Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh

Night At The VulcanNight At The Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Alleyn #16
Publication Date: December 1, 1951
Pages: 236
Genre: mystery

A London actor was dying for a star billing...

From the leading lady's liaison to the harassment of an aging juvenile lead-there's never a dull moment, darling, at the Vulcan Theatre. But vanity and hysterics, suspicion and superstition, brandy and jealousy, are upstaged by a death on opening night. Was it really suicide? Or a macabre encore to a long-ago murder in the same backstage room? Scotland Yard's cast of suspects for the final curtain.

This was the third in a trifecta of Ngaio Marsh theatrical mysteries that I read this month. I likd all of them a lot – I don’t think I could pick a favorite.

One thing that I have noticed about Marsh over the course of a few books is that she takes her time setting up both her murders and the entry of Inspector Alleyn. I don’t mind this, although it might be a deal breaker for some readers.

Night at the Vulcan is set in the Vulcan theater, which has reopened after being closed for several years after being the site of a murder. The book opens with Martyn Tarne, a 19 year old woman from New Zealand who has taken a job as dresser for the star of the play, Helena Hamilton. Martyn is distantly related to the owner/manager of the refurbished theater, Adrian Poole, who is also Ms. Hamilton’s erstwhile lover.

There are lots of seething undercurrents between all of the actors, playwright and producers as they prepare for the opening night of a new play. On opening night, the leading man, Clark Bennington, declining actor and husband to Ms. Hamilton, seems to commit suicide within minutes after the play concludes to great acclaim.

The book itself occurs over the course of about 4 days, with the setting basically confined to the theater, with a few scenes happening at the home of one of the characters who takes Martyn in and allows her to stay at his house because she is dead broke. It would have been terrific adapted to the theater. Overall, 4 stars.

Friday Reads 10.22.2021 and Fall Read-A-Thon

I’m well into each of these books, so I plan to finish them before I break into new read-a-thon possibilities.

He’d Rather Be Dead by George Bellairs: I’m at 37% of this one. I’ve been finding myself checking on the Inspector Littlejohn books from the KU library fairly frequently. Bellairs is a bit of a plodder, so they will never be my favorites, but I always enjoy hanging out with the Chief Inspector as he travels the byways of rural England, solving the crimes that stymie the local village constables. A few more and they will likely reach the status of legitimate comfort reads for me.

Night at the Vulcan by Ngaio Marsh: I am well over 50% into this book. This seems to be a typical Marsh, where she engages in some pretty deep character and plot work before the murder even occurs. Inspector Alleyn just showed up at about the 52% mark. This one is set in the world of the theater, as are a number of her books – three of which I’m reading as a bit of a sub-series this month. I’ve finished Death at the Dolphin and Final Curtain earlier this month.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson: This is a piece of non-fiction that covers basically the first year of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister – the twelve-month period after Hitler’s invasion of Holland and Belgium, which includes the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. I am a slow non-fiction reader, and am at the 30% mark. This is also a library book – and non-fiction books are the ONLY books I ever have trouble finishing during my 21 day check out period. I have 12 days left on this one, so it may ultimately require that I renew it. I should probably just buy my non-fiction reads.

Now, let’s talk read-a-thon. I am not a read-a-thon purist – I have never in my life managed to read for 24 hours straight. Maybe once I retire, I’ll really do a dedicated RAT – send my husband away for the weekend & get to it. As it is, I have a 21 year old son who still lives at home, and a husband who enjoys weekend chat and social activities, so a full 24 hour period of uninterrupted reading is but a pipe dream for me (plus, I really do need to maintain a reasonably normal sleep schedule).

What I do like to do is focus on reading during these read-a-thon days. I typically try to get in at least 12 hours, and sometimes as many as 16 hours, of reading throughout the day. I turn off my television, put some classical music on Alexa, light some fall-inspired candles and cozy up for some solid blocks of reading time with both physical books and my kindle. I usually try to set a theme for my reading.

Since I will likely blast through my two mysteries within about the first two hours, I’ve settled on a theme of wartime England, which fits well with The Splendid and the Vile. I’m in the process of gathering a stack of books to fit that theme that I can drop in and out of as my mood dictates. These include:

Of course, there’s always the chance that I’ll jump ship to something completely different by tomorrow!

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

Barchester TowersBarchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Series: Chronicles of Barchester #2
Publication Date: November 1, 1857
Pages: 526
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

‘I never saw anything like you clergymen … you are always thinking of fighting each other’

After the death of old Dr Grantly, a bitter struggle begins over who will succeed him as Bishop of Barchester. And when the decision is finally made to appoint the evangelical Dr Proudie, rather than the son of the old bishop, Archdeacon Grantly, resentment and suspicion threaten to cause deep divisions within the diocese. Trollope’s masterly depiction of the plotting and back-stabbing that ensues lies at the heart of one of the most vivid and comic of his Barsetshire novels, peopled by such very different figures as the saintly Warden of Hiram’s Hospital, Septimus Harding, the ineffectual but well-meaning new bishop and his terrifying wife, and the oily chaplain Mr Slope who has designs both on Mr Harding’s daughter and the fascinating would-be femme fatale Signora Vesey-Neroni.

Barchester Towers is a bigger novel than The Warden in every way. Its scope is more sweeping, it’s characterizations even richer (and more satirical) and its cast of characters has grown significantly. I enjoyed The Warden a lot. I adored Barchester Towers.

I am a sucker for huge Victorian novels, peopled by legions of occasionally hilariously named characters. Dickens has nothing on Trollope in his naming facility. From Mr. and Mrs. Quiverful (the cleric with 14 children, of course) through Mrs. Proudie (activist wife of the new, low church bishop who becomes embroiled in a major power struggle) and Obadiah Slope – a nametag nearly as evocative as Uriah Heep, whom he resembles in more than just the sound of his name – Trollope has given us a whole society to enjoy.

The basic premise of Barchester Towers is simple. The bishop, father of the Archdeacon Grantley, has died, leaving the bishopric open and available. When the Prime Minister chooses the evangelical Dr. Proudie to fill his position, rather than the High Church archdeacon, all hell rather breaks loose in Barchester, with normally quiet, retiring clerics jockeying for better positions, more prestige, and new opportunities.

In addition, poor Eleanor Bold, whose romantic travails were a centerpiece of The Warden has, sadly, been widowed after giving birth to a child. She has been left rather well-off in widowhood and becomes the marital target of three disparate men – Mr. Slope (played by the always excellent Alan Rickman in the BBC special), who is frankly after her money and is greasy, obsequious perfection (he makes Austen’s Mr. Collins look like the picture of unboastful humility), Dr. Stanhope, who is also after her money, and is more of the bluff, hearty type, and the brilliant Francis Arabin, who is high church, and is summoned in effort to combat the low church fellows who are taking over Barchester.

The weirdly sorta hot Obadiah Slope, as performed by a young Alan Rickman

One begins to wonder if Trollope plans to successively marry and widow poor Eleanor in every installment. And one further notes that Trollope clearly never envisioned Mr. Slope being played by Alan Rickman. Because, yeah, he’s bizarrely appealing.

In any event, Barchester Towers is awesome. It is a romp, full of satire, and humor, and puncturing self-importance. Trollope is delightfully subversive and biting. Obadiah Slope is one of those characters we love to hate, with all of his wily and duplicitous scheming. And even the most “unwordly” of clergymen are always engaged in manipulation to improve their positions, which they would attribute to their desire to direct their flock, but we know better because Trollope tells us so: it’s nearly always self-interest at the core.

And when Trollope asks: “[i]s it not a pity that people who are bright and clever should so often be exceedingly improper? and that those who are never improper should so often be dull and heavy?” I answer with a resounding “Yes!”

“There is no happiness in love except at the end of an English novel. But in wealth, money, houses, lands, goods and chattels, in the good things of this world, yes, in them there is something tangible, something that can be retained and enjoyed.”

Trollope, you clever, diverting, amazing, awesome, and exceedingly delightfully improper old cynic. I can’t wait to read the next installment.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The WardenThe Warden by Anthony Trollope
Series: Chronicles of Barchester #1
Publication Date: March 1, 1855
Pages: 201
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

"The Warden" centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality

This slender book is the first volume in Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire. It is one of Trollope’s shorter works (if not the shortest), and provides the reader with a brief but delightful introduction into the characters and setting of Trollope’s ecclesiastical series.

I have not read a lot of Trollope. The only other of his novels that I have read is the stand-alone “The Way We Live Now,” which I read a number of years ago – long enough ago that if I were to try to review it, I would need to reread it. I remember distinctly enjoying it. Trollope is a student of human nature, and explores human behavior in a way that is really compelling. The Warden is a slice of life book centered around Mr. Harding, the warden of a hospital for poor men (the bedesmen), who becomes the subject of a dispute between his son-in-law, Dr. Grantly, and a reformer, John Bold. Mr. Bold attempts to make the case that Mr. Harding’s salary – which is rather generous – should, by rights, go to the bedesmen for whom he provides spiritual succor and physical care.

Poor Mr. Harding, who is a genuinely honorable man, ends up being tugged like a bone between two dogs when Mr. Bold files a lawsuit to oust Mr. Harding and give the bedesmen the money from a trust that is in place to care for them. The men have varying reactions to this plan. Some of them think it is a grand idea. One of them thinks that they are likely to not really benefit in the end, and is loyal to Mr. Harding:

“Law!” said Bunce, with all the scorn he knew how to command—”law! Did ye ever know a poor man yet was the better for law, or for a lawyer?

I’ll let you guess who was right.

As if this dispute isn’t ugly enough, Mr. Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor, is also in love with John Bold, and is therefore, herself, engaged an emotional tug-of-war between her filial love and respect for her father and her romantic love for Mr. Bold.

“Mr Bold,” said she, “you may be sure of one thing; I shall always judge my father to be right, and those who oppose him I shall judge to be wrong. If those who do not know him oppose him, I shall have charity enough to believe that they are wrong, through error of judgment; but should I see him attacked by those who ought to know him, and to love him, and revere him, of such I shall be constrained to form a different opinion.” And then curtseying low she sailed on, leaving her lover in anything but a happy state of mind.

And, to top off this rather convoluted family pentagon, Mr. Harding’s other daughter, Susan, is married to Dr. Grantly. Lots of Victorian family drama ensues, ending in the resignation of Mr. Harding from his position, and the marriage of John Bold and Eleanor Harding.

One of my favorite things about this book is the believability of it. This is how families act, even modern families, when disputes are allowed to fester, and people take sides, and grudges are held. There is always a peacemaker. In this case, the peacemaker ends up being Mr. Harding, who is a simply lovely character. He is genuinely good, and it horrifies him when he is confronted with the position that he has been being paid at the expense of his charges. He displays no sense of entitlement – he is hurt, not angry, not defensive. Once he decides on his course of action, he pursues it single-mindedly and selflessly.

“I cannot boast of my conscience, when it required the violence of a public newspaper to awaken it; but, now that it is awake, I must obey it.”

I want to say a quick few words about Trollope’s women. All three of them – Susan (wife of Dr. Grantly/daughter of Mr. Harding), Mary (sister of John Bold) and Eleanor (daughter of Mr. Harding/sister of Susan/friend of Mary) were fully realized and complex characters. Eleanor was a bit too good to be true, but didn’t I just love her nonetheless.

In the end, of course, the bedesmen end up much worse off than they were before the reformer decided to try to help them. They have the same (small) apportionment of money, and no Mr. Harding. The position of Warden goes unfilled because the bishop cannot be prevailed upon to offer it to anyone other than Dr. Harding, who continues to refuse to return to the position through the end of The Warden.

This was a simply wonderful read. It is followed by Barchester Towers, which is the sequel to The Warden and takes up about two years after the resignation of Mr. Harding and the marriage of John and Eleanor.

The Haunting of Hill House

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The Haunting of Hill HouseThe Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Publication Date: October 16, 1959
Pages: 182
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Shirley Jackson wrote and published The Haunting of Hill House in 1959. A classic ghost story, it owes a debt to the Victorian antiquarian ghost stories of writers like M.R. James, but approaches the genre from a totally different style. Rather than indulging in flowery, gothic, Victorian prose, Jackson is a stripped-down writer of great emotional engagement. The spareness of her prose is what gives her work its authority and power.

The book has a very limited cast, and is written on a small scale. There are the four primary characters – Professor Montague, Luke, Theodora and Eleanor. Eleanor develops as the primary narrator, and the primary focus of Hill House itself. A young woman with a history of psychic sensitivity, she is an unreliable narrator, and there are questions that are never resolved. She arrived first at Hill House – was the haunting a projection of her psychic sensitivity? Why was she the primary focus of Hill House? Was there a single ghost, or multiple spirits, or is it the house itself that is a malevolent presence seeking companionship?

In addition to this primary quartet, there are two characters who are the “help,” who come and go from Hill House without interference, and, late in the book, the Professor’s oddly cheerful wife shows up with a side kick. It is her plan to gently guide – or possibly to force – the spirits to pass from earthly discontent into heavenly peacefulness. Mrs. Montague is an archetypal character, the managing female who interferes with the work to be done by the men. This is the point at which the book, and the house, seem to take a turn into even deeper darkness, as though a battle for the soul of Hill House has commenced, and Eleanor’s narration slips further and further into confusion.

One overriding theme of Hill House is that of movement toward an unknown destination. She uses the word “journey” over and over again, in discussing Eleanor’s trip toward Hill House, early in the book, and then between the four characters once they have arrived. At the beginning all is hopeful, optimistic, Eleanor drives her car toward Hill House with a sense of the possible.

“Just this once,” the mother said. She put down the glass of milk and touched the little girl gently on the hand. “Eat your ice cream,” she said.

When they left, the little girl waved good-by to Eleanor, and Eleanor waved back, sitting in joyful loneliness to finish her coffee while the gay stream tumbled along below her. I have not very much farther to go, Eleanor thought; I am more than halfway there. Journey’s end, she thought, and far back in her mind, sparkling like the little stream, a tag end of a tune danced through her head, bringing distantly a word or so;

“In delay there lies no plenty,” she thought, “in delay there lies no plenty.” She nearly stopped forever just outside Ashton, because she came to a tiny cottage buried in a garden. I could live there all alone, she thought, slowing the car to look down the winding garden path to the small blue front door with, perfectly, a white cat on the step. No one would ever find me there, either, behind all those roses, and just to make sure I would plant oleanders by the road. I will light a fire in the cool evenings and toast apples at my own hearth. I will raise white cats and sew white curtains for the windows and sometimes come out of my door to go to the store to buy cinnamon and tea and thread. People will come to me to have their fortunes told, and I will brew love potions for sad maidens; I will have a robin. . . . But the cottage was far behind, and it was time to look for her new road, so carefully charted by Dr. Montague.”

Jackson repeatedly uses the phrase “journeys end in lovers meeting,” fourteen times by count of my kindle. The phrase comes from Twelfth Night, Act II, a song sung by Feste, a jester:

O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear! Your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter.
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

The first time the phrase is used is by Eleanor, in reference to her arrival at Hill House:

“It was an act of moral strength to lift her foot and set it on the bottom step, and she thought that her deep unwillingness to touch Hill House for the first time came directly from the vivid feeling that it was waiting for her, evil, but patient. Journeys end in lovers meeting, she thought, remembering her song at last, and laughed, standing on the steps of Hill House, journeys end in lovers meeting, and she put her feet down firmly and went up to the veranda and the door. Hill House came around her in a rush; she was enshadowed, and the sound of her feet on the wood of the veranda was an outrage in the utter silence, as though it had been a very long time since feet stamped across the boards of Hill House.”

The other characters use it as well, repeatedly, to describe the gathering at Hill House. It is used by Theodora, in potentially jealous reference to Eleanor’s relationship to Luke, it is used by Eleanor in reference to her own ambiguously sexual/romantic relationship with Theodora, and it is used, generally, in reference to the ending of Eleanor’s journey at Hill House.

Hill House, itself, looms over the book, a dark presence, pregnant with dread and malevolence. Jackson’s ability to describe the oddities of the house – the doors that won’t stay open, the angles that aren’t quite right, the rooms that don’t fit together in a way that is quite consistent with architecture and physics, is remarkable. Hill House takes on a character of its own, and overwhelms the characters themselves. In a battle of wills, Hill House wins.

“Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes letting its guests get away.”

This is a perfect book for October, when the sun turns on its journey away from us, and brings with it darkness. Suspenseful without being gory, never devolving into melodrama, it is a near perfect example of the haunted house novel. If you can only choose one Jackson novel to read, I would slightly more highly recommend the other well-known book by her – We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But why would a reader limit him or herself to only one? Read them both – always in autumn.

“Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

We Have Always Lived In The Castle

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Publication Date: September 21, 1962
Pages: 146
Genre: classic, horror
Project: classics club round 1

Visitors call seldom at Blackwood House. Taking tea at the scene of a multiple poisoning, with a suspected murderess as one's host, is a perilous business. For a start, the talk tends to turn to arsenic. "It happened in this very room, and we still have our dinner in here every night," explains Uncle Julian, continually rehearsing the details of the fatal family meal. "My sister made these this morning," says Merricat, politely proffering a plate of rum cakes, fresh from the poisoner's kitchen. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson's 1962 novel, is full of a macabre and sinister humor, and Merricat herself, its amiable narrator, is one of the great unhinged heroines of literature. "What place would be better for us than this?" she asks, of the neat, secluded realm she shares with her uncle and with her beloved older sister, Constance. "Who wants us, outside? The world is full of terrible people." Merricat has developed an idiosyncratic system of rules and protective magic, burying talismanic objects beneath the family estate, nailing them to trees, ritually revisiting them. She has made "a powerful taut web which never loosened, but held fast to guard us" against the distrust and hostility of neighboring villagers.

Or so she believes. But at last the magic fails. A stranger arrives -- cousin Charles, with his eye on the Blackwood fortune. He disturbs the sisters' careful habits, installing himself at the head of the family table, unearthing Merricat's treasures, talking privately to Constance about "normal lives" and "boy friends." Unable to drive him away by either polite or occult means, Merricat adopts more desperate methods. The result is crisis and tragedy, the revelation of a terrible secret, the convergence of the villagers upon the house, and a spectacular unleashing of collective spite.

The sisters are propelled further into seclusion and solipsism, abandoning "time and the orderly pattern of our old days" in favor of an ever-narrowing circuit of ritual and shadow. They have themselves become talismans, to be alternately demonized and propitiated, darkly, with gifts. Jackson's novel emerges less as a study in eccentricity and more -- like some of her other fictions -- as a powerful critique of the anxious, ruthless processes involved in the maintenance of normality itself. "Poor strangers," says Merricat contentedly at last, studying trespassers from the darkness behind the barricaded Blackwood windows. "They have so much to be afraid of."

A slender book, only 148 pages long, that packs an outsized punch. Prior to reading it, I’d heard a lot about it, as well as a lot about Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her short story that launched a thousand anthologies: The Lottery. I vaguely remember reading The Lottery in high school, and finding it more than a little disturbing.

And it is my general sense that “more than a little disturbing” pretty much describes Shirley Jackson to a T.

In any event, I participate in a blog event every year called R.I.P. (Readers Imbibing Peril) that is hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. It is a lot of fun, and is an opportunity to read books that are on the chiller/thriller/horror end of the spectrum. This was one of my R.I.P. reads for 2013.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a brief tale of two sisters: Merrikat and Constance, who live in their family home after someone has murdered every other member of the family (with the exception of their crazy uncle) using poisoned sugar six years earlier. Merrikat is 18, although she perpetually seems to be about 12, and Constance is her older sister, who was acquitted of the murders. The unsolved mass homicide hangs like a pall over the house, and over the village in which Merrikat and Constance live.

It is a fast read, a page turner, propelling me forward with a sense of vague unease and discomfort. I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a little psychological horror. It is a remarkable book.

As an aside, I read The Haunting of Hill House earlier this year (well after reading this one – this review was long-delayed on my blog) and I actually prefer this one. Take that for what you will!

Halloween Bingo, 2021: Reading YA

The Once and Future WitchesThe Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow
Publication Date: October 13, 2020
Pages: 517
Genre: fantasy, YA
Project: halloween bingo

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.

This is the second Alix Harrow book that I’ve read – the first was The Ten Thousand Doors of January. I loved both of them, and couldn’t really pick a favorite. Ten Thousand Doors was a really interesting portal fantasy with a wonderful main character. The Once and Future Witches was also excellent. I love the fact that she seeming writes only standalones, which is somewhat unusual for someone publishing YA.

Sometimes it seems like an author writes books that are written to speak to certain readers. Harrow has nailed two separate books that felt like she could have written them just for me. The Once and Future Witness is a piece of historical fiction, set in 1893, with strong fairy tale analogues, both of which play to specific tropes that I love. It’s also overtly feminist, taking on a culture of misogyny and female oppression.

The Box in the WoodsThe Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson
Series: Truly Devious #4
Publication Date: June 15, 2021
Pages: 400
Genre: mystery, YA
Project: halloween bingo

The Truly Devious series continues as Stevie Bell investigates her first mystery outside of Ellingham Academy in this spine-chilling and hilarious stand-alone mystery.

Amateur sleuth Stevie Bell needs a good murder. After catching a killer at her high school, she’s back at home for a normal (that means boring) summer.

But then she gets a message from the owner of Sunny Pines, formerly known as Camp Wonder Falls—the site of the notorious unsolved case, the Box in the Woods Murders. Back in 1978, four camp counselors were killed in the woods outside of the town of Barlow Corners, their bodies left in a gruesome display. The new owner offers Stevie an invitation: Come to the camp and help him work on a true crime podcast about the case.

Stevie agrees, as long as she can bring along her friends from Ellingham Academy. Nothing sounds better than a summer spent together, investigating old murders.

But something evil still lurks in Barlow Corners. When Stevie opens the lid on this long-dormant case, she gets much more than she bargained for. The Box in the Woods will make room for more victims. This time, Stevie may not make it out alive.

This is the fourth in Maureen Johnson’s Truly Devious series which features Stevie Bell, teenage sleuth. Stevie spent the first three books of the series solving the mystery of Ellingham Academy, the unsolved kidnapping of the school founder’s wife and daughter from decades earlier. In this one, she has left Ellingham Academy and is spending the summer at home. And, hoo boy, is she bored. When the owner of the Sunny Pines camp contacts her to come to the camp and try to solve the unsolved quadruple murder from the 1970’s, when the camp was named Camp Wonder Falls, she jumps at the chance.

Maureen Johnson is obviously a huge Agatha Christie fan, which shows in the structure of the book.

Detective is summoned by a mysterious wealthy individual to investigate an old unsolved murder? Check. Mysterious individual has suspect motives? Check. There is a quaint village with simmering undercurrents? Check. There is a quirky friend (or two) to act as the investigative foil, a la Hastings? Check. New murders begin happening because the detective is stirring up old trouble? Check. The village is gathered for a reveal of the culprit? Check.

The real question here is: is our quirky heroine, with her anxiety issues and sartorial deficiencies a Marple or a Poirot? The Ellingham Academy mystery felt like Poirot but this one – this one feels like Marple.

The author is obviously having a lot of fun with these books and I am here for it. Well done.

Wildwood WhispersWildwood Whispers by Willa Reece
Publication Date: August 17, 2021
Pages: 390
Genre: fantasy, magical realism, YA
Project: halloween bingo

A heartwarming novel of hope, fate, and folk magic unfolds when a young woman travels to a sleepy southern town in the Appalachian Mountains to bury her best friend.

At the age of eleven, Mel Smith’s life found its purpose when she met Sarah Ross. Ten years later, Sarah’s sudden death threatens to break her. To fulfill a final promise to her best friend, Mel travels to an idyllic small town nestled in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains. Yet Morgan’s Gap is more than a land of morning mists and deep forest shadows.

There are secrets that call to Mel, in the gaze of the gnarled and knowing woman everyone calls Granny, in a salvaged remedy book filled with the magic of simple mountain traditions, and in the connection, she feels to the Ross homestead and the wilderness around it.

With every taste of sweet honey and tart blackberries, the wildwood twines further into Mel’s broken heart. But a threat lingers in the woods—one that may have something to do with Sarah's untimely death and that has now set its sight on Mel.

The wildwood is whispering. It has secrets to reveal—if you’re willing to listen…

This one didn’t quite live up to what I was hoping for when I read it. It reminded me of Where the Crawdads Sing in a lot of ways – another book that ultimately disappointed me (a lot).

I enjoy magical realism, so I was hoping for something like Alice Hoffman or Sarah Addison Allen. There were some similarities to those two authors, and some really beautiful writing about Morgan’s Gap and the wildwood and the wisewomen who live and do a bit of magic there. The main character’s mouse friend, Charm, I found completely, um, charming. I loved all of the animal magic in the book.

However, I struggled a lot with the heavy-handed villainy of the Sect and the Mayor of Morgan’s Gap. I felt like the author really didn’t know what she was doing in terms of handling the mystery subplot, and, as well, it was utterly preposterous that Reverend Moon would have the kind of power that was implied (view spoiler). It wasn’t his level of evil that was difficult for me to swallow, because history is replete with cult leaders who rape and abuse women, it was the completely in-your-face way of going about it.

The climactic scene of the book which takes place as a final confrontation between “good” wildwood and “bad” cult felt utterly preposterous. The magic really didn’t work for me. I don’t quite know why that was, if it was just that the author threw a bunch of hedge-witchery together without enough undergirding, or what.

It sort of felt like two books (this is why I am comparing it to the Crawdad book). One, a magical realism tale about a community in Appalachia where connection to the natural world brings a sort of a witchery to the women practicing it, I really liked; the second, a poorly done murder mystery, didn’t work for me. I wonder, a bit, if the author felt she had to put the mystery into the book in order to make it commercially viable – if that’s the case, I would encourage her to trust her own voice because the places that I feel like I was hearing from her were great – it was the stuff that felt like tacked on suspense that didn’t really work for me.

Halloween Bingo 2021 – Rapid Reviews

I’m going to try something new – instead of posts focusing on a single book, I’m going to, from time-to-time, publish posts that talk briefly about a few books that I’ve read recently. I’ll probably try to tie them together by theme, but that won’t always work. Happily, it does work here – these are all books that I would call “noir” in their sensibilities. I read them all in September, for my Halloween Bingo game.

Devil in a Blue DressDevil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Series: Easy Rawlins #1
Publication Date: September 1, 1991
Pages: 263
Genre: mystery, noir
Project: halloween bingo

In Los Angeles of the late 1940s, Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran, has just been fired from his job at a defense plant. Easy is drinking in a friend's bar, wondering how he'll meet his mortgage, when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Monet, a blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.

This book has been on my TBR for years. It finally made its way to the top of the reading stack (virtual stack, to be sure, because this was a public library kindle checkout) because I have been trying to diversify my reading, and Walter Mosley is an author of color. This book was also really interesting to me because it includes the historical black perspective in a piece of noir fiction, a genre that is really dominated by white, male, American authors like Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett.

Earlier this year, I read a book called The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a non-fiction treatment of a part of American history that has not been widely told: the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for northern and western cities, to get away from the Jim Crow laws and other pernicious discrimination and, often, violence, to which they were subjected in the South. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and will try to remember to put together a full post on it at some point.

Having just read The Warmth of Other Suns this year brought a dimension to my reading that I probably would have missed if I had read this earlier. Many of the individuals with whom Easy Rawlins associates – his peers and friends – were part of this great migration. Easy Rawlins himself hails from the South. He moved to L.A. after his discharge from military service, having fought in WWII, returning to a community that demand he behave with the subservient attitudes that black men are expected to display. Having experienced something quite different as a soldier, and far more respectful, he couldn’t do that.

WHEN I OPENED THE DOOR I was slapped in the face by the force of Lips’ alto horn. I had been hearing Lips and Willie and Flattop since I was a boy in Houston. All of them and John and half the people in that crowded room had migrated from Houston after the war, and some before that. California was like heaven for the Southern Negro. People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn’t like the dream. Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom.

This book is really good and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The mystery wasn’t the best part of the book, nor did I feel it was really the point. The characters and setting were first rate, and seeing 1950’s Watts from a non-white perspective makes the book definitely worth reading despite it’s weaknesses as a mystery.

But I didn’t believe that there was justice for Negroes. I thought that there might be some justice for a black man if he had the money to grease it.

The Moving TargetThe Moving Target by Ross MacDonald
Series: Lew Archer #1
Publication Date: March 3, 1998
Pages: 246
Genre: mystery, noir
Project: halloween bingo

Like many Southern California millionaires, Ralph Sampson keeps odd company - there's the sun-worshipping holy man to whom Sampson once gave his very own mountain, and don't forget the fading actress with sidelines in astrology and S and M. Now one of Sampson's friends may have arranged his kidnapping.

Lew Archer follows the clues from the canyon sanctuaries of the mega-rich to jazz joints where you get beaten up between sets.

Welcome to the first Lew Archer, private investigator - a roving conscience who walks the treacherous frontier between criminal guilt and human sin. You are sure to find that Ross Macdonald's "The Moving Target" blends sex, greed, and family hatred into an explosively readable crime novel.

This is the first of MacDonald’s Lew Archer series. Lew Archer is the natural heir to Philip Marlowe, and operates within the same Los Angeles as Marlowe (and Easy Rawlins, as well). A place of bars and women, dirty glamour and seediness underneath the glitz.

The back room of Swift’s was paneled in black oak that glowed dimly under the polished brass chandeliers. It was lined on two sides with leather-cushioned booths. The rest of the floor space was covered with tables. All of the booths and most of the tables were crowded with highly dressed people eating or waiting to be fed. Most of the women were tight-skinned, starved too thin for their bones. Most of the men had the masculine Hollywood look, which was harder to describe. An insistent self-consciousness in their loud words and wide gestures, as if God had a million-dollar contract to keep an eye on them.

In this book, Lew is hired by a rich woman to locate her husband, Ralph Sampson, who may have been kidnapped, or he may just have gone off on a bender. He is described thus: “Ralph?…He started out as a wildcat oil operator. You know the type, half man, half alligator, half bear trap, with a piggy bank where his heart should be.” Things go about as well as the reader should expect in a piece of noir fiction, which is to say, not well at all, especially not for our protagonist of dubious character.

The plotting in this one had some weaknesses, and the reader is blindsided at the end by a character who behaves entirely out of the character that had been built through the entire novel, but overall, very enjoyable, especially for fans of the noir aesthetic.

The Concrete BlondeThe Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly
Series: Harry Bosch #3
Publication Date: June 1, 1994
Pages: 484
Genre: mystery
Project: halloween bingo

Detective Harry Bosch was sure he'd shot the serial killer responsible for a string of murders in LA . . . but now, a new crime makes him question his convictions.

They call him the Dollmaker, a serial killer who stalks Los Angeles and leaves a grisly calling card on the faces of his female victims. When a suspect is shot by Detective Harry Bosch, everyone believes the city's nightmare is over. But then the dead man's widow sues Harry and the LAPD for killing the wrong man--an accusation that rings terrifyingly true when a new corpse is found with the Dollmaker's macabre signature. Now, for the second time, Harry must hunt down a ruthless death-dealer before he strikes again. Careening through a blood-tracked quest, Harry will go from the hard edges of the L.A. night to the last place he ever wanted to go--the darkness of his own heart...

And last, but not least, we have Harry Bosch. Concrete Blonde is third in the extremely long-running Harry Bosch series – Connelly is up to 23 books in the primary Bosch series, and 35 in the Harry Bosch Universe (HBU), which includes some of his other protagonists – Jack McEvoy, Mickey Haller and Renee Ballard. The OG series is my favorite. I enjoy McEvoy and Ballard, but I rarely manage to finish the Mickey Haller books. I usually get bored and DNF.

Concrete Blonde is a serial killer book, which is why I picked it. It’s also one of my series favorites overall, and is the point in the series when Connelly stops messing around and settles in to really write this character. It was partially adapted for the Amazon Prime series in Season One, although they leave out the meat of the very clever Dollmaker Plot, which would have made an exceptional season all on its own. There is great plotting in this book.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

All the way back in 2012, I migrated from Blogger to WP. In that time, I’ve had multiple blogs, with differing themes, I’ve been self-hosted and I’ve used free sites, and I’ve been generally unable to commit to anything. I’ve decided at this point that I want all of my bookish content to live in one place. So, over the next several months, I’ll be republishing posts that have long been published on other blogs, adding reviews to my review index, and then eventually deleting those old posts & blogs for good.

I’m starting with my first classics club project – the OG of reading projects for me – which ran from 2012 through 2015.

The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Publication Date: November 26, 1859
Pages: 672
Genre: classic
Project: classics club round 1

'In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop... There, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth, stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white'

The Woman in White famously opens with Walter Hartright's eerie encounter on a moonlit London road. Engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie, Walter becomes embroiled in the sinister intrigues of Sir Percival Glyde and his 'charming' friend Count Fosco, who has a taste for white mice, vanilla bonbons, and poison. Pursuing questions of identity and insanity along the paths and corridors of English country houses and the madhouse, The Woman in White is the first and most influential of the Victorian genre that combined Gothic horror with psychological realism.

Matthew Sweet's introduction explores the phenomenon of Victorian 'sensation' fiction, and discusses Wilkie Collins's biographical and societal influences. Included in this edition are appendices on theatrical adaptations of the novel and its serialisation history

This is my second Wilkie Collins, although he wrote and published this book before The Moonstone. The Woman in White is described as a Victorian “sensation” novel, and was written with many twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. It shared the same narrative technique as The Moonstone – that of alternating first person narratives written and provided by different characters. In this book, as in The Moonstone, there was a central female character – Laura Fairlie here, Rachel Verinder in The Moonstone – from whom the reader never directly hears.

I love the alternating narrative format. It provides the reader with excellent insight into what happened through the eyes of the different characters. In this book, my favorite character, by far, was Marian Halcombe, a woman who lacks many of the desirable characteristics of Victorian womanhood. I was surprised by Walter Hartright. I expected a certain type of weak male character, and, instead, was impressed with his fortitude, resilience and intellect.

As in The Moonstone, the female heroine is disappointing. Lady Laurie Fairley is not merely weak, she is also weak-minded and childlike. Her resemblance to the harrowed Anne Catherick ends up being much greater than I would have supposed. She lacked the core of strength that I would have liked to see in a book of this sort.

Nonetheless, this book does entertain. It is swift moving, despite it’s length of over 600 pages, and fairly action packed. Collins strove to keep his readership off balance, and I believe that he succeeded. There are several events throughout the course of the book that do surprise the reader.

There are foreshadowings in this book of many different modern tropes, including: the investigation by the private individual where the public investigators fail. I don’t want to spoil the book for any prospective readers, because this is the sort of book that should be read without spoilers. Overall, though, I very much enjoyed the book, particularly Marian’s character. Collins may not have intended for her to be the books true heroine, but in my opinion, that is exactly what she was.

New look, new host, new library

ATVL has had a makeover, which wasn’t without its struggles. I recently decided to move to a new blog host, largely because of my unremitting hatred of the block editor (and block widgets, too, btw. No element of the new “block” system is immune from my loathing).

When I started looking around, I discovered that there is also a plugin that is specifically designed to allow book bloggers to maintain a book library on their own blog, which seemed like a really cool thing. If you’re interested, you can find out more here. The plugin isn’t very expensive, and now that I have learned how to use it, works a treat – however, one of the main reasons that I have a new look is because the theme I had been using for years (Hemingway) didn’t work with the new plugin. It broke all of my links.

The database also endlessly customizable – I was able to add a “project” field to my database that allows me to identify books read for my various reading projects. One of the coolest things about the plug-in is that it creates a review page, which functions as a sort of an index. It’s only useable on self-hosted blogs, but if you have one of those and are interested in hearing more about how it works, drop a question below. I’m really enjoying using it.

Also, as part of this migration, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to streamline my wordpress site dashboard. I’ve been holding onto a few old free sites that have limited content on them. I’m not good at keeping up on multiple blogs – I barely have the energy for this most of the time. I’ve decided to move all of my content – including old projects – onto this blog over the next few months. What that means is that readers who have been following me around the internet (and if you’ve been motivated enough to follow me around the internet, thank you for that) will probably see posts that you’ve seen before. My plan is to, eventually, delete all of my old blogs and just stick with this one. So, you’ll be seeing a greater variety of posts, including more modern fiction and, although my general theme of women writers from the 19th & 20th century will still be the bulk of the posts.

Thanks for hanging around!