#Friday Reads 5.15.2020

I have four books on the go right now, although at least two of them are nearly finished.

I bought this Persephone edition a few months ago and I’ve been making my way through it rather slowly. It’s quite a long book at 590 pages, and I find that it works well to read a week or two, or maybe a month, at a time. As I’m not worried about speed-finishing this one, you’ll likely see it on my Friday Reads for quite sometime. The book itself is the diary of Vere Hodgson, a Londoner who worked for a Notting Hill Gate charity during the war, and who survived the London Blitz. She is described as sparky and unflappable.

I’ve been reading this one for too long at this point – I started it last weekend and then set it aside for some other books at about the 1/3 mark. It won’t take long to finish, so it’s first up for the weekend. It was originally published in 1961, and I am reading the British Library Crime Classics series reprint pictured. The cover is just as lovely in person.

This is another one that I started last weekend and then got sidetracked away from – it’s the most recent book on my Christie comfort reread. It’s one of Ariadne Oliver’s most delightful appearances in print, and that makes it a fun reread. Poirot leaves London for this one, and makes an early appearance in the action. There are some other fun side-characters, including Mrs. Summerhayes, who is a bit of a hoot. I’m again quite a ways into this one, and it won’t take long to finish.

I just started this one on my kindle – I have an omnibus edition checked out from my library, and I’ll likely only read this one right now. I enjoyed the first Thursday Next book by Jasper Fforde, so when I saw the omnibus available on Overdrive, I decided to read book 2.

That should take care of most, if not all of my weekend!

Throwback Thursday: 2013

I have started migrating a lot of posts and other bookish stuff over here from other places, including my challenge lists for the last 7 years, starting with 2013. They are currently in one of two places: Booklikes or Goodreads. With the Booklikes instability, I feel like I need to get whatever I want to save over here before it is too late.

So, over on the sidebar of the blog, you can see a widget that will ultimately house the more or less complete record of my reading since 2013 – it’s currently a work in progress. I say “more or less” because I’ve never been all that diligent about making sure that I keep my challenge completely up to date. But even a good record is better than no record at all.

So, for Throwback Thursday, I’ll be selecting some older posts or book updates to repost over here. Today, I’m going all the way back to 2013!

Title: Burial Rites
Author: Hannah Kent
Published on September 10, 2013
Read: November 2013

What I wrote then: This was my favorite book of November. I really recommend it. It is a historical fiction set in Iceland in the 1800’s, and is the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, a woman who has been convicted of murder and is scheduled for execution. There is no place to house her, so she is sent out to a farm to live out her final days before execution.

Hannah Kent based the book on the true story of the last woman who was executed in Iceland in 1830. There is no happy ending, of course, but the book is well-worth reading. It is a bleak tale, but is well-written and compelling.

What I think now: I stand by this recommendation and I still remember this book. It has stayed with me.

Title: Death and the Girl Next Door
Author: Darynda Jones
Published October 2, 2012
Read July, 2013
What I wrote then
: A decent beginning to a new series.

Stronger at the start than at the end. I enjoyed the characters a lot, I really liked Brooklyn and Glitch. The family dynamic with the grandparents was delightful. No DLT.

I am not, however, a huge fan of angel stories so I’m not sure if this will be sustainable for me. The ending, with the reveal of the Sanctuary, which is a bit too cultish, and the whole demon possession thing didn’t really work for me.

I snagged this one for 2.99 during a sale period. It was definitely worth the $3.00 I paid for it, and I will read the sequel. I hear really good things about Darynda Jones’s adult series, so maybe I’ll try that one next and see how they compare.

What I think now: I have never read another book by Jones, so I guess I wasn’t that interested.

Title: How To Lead A Life of Crime
Author: Kirsten Miller
Published on February 21, 2013
Read June, 2013

What I wrote then: A stand-alone! This is an Oliver Twist’esque tale with a snappy and brilliant protagonist named Flick. The grownups are all venal hypocrites, the students manipulated jackasses. Over all, though, it was an entertaining read.

Surprise ending. Nice.

What I think now: I barely remember this book, but I do remember that it was a fun read.

Title: Reconstructing Amelia
Author: Kimberly McCreight
Published April 2, 2013
Read June, 2013

What I wrote then: Are there really people like this in the world? Because I may be from a small town, but frankly, there wasn’t a single character in this book who wasn’t a self-absorbed, materialistic, pain in the ass. It’s a fantastic read, very involving, but they all suck. Except the detective. He actually seemed pretty nice.

What I think now: This was one book in a long trend of authors writing about awful people with no redeeming characteristics, started by Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl. I’m over the trend and have forgotten everything about this book except that I hated nearly everyone in it.

Cat Among the Pigeons

I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan – back in 2019, I finally finished reading all 66 of her full length novels: Poirot, Marple, the Beresfords, and all of the other one off, two off, three off or four off characters as well. And, as I mentioned yesterday, during this stressful time of stay-at-home orders and viral spread and economic dislocation, I seem to be gravitating in the direction of comfort reads.

I think that all readers have a different set of comfort reads. For me, children’s literature, especially classic British children’s literature, Golden Age Mystery, especially Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Wentworth, and certain favorite series to reread (especially Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, for some odd reason) are my go-to comfort reads. Because of that, I’ve been dipping in and out of Agatha Christie, sort of semi-randomly choosing books from my shelves.

I also set my Christie collection as my zoom background, which puzzles my coworkers and makes me happy every time we zoom.

Over the weekend, I reread Cat Among the Pigeons. This book was originally published in 1959, after Ordeal by Innocence and before The Pale Horse. It is the 28th full-length Poirot book, out of approximately 33 (excluding short story compilations & plays).

I own the relatively boring Berkeley mass market paperback edition, which was published in 2005 (you can see it on the top shelf, left hand side, of the photo above). I own a few of these – both my copy of The Sittaford Mystery and The Seven Dials Mystery come from the same line. There are no recurring characters in this book aside from Poirot – neither Ariadne Oliver nor Arthur Hastings make an appearance here.

Christie is often criticized for weak characterizations. As someone who has read every single one of her full-length mysteries, I feel like this criticism is often unfair, and that, to the contrary, Christie had a knack for brief but effective character sketches. Her books have a lot of characters, which may be one of the reasons that this belief exists, but it has been my experience that each book contains at least one, and often more than one, really interesting and engaging character. In my opinion, she is especially good with women. In Cat Among the Pigeons, there are two side characters that I just love – Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn.

It was quite an impressive room, and Miss Bulstrode was rather more than quite an impressive woman. She was tall, and rather noble looking, with well-dressed grey hair, grey eyes with plenty of humour in them, and a firm mouth. The success of her school (and Meadowbank was one of the most successful schools in England) was entirely due to the personality of its Headmistress. It was a very expensive school, but that was not really the point. It could be put better by saying that though you paid through the nose, you got what you paid for.

The mystery here is a bit of an oddity – it is one of Christie’s rare books that combines a bit of her international thriller plots with a straight-up mystery. Her thrillers tend to be markedly weaker than her mysteries, but, in this case, I feel like her plot really works. The book is set in a famous British girl’s school – Meadowbank – where Miss Bulstrode is the headmistress. There are some murders, of course, and there is also a side plot related to a revolution in Ramat, a fictional Middle-eastern country similar to Saudi Arabia.

Poirot enters the story very late, at around the three-quarters mark, when Julia Upjohn, one of the students, makes a startling discovery and turns to him for help.

Julia looked at him in an expectant fashion.

“You leave yourself in my hands? Good.” Hercule Poirot closed his eyes. Suddenly he opened them and became brisk. “It seems that this is an occasion when I cannot, as I prefer, remain in my chair. There must be order and method, but in what you tell me, there is no order and method. That is because we have here many threads. But they all converge and meet at one place, Meadowbank. Different people, with different aims, and representing different interests—all converge at Meadowbank. So, I, too, go to Meadowbank. And as for you—where is your mother?”

Christie was very good at creating notable young women, although they are usually in their twenties as opposed to their teens. Julia Upjohn is an exception to this rule, as she is around 15 during the action of the book, but she is really delightful – clever, active, perceptive and ethical. She is really the catalyst who solves the mystery. As Poirot says to her:

And I should very much dislike anything to happen to you, my child. I will admit that I have formed a high opinion of your courage and your resource.” Julia looked pleased but embarrassed.

I recently bought copies of both of John Curran’s books which delve into the information contained in Agatha Christie’s old notebooks.

Typically when I reread a Christie, I pull out the books and turn to the indexes to see what interesting tidbits I can find out about the particular Christie.

The second book, Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making; More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks, devotes several pages to Cat Among the Pigeons. There are over 80 pages in her notebooks related to Cat Among the Pigeons. Christie initially considered both Poirot and Miss Marple as potential detectives.

Miss Marple? Great niece at the school?
Poirot? Mrs. U sits opposite him in a train

I agree with Curran that in many ways, Marple might have made more sense here, given the setting of a girl’s school, although it is Poirot who usually gets involved in mysteries that might involve diplomatic or international elements. Superintendent Battle or Colonel Race might also have been appropriate to the international thriller storyline.

There were also two proposed titles for the book:

Death of a Games Mistress
Cat Among the Pigeons

Obviously, we know which title was picked, although Death of a Games Mistress actually makes it into the story in the conversation between police officers early in the book, after one of the murders.

“Death of a Games Mistress,” said Kelsey, thoughtfully. “Sounds like the title of a thriller on a railway bookstall.”

In addition, Cat Among the Pigeons was a proposed title for the Christie mystery published just prior to this one – Ordeal By Innocence – before it became the title of this mystery.

This isn’t one of Christie’s best mysteries, and it’s not one of her best books, but the setting is a good one, and the characters of Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn make the book well worth reading. In addition, the BBC adaptation of this particular book, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, is one of the best of the late Poirot episodes. It brings in Poirot much earlier, and while we don’t get as much Julia Upjohn, Miss Bulstrode is performed by the inimitable and always fabulous Harriet Walters. It’s worth watching for her alone.

Sunday Post: Booklikes, Goodreads and Bookish Social Media

This last week has had me scrambling a bit – the book site that I am most active on, a rather obscure corner of the internet called Booklikes, let it’s domain briefly expire. The site itself has been left without much in the way of maintenance for a long time now, so I am concerned that it will simply cease to exist at some point, with little to no notice. There is a small but active contingent of around fifty to seventy-five readers over there who are very passionate about books. The social element of Booklikes is wonderful, and realizing (again) that it might disappear meant that I needed to start figuring out an alternative way to keep in touch with my bookish friends in a hurry.

As it turned out, the domain was ultimately renewed. But, the activity caused me to start following as many of the blogs of those friends as I could find, and it has also motivated me to start blogging again over here. I’ve decided to consolidate all of my book blogging on this one site, so while I will continue to focus on women authors prior to 2000, I will be talking about all of the books that I read in this same place. It’s just too much work to keep up with multiple, subject-oriented blogs. There’s going to be an organizational piece that I have to work out, but I’ll get there through the use of pages, categories and tags.

What I read this week:

This was another week for rereading. I have found that with all of the stress of the pandemic world, it’s really hard for me to even want to pick up a new book. I find myself gravitating to old favorites and other comfort reads, and for me, first among comfort reads is Agatha Christie.

I think that it is the fact that, at this point, I know her world so well, so I know that when I pick up a Christie, I’ll get a well-plotted mystery, certain British character archetypes, and a satisfying resolution. There are rarely uncomfortable loose ends in a Christie mystery.

So, this week, I read Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, which is a favorite because Ariadne Oliver is in fine fettle in this particular, late Christie, and Cat Among the Pigeons, which is a bit of an odd Christie, successfully hybridizing her international thriller with a straight up murder mystery. Cat Among the Pigeons also features two exceptionally wonderful Christie characters – Miss Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank School, and Julia Upjohn, a daring, perceptive young woman.

I also started rereading the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, and finished The Beekeepers Apprentice and A Monstrous Regiment of Women. I’ve started A Letter of Mary, and am now trying to decide what else to crack open.

What I listened to this week

Someone on Booklikes turned me on to the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, so I’ve been dabbling in the first episodes and really enjoying them. I’m not a huge podcast listener, because I find that it interferes with my reading time or my blogging time or my working time. I can’t divide my mental attention, so unless I’m doing dishes or laundry or something, I really don’t listen to podcasts. Oh,except during I’m driving, of course, but who is driving these days? Not me.

What I watched this week

My “rereading” thing seems to have extended itself to television & movies. I’m rewatching Criminal Minds, a couple of episodes a night, while I do handwork like cross-stitching or embroidery. My mind really can’t cope with prestige television, with complicated, multi-episode story lines.

Non-Bookish stuff

The weather has been gorgeous in the PNW, where I live, so I’ve also been doing tons of yard work. I live on a wooded acre, and winter clean up has been huge this year. There has been yard debris burning and other major trimming and cutting back that needs to be finished. It’s a ton of work.

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Title: Miss Pym Disposes
Author: Josephine Tey
Published in 1946

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Even Miss Pym—lecturer at an English women’s college—agreed that final exam week was a rather grisly time at school, with ordinarily pretty girls poring red-eyed over heavy tomes, and rising at 5:00 A.M. … but murder?

Miss Pym was a warm-hearted, blithe little lady who had read thirty-seven books on psychology, disagreed with them all, and written pages and pages of rebuttal. To her amazement, she became a “best-seller”.

Then Leys College, where she was a guest lecturer, became the scene of a peculiar and fatal “accident”, which Miss Pym suspected was a planned crime. Putting her psychological theories into practice, Miss Pym turned up some surprising conclusions…

When I started Miss Pym Disposes, I was thinking about The Cat Among the Pigeons. By the end, though, I was reminded of two entirely different Christie mysteries.

I’ve been really busy, so this slender book took me a much longer time to read than I expected. And not because it wasn’t good, because it was good. Quite good.

This is my fourth Tey – I’ve already read Brat Farrar, The Franchise Affair & The Singing Sands. What a sadness it is that she died so young. I’m directly in the middle of her oevre – I’ve read four and have four left to read.

Miss Pym is not my favorite of the bunch – that honor goes to Brat Farrar. But there hasn’t been a Tey that I disliked, although I was least impressed by The Singing Sands. I’m going to have to give that one another chance, though, now that I’ve warmed to Tey so much more.

I really liked this one. The setting at the school was delightful, and the characters of the Seniors were drawn with perspicacity laced with generosity. Like another bookish friend, I loved Nut Tart. Tey captured that moment in life when school is ending and youth is moving onto, and into, its future. The anticipation, the desperation, the uncertainty, the sense of standing on a precipice.

Did Miss Pym do the right thing? That’s a question that remains. I tend to think not, because her decision absolved a character who is dangerously unbalanced. Perhaps if Tey had lived longer, a sequel would have required Miss Pym to reckon with the consequences of her decision.

I’m reminded of Hickory Dickory Dock, or even Crooked House, a little bit here. Who takes responsibility for the next victim. And the victim after that? Because if there’s one thing that Agatha Christie teaches us, it’s that a murderer who has gotten away with it doesn’t stop at one – especially when the murder is cold-bloodedly motivated by gain. And both of those books addressed, in their own fashion, the arrogance of the individual who decides, on behalf of the community, how to handle a murder, and a murderer.

Anyway, great read!

Possession by A.S. Byatt

Title: Possession
Author: A.S. Byatt
Published in 1990

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. I bought a used copy from Abebooks because it’s on my Round 2 Classics Club list, and I’ve been meaning to reread it. I read it for the first time decades ago, around the time that it won the Booker Prize. I remember really loving it when I first read it, and I loved it even more this time around.

This book is everything I want in a piece of literary fiction. I love Victorian novels anyway – you’ll often find me reading Trollope or Gaskell or one of the Brontes or something by Wilkie Collins (less so Dickens because my relationship with Dickens is complicated) – so reading a book about a pair Victorian poets was already going to be something that would work really well for me.

I also love a well-done dual timeline, although that particular device has gotten to the point where it is sadly overused by people whose writing chops are inadequate to manage it. This one moves back and forth between the Christabel/Randolph Ash timeline and the present with Roland & Maud. I almost always like the historical timeline better, but Byatt’s character development is so good that I enjoyed the present timeline as much as the historical stuff.

Which brings me to the academic literary detective work. That is like some sort of catnip to me. I love it desperately and find it incredibly intriguing. Finding connections between authors, their works, other authors, mining for clues, that’s just so much fun. This book had that in spades.

I also have to just note how incredibly well-done this book is. It is replete with an entire, collateral, body of work of these two poets in what I would call the “evidentiary” portions of the book. The letters, the poems, wow. She spends very little time narrating the lives of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash and yet, through their letters and poems, they spring off the page in certain ways and yet remain ciphers in others. I absolutely loved this – it felt so real.

The book does start out a bit slow, but the second half is phenomenal. By the end, I couldn’t put it down. The final reveal wasn’t really a surprise – I’d been suspecting something along the lines of the ending for a good chunk of the book (and, of course, I have read it before, although my recollection was dimmed by the passage of time).

Anyway, I absolutely loved this book. I’m half inclined to just open it up at the beginning and read it again, so that I can savor the structure and the clues once more, now that I know where it is all headed. I probably won’t, but I am mentally penciling this book in for a reread in six months or so just for that reason.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnet

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Published in 1961

Plot summary from Goodreads: Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land.

I read this as a buddy read in January, and it has stayed with me for a considerable time since I finished. It was really something of a tour de force, and I’m still certain that I missed a significant percentage of the plot, and even more of the literary, historical and linguistic allusions.

I really did enjoy this book, and will definitely read on in the series. Dunnett is a fearless writer – she didn’t hesitate to put her characters (all of them) through a series of trials, some of which were downright awful. She killed off one character of whom I was extremely fond. I was, and still am, shocked at the almost casual speed of that particular death.

Someone else mentioned the women characters and how wonderfully well-rounded they were. I totally agree. I loved Lady Sybilla, especially at the end.

Dunnett also very much respected the intellect of her readers (maybe sometimes too much, from my perspective, ha). She packed the book with nuggets for the discerning reader to find. I’m sure that I missed a lot of them. She also just takes off with the story and proceeds apace, reaching a breakneck speed toward the end, when the revelations and the action are flying.

The final reveal wasn’t particularly shocking to me – I think that she had set it up throughout the course of the book so that it was pretty natural. This was really a swashbuckling adventure, and not a mystery, so she wasn’t so much trying to palm the ace as keep it away from the characters view for a while.

Of all of the characters, Lymond remains the most unclear to me. I still don’t feel like I have a real handle on who he is – he played so many parts that he almost doesn’t have a true identity. He is infinitely iinteresting, and I’d like to get to know him better.

I’m not sure when I will get to the next book, but I will get to the next book. This book got all of the stars from me, and I suspect I would enjoy it just as much on reread.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Title: The Girls of Slender Means
Author: Muriel Spark
Published in 1963

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—”three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit”—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel’s harrowing ending reveals that the girls’ giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called “one of this century’s finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment.”

I’m pretty sure that I just don’t get Muriel Spark. This was my second book by her – the first being Loitering With Intent. I think that her acerbic wit is just a little too witty and a little too acerbic for me. I don’t even know what “comic-metaphysical entertainment” is, so I can’t comment on that characterization. This was my Classics Spin book.

The Girls of Slender Means is, itself, a slender book, but it operates on multiple levels. It’s told, in part, in flashbacks, but it wasn’t always clear when we were in flash back and when we were in present day. The ending was harrowing, but it also felt like it came out of nowhere. It’s an interesting slice of life of London during the war, and can be read for that alone. The deeper meanings eluded me, but I enjoyed it for what was on the surface.

The Valley of Decision by Edith Wharton

Title: The Valley of Decision
Author: Edith Wharton
Published in 1902

Plot Summary from Goodreads: Wharton combined her insider’s view of America’s privileged classes with a brilliant, natural wit to write humorous, incisive novels and short stories of social and psychological insight. Wharton’s first full-length novel, The Valley of Decision, is set in eighteenth-century Italy. Here Wharton pits folks inspired by the antireligious thoughts of Rousseau and Voltaire against the orthodox leaders of the day. Soon enough Wharton’s nigh-constant theme comes through: this, like most other violations of personal convention, will come at a terrible cost.

Who would have thought that Edith Wharton’s first novel was so far afield of the rest of her work – a piece of historical fiction set in the late 1700’s in The Piedmont area of Italy, before Italy was anything other than a collection of small feudal states. The Valley of Decision follows the life of Odo Valsecca as he grows from child to man. Odo is the nephew of the Duke of Pianura, who ultimately ascends the position of Duke himself after both his uncle and his cousin die, his cousin, the ducal heir, in young childhood.

The Valley of Decision is divided into four parts. The first covers his childhood and the last his ascension to the throne. The middle two are chiefly concerned with Odo’s interest in the liberal ideals of philosophers like Rousseau and his involvement with free-thinkers, who are at great risk in the Italy from both crown and church. During this youthful period of intellectual growth, Odo falls in love with Fulvia Vivaldi, daughter of a philosopher who ends up having to flee because of, at least in part, Odo’s lack of care in spending time with the elderly man, which draws the attention of the authorities to him.

This book involves a lot of the same themes as Wharton’s later works – the impact of society’s rules on the people who must live by them, the stultifying meaninglessness of those rules, the doom that pretty inevitably falls on characters who flout the rules. It’s odd to have her playing out these themes in the context of the 1790’s in Italy, though, and isn’t completely successful. The free-thinking Odo only partly came alive for me. It’s hard to imagine how someone could be quite that obtuse after being forced to flee from his ideals repeatedly.

As always, Wharton’s writing is polished into a shining, perfect surface, without so much as a word out of place. However, I found it difficult to engage with the story, and felt, at times, like the book was a slog. The final half moved much more quickly than the first half, and the ending, while certainly not shocking given my experience with Wharton, did manage to raise an emotional response in me.

I don’t know if someone told Wharton to write about the New York society that she knows so well and brings to life with such intensity, but, to the extent that someone did, we owe that person an incredible literary debt. This is a well-written book, but is ultimately unsatisfying and I can well understand why it has slipped into relative obscurity.