Halloween Bingo 2021

Every year for the last six years, I host a Halloween Bingo game in a secret group on Goodreads. This year I’ve decided that I am going to try to keep track of it over here, as well. The game runs for the 61 days between September 1 and October 31, with 61 potential squares. Each card, of course, only has 25 squares on it, including the center “free” square.

In order to qualify to mark off a square, the books need to fit the prompt and they also need to generally fit into one of for genres: mystery, suspense, supernatural or horror. These types of books have long “read” autumn to me, which is how the game got started.

My card for this year:

I have been working on choosing books for the squares over on GR, but will put up some posts over here as well. This is the time of year that I most heavily use the library as well, because most of the books that I read will be more “modern” books, although I have also read a lot of vintage mystery and classic horror over the years.

#Friday Reads 7.23.2021

I’ve been slowly reading the stories in the Alice Munro collection, which covers around the first half of her career. It has taken me a while, but I think I’ve finally cracked the Alice Munro code and am beginning to understand what all of the fuss is about.

There is also a new Jack Reacher television series in development, so I’ve decided to dip into the long-running series. At this point, I’ve only read the first book, so I’ve got book 2 on hold at the library, & I started book 3 last night.

Lastly, one of my remaining Teys is on the agenda for the weekend. I have 5 days left on my library checkout.

Back to the Classics

It’s midway through the year, & it’s time to check in on the ONE blog challenge that I committed to this year. So far, I’ve done a completely abysmal job of tracking my progress. I hope to get my act together this month, and get posts up for categories that I have fulfilled!

While I haven’t been sufficiently motivated to write any posts of the books that I’ve read to fulfill the challenge categories, I have completed 6 of the 12 categories. I will be working to get posts up this month, but for now, just a recap:

A 19th Century Classic: I had planned to read Elizabeth Gaskell or Anthony Trollope for this one, but I ended up read The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, published in 1844. This is a beloved adventure story that has so permeated pop culture at this point that I don’t think anyone doesn’t know at least the bare outlines of the story.

A 20th Century Classic: I’ve been on a tiny bit of a Stella Gibbons tear – she was one of the authors-in-residence chosen for January-March by my GR vintage fiction group. I managed to read two books by Ms. Gibbons: Westwood and The Swiss Summer.

A Classic by a Woman Author: This one is still open; I’m still vaguely planning on one of those final two Cather novels. But I read so many classics by women that, really, this one could end up as anything. 

A Classic in Translation: I’m tempted to use The Three Musketeers for this one, but I’m going to leave it where it is (at least for now). This one remains open.

A Classic by a BIPOC author: I ended up subbing A Fire Next Time for If Beale Street Could Talk, but stayed with James Baldwin as the author of choice for this category.

A Classic by a New-To-You Author: I have been meaning to read something by Margery Sharp for several years, so I picked The Nutmeg Tree for this category.

New-To-You Classic by a Favorite Author: This one is still open.

A Classic about an Animal or with an Animal in the Title: I haven’t read for this one, yet, although I had tentatively selected The Wind in the Willows for this category.

A Children’s Classic: Ursula LeGuin was selected as an author-in-residence as well, so I read The Wizard of Earthsea

A Humorous or Satirical Classic: This really isn’t my jam at all, so I’ll just come up with something. Probably Wodehouse.

A Travel or Adventure Classic: I read Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, and it fits into this category just beautifully.

A Classic Play: Plays also aren’t my jam, but I do have a paperback omnibus of several of Agatha Christie’s plays, so it will probably come from that, and will most likely be The Mousetrap. An alternative possibility is Dickon by Josephine Tey (writing as Gordon Daviot).

So, I’ve filled exactly half of the categories, which is perfectly acceptable, since the year is half over!

July Reading Plans

As always, a lot of my reading plans are informed by my GR groups – I moderate an Agatha Christie group that is reading all 66 of Christie’s full length novels in order of publication, as well as a vintage mystery (published in 1970 or before) side read. July has us reading Murder at the Vicarage (the first Marple!) and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith In addition, I have a small private group that reads vintage fiction, and for 2021 we are doing a project that we are calling “authors-in-residence.” We have chosen two authors per quarter, and the group members who are participating select a book (or more, if they want) to read and discuss. We start a new quarter in July, and have selected Virginia Woolf and Philip Roth as our “authors-in-residence” for July, August & September. Finally, I will be rereading The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey for a different group, as well as The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler to fill a challenge.

Even with these plans, there is room for spontaneity. I am a couple of books behind on the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie R. King, and started Riviera Gold last week. I’m partway through it and enjoying the name-checking of Gerald and Sarah Murphy. I read a wonderful piece of non-fiction about them years ago, Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill, so peeking at a fictionalized version of life at the Villa American is a lot of fun for me. The most recent book, Castle Shade, is also my TBR for July, if I get to it.

There are a few series that I preorder, and read pretty immediately after the books drop – and the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths is one of them. Her most recent, The Night Hawks, was published in February, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. The Lady Darby series by Anna Lee Huber, is another favorite, and the newest installment – A Wicked Conceit – dropped on May 21. Soon, for both of those!

I’m going to be putting together a few posts to catch up on my Back to the Classics Challenge. I’ve finished some of the categories, but have been very dilatory about getting the posts up, and I need to figure out where I am at and what I still have to read.

June Recap

I read 15 books in June, which is a solid month for me. So far, I’m up to 80 books this year – I set a relatively low goal for myself of 104 books, which is 2 books per week. I typically read much more than that, and I expect to hit my goal around the end of July/beginning of August. This lets me relax without racing to meet a goal at the end of the year, which is what happens when I set 200 as my bookish goal.

It was a mystery intensive month, with all but two of my reads falling into that category – although it was probably the two non-mystery books that made the biggest impact on me.

First, I reread Sharon Kay Penman’s doorstopping blockbuster of a Richard III history, The Sunne in Splendour. I’m a long-time Penman fan, and her recent death was terribly sad. I’ve been meaning to reread the Welsh Princes trilogy, and this may well be just the motivation that I need to do it. I so enjoyed this book, and, as well, it was a buddy read with some wonderful GR friends, so we’ve been having a terrific discussion about it over there in a private group.

The second book that I would mention that was a highlight of the month for me was Travels with Charley by Steinbeck. I had big plans for a Steinbeck project this year, and they have largely fizzled, unfortunately. However, I did manage to check this out of the library and blew through it in a couple of days. It was a really great read, Steinbeck’s observations are so insightful, and reading this book in particular was a time capsule of a long-gone America.

One of my favorite quotes is this:

American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. This is not said in criticism of one system or the other but I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness—chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in sea.

Steinbeck could see us, and our future, with such painful clarity.

Other bits and pieces: I’m making my way through Ed McBain’s incredibly long-running 87th precinct series, and this month I read books 9 (‘Til Death) and 10 (King’s Ransom). They were both interesting installments. ‘Til Death was a little bit lighter, with Detective Steve Carella giving wedding night advice both to his younger sister (awkward) and the groom (more awkward?). King’s Ransom was an intriguing psychological novel that asks the question: would you bankrupt yourself to save someone else’s child? Both are short, punchy and quick, as seems to be true of the entire series.

I also read 3 old Nancy Drews. Occasionally I get into a mood where I want to revisit my childhood, and Nancy Drew is a way to do it. My library has most of them in ebook, so I check them out where the whim takes me and the nostalgia doesn’t cost me a dime.

Anyway, happy July!

Almost at the midpoint of the year

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost July – summer solstice has come and gone and we’re, again, on the downside of our trip around the sun. The weather in my neck of the woods – the Pacific Northwest – has been unbearably hot for the last couple of days. We were experiencing something called a “heat dome” which left Portland with the distinction of having a high temperature that is the highest of any major US city with the exception of Phoenix and Las Vegas.

This is pretty crazy for a place that is known for rain and mist and lush green spaces. Today is much better – although it’s still hot for June. We’re looking at a high of 93 degrees. To put that into perspective, yesterday the high was 115 degrees.

The last 15 months or so has brought with it one extreme event after another – first the pandemic, then historic wildfires that forced tens of thousands of people, including me, to evacuate their homes in suburban Portland for three days, then a once in a century ice storm that knocked out power for five days and brought the region to a standstill, and now this historic and overwhelming heat wave that shattered all of the past records by almost 10 degrees.

I think that this explains, at least in part, why I have been so adverse to the idea of just sitting down and writing a blog post. I’m not really in a reading slump, although nothing is appealing to me very strongly. I feel like I’m just going through the motions as a reader, not really engaging with any of the books.

I’m already 80 books into the year, and I haven’t written a single post. I’m tracking them on Goodreads, but that’s it. I feel like I’ve run out of things to say about the activity that has brought me more solace and pleasure over the years than just about any other. But this doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going to try something different.

I know I can’t force it, but I am going to make time for blogging about books. I may or may not end up actually publishing the posts that I write, but I’m going to write them. I’m going to talk about what I’m reading, here or on Goodreads, more intentionally and thoughtfully. Because I think that will remind of me what I love about reading and how much it adds to my life and my perspective.

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.