Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Finished: "Recipes for Love and Murder" by Sally Andrew

Finished: Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew, 2015, 9780062397669.

Crimespree Magazine wrote about Andrews's most recent novel and since that sounded interesting I reserved this one. I keep on eye out for South African books after enjoying novels by Deon Meyer and Roger Smith.

My cousin and brother visited Lake Mills over Memorial Day weekend. My cousin has worked in several states, traveled overseas for work, and even had a two year term in Australia. His oil company has locations spreading from Texas, north into Alberta, and to Alaska's North Slope.  Most recently my brother has vacationed in Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, and Svalbard Island way off the coast of Norway.

At one point the discussion turned to skiing. My brother did a high altitude ski trip in Switzlerland. My cousin goes on ski trips to Colorado. The one time I went downhill skiing was in Iowa. Yeah, Iowa for downhill skiing. The location was near Dubuque and used the hills by the Mississippi.  As we were talking I remembered that "Hell, I often never leave the city limits." When I do leave the city limits I oftentimes go no farther then a neighboring county. The last time I visited anywhere overseas was my college semester in Australia in 1992.

I mention this because I consider myself decently aware of other countries, cultures, and international news. I pay attention and read different news sources. I listen to overseas radio. I do this, I do that. Blah Blah Blah.

But, one thing I really rely on for learning about other people and places is novels. I cannot travel much so I rely on books. A good mystery novel can be as didactic as any nonfic tome from an academic publisher. Deon Meyer and Roger Smith are good examples of that and so is Andrew's novel set in the semi-desert Karoo region of Southwest South Africa. Andrew adds a lot of detail about the region. Some of those details are minor but others color and fill-in so much of life for a lot of people there. The different languages, Afrikaans families and loyalties, weather, cars, food, social manners, etc.


Tannie Maria (Tannie means Auntie and is an honorific for any woman older than the speaker) is a widowed women in her 40s who lives in a remote house and writes a food column for her regional newspaper. Maria stayed at home most of her life and only married because after her ill mother died she needed to go somewhere. That somewhere was a physically abusive husband. Now that the husband is dead she focuses on food. Maria's daily life revolves around food and her recipe column is popular. When the newspaper's owners demand more readership the local editor gives Maria an advice column to write.

Maria knows little about love and relationships but since she knows a lot about food she prescribes food for the lovelorn. One letter writer is a woman in a bad marriage. Maria gives advice. The woman is murdered. Maria and the other two women for the newspaper get involved in investigating.

Things happen. There is violence. Weird religious people. Mourners for the dead women. A silly shootout. Maria seeing most everything from a food focused point of view. Bad driving. Love affairs. Etc.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. Which is good because this was 378 pages long. This is the first cozy mystery I have read. Recipes in the back.

1. My cousin's oil firm lost a lot of money last year because of economic issues. I was very impressed when he said that they kept on all the employees. Some of the staff spent some days standing around looking at each other but they had jobs. Plus, the people are there, trained, and ready to work when work picks up again - which it did.
2. EDIT: France. I was going through old emails and saw my brother was skiing in France for two weeks. I knew I forgot a country.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Heard: "Doc" by Mary Doria Russell

Heard: Doc by Mary Doria Russell, 2011, downloaded from overdrive.com.

Russell is an author with some real talent. She has a strong perception of people's thoughts and experiences and writes about them very well. I presume she has a lot of brain power because some parts of the book really impressed me, and the writing sucked me in as she dug into the characters. She did an excellent job presenting the characters from the perspectives of others and then revealing the individual character's personal history and motivations that drove their actions. Russell character's are convincing and fully believable. But, I prefer more action.

Russell's forward - or was it the afterword - addresses the issues of accuracy in historical fiction and how sometimes fiction is more truthful and accurate. Russell was able to rely on several historical sources include a recent book written by a Holliday relative who had access to a number of family docs.

Short: John Henry "Doc" Holliday ends in Dodge City in 1878 to grab some of the cattle money flowing through town. He makes friends with a couple Earp brothers, fights with his girlfriend, and coughs up blood.

Long: Holliday loved his family in Georgia. He was very attached to his caring mother who died of tuberculosis and, after his grouchy father remarried, Holliday went to live with extended family. He later attended dental school in Philadelphia and opened a practice in Georgia under the eye of a dentist relative. Then Holliday himself caught TB, headed to Dallas, Texas for the dry-ish air, and joined a dental practice in Dallas.

Holliday's cousins used to play cards all the time as children and Holliday became a skilled dealer so he starts gambling in Dallas after the dental work does not pan out. Holliday's gambling gets him in trouble. Holliday hooks up with Big Nose Kate. Kate and Holliday drift a bit and end up in western Kansas for cattle trail money.

Things happen. We follow Wyatt Earp, Kate, Holliday, Morgan Earp and many other characters in Dodge as they live their lives in 1878. Dodge City is a small community that exists solely for the cattle yards and railroad. There are bars, restaurants, and hotels. No school because there are few kids. Most people are under thirty years of age and most women are prostitutes. The few families are mostly Germans farming outside of town.

The city is dangerous and when Wyatt comes back into town he is hired as undersheriff. Wyatt conks some people on the head. Doc starts up his dental practice and loves the work. Doc has an important skill and education that helps people. But, his disease and coughing make the work difficult, and then impossible. Never mind that dental work can be expensive for the customer.

More things happen and several characters leave Dodge for greener grass and cash.

1. Everyone is young. This is something that gets missed by movies and TV. Doc is 27-years-old in 1878. Wyatt is 30. Bat Masterson is 25-years-old. Ed Masterson was 26 when killed in Dodge.
2. I did not know Holliday practiced in Texas and Kansas.
3. Your better as surviving if you are white and protestant.
4. My only time in Dodge has been driving through. The first time was driving a Ryder truck. I had a full load of stuff as we were moving from Kansas to Arizona - not unlike the Earps I suppose. I was coming up to an intersection when the light turned yellow. I was afraid to brake too hard and end up halfway in the intersection and with the load shifting all over the truck.  A local officer pulled me over and gave me a warning. He did not 'buffalo' me with a pistol whip to the head. I told the guy I'd be more careful and, by God, I was more careful.
EDIT, May 26: Man oh man. I reread this post and it was full of typos and half-assed sentences. Heck, it probably still is full of typoss and half-assed sentences don't awful.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Maybe Re-Read: "Blood of Victory" by Alan Furst

Maybe Re-Read: The Blood of Victory by Alan Furst, 2002, 9780375505744.

I have been focused on reading some of the many books I own and never got around to cracking open. I'm no Bill Crider but I have a few boxes worth of fiction and nonfiction I've picked up at used book sales. I had not read a Furst novel in quite a while and grabbed this one that was discarded by Maricopa County Library System when we lived in Phoenix.

I might have read this before. I'm not sure. Since I have read or listened to several Furst novels I may be confusing his style and fondness for Eastern European spies and refugees.

IA Serebin is a poet and journalist whose wartime photo during the Russian Revolution made him slightly famous. Serebin's slight celebrity even garnered an invite to dinner with Stalin and the fish eye by a Army general. Serebin skipped out to Paris before any Stalin purges hit him and has been working with a org that assists and socializes Russian exiles.

Serebin is riding as a passenger on a Black Sea cargo ship bound for Turkey and starts shtupping a fellow passenger, the wife of a Count. The Count doesn't care. Serebin hits Constantinople, decides to call it Istanbul, and goes to visit his tubercular ex-girlfriend in the country house he bought her. They are old friends from their Odessa youth and her helped her get away from the commies.

While staying in Istanbul Serebin is helping out with the local Russian ex-pats. During an ex-pat party Serebin is called away and misses the bombing that kills most everyone else. He is later contacted by Count's Wife and is slowly and slyly recruited into a British spy operation.

Things happen.

This is before Operation Barbarossa and Russians are okay living in occupied Paris. Serebin works there a while and then heads into Hungary, Bulgarian, and Romania to try and rebuild an information network developed by an industrialist over the past couple decades. Serebin and Count's Wife get emotionally close. Serebin survives the Nazi takeover of Romania.

The meat of story comes as Serebin and Co. try to figure out how to stop or impede the flow of oil from Ploesti, Romania to Germany. The oil fields are heavily guarded and too massive an area for sabotage. Serebin and Co. focus on trying to somehow block the Danube.

Sneakiness and subterfuge ensue. Serebin wonders who people really are. Serebin wonders how he will survive. Serebin writes a little poetry. Furst supplies another happy-ish ending with Serebin and Count's Wife escaping to Turkey.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Heard: "Agent 6" by Tom Rob Smith

Heard: Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, 2013, overdrive.com download.

Another Cold War tale with former KGB dude Leo Demidov. Third in the series and initially set in 1965 and nine years after the second novel. Promo "stuff and blurbs" calls this series a trilogy.

Leo's wife Raisa and two daughters are traveling to NYC as part of a choir. They will perform at the United Nations and D.C. Leo is staying in Moscow and working at the warehouse-factory-whatever.

Daughter #2 has been seduced by a undercover Russian spy and is tasked by the spy to encourage a Paul Robeson character-whos-name-I-forgot to appear at the NYC performance. Robeson has been isolated and marginalized by the FBI and can no longer sing professionally. When Robeson does show outside the event and gives a sidewalk speech he is shot dead.

In the aftermath of the shooting the murder weapon is slipped on Raisa, Raisa is arrested, and Raisa is shot dead when Robeson's wife shoots up the police station in a mournful rage. Raisa's violent death strikes Leo hard: his new life goal is to travel to NYC to investigate the murder, find the people responsible and vengefully deal justice.

But, Leo is an outcast of the KGB and cannot leave the USSR. A few years later he tries a winter crossing into Finland but is caught. Leo's Politburo patron spares his life but Leo is sent to Afghanistan.

Fast forward to 1980 and Leo has been in Afghanistan for seven years. If he leaves the country Leo's adult daughters and their families will be killed or sent to a gulag. Leo has been working as a advisor for years and, now that the Soviets finally invaded, has been teaching recruits for the Afghan spy service.

When his single female student is the only survivor of coordinated insurgent attacks on all the students the two of them end up on the run, bring along an orphan girl, and escape to Pakistan and strike a deal with the CIA. Leo and Co. end up in NYC. Leo continues the hunt.

Anyhoo. The book has three sections: NYC in '65, Afghanistan in 1980, and NYC in 1981.

1. Smith tells a good story and the Afghan stories are interesting in drawing parallels between 1980 Russians and 2003-present Americans.

2. Paul Robeson character is very interesting. A black guy fighting for equal rights joins the only people who give - or at least say they care - a shit about equal rights: the commies. Robeson makes huge bucks on his singing tours but the FBI's Cointelpro gradually shuts him down. They smear his name with accusation of sexual shenanigans and claim that Robeson hates the country. His career ends when any place that hosts a concert is hit with IRS investigations, health code violations, etc.

3. The Leo character led a very tough life starting with starvation as a child in 1930s Russia. He is taken by adoptive parents but then sent to war, recruited into the NKVD and KGB, exiled to Siberia, etc. After Raisa dies he has no happiness. His life was built upon her presence and he does not allow himself to recover.

Older: "The Mercy Seat" by Martyn Waites.

Older: The Mercy Seat by Martyn Waites, 2006, 9781933648002.

I'm two weeks behind in typing up my book notes. Maybe that is for the best. I will only remember the things that struck me while reading. Or not.

Short: Investigative journalist in self-imposed exile is asked to help his old newspaper with a story involving politics.

Longer: Joe Donovan's six-year-old (or so) son went missing and Joe abandoned his career, family, and some sanity during his constant and guilty search for the boy. He's been living a self-imposed and mostly incommunicado exile in a run down house in the North.

A 14-year-old rent boy in London steals an audio disc detailing a confession about murder and industrial espionage and some other stuff. The boy listens to the disc and realizes he can sell the information. He remembers Donovan's name and calls Donovan's old newspaper offering to sell the disc. Donovan is recruited back into the fold with assurances of both payment for the job and access to any resources assisting in the search for Donovan's son.

Things happen. Beware the spoilers. Donovan and the newspaper editor shag. The boy is being pursued by a murderous and 'roided up skinhead. Donovan is a self-hating boozer. The boy has never had a stable home and can only think of getting enough cash so he won't have to sleep in abandoned cars or sell sex to middle-aged men.

The bad guy is a cop from the North who is a weasel. He is violent. He uses and abuses women. He wants money and status. There is a missing scientist involved and his absence is a huge news story.

Blah, blah, blah. As usual everything boils down to the characters, how they are developed and how they interact. There are some holes in the plot: how would a mostly illiterate 14-year-old street kid remember or know anything about an investigative reporter who went off the grid 1-2 years ago? Donovan can be frustrating and there are a couple private investigators that don't seem to fit the story.

The teen boy is the best character. He's trying his best to be brave and tough but he is just an abused kid who has been surviving day to day. Teen Boy is used by everyone and when some decent people come along - Donovan and the paper's editor - he has not reason to trust or believe in them. He goes North and is lost and a little bewildered outside of his London neighborhood.