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, December 31, 2013

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Sycamore Row by John Grisham – You will not read a better current legal thriller than Sycamore Row. Grisham returns to the town of Clanton in Ford County, Mississippi and Jake Brigance, the lawyer with whom he started his writing career in A Time to Kill. This book is set in the late 1980’s about 3 years after the dramatic murder trial in A Time to Kill.

On a fall Sunday afternoon reclusive businessman, Seth Hubbard, hangs himself from a Sycamore tree after leaving meticulous instructions for his burial.

The next day Brigance, while opening the mail, finds a letter posted the previous Saturday. Inside are a letter and a will. The letter to Brigance from Hubbard advises that by the time Brigance reads the letter he will have taken his own life as he is dying from lung cancer. Hubbard continues that the will is a holograph will that he has written that Saturday. (A holograph will is a will made totally in the handwriting of the testator and does not need witnesses.) He assures Brigance that it meets the requirements for such a will and he directs Brigance to defend his will at all costs as it “is likely to start some trouble”. Hubbard, who has never met Brigance and who despises Clanton lawyers, admires Brigance for his defence in the Hailey murder.

The will is a model of simplicity and clarity. Hubbard gives 5% to his brother, Ancil Hubbard, and 5% to the Irish Road Christian Church and 90% to his housekeeper, Lettie Lang, as “thanks for her dedicated service and friendship to me during these past few years”. In harsh language he excludes his son and daughter and directs they only be advised of the will after the funeral because:

I want my family to be forced to go through all the rituals of mourning before they realize they get nothing. Watch them fake it – they’re very good at it. They have no love for me.

Bitter is too tender a word to describe the relationships between the Hubbards.

When Brigance learns that Hubbard is white and Lang is black a shiver runs through him as he knows a bitter will fight is ahead of him.

Prior to the funeral Herschel Hubbard and his sister, Ramona Dafoe, and his brother-in-law, Ian Dafoe, gather at their father’s home. While they can barely stand each other they unite to summarily dismiss Lang grouching about her being paid $5.00 an hour to be housekeeper.

A prominent law firm from Tupelo advises them that Seth Hubbard has made them his primary beneficiaries in a will prepared several months earlier. With both children barely making a go of it financially they eagerly anticipate what they will do with the money.

Stunned is a mild description of the reaction of Lang and the Hubbard children when they learn the next day of the terms of the holograph will.

When Brigance learns that Hubbard’s estate is worth $24 million with about $12 million left after estate taxes the last ingredient for a vicious will contest is in place.

It is a shocking amount for Ford County is poor. Making a living is hard. Few people do better than get by.

With millions at stake, lawyers flock to Clanton. Within days a dozen lawyers are involved, eager to contest the will for Hubbard’s children and grandchildren.

Early in the case Brigance struggles with the decision on whether to proceed to a judge alone trial or a jury trial. It is a choice with which I am well familiar. It can be pivotal to the success of a case yet it is a call that involves as much feel for the case as analysis. It is the type of decision that sorts out good lawyers from average lawyers.

The court action proceeds as I would expect for a major will challenge. Did Hubbard have testamentary capacity, the ability to make a will? Did Lang unduly influence him?

The twists and turns are fascinating and that is before the trial even starts.

Having been involved in several disputed wills cases I can relate to the emotions such actions cause as lifetimes of family grievances and good times influence decisions.

Grisham shows that a civil court case can be as exciting, even more exciting, than a murder trial.

Can Jake Brigance win a second trial for a black Mississippian? Race relations are gradually improving though blacks know their place in Clanton society.

Grisham provides such succinct and useful instructions for being a witness in a deposition that I expect to steal the advice when I next prepare witnesses:

            Be polite. Be concise. Don’t volunteer. If you don’t know,
            then you don’t know.
As with each of his books set in the rural South, Grisham makes me believe the characters could be found in a town in northern Mississippi. Their language, backgrounds and actions are all convincing.

Last year I found The Racketeer a clever book but hoped Grisham would go back to the Deep South in his next book. He has returned brilliantly with Sycamore Row. It is as good as The Confession.

Set aside a day if you pick up the book. You will need the time.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

“V” is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton

“V” is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton – As the end of the alphabet nears Kinsey Millhone turns 38 in the 22nd book of the series.

Life and work are in a routine period when Kinsey gets caught up in a shoplifting scheme at a local Nordstrom’s store. While she is paying for a selection of bargain undies she advises the clerk she has observed another woman stealing clothes. As the store staff close in on the shoplifter Kinsey realizes that another woman she had seen with the shoplifter is also stealing clothes. Kinsey sets out in pursuit and is almost run down for her trouble.

Because of her innate curiosity, better described as nosiness, Kinsey watches the paper for a story on the first shoplifter who was caught and arrested. She is startled when she is told the woman, Audrey Vance, died shortly after being released on bail from a fall off a bridge over a ravine. Her death is assessed by the police as a probable suicide.

After relating the circumstances to William Pitt at Rosie’s, he insists they go to the visitation of Audrey. Brushing aside her reluctance to intrude on the bereaved William says they will be glad of the comfort the presence of Kinsey and William will bring to the family.

William a professional hypochondriac is also an accomplished attendee of visitations and funerals taking in one or more every week. He says they will describe themselves as distant acquaintances should someone be so gauche as to ask. He assures Kinsey his experience from a multitude of funerals can help the family with the special grief of a suicide.

Kinsey meets Audrey’s fiancée, Marvin Stryker, at the funeral home. William advises Marvin of Kinsey’s work as a private investigator. She is surprised, but not shocked, when he hires her to find out more about the death. He believes it was no suicide.

Kinsey soon finds out that Audrey’s life was far more complicated than Marvin believed.

The investigation takes Kinsey into the realm of organized shoplifting. It is a world of which I had little knowledge before reading the book. It appears to be a local industry in southern California.

Detective Len Priddy, who worked with her first husband, is dismissive of Kinsey’s investigation which spurs her to even greater efforts.

The book features a bad guy, Lorenzo Dante, who is portrayed more subtly than most current bad guys. He has a family. He loves his ailing uncle and provides care for him. He is in a long term challenging relationship. He is reflective about his life. In our current era of crime fiction I have come to appreciate authors who create multi-dimensional bad guys.

The book was much different from “U” is for Undertow in that many of the characters were likeable people. I acknowledge that I find myself slogging if a book lacks likeable characters.

I enjoyed the book more than some of the more recent books in the series. Unlike “T” is for Trespass I did find there was limited suspense as the conclusion neared. There was a sense of inevitability rather than drama as the book was coming to an end. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Book Gifts Received

At the end of October I put up a post inviting recommendations be made to this blog to give to my wife, Sharon, for Christmas book presents for me. Each year she asks me for a list of Christmas books. My sons usually give me books but like to pick out on their own what they think I will like for Christmas.

A nice variety of books were proposed by fellow bloggers and readers including Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller, A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames, Mayhem by J. Robert Janes, Sycamore Row by John Grisham and White Heat by M.J. McGrath.

Out of the group Sharon chose Sycamore Row which had been recommended by Kathy D. and who was so enthusiastic about the book that she followed up with two more comments on the book. 

I started reading it today. It is off to a good start. I am optimistic because it is set back in rural Mississippi. I have enjoyed every one of the Grisham legal thrillers set in the Deep South. When he sets a book back in Mississippi the book has a deep connection with the people, culture and geography of the state.

Sycamore Row was not the only book I received at Christmas. My sons gave me a total of 4 books. They are immensely varied.

Michael, who returned from a semester of law at the University of Copenhagen on December 22, gave me a couple of books connected with Denmark.

The first, Hitler's Savage Canary by David Lampe, was first published in 1957 and is sub-titled A History of the Danish Resistance in World War II. I have also started to read the book.

The second is Hornet Flight by Ken Follett. It is a thriller from 2002 based in Denmark.

Jonathan gave me a pair of books.

The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin won the American Pulitzer Prize and is sub-titled Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. Jonathan knew I had enjoyed her previous book, Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. I thought the movie inspired by the book was brilliant.

The other book is The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I told Jonathan that I had looked at the 2013 Man Booker Prize Winner in bookstores but hesitated to buy it because of its length of 800 pages. The choice has now been made for me. In Canada there was some claim of her as a Canadian author as well as a New Zealand author as she was born in Canada. I will not delve into how to designate the country of an author.

Jonathan, Sharon and Michael joined together to get me The Forgotten by Nathan M. Greenfield. It is sub-titled Canadian POWs, Escapers and Evaders in Europe, 1939 - 1945. I am looking forward to the part on the Great Escape which became the subject of a classic movie. From a radio interview with the author it appears Canadians were far more involved in leading the Great Escape than they were given credit for by Hollywood.

The books will be the focus of my winter reading. After a few years in which books given to me by my family have languished I have told them their gifts will be priority reading. I do not know why it took me so long to recognize that I should put to the top of the TBR piles book gifts from family.

Monday, December 23, 2013

'Twas the Night Before Christmas for Mystery Bloggers

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a computer was stirring, not even a mouse
Mystery bloggers everywhere had inserted their flash drives with care;
In hopes St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The bloggers were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of new books danc’d in their heads.

And Sharon in the kitchen, and I in the den,
Had just settled from our computers for a long winter's nap -
When on my computer there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the monitor I flew like a flash,
Tore open Google, and avoided a crash,
The moon on the screen of new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to the icons below;
When, what on the screen to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny bloggers,
With my little old computer driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his bloggers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name;
"Now! Margot, now! Moira, now! John, now! Kerrie and Bernadette,
"On! Tracy, on! Prashant, on! Norman and Jose Ignacio;
To the top of the screen! To the top of the fire wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"
As letters before a computer storm fly,
And when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the cloud;
So up the computer screen they flew,
With the sleigh full of e-books - and St. Nicholas too;
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the speaker
The prancing and pawing of each little blogger.
As I drew back my head, and was spinning around,
Down St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with glitches and errors;
A bundle of e-books flung on his back,
And he look'd like a reader just opening his hard drive;
His eyes - how the pixels twinkled! His dimple; how merry,
His cheeks were like Apples, his nose like a cherry
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it floated over the screen like a wreath
He had a broad face, and a round little belly
That shook when he laugh'd like a bowl of jelly;
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his pixels and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill'd all the flash drives; then turn'd with a jerk
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a shake, up the screen he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his bloggers gave a nod
And away they all flew right into the screen,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight -
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

- With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore

Merry Christmas to bloggers and readers around the world!!!!

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Muppets and Me

During the past week I have put up a pair of posts reviewing Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones. While reading the book I thought of how the Muppets became and remain a part of my life.

I was in university in the early 1970’s when classmates in law school started missing the occasional class as they were entranced by Sesame Street. I wondered what children’s show could so captivate university students.

When I got a chance to watch Sesame Street it was a revelation, especially the Muppets. It was the first time I could remember seeing puppets with real contemporary character. They were funny and memorable. Big Bird became an icon of the 1970’s.

In the book there is a wonderful introduction about Henson playing Kermit and a magical interaction with a 6 year old girl singing the ABC song. She loved Kermit who was completely real to her. One of the special aspects to the story is that it was unrehearsed. It was Kermit and the young girl having fun and learning together.

When the Muppet Show was broadcast my appreciation of the Muppets grew. They were crazy as they beat and blew each other up, all with great joy. I wonder in our current age if we could accept such antics or have we become so hyper-sensitized that they would be judged violent.

Waldorf and Statler, the two old codgers up in the balcony, heckling away were adopted for Legal Follies, the annual variety show of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan. Two students would make acerbic comments from up in the second balcony of the theatre where the show was held.

When I think of the show I instantly recall the theme music. It penetrated completely. I still hear the tune running through my head when someone mentions the Muppet Show.

I liked the subsequent movies but loved the Muppet Show.

Fraggle Rock was alright but it never captured me.

In the late 1980’s when my children started watching Sesame Street they equally fell in love with the Muppets. Every generation loves them.

Bert and Ernie were probably their favourite characters though the Cookie Monster was almost as important to them.

When my youngest son was in kindergarten I went to class one day with a drawing for them to colour. It had Michael surrounded by his favourite Muppet characters. There was no need to explain the picture. Every kid knew every Muppet.

As I read the book I decided to look up some videos on YouTube of the Muppet show. I was a touch hesitant, worried they might not have the same appeal, but I need not have fretted. I was captured again.

Watching Rita Moreno perform with Animal, the drummer, and Harry Belafonte sing with a group of African Muppets was amazing.

I think the song, Rainbow Connection, will be sung for generations to come.

I am glad I read the book for it brought back so many good memories of the Muppets.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones Continued

In my last post I started a review of Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones. This post completes my review of the book. My next post will provide personal thoughts and connections with the Muppets.
My first post dealt with Jim's early life and the show business progression of the Muppets to Sesame Street. After becoming famous on Sesame Street on the Muppets went from success to success.
Jones sets out how the Muppet Show became the most syndicated show on television within months. The subsequent Muppet movies were just as popular.
What was striking is that despite their success in America the T.V. series and movies were funded by Lord Lew Grade from England. The American television and movie establishment could not bring itself to recognize the Muppets as great entertainment.
For Jim it was a frantic lifestyle as he flew back and forth across the Atlantic as if it was a pond creating shows, performing the Muppets and managing a major business. The book is at its best in the development of Jim’s puppetry craft and flair for show business. It is ironic that his busy days and nights would have kept Jim, one of the most successful creators of T.V. programming from having the time to actually watch T.V.
Jones discusses Jim’s connection with Kermit and working in the world of the Muppets during the  Muppet Show:
“There’s a bit of me in Kermit,” Jim conceded, “Kermit’s the organizer, always desperately trying to keep things going while surrounded by all these crazy nuts,” he explained to London’s TV Times. “I suppose he is not unlike me and it’s not unlike the way the place operates around her.” Mostly, Jim saw both himself and Kermit as the steady eye of the Muppet Show hurricaine, the center around which the storm wildly raged and revolved – though steady didn’t necessarily mean staid. “Me not crazy?” Kermit once explained. “I hired the others!” Jim, too, often saw himself as the ringleader of a group whose members unapologetically referred to themselves as a “bunch of goddamn lunatics!”
Beyond their skits and jokes the Muppets introduced many great songs. Jim’s daughter, Cheryl, thought the final verse of Bein’ Green, which became a standard for Kermit, summed up her father:
        When green is all there is to be,
It could make you wonder shy.
But why wonder? Why wonder?
I am green – and it’ll do fine. It’s beautiful.
And I think it’s what I want to be.
The latter part of the book, as was Jim, is caught up in the challenges of money and deal making as Jim ran a business with 150 employees. It grinds abit. Jim’s creativity was suffering as he did not have an effective process of delegating decisions.
As well known Jim died tragically and suddenly from pneumonia when he was 53. As the end of the book neared I felt dread. Neither Jim nor anyone around him had an inkling the end was near. As he carried on with the whirlwind of his life I grew sadder knowing it was about to be over.
Back cover
I enjoyed the book but doubt the completeness of the portrayal. Near the end of the book a friend says Jim was not a saint but it is hard to find a flaw in Henson’s personality mentioned in the book beyond being unfaithful to his wife. I am convinced he was a very good man. I dislike biographies that set out to highlight the unflattering aspects of a person's life. At the same time I expect Jim had more blemishes. This biography will set the standard for the narrative of Jim’s life. I see another to be written that draws upon quotes that do not always praise him.
While it is a good book the cover is ill-suited to the subject. I am sure Jim would never have chosen as plain a cover. Even if it had been put in colour it would have been better. The back and side covers are far more representative of Jim’s love of colour and design. It the goal was to create contrast between the front and back I disagree with the approach. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones

56. – 745.) Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones – The biography of the inventor of the Muppets is an interesting book that provided me with information on a man I had only known through the Muppets. I found so much in the book my review will take up this post and my next post. A third will deal with my connections and thoughts concerning the Muppets.

Jim was born in Leland, Mississippi in 1936 where his father worked for the Federal Department of Agriculture as an agronomist.

In his mid-teens the family was living in Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. Jim desperately wanted to work in television. His goal was to work behind the scenes. He saw himself as a painter and designer.

His first opportunity to work in television came when he successfully auditioned for a children’s television show that involved puppets. While that show ended abruptly he had already created an impression and was given another chance on local television. Jim, using puppets he created, was a success.

By the time he was 19, Jim and Jane Nebel, later to be his wife, had a regular slot as Sam and Friends on a Washington television station show.

Already called the Muppets the characters were intentionally not realistic:

“Those abstract characters I still feel are slightly more pure,” Jim later explained. “If you take a character and you call him a frog … you immediately give the audience a handle. You’re assisting the audience to understand; you’re giving them a bridge or an access. And if you don’t give them that, if you keep it more abstract, it’s almost more pure. It’s a cooler thing. It’s a dfference of sort of warmth and cool.”
An early example of Jim’s genius was recognizing that puppets need not be on a miniature stage for T.V. The camera set the dimensions of the picture for viewers not the stage. To make use of the freedom Jim arranged for monitors to be available so the puppeteers could see themselves performing:

Unlike other television actors, who can’t see their own performance as it happens, “you can actually see what you are doing as you do it,” Jim explained, “and have the opportunity to modify your performance for better effect.” It also allowed the puppeteer to share the viewing experience with the audience at home – a dynamic Jane found particularly thrilling. “You’d perform but you’d also be the audience,” said Jane. “I think that’s a big difference, becaue the people at home watching are seeing a very intimate, internal thing that’s happening with that performer.”

By 1959, when Jim was 29, it was estimated that he and Jane were earning $100,000 a year from the Muppets.

From local television and commercials the Muppets moved onto national television on the Jimmy Dean Show. While Jim was looking to develop a television show for the Muppets from the early 1960’s on the Muppets big break came with the establishment of the Children’s Television Workshop and the creation of Sesame Street.

Beyond being wildly creative Jim had a solid business acumen. From his earliest days he insisted on owning his characters. With the CTW he agreed to share profits from merchandising but he owned the characters he was creating for the show.

While Jim came up with the concept of characters his instuctions to Don Sahlin who built the Muppets were often very brief. As an example he provided a drawing of two characters:

The first had surprised eyes set in a tall, banana-shaped head, topped by a shock of dark hair, while the other – looking rather like Moldy Hay from Sam and Friends – had a head like a football, a large nose, and even larger ears, with shaggy dark hair covering his eyes.

From that sketch Bert and Ernie were born.

Once on national television the Muppets and their crazy antics became famous throughout North America.

My next post deals with Jim and the Muppets as they conqueror the world.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New and Old Secret Japanese Fighters

Barry Lancet
In my review of Japantown by Barry Lancet the Soga was listed as the organization which killed a Japanese family to open the book. I did not provide any particulars on the group, not because I thought there would be spoilers of the mystery but because I did not want to provide spoilers in the context of too much information. This post will supply more information on Soga. If you prefer to limit your knowledge of a mystery it would be best to read no further on this post. (I hope this paragraph does not sound too pretentious. It is not so intended.)

The Soga is a secret organization whose members are highly skilled in covert operations. They are talented at observation and detection. Yet they are best known for their skill at assassination. Highly trained they can kill openly or create deaths that look accidental or self-inflicted.

Wearing sleek modern fabrics the black clad members of Soga are extremely dangerous in close combat. A favourite means of execution is a modern garrote of a special wire that slices through the neck as pressure is applied.

What is unique is that they come from a village in the mountains to the west of Tokyo. They have a bond that comes from the tight connections of living in a close knit community. Being recruited from the same community also makes sure their families can be intimidated if necessary.

Functioning in small cells they have remained invisible for generations.

It took me some time to realize the fighters of the Soga are the modern ninja of Japanese lore.

It was in reading Shogun by James Clavell that I first remember learning of ninjas. The black clothed ninjas were terrifying. They would seemingly appear out of nowhere to kill and then disappear again.

With their throwing stars tipped with poison and a readiness to die if needed to accomplish a mission they were rightly feared.

No one who has read Shogun will forget the lovely Mariko sacrificing herself during the ninja attack to show how shamefully Lord Ishido has acted.

Since Shogun the images of ninjas has been sadly debased reaching their nadir with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I acknowledge those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles gave my sons a lot of fun as they were growing up but they robbed the ninjas of their earlier mystique.

With Soga Lancet has cleverly re-introduced a new type of ninjas without ever using the word.

The Soga are also a credible secret organization. With all our modern means of communication and investigation it is ever harder for the traditional secret society to exist. Lancet does well in setting out how the Soga managed to remain both secret and dangerous.
I also indicated in my last post that I would put forward my one regret with regard to Japantown. It is that the ending had too many twists at the end. Much as I enjoy Jeffery Deaver’s  series with Lincoln Rhyme I find he too often adds twists that are not needed and sometimes take away from the plot.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Japantown by Barry Lancet

55. – 744.) Japantown by Barry Lancet – The best new thriller author of the year came my reading way in December courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Lancet has written an intricate action filled mystery.

Jim Brodie is summoned to a horrific crime scene in the Japantown area of San Francisco by SFPD Lieutenant, Frank Renna. A family of 5 Japanese tourists, including 2 young children, have been gunned down. The crime scene has yielded no leads to the police. The SFPD consults Brodie when there is a Japanese aspect to a crime.

Brodie, primarily a dealer in Japanese art and antiques in America, is also co-owner of a Japanese security firm founded by his father. He had spent his first 17 years in Japan before being brought to the U.S. by his mother when the marriage of his parents failed. His father, Jake, had stayed on in Japan to run the security firm.

While examining the area around the bodies, Brodie is startled to see a kanji character on a piece of paper and then stunned when he recognizes the kanji as the same as the kanji written on the sidewalk outside the house in Los Angeles where his wife, Mieko, had died.

Brodie defines a kanji character:

Kanji were the basic building blocks for the Japanese writing system – complex, multistroke ideographs borrowed from the Chinese hundreds of years ago.

A shiver went up my back when the author revealed that the police and Brodie are being carefully observed from a distance by members of the killing organization – Soga. Within minutes they have identified Brodie.

On returning to his apartment Brodie is cheerfully greeted by his 6 year old daughter, Jenny, who has come downstairs from a sleepover. When she tells Brodie she has been talking with a China man, Brodie rushes out of the building to talk to the Homeboy intruder. The conversation turns to confrontation and Homeboy draws a knife. Only Brodie’s skills in multiple martial arts save him from death.

When the wounded Brodie returns to the apartment Jenny is distraught. Seeing her father bleeding, she panics frantic with worry, that he will leave her like her mother has left them. Brodie manages to calm her though she remains uneasy.

With nothing but the kanji character as a lead Brodie considers how to pursue its meaning Despite extensive research after his wife’s death Brodie had never been able to identify the kanji. He had consulted experts in the United States and Japan. He had searched dictionaries. He had gone through databases.

His only lead had come from an elderly Japanese man at a university in Kagoshima who said the same character had been found at two murder sites in Japan but had provided no further information.

As he renews his search into the character Brodie is surprised at his shop by the appearance of Japanese telecom billionaire, Katsuyuki Hara, who is a renegade in Japanese business for his individualistic style of business. He does not conform to the Japanese tradition of working together.

Hara has sought out Brodie to investigate the murder because it was Hara’s older daughter and her family who were slain. Brodie accepts the retainer for a private investigation but makes it clear to Hara he will continue to be a police consultant.

It is clear that the answers to the murder are in Japan. Unlike most thrillers Brodie must deal with leaving a young child to go to Tokyo. While able to convince Jenny it is one of his usual business trips Brodie is sad to part from her. The story touches upon the consequences of a family man undertaking a dangerous case. Should the father of a child take such risks?

As the investigation proceeds the level of action increases as it should in a thriller.

The story delves into Japanese history. Because I do not want to go too deep into the story my next post will explore, without spoilers but at more depth, an historical aspect of the story and my one regret with the book.

Earlier this year I found Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews very good. While the book did not become the blockbuster I expected it did very well. Japantown is better. Imagination and action are balanced. There is clear insight into Japan – culture, people and history. Brodie is a complex character giving Lancet much to build on in future books. (Dec. 9/13)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mordecai Richler’s 5,000 book library

Photo by Bonnie-Jean Campbell
What happens to the library of a book lover when they die? If you are famed Canadian author Mordecai Richler it is preserved within a university. His library is now the Mordecai Richler Reading Room at Concordia University in Montreal.

As set out in an article by his son, Jacob Richler, in Macleans magazine the library was in the family country home at Lake Memphremagog in Quebec’s Eastern Townships:

His top-floor office there was vast and airy, spread out behind an enormous picture window four frames wide that afforded a perfect vantage of the length of Sargent’s Bay. Had you seen it you would likely have assumed that the glorious view had much to do with the comfort and serenity he found working there. But really it was about the peace and quiet. The view was secondary. A closer look at the place revealed that his desk faced away from the window; when his gaze lifted from his typewriter he saw only a wall of books.

The desk, shown in the photo above, was not a beautiful piece of furniture. He had such a magnificent antique desk in Montreal. The desk at the lake, where he wrote his books, was made by the handyman for the cottage who built it from unfinished pine.

The library had been assembled from books Richler brought to Canada when he returned from England in 1972, books he purchased for research and personal reading, books that he received as gifts but the largest number of books in the collection were books he had been asked to review. He was a book reviewer for GQ magazine and a judge of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

His son sets out how the library came to dominate their country home:

New shelves filled out the basement. They wound their way through my mother’s new study and through her kitchen. They spread through the living room, framing the fireplace and staircase. They came to cover at least one wall in each of our bedrooms. They were installed to fill three massive walls of my father’s office—with a few stand-alone units in between. And as the coup de grâce, one summer when my brother Noah went away on an ill-timed trip, my father annexed his bedroom, had the wall that separated it from the neighbouring study removed, lined both rooms with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and created a library in their place.

His widow wanted the library preserved and Concordia, which he had attended when it was Sir George Williams University, agreed to take the collection.

The library was packed in boxes at the lake. An example of the eclectic nature of the library is in Jacob’s list of the contents of one random box:

Book: The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh

Pamphlet: “Footloose in Yellowknife”

Magazines: Saturday Night, Maclean’s, Signature, The New Yorker, The Oldie, Cité Libre, Snooker Scene, Equinox, The Paris Review and Climax: The Journal of Sexual Perfection

Giller prize sculpture

Periodicals: The New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, Out in the Mountains, Vermont’s newspaper for lesbians, gay men and bisexuals.

Paper flyer: “Gathering Jewish Lesbian Daughters of Holocaust Survivors”

Baltic Shipping Company menu for Aleksandr Pushkin, notes by MR on the back

The approximately 5,000 items will take up two rooms at Concordia.

In reading the story of the new reading room I was reminded of the Arthur Conan Doyle Room at the Toronto Central Reference Library which I described in my post on Canadian Sherlockian, Hartley R. Nathan.

Each room looks to be an inviting place for readers of Richler and Doyle to visit and learn of the authors.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alan Furst’s Quiet Heroes

Photo by Shonna Valeska for NPR
Alan Furst is a master of quiet tension. Not for him the rushing climax bound to end in a blaze of guns. His books set before and during World War II have the feel of reality. Few people are Hollywood heroes.

Kingdom of Shadows has Nicholas Morath, an upper class Hungarian living and working as a businessman in Paris, undertaking missions in 1938 and 1939 to try to avert the looming war.

Constantine “Costa” Zannis, a Greek police officer in Spies in the Balkans, helps Jews escape from Germany. I said in review:

He is simply a good man doing his best to help the persecuted in a cruel world ….. At the same time he is a brave man willing to take real risks. As a Greek whose family and friends fought for independence from Turkey but a generation earlier I believe he identifies with the plight of the Jews.

Dark Voyage involves a tramp steamer on missions for British intelligence. In my review I concluded:

[Dutch Captain Eric] DeHaan and the crew are the ordinary people of war. Once again I felt as if I was reading one of John Le Carre’s spy novels. There is no glitz or glamour.

In The Polish Officer Captain Alexander de Milja, a Polish army cartographer, takes Polish government gold out of Warsaw as Poland is conquered. He subsequently spends time in Paris and London. He sums up why France did not have resistance movements to equal Eastern Europe:

Because he’d learned a terrible truth about the Germans: unless you were a Jew they wouldn’t bother you if you didn’t bother them.

Last year I read and reviewed Hitler’s Empire – How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower in which the author set out how there was limited resistance in Western Europe. In my review I said:

Opposition to the Germans was muted except in the East where Nazi oppression left the Poles and Russians with little to lose by armed resistance. In Western Europe it took the brutal drives for workers being sent to the Reich to provoke real resistance. Even then attacks were limited.

My last post was a review of Red Gold in which former film producer Jean Casson gradually becomes part of the French Resistance as he acts as a liaison between French Intelligence officials and the French Communist Party.

Furst is a master at creating such men as Morath, Zannis, deHaan, Milja and Casson. They will never lead their nation in politics or war or business. They will do their best for their country despite the danger. They know neither fame nor reward await them. They do not seek glory.
I have met men and women who resisted tyranny. I wrote a post about real life families in the Netherlands and Denmark who acted against the Nazis occupying their nations. A Dutch teenage girl altered identity cards to change the age of young men to prevent deportation. A Danish family hid a Jewish girl from Germany. None set out to be resisters. Yet when they were called upon they took up the challenge.

Those Danish and Dutch people are heroes like Furst’s heroes. Morath, Zannis, deHaan, Milja and Casson could be us. We can identify with them hoping we would have had the courage to resist. Furst convinces us not all ordinary people were part of the silent majority described by Mazower.

Furst’s characters, as with my real life examples, do not always resist by wielding weapons. A frequent theme sees them helping other people, especially Jews, facing Nazi persecution.

I find Furst’s characters intriguing and inspiring for, despite facing daunting odds, they have not drifted into apathy.

While I admire John Le Carre’s books his bleak endings are hard to read. I appreciate that Furst, while not predictable, does not always write a dark finish to his books.

Furst’s books encourage us not to give up hope in our fellow men and women.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Red Gold by Alan Furst (1999)

Red Gold by Alan Furst (1999) – By the fall of 1941 the Nazi occupation of France is well established. French citizens are adjusting to life as a conquered people. Most try to live quietly, some have become collaborators, a few have begun the Resistance.

Jean Casson is a former film producer from an upper class family without money. He had a chance to escape to England but, as the ship was leaving France, he returned to look for a young actress with whom he was in love. He could not find her and returned to Paris where he lives under an assumed name, Jean Marin, and has drifted down into desperate poverty where he has barely enough money to survive a few days and must sell his overcoat for a few more francs.

At the same time the Soviet Union has sent agents into Paris. Prior to the war they had supported the French Communist Party as it sought to gain power. Now, with Russia reeling from the German attack, they have been instructed to become partisans fighting Germans a continent away from Moscow.

A nondescript middle aged man, Weiss, is the local Soviet representative. While they have little with which to resist the Germans they undertake operations. The reprisals the Nazis exact upon the French population are of no concern to the committed Communists. The fate of the U.S.S.R. is in the balance and they will take action against the enemy.

Casson, who is on the run for having escaped from the Gestapo, is arrested by the French police. He gives up the pretence of his fake identity. The end has come for him. To his surprise he has been arrested so a member of the French intelligence services, Captain Degrave, from Vichy can speak with him. Casson had served under Degrave during the 1940 invasion in a film unit.

Degrave wants Casson to act as a liaison in contacting the French Communists about working together to resist the Nazis. Casson has been chosen because:

“It must be somebody neutral, apolitical, not a socialist, not a conservative. Somebody who has not fought in the political wars. You have certainly had contact with party members in the film industry – incidental, without problems. They will know who you are, they will know you haven’t worked against them.”

Thus a fragile alliance is launched that is equally being formed on an international scale. England has been the enemy of the U.S.S.R. since its creation but they have become allies to fight Nazi Germany.

Can Casson, a decent man, but far from a wily diplomat be the man to be the intermediary in this coalition of enemies?

The Communists are wary. The intelligence officers represented by Degrave have not only been their enemy in peacetime France they are openly working for the collaborators of the Vichy regime.

Casson is not of heroic demeanour, stature, background or eloquence but he is committed to France. He has been in her Army during two wars against Germany.

Casson, through Degrave, meets Helene another lonely soul trying to survive in France with the additional burden of being Jewish. They each long for a relationship.

Furst does not write highly paced thrill a page books. There is a gradual building of suspense that will have you wanting to know what happens to Casson. In my next post I will discuss the quintet of Furst books I have read. (Dec. 1/13)
My previous reads of Furst are (2002) - Kingdom of Shadows; (2004) - The Polish Officer; (2010) - Spies in the Balkans; (2012) - Dark Voyage. I have only reviewed the last two books.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Gender Reading Analysis

In my reading of mysteries I do not look to the gender of the author to guide my book selection. I read what I think will be interesting. If I am reading for the annual Canadian Book Challenge or the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme I will be influenced by the origin of the author and the letter of the alphabet respectively.

On this quiet winter evening I did decide to check on my reading by gender for the past 12 months. I dislike yearly polls or lists that are for 11 months usually excluding December. For this post I went through the mysteries I have read and reviewed through the past year including December of 2012.

Overall I read 47 mysteries and thrillers. Of that total 13 were by woman authors or 25% of my mystery reading.

I did a breakdown between Canadian books and the Rest of the World.

For Canada 5 of the 13 mysteries or 38% were by female writers.

The Rest of the World had 8 of 34 books or 23%.

The numbers and percentages were lower than I expected. I had thought I was reading more women authors.

I realize my numbers, as a reflection of my reading, can certainly be skewed by the small sample size. Another evening I may go through 5 years of reading to come up with a more representative sample size.

While there is abundant information that a significant majority of the readers of mysteries are women I did not find reliable online information on the percentage of published mysteries being written by women. In Barbara Fister’s 2011 paper, Sisters in Crime atthe Quarter Century: Advocacy, Community, and Change she refers to an analysis of the books submitted for the Edgar Awards being about 50% written by women.
In The New Republic in February of 2011 there was an article, A Literary Glass Ceiling, by Ruth Franklin which, after showing the disproportionate number of male professional book reviewers, stated with regard to publishing:

But let’s slow down for a moment. There’s some essential data missing from these moan-inducing statistics. What’s the gender breakdown in books published last year? It’s crucial to both of the categories VIDA explores, because freelance book reviewers, who make up the majority of the reviewing population, tend to be authors themselves. If more men than women are publishing books, then it stands to reason that more books by men are getting reviewed and more men are reviewing books. So TNR’s Eliza Gray, Laura Stampler, and I crunched some numbers. Our sample was small and did not pretend to be comprehensive, and it may not represent a cross-section of the industry, because we did not include genre books and others with primarily commercial appeal. But it gave us a snapshot. And what we found helps explain VIDA’s mystery.

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

Franklin concluded by saying 33% of the book reviews she had written in 2010 were of books by women.