Ringing out 2020 and ringing in 2021

My final tally for 2020 stands at 203 books and 63,225 pages. When I initially set my Goodreads reading challenge, I chose 150 books as the goal for the year. Since 2013, there has only been one year – 2018 – when I read fewer than 150 books. That year clocked in at 134. Because of the early spring lockdowns, I met that 150 book goal in August, and upped it to 200.

Aside from the overall challenge, I didn’t participate in any specific reading challenges except for a small genre challenge in one of my GR groups. I don’t do a lot of tracking of my reading – every year I see people make awesome graphics about their yearly reading by things like publication year, male versus female authors, genre, etc., and I am always jealous. But, by the end of the year, the prospect is really too daunting to accomplish.

One thing that I did do this year, that has been really interesting, is that I’ve kept track of how much money I’ve saved by checking out books instead of buying them. I acquired a library card when the pandemic started and have been extensively using the electronic hold system to request ebooks – to the point that I have saved $568.81 by not buying a number of the books I read this year. This doesn’t even begin to account for the number of books that I checked out, decided I actually wasn’t interested in reading right away and returned them unread to be re-requested later, if the mood strikes me.

I have added a couple of challenges to the wheelhouse for 2021, most particularly the Back to the Classics challenge. But, aside from that, I intend to continue essentially as I have been doing: reading a lot of vintage fiction, a lot of golden age mysteries, checking out books (especially more recently published books) from the library, and reading as my fancy takes me. Fingers crossed that 2021 is a better year altogether than 2020, even if it means that I read fewer books!

 

Return to Pym-land: Less Than Angels

Title: Less Than Angels
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1955

Plot summary from Goodreads: This classic novel holds the mirror up to human nature and the battle between the sexes as it explores the love lives of a group of anthropologists

Catherine Oliphant writes for women’s magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow—although she’s starting to wonder if they’ll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He’s leaving her for nineteen-year-old student Deirdre Swan. Though stunned by Tom’s betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options she gradually realizes who she is and what she really wants.

With its lively cast of characters, Less Than Angels is an incisive social satire that opens a window onto the insular world of academia. It’s also a poignant and playful riff on the messy mating habits of humans and the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears—far fewer than we may imagine.

It’s been a few months since I read this – I never got around to writing the post about it and now I’ve forgotten most of what I had to say! This is the third Pym that I’ve read – my first was Excellent Women, which I loved, and then second was A Quartet in Autumn, which was much darker in tone. I would put Less Than Angels in the middle, between them. I read it as a buddy read with some friends on Goodreads, and it generated some lively discussion.

The thing that I like about Pym, that this book does really well, is her somewhat rueful examination of a very specific type of British woman. Less Than Angels focuses on Catherine Oliphant, a young woman who is a writer, and who is in a relationship with an anthropologist named Tom, who has been away in the field. He is very scholarly and dismissive and of her accomplishments, and she accepts this attitude as well-warranted. She is waiting for him to propose. Instead of proposing, he takes up with a nineteen year old named Deirdre.

I’d like to say that Tom’s ridiculousness and Catherine’s acceptance of it are things of the past, but I was young in the 1980’s and many of these same attitudes of male entitlement prevailed at that time, as well. I can’t speak to what’s happening today, because I’ve been married to a wonderfully supportive man for two and a half decades, and I’ve raised a son who I believe I have imbued with a sense that his maleness doesn’t entitle him to anything. But, I digress a bit.

Pym’s books are wonderfully character driven, and she holds a microscope up to their behaviors.

It is surely appropriate that anthropologists, who spend their time studying life and behavior in various societies, should be studied in their turn,” says Barbara Pym.

There is a gentle sort of mockery in Pym’s attitudes towards her characters. I get the sense that she both likes them, but also that she sees their foibles and occasionally inexplicable behaviors. It reminds me of the attitude that many families have towards their own parents/siblings – proprietary, but still clear-eyed about their failings.

I have a few more Pyms in my possession – Jane and Prudence and Some Tame Gazelle, that I plan to read next year.

There Came Both Mist And Snow by Michael Innes

Title: There Came Both Mist And Snow
Author: Michael Innes
Published in 1940

Goodreads Summary: It’s coming on Christmas, and Arthur Ferryman is headed to his ancestral home, Belrive Priory. Looking forward to a peaceful holiday, Arthur’s serenity is quickly interrupted by a horde of his cousins brandishing revolvers. Shooting, it seems, is their hobby du jour.

This ancient estate has remained unchanged for centuries. As the area is invaded by neon signs, textile factories, and smells from the brewery, Belrive Priory has timelessly stood its ground. But when the family learns that their cousin Basil intends to sell the estate, fault lines begin to appear.

Furtive glances, cryptic rumours, and clandestine meetings abound. A secret family quarrel and anticipation of the mysterious Mr X’s arrival keep everyone on their toes, and it seems none of the trigger-happy relations can be trusted when one of the party is found shot.

With Arthur harbouring secrets and a few grudges of his own, will Inspector Appleby be able to crack this case before any further ‘accidents’ transpire or will the shooter finally hit his mark?

Every year after Thanksgiving, I engage in a little festive cheer by reading a golden age Christmas mystery or two. Sometimes they are rereads – for example, I nearly always reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and I often reread Envious Casca (republished as A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer. Both of them will be getting rereads this year.

However, in this glorious time of ebooks, when small publishers everywhere deliver previously out-of-print mysteries to readers, I can always find a few that are new to me. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a few years now – it’s technically book 6 in the Sir John Appleby series. I feel no need to read golden age mystery series in order, however, so this was the first that I have read.

And, hoooboy, was this one a disappointment. To start with, there is precious little Christmas happening here. Yes, the book ostensibly takes place in the context of a Christmas house party, but it could honestly have been set any time. It just wasn’t Christmassy.

Then we move onto the characters, who were pretty universally unlikeable, the narrator most of all. A major mystery – to me at least – was why hadn’t anyone murdered him?

And then, the solution. It felt like the author painted himself into a corner, had to get himself out of it, so he came up with the most cockamamie, silly, and frankly incredible explanation he could come up with to explain what happened. Erm. Nope.

So, bottom line, this one was a total bust for me. Not sure if I will give Innes another chance to impress, or just cut my losses and move on to – hopefully – better books.

Back to the Classics: 2021

I participated in the Back to the Classics challenge for several years, until I lost my challenge mojo. Karen, who blogs at Books and Chocolate recently announced that she is hosting it again, for the 8th year. This aligns beautifully with my plans for next year, which I will be discussing in a different post altogether.

My initial plans for the challenge, although, as always, they are subject to change:

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899: I will either be reading Elizabeth Gaskell or Anthony Trollope for this category. I haven’t settled on a book yet, though.

2. A 20th century classic: This will be something by author Stella Gibbons.

3. A classic by a woman author: I have many choices for this one, but I think I will hold on to one of my two final Willa Cather novels to fill it. Probably Shadows on the Rock.

4. A classic in translation: The Wreath, by Sigrid Undset, which is the first in her Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, and was originally published in Norwegian in 1920.

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author: If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

6. A classic by a new-to-you author: I’ve been meaning to read something by Margery Sharp for years.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author. Something by John Steinbeck for this one.

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

9. A children’s classic: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin.

10. A humorous or satirical classic: Something by P.G. Wodehouse.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction): A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor.

12. A classic play: The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

Title: Crossed Skis
Author: Carol Carnac
Published in 1952

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Crossed skis means danger ahead


In London’s Bloomsbury, Inspector Julian Rivers of Scotland Yard looks down at a dismal scene. Here is the victim, burnt to a crisp. Here are the clues – clues which point to a good climber and expert skier, and which lead Rivers to the piercing sunshine and sparkling snow of the Austrian Alps.

This was a recent purchase for me – I have been collecting mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics as they capture my fancy. Because I am shallow, a not-inconsequential element of their appeal is the beautiful covers and this was no exception. Both the title and the cover really appealed to me.

I grew up skiing during my childhood and youth, so a mystery with a winter sports element, especially one set in the Alps, really captured my interest. I was obsessed with the Alps and the alpine countries as a young woman – if I had been able to choose anywhere in the world to live, Switzerland and Austria definitely would have been at the top of my list.

So, I was primed to enjoy this book. And I really did enjoy it.

Martin Edwards provided the introduction to my edition. Carol Carnac is another pen name of ECR Lorac, whose Fire in the Thatch I read a few years ago. That was a three star read for me – I liked Crossed Skis quite a bit better, landing on four stars as my rating. I liked it enough that I will be buying the other Lorac reissues.

Crossed Skis takes place in two different locales – a ski village in Austria and London. The premise revolves around a party of 16 young Londoners who have all arranged to go on skiing holiday together – 8 men and 8 women. They are all connected to one another in various ways – friends of friends, etc – but they don’t all know each other. Simultaneously with the sixteen of them boarding the train and leaving London, a fire at a boarding house occurs and the body of a man is found inside. Leading up to the front door of the boarding house, Inspector Rivers notices an impression of a ski pole basket (or ski stick, as they apparently call them in England) in the mud. From that tiny clue, the investigation springs.

The two primary investigators, Chief Inspector Rivers and his subordinate Lancing are well drawn and engaging. As described within the pages of the book:

I asked Hammond what those two officers were like, the ones who went to the club. She said they were both ‘perfect gentlemen’ – she would. One was a big fair fellow with a quiet voice, and the other was much younger, a dark boy with lively eyes, very coming on.

I liked the descriptions of the holiday party as well. According to the introduction, the author was a huge fan of skiing and that came through in her descriptions of the wintry fun. When the Londoners arrive on the station platform, after making their by now bedraggled way across Europe, she describes it thus:

It was lovely: even on the railway track and on the long low platform they were conscious of the snow peaks rising gloriously into the soft blue of the afternoon sky, of the crisp powdery dryness of snow which had a totally different quality from the squalid soiled snow of London streets. In the intense light, reflected back from white ground and roofs and slopes, everybody look different: dark was darker, fair was fairer, colour was brighter. Clearly defined, sharp cut, brilliantly lit, everything had a quality of vividness and vitality which was exciting, so that fatigue was forgotten and laughter bubbled up in a world that was as lovely as a fairytale.

A few pictures of the setting:

And at night!

As the mystery unfolds, we get to know several of the holiday makers, although some of them remain inscrutable. Among the girls, the organizer Bridget and the sensible Kate are highlights, and the medical man, Frank Harris, are highlights. There are shenanigans around the theft of some money within the party, so some of the members of the London party begin engaging in some amateur investigation of one another. There is dancing and a bit of flirtation and lots of ski-related fun.

The two mysteries, of course, converge and then culminate in a hair-raising mountain run

Lancing knew that he would never forget that ski-run. The conditions were as foul as they could be so far as the atmosphere was concerned: snow and wind together were like raging furies”

after a murderer.

During the Christmas season, I enjoy reading golden age Christmas mysteries. This one isn’t really a Christmas themed mystery, but it is definitely Christmas-adjacent with its focus on winter sports. It was a perfect mystery to start off the holiday reading season for me!

Reading plans for 2021

It’s that time of year again – I start thinking ahead to next year’s reading plans and goals. I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I had hoped in this year of reading, although I read a lot. I started with a goal of 150 books, and have increased it to 200 books. I am sitting at 187 right now, having just finished rereading Gaudy Night.

I’m really excited about my plans for 2021. My favorite Goodreads Group is trying something new with some selected quarterly “authors-in-residence.” The schedule is:

First Quarter: Alexandre Dumas & Stella Gibbons
Second Quarter: John Steinbeck & Ursula LeGuin
Third Quarter: Virginia Woolf & Philip Roth
Fourth Quarter: Mrs. Oliphant & Isaac Asimov

In addition to the authors-in-residence, I will be reading a number of books by John Steinbeck, since I have adopted him as my next author study. I am still not quite finished with Willa Cather, but I’m so close that it’s time to pick a new one. Fortunately, he managed to make it into the second quarter author-in-residence slot, so I can do double duty.

I will also be continuing with my Agatha Christie monthly reads:

January: 1924 The Man in the Brown Suit
February: 1925 The Secret of Chimneys
March: 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
April: 1927 The Big Four
May: 1928 The Mystery of the Blue Train
June: 1929 The Seven Dials Mystery
July: 1930 The Murder at the Vicarage
August: 1931 The Sittaford Mystery
September: 1932 Peril at End House
October: 1933 Lord Edgware Dies
November: 1934 Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
December: Murder on the Orient Express

On the Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration group on Goodreads.

I am not sure if I will be doing any blog challenges or not. For years, I did the Back to the Classics challenge on my blog, and I’ve sort of gotten out of the habit. I’m not even sure if the challenge will continue in 2021, but I’ll try to track down the information when it gets a little bit closer.

I will update my plans as I develop them further!

2020 Reading Journal and other thoughts

If you aren’t interested in my personal thoughts on the U.S. Presidential election and the pandemic, skip to where it says TL/DR for the book commentary.

Like many people in the U.S., I’ve been struggling a lot with the two (related) calamities of 2020: the pandemic and the Trump administration. I am not a fan of President Trump (to put it mildly) and watching him weaken, and in some cases dismantle, government institutions that I naively believed to be bulletproof has been extremely disillusioning. The last few months have been a roller-coaster ride. I had hoped for a resounding and thorough pummeling of the authoritarian agenda being pushed by a Republican party that is in thrall to the maintenance of power over all other agendas, including that of saving American lives.

There was no resounding and thorough pummeling, although there was a solid Biden win that has, since, been continually undermined by Trump-style Republicans in the weeks since the voting concluded. My obsession with the election results and my dismay over the behavior of professional men and women who have decided to prey on the partisan gullibility of a group of Americans in an effort to overturn a legitimate election is just overwhelming. And the utter failure to meaningfully address the pandemic on a national scale is frankly unforgiveable.

This isn’t a political blog and I don’t want it to become a political blog. I will delete comments posted in an effort to defend Donald Trump because I’m not interested in a political debate here – there are a lot of places I am happy to engage in political debates. This isn’t one of them. I’m only including these first two paragraphs by way of a lead-in to the rest of this post and to explain my state of mind. Because my state of mind is…not good.

I’ve thought a lot about how to deal with my negative state of mind. A plan to completely ignore the world is both unrealistic and, while it would be possible for me to do this, is only a possible plan because I am an incredibly privileged person. So, I will not be taking this route. Having said this, I cannot continue to mainline dysfunction. I’ve put into place the following guardrails for myself: I have set up monthly donations to various organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Stacey Abram’s Fair Fight organization in Georgia which is working to turn out voters for the Senate run-off elections in January, and the Yellow Hammer Fund, which is an abortion access fund in Alabama; I have renewed my subscription to The Washington Post, and I read The Guardian as well, to get an overseas perspective. I am going to be turning off television news, and I am stepping away from social media for a few months. I did this last year and it dramatically helped my mental health.

TL/DR: the state of American politics and the unrestrained community spread of Covid is getting me down.

Now, on to books. My plan is to engage in some bookish hibernation this winter. Every year in September and October, I focus my reading on books that are atmospheric for the spooky season – mystery, suspense, horror, and supernatural. That time of year is over, however, and I’m ready for some bookish comfort reading. So, I’m going to indulge myself.

Right now, I’ve decided to revisit the Harriet Vane cycle of the Peter Wimsey books. Gaudy Night, third in the sequence, is one of my favorite books of all time! I started Strong Poison last night, and it’s already provided me with a figurative shot in the arm. I’m not sure I’ve ever read Busman’s Honeymoon – if I’ve read it at all, certainly I haven’t it read more than once.

My comfort reading is older fiction. So my plan includes reading some titles that have been published by Dean Street Press and that have been sitting on my kindle for a while.

In addition, I plan to dive into a few new projects very soon, including a Stella Gibbons project. This is fortuitous because, as it happens, DSP is reissuing five previously out-of-print books in January. One of the wonderful things about DSP is the price of their kindle editions. The typical price point is $3.99 a book, which is just incredibly affordable. I literally want to buy them all.

Look at those beautiful covers!

On top of those Furrowed Middlebrow titles, I will be dipping back into my collection of vintage mysteries, which are also comfort reads for me. There are a number of British Library Crime Classics that I am excited to read. I am also want to get back into my collection of Patricia Wentworth mysteries – I’ve read the first 18 Miss Silver mysteries, and I’m ready to move onto The Ivory Dagger. I have several of Wentworth’s standalones available on my kindle as well. And, of course, Agatha Christie’s mysteries are a perennial source of comfort for me – it’s all rereads at this point, but when all else fails, the Queen of Crime usually succeeds.

Posting to this blog can be very helpful to my emotional well-being, and when I stop posting for long periods it is usually a sign that things are not going particularly well with the various aspects of my life. We’re all struggling right now. I hope that everyone who reads this is finding a way to cope.

Mr. and Mrs. North and their glam and fab murder life

A few years ago, I read The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. I had never seen the movie with Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles, but I had a mental picture that led me to believe that I would love this book. It would be fabulously glamorous, with sparkle – both in the champagne and the banter – to spare, and a side serving of crime detection.

Unfortunately, that’s not really what I experienced when I actually read the book – although that may well be the aesthetic of the movie.

And then I met Jerry and Pamela North.

First published in 1940, this is the book that I thought I would be reading when I read The Thin Man. Jerry and Pamela are a young couple who live in a Greenwich Village apartment. Jerry ostensibly works, and Pamela ostensibly does not. They don’t yet have children, although there is a cat who figures in the book. Being young, fabulous, moderately financially secure, and otherwise ordinary young people living in 1940’s New York, they like a good cocktail party. Pamela decides that the empty upstairs apartment provides a perfect location for a soiree, and when they jaunt upstairs to check it out, they find a dead body in the tub.

Jerry is fine, but Pamela is a delight – a total firecracker. The Norths meet Detective William Weigand, who inexplicably goes by Loot, and they make friends and commence investigating. I really enjoyed this book.

According to Wikipedia, Charles Silet, in his article Married Sleuths, states as follows:

“The Mr. and Mrs. North novels contain carefully crafted puzzles and the Lockridges usually play fair with their readers. The series also features Pam and Jerry’s warmly humorous domestic environment and the couple’s witty exchanges with the duller members of the police force. Although the Norths remain the focus of the series, the books contain a good deal of political and social commentary, a richly detailed look at the changing life in New York City, as well as glimpses of the outlying suburban counties. Also, the North’s stable marriage relationship presents a marked contrast—and a welcome one—to the traditions of the lone detective characteristic of much other American mystery fiction. Even though the Mr. and Mrs. North novels now may appear overly deliberate in their pacing, they still prove wonderful reading as mysteries, and the glimpses they provide of our past social history give them a nostalgic and authentic period flavor. Aficionados of classic crime fiction have always appreciated this long-running series, and new readers should be encouraged to discover this witty and charming couple.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Following up on The Norths Meet Murder, I checked out the second book in the series, Murder Out Of Turn, which takes place at a summer hideaway in upstate New York, where Jerry and Pamela vacation at a rustic cabin with their friends. We are reintroduced to many of the characters from the first book. The Norths have become quite good friends with Detective Weigand, so they invite him to join them for part of their summer holiday. Naturally, murder ensues, when a friends ends up with knife in the back.

There is a lot of tennis playing, canoeing and other recreation going on in this book, as well as quite a bit of back and forth between the city. Detective Weigand meets Dorian Hunt, who catches his attention and, possibly, also his heart. It was still delightful, although not so delightful as the first book.

The third book in the series steps outside of the North’s close circle of friends – which is good, because otherwise they probably wouldn’t have any friends left. Detective Weigand is trying to figure out if Dorian Hunt, whom he met in the last book, is as interested in him as he is in her, and, simultaneously, gets pulled into the poisoning murder of a socialite that happened on the ever so glamorous rooftop bar of the Ritz Carlton. Pamela, once again, proves that she is as quick-witted (more quick-witted) than any of the men in the story by working out the motive and the murderer before anyone else has it completely solved.

I’ve heard that the fourth book, Death on the Aisle is a terrific mystery. I have it checked out, so I’ll be finding out as soon as I finish up a book or two, so I can continue my acquaintance with the Norths and their very murderous life.

The Secret of Greylands by Annie Haynes

Title: The Secret of Greylands
Author: Annie Haynes
First published in 1924

Plot Summary from Goodreads: “There’s no dirty trick he wouldn’t play—it’s my belief that he wouldn’t even stop at murder!”

Her husband unmasked as a scoundrel, Lady Cynthia Letchingham seeks refuge at her cousin Hannah’s north-country home Greylands. But on Cynthia’s arrival, she finds Hannah an invalid, having recently suffered a mysterious paralysis; the house is devoid of servants, and Hannah’s husband, charming and sinister by turns, keeps watch over everything and everyone. Only the presence of charming Sybil Hammond and a darkly handsome neighbour relieve the atmosphere for Cynthia – but then a dark red stain appears mysteriously on the sleeve of her coat…

This was the first golden age side read for an Agatha Christie group that I started on GR, where we will be reading all 66 of Christie’s full length mysteries in publication order, starting in October in honor the Christie centenary. Prior to nominating Annie Haynes for our first side read, I had never heard of her – I happened upon her when I was googling for information about Christie’s first publisher, Bodley Head, and then I saw that Haynes had been picked up by Dean Street Press, one of my favorite small presses that is reissuing golden age mystery fiction. A little bit more research, and I was in.

If you are in the US, and are so inclined, you could purchase all 12 of her mysteries for your kindle for under $12.00, as they are all priced at .99. I’m not saying that I’ve done that, just that a person could do that. If they wanted to. OK, I confess. I did. I bought them all.

Which is why it’s excellent that I really enjoyed this book – because now I have 11 more to read! It had a wonderful gothic flavor and was just pure entertainment. Set on the well-trod ground of the English moors, it owed a lot of its sensibility to the Bronte sisters, with the mysterious manor house, the creepy husband and the inexplicably ill relative.

The main character is one of those swooning-and-blushing ingenues that we see a lot in early golden age fiction – so desperately dim that she can’t see what’s right in front of her face. She’s the 1920’s version of the cheerleader in the horror flick, who, instead of running away, hides in the shed behind the chainsaws, as Geico so hilariously points out in this commercial.

Drive away in the running car? Terrible idea! Let’s hide behind the chainsaws in the creepy barn!

Anyway, Cynthia’s dim-bulbery notwithstanding, this book is a whole lot of fun. It’s unlikely to fool very many modern readers for even one minute, but the setting and tone are fantastic and it’s a very fast read. I was strongly reminded of some of Patricia Wentworth’s mysteries, which also frequently seem to feature this same sort of young woman with no instinct for self-preservation, particularly The Case is Closed and The Black Cabinet. It felt like a precursor to the gothic romances of the 1960’s and 1970’s written by authors like Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney.

What else can you buy for .99 that will provide 3 or so hours of enjoyment? Nothing. That’s what.