ©, Ricky, and take her rightful place in Society.

With powerfully selective hearing Suzanne ignores Lucy’s protestations that she has no intention of returning to Boston and Ricky is not in her future.

Suzanne had grown up on the Outer Banks at Nag’s Head and departed as soon as she was done high school after drawing the attention of Lucy’s father who was on a vacation trip to the Outer Banks. Having their first born five months into their marriage may have spurred the marriage.

Lucy gets a glimpse into her mother’s past when Suzanne is referred to as Sue in a nasty exchange with Karen Whiteside, a high school classmate, working as a maid in the posh, though fading, resort in which Suzanne is staying at Nag’s Head. George Marwick, another high school classmate who is the hotel manager, rescues Sue from the verbal fray. 

Sue only became Suzanne when she reached Boston. The oft imperious Suzanne is not amused at being reminded she was once Sue. 

Shortly thereafter Karen is murdered outside the lighthouse library and detective, Sam Watson, is not excluding anyone as a suspect.

Lucy cannot help thinking about who could be the killer. At the same time she has noticed her mother, normally well organized and controlled, is distracted and drinking far more than usual.

Head Librarian, Bertie, tries to deflect attention from the library by telling the community that the murder took place in the marsh area outside the library but Dianne Uppiton, her fiercest critic on the Library Board, makes sure all know the body was found at the base of the lighthouse.

The story continues with the library once more in the midst of a murder investigation. What could be a better setting for a cozy mystery series? 

Gates (a pseudonym for Vicki Delany) has established a number of interesting continuing characters. Not all is sunshine in Nag’s Head but life is good on the Outer Banks.

The second Lighthouse Library mystery is deftly written. What reader could not be impressed by this description of a suspect:

                “You can’t trust a man who doesn’t like libraries.”

By that criteria I am lucky as I am a man who loves libraries.

I found myself glad to read a mystery where the characters are real people and the sleuth is a young, 30 years old, woman who loves books and whose greatest problems in life are a moderately overbearing mother and trying to decide between two handsome men interested in dating her.

Lucy is not a dazzling sleuth. She is a dedicated librarian who loves cats as much as she loves reading. She is a nice person with whom to spend some hours.

I expect the series will continue to do well. 

Monday, September 7, 2015

Back at Sea

Marina
Sharon and I are back at sea with Oceania Cruises on a cruise that will take us from Amsterdam to the port outside Rome. We are on Marina. While I freely acknowledge my focus is not on reading while on a cruise ship there is still a wonderful library on the ship with about 2,000 books.

I am doing some reading each day between meals, shore excursions, team trivia (afternoon and evening) and the nightly live show. Often reading has to be done while sitting on the deck. Right now I am up in the Horizons Lounge on the 15th deck waiting for formal tea to begin. Afternoon trivia awaits.

My posts will be irregular until the end of the cruise.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

2015 Winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction - The Secret of Magic

Deborah Johnson won the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Fiction for her book, The Secret of Magic. In my last couple of posts I have reviewed the book and ranked the shortlist for the Award. I agreed with the voters as I considered The Secret of Magic the best book on the shortlist.

The announcement of the Award came at the end of June. The Award will be awarded on Thursday at the National Book Awards in Washington.

It was a surprise to me when the Award was announced in late June. When the shortlist was posted neither of the sponsors, the University of Alabama and the ABA (American Bar Association) Journal set out when the winner would be revealed. Last year it was not until the actual presentation of the Award. I am writing to the University expressing my concerns over a process that does not reflect a major award.

I had not thought about the first reaction of several publications to the announcement being that Johnson is both the first female winner and the first African American winner. With the subject about the origins of the American civil rights movement it had an appropriate theme for the dual firsts of Johnson.

Johnson had previously published four books of historical romance under the name of Deborah Jones.

With regard to the book there is a fine interview in Chatelaine magazine with the author. In that interview she discusses research for the book:

I live in Mississippi which is a state of great storytellers. Everybody seems to know everything about their own family back through the generations – and, if you’ve been around awhile, they probably know a great deal about your family as well. And Mississippians are friendly folk, willing to sit and talk awhile, so I found myself with a treasure of great tales – some of them tall one – to weave in. all of this great collective record keeping has also led to the development of some wonderful collections at my own library in Columbus, Mississippi and at the state archives in Jackson. In addition, I knew a fair amount about Thurgood Marshall and the Legal Defense Fund before I started – both he and it were icons in my family – but I fleshed this out with some very interesting research into both the fund’s early development and Justice Marshall’s role in this and his particular cases during those fledgling years. I ended up learning quite a lot. In fact, the challenge became stopping the research so I could get on with the writing.

Johnson indicates in the interview it took her about 3 years to write the book. She also addressed challenges in writing the book:

    Q:    What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
        And the easiest?

A.    The hardest aspect was not to stereotype, i.e. not to make all the blacks saints or martyrs and all the whites monsters. This could be quite easy to do when you are dealing with a place like Mississippi in 1946 and especially when you are writing about something as heinous as what happened to Joe Howard. But aren’t stereotypes – and the resultant fear they engender – rooting the problem? So I wanted to steer as clear as I could of them. The easiest part by far was coming up with the title, The Secret of Magic. I actually had this before anything else which, for me, is not usually the case.

In a further interview at the Anita Loves Books blog Johnson spoke about the setting of the book:

I asked Deborah how she ended up in Mississippi and why she writes about the South.  Her son was coming to the US for college, and likely wouldn’t return to Europe.  She spent many years in Italy.  While not raised in the literal south, she speaks of being raised in a Southern attitude, a world of yes mams and no mams and a Southern Sensibility.  Deborah took a job sight unseen and when she writes of the south she says it’s like coming home.

What was most notable to me was that the Award was given this year to a writer who is not a prominent writer of legal fiction or a well known lawyer. The first three authors to win the Award had been John Grisham, Michael Connelly and Paul Goldstein.