Saturday 22 February 2014

Sundry quick book reviews

It been a busy week - half-term school holidays with my lovely grandchildren featuring quite heavily - so not much reading has been done. What I have managed to do is finish several books that I've been reading for a while, so I thought I'd do quick reviews of those to bring myself up to date.

First up, The Mad Hatter Mystery by American author, John Dickson Carr. This qualifies for 'A Book by an Author You've Never Read' in the Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge which is being hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.

It seems a madman is loose in 1930s London, stealing hats and leaving them in odd places. Sir William Bitton has just had a second hat pinched but more seriously he's also had a manuscript stolen. It's purported to be the first written story by Edgar Allan Poe, and the way that Bitton came by it was borderline legal. He goes to the police and they call in an amateur detective Dr. Gideon Fell. He hasn't even had time to study the facts properly before a murder occurs. The dead man is Bitton's nephew, a free-lance reporter, and he's been killed with a cross-bow bolt - used as a knife not fired - in The Tower of London. There are many suspects, the dead man had his finger in many pies and was also having an adulterous affair. But is there a connection with Bitton's lost manuscript and the hat thief? It's very confusing and timing and tracing people's movements is crucial. Dr. Fell and his associates have their work cut out.

This is the second book in John Dickson Carr's 'Dr. Gideon Fell' series, written from the early 1930s to the late 1960s. I may have benefitted by reading the first book, The Hag's Nook, first, to be honest, as then I might have known a little more about Fell and his American associate, Rampole (I kept wanting to call him 'Rumpole')... how they met and so on. Possibly I may have felt a bit more of a connection to Fell if I had. As it was I enjoyed the mystery element quite a bit, there were lots of twists and turns and discoveries of the secrets people were keeping. The details of the Tower of London were interesting, nice to be reminded of my one and only visit there about 15 years ago. Really this was, to me, a servicable mystery story, fun, of its time, but I wasn't crazy about the amateur detective in it, Gideon Fell. I now own The Hag's Nook now so will read that in due course, probably for R.I.P. later in the year as it's a bit spooky by the look of it. Hopefully I might like that a bit more. I didn't 'dislike' this book at all, I just didn't love it in the way I'm loving Dorothy L. Sayers for instance.

Next, Sundiver by David Brin.

This book is set in a future where man has reached the stars 'but' he's an oddity amongst other alien races. It seems other sentient, intelligent races have all been 'uplifted' or mentored by more advanced races. Humans have reached sentience under their own steam and are thus looked upon with a great deal of suspicion. Now though, a race of beings has been discovered living within the depths of our sun. Jacob Demwa, a scientist who works with Dolphins, teaching them to speak, is asked by an alien friend to go to Mercury and do a dive into the sun with a group of sundry scientists and aliens. The suggestion is that the aliens in the sun may have been the race who uplifted humans millenia ago, but for some reason abandoned us. Jacob expects the mission to be amazing and dangerous but he doesn't expect murder and intrigue to take over the entire project.

I gave this book a three star rating on GoodReads which is possibly a bit mean, really it was another three and a half. There were elements of it that I really liked. The concept of 'uplifting' by mentors I found interesting and the aliens introduced were intriguing and very well described. I liked the idea that humans themselves were uplifting dolphins and chimpanzees and that this gained them some acceptance in the eyes of the powers that be in the galaxy. The mystery element was quite strong - this is in effect a science fiction crime story - and that side of it held up quite well. Where it fell down for me was in the human characters. I felt very little empathy for Jacob, didn't care for him much at all. Another scientist who supposedly led the project felt really badly written to me when he should have been a strong, able character. All this detracted from what should have been a stonking good read and it's a shame. I will however continue with the series, partly because I went to the trouble of bringing several of them back from the US last time we were there, but also I do like the universe the author has created and would like to read more.

Lastly a book that I've been reading almost since Christmas, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was a British journalist who wrote primarily for The New Yorker magazine from the 1930s right through to the 1960s. She's best known for two volumes of short stories published by Persephone, this and Minnie's Room, both dealing with World War 2. Minnie's Room dealt with events just before the war, whereas Good Evening, Mrs. Craven deals with events on the home front in Britain 'during' the war. The stories deal with just about everything to do with how the middle-classes coped with things such as evacuation, loss of servants, husbands being sent off to war, women who had affairs, groups knitting comforts for the troops, friends landing on people to stay indefinitely. Each little story, and none are very long, is just perfect in what it says about its given situation. Mollie Panter-Downes was an absolutely brilliant observer of people. She clearly understood the dilemmas real people experienced because of a war no one wanted but had foisted upon them anyway. She understood that people who behaved shabbily weren't necessarily bad people, just ordinary folk trying their best in difficult circumstances. 'Poignant' is a good description for the stories in this book, I felt so sad for just about everyone, though there was some humour to be gleaned from the several stories about the vagaries of the knitting group. I honestly think these two anthologies are some of the best short stories I've read and would recommend them both to anyone interested in the home-front in World War 2.

Sundiver and Good Evening, Mrs. Craven are both reads for the Mount TBR challenge which is being hosted by Bev at My Reader's Block.



Nan said...

Why did I think these were essays, not fictional pieces?? Did she also write nonfiction? I could look it up but it's more fun if you tell me. :<)

Cath said...

Nan: Apparently a lot of people thought they were essays because they do kind of read that way. But in fact they are fictional short stories. Yes, she did write nonfiction, in fact she wrote all kinds of articles for The New Yorker, including poetry. She also wrote several novels including one quite well known one, One Fine Day. She was a truly eclectic and talented writer. And by the way many people also thought she was American, not British.

Kailana said...

I take forever to get through short story collections so I rarely read them... It does sound up my alley, though! hm...

Cath said...

Kelly: I take forever too. LOL And now I've started another one, but have come to realise that it doesn't matter how long it takes and that I actually prefer to take it slowly with these anthologies.

DesLily said...

holy cow Cath! Sheesh! If I had a speed boat I couldn't keep up with you lol!... oh sure rub it in my face all these things with WWII and London and you know I love them lol...I am glad you've enjoyed everything.. I REFUSE to get anything new that hasn't been on my wish list for Eons for now at least.. and doing good at not buying! just reading rather slow unfortunately.. am finally reading the Charlton Heston book.. fairly long but I am enjoying it.

BooksPlease said...

I haven't read anything by your first two authors - both sound interesting, especially The Mad Hatter Mystery.

I tried to read 'Good Evening, Mrs. Craven' slowly, but I couldn't - once I'd started I just had to keep on reading. And I loved One Fine Day - it's beautiful.

Cath said...

Pat: How I wish we were neighbours and I could just pass the two WW2 books over the fence!

I'm trying not to buy too much as well, with varying degrees of success. LOL

Look forward to your thoughts on the CH book, I *bet* it's interesting!

Margaret: The Gideon Fell books are of their time I think, but a quick fun read that supply a different author for the Vintage Crime challenge.

Oh gosh, I know what you mean about Mrs. Craven... I forced myself not to rush them as I did with Minnie's Room. They are just *so* good. I need to get hold of a copy of One Fine Day.

Peggy Ann said...

John Dickson Carr is a decent read and I always pick one up when I come across it but he's not one of my favorites either. Now you have me very curious about Mrs. Craven!

Cath said...

Peggy: I hadn't even heard of him till I started the Vintage Crime challenge, so it's quite nice to discover a new author.

Bev Hankins said...

Cath: I've read both the Carr and the Brin books....but it's been long enough ago that I don't remember a whole lot about them. I will say that there are much better Carr books out there--and Rampole isn't a recurring character to my knowledge (there aren't many in the Carr books).

Susan said...

I really want to read the Good evening, Mrs Craven short stories now. I've been eyeing them on the Persephone catalogue, I am interested in the Second World War through ordinary Britain's eyes after the Connie Willis books. And after living there and seeing how much of the landscape and people's memories are still bound up with what happened then. I also have Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson which I started but haven't finished yet. Really enjoyed this 'quick' review, Cath.

I am pretty sure I read the Brin book many years ago, but can't remember a thing about it! which is a shame, since I do remember liking it then. Interesting points you raise about the characters, which is a common failing in the criticism of science fiction that I grew up with. Not very good characters....thankfully it's not true for most science fiction.

Penny O'Neill said...

I enjoy short story collections, in part because I can put them down and pick them up again without worry about what I've missed. "Good Evening, Mrs. Craven..." is right up my reading alley, Cath. I appreciate you reviews of it, and the other two books, here. Another frosty morning with temps that have finally rise past 0 F. Brrr.

Cath said...

Bev: As far as I can see this Rampole was in books 1 and 2, but I have no idea about any after that. Yes, I'm sure there are better ones and I'll definitely try others.

Susan: The Mrs. Craven book would be a perfect read if you're interested in WW2 on the homefront. It was an eye-opener for me. And *such* beautiful writing.

Yes, I think sometimes characterisation suffers in favour of ideas or plot in science fiction. Depends a bit on the author and thankfully, as you say, it's not that often.

Penny: I like to have a book of short stories on the go all the time, for just the reason you state. I've now started a short story volume of vintage crime tales.

Heavens, is it still frigid over there? Over here spring seems to be in the air. We even have daffodils in bud in the garden.