Author Archives: Christine

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Why Didn't They Ask EvansWhy Didn't They Ask Evans
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: September 1, 1934
Genre: crime
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

When Bobby Jones found a dying man at the foot of a Cliff beside a golf course, he stood in the shadow of his own Death.
But Bobby was lucky - lucky to escape being poisoned, and lucky to have the Quick-witted Frankie, otherwise Lady Frances Derwant, to help find the would-be murder,
Their only clues - a photograph and the dead man's last Words : Why didn't they ask Evans??


Back in 2019, when I was finishing up my Agatha Christie mystery project, I kept this one back so I could read it last. February 23, 2019 was the day that I finished it, and I remember being really happy that it was my final mystery. If I tried to describe this book in one word, that word would be charming.

This is a relatively early Christie – published in 1934 – as she moves into the period during which she will publish her best known and most beloved books. Murder on the Orient Express is the book that directly follows this one, and it is preceded by Lord Edgware Dies, which isn’t up to the standard of MotOE, but is still quite a good Christie. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was also published under the title The Boomerang Clue, and my paperback copy uses that title.

I was meant to read this book last November, as part of the Appointment with Agatha GR group, but, at the time, I just didn’t have the time to get to it. When I saw that the new Hugh Laurie adaptation was getting ready to drop for US viewers, I decided that I really needed to revisit it. I also convinced my daughter to read it, and we plan to watch the adaptation together soon. Maybe even as soon as tomorrow, but maybe not until next weekend, depending on where she is in the book.

This is just a post about the book, but a quick word about the trailer for the adaptation – it’s available on YouTube and it looks completely, again, charming. Will Poulter has been a favorite actor of mine since his turn as Eustace Scrubb in the not-particularly-good-nor-successful adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The movie was mediocre at best, but he was terrific. He was also really good in Dopesick as the pharmaceutical rep who finds his conscience. I also really like Lucy Boynton – I thought she was really good in both Bohemian Rhapsody and the Branah version of MotOE. If they have any chemistry at all, the casting looks to me to be about perfect.

Back to the book, though. I remember being surprised when I read it because I mentally had it placed in the 1950’s in Christie’s oevre, and this is definitely early 1930’s Christie. Frankie and Bobby are delightful – similar to Tommy and Tuppence in many ways, and also reminiscent of Bundle Brent and Anne Beddingfeld. The mystery itself is mundane – this is just a vehicle for the two protagonists to spend time together and to careen madly across a British countryside. It recaps some of the social issues that we see in this Christie era. Bobby has been released from the Navy and is at a loose end in a country with high unemployment and poor prospects from men of his class and experience. Frankie is the daughter of an earl, but isn’t all that interested in the young men of her class, and is much more invested in the idea of adventure. And Bobby. This book has one of her more delightful romantic subplots.

Basically, come for the mystery, stay for the charm.

Book 56: Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple

Because of the LockwoodsBecause of the Lockwoods
by Dorothy Whipple
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1949
Genre: fiction
Pages: 466
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The story is deceptively simple: the entanglement of two families in a northern town called Aldworth. One, the Lockwoods, wealthy and powerful, in a position to patronise and help the second family, the poor Hunters, who have been left fatherless with a weak, ineffectual mother.

Though the thudding heart of the story draws the reader inexorably along, hoping for the meek to conquer the strong, it is a surprising book in many ways, not least for its subversive portrayal of family – the children are often the adults, the parents the untrustworthy, unwise ones, and Whipple makes it clear that what we call today the nuclear family is not the answer to happiness. But what may be most satisfying about the book is how the climax is reached as a result of character. This is twentieth-century British fiction at its very best.


This is my second book by Dorothy Whipple this year, and I’m trying to figure out where she has been all my life. Also, how does Whipple manage to make stories in which almost nothing happens, involving very mundane mid-twentieth century family concerns, so suspenseful?

The book begins with the Hunters and the Lockwoods as part of the same social circle and social class in the rather grim town of Aldworth, in the industrial north of England. I was reminded several times of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, in reading this book – I’ll follow up on this a bit later. The Hunters and the Lockwoods own large neighboring country homes on the outskirts of Aldworth, where they are the local gentry. Mr. Hunter is an architect, Mr. Lockwood does something in law/finance. In the first few pages, Mr. Hunter dies, leaving his wife and three children: Molly, Martin and Thea, basically destitute. Mr. & Mrs. Lockwood also have three children – daughters all – a set of twins named Bee and Muriel who are seemingly around Thea’s age, and Clare, who is younger.

And here the paths diverge.

There is a moment, very early in the book, where Mr. Lockwood engages in some very self-serving and unethical behavior, and basically converts a pretty large percentage of the very small estate left by Mr. Hunter to himself. This really sets the stage for the entire relationship between the Lockwoods and the Hunters, in which the Lockwoods pretend that they are doing the Hunters good turns by allowing them to associate with them, when what is really happening is that they are using and mistreating the Hunter family.

I became very, very frustrated with Mrs. Hunter during the course of this book. I struggle with weak, ineffectual characters, especially when those weak, ineffectual characters have children and need to buck up and get on with it. Mrs. Hunter was entirely incapable of bucking up and getting on with it, which meant that her children suffered quite a lot. She was perfectly willing to prostrate herself before the garish and rather vulgar Lockwoods, if it meant continuing to be recognized by them. In addition, she turned their finances over to Mr. Lockwood, who felt quite put upon, and this, as it turned out, was a really bad idea.

So, the Lockwoods essentially run their lives, but in ways which solely benefit the Lockwoods. When the oldest Hunter child, Molly, reaches the age of 15, Mrs. Lockwood farms her out to a family that needs a governess, in spite of the fact that Molly is shy, not particularly academic, and is a terrible governess. This goes on for years, making Molly miserable, as she is shunted from family to family, underpaid, by Mrs. Lockwood. Molly’s only real talent is baking – and she is quite accomplished. Mrs. Lockwood shows up for tea with Mrs. Hunter, and literally eats them out of house and home, completely blind to the fact that the Hunters are broke and she is eating their dinner.

Moving on to Martin, the middle Hunter child and the only son – Martin wants to be a doctor. When he reaches approximately 15, Mr. Lockwood bursts his dream and sends him out as a bank clerk. Now both Martin and Molly are miserable. It’s worth noting that, thus far in the book, none of the Hunters have an ounce of gumption, which they could sorely use. I was on the edge of my metaphorical seat, waiting and wanting desperately for someone to tell Mr. or Mrs. Lockwood, or their horrible twin daughters, to go fuck themselves. I mean, in very polite, 1949 language.

Thea, the youngest of the Hunter children, on the other hand is not so easily squashed. And this is really her story, although we don’t get to it until about 40%.

And then, Oliver Reade, a young upstart who is definitely not of the Hunter’s class, moves in next door. Like Mr. Lockwood, he is a managing sort with his fingers in many pies, which are becoming more lucrative every day. Unlike Mr. Lockwood, he is a very good and ethical person. He immediately falls for Thea, and Thea immediately dislikes him, which brings me back to the North and South reference from above. Oliver Reade, like John Thornton, is in trade. Thea, like Margaret Hale, is from the upper class, albeit one which has fallen on hard times. He is a great character and I fell for him immediately, mentally yelling at Thea to stop being such a brat and to pull her head out of her backside.

The idea that anyone could think that the Lockwoods were superior to Oliver Reade is preposterous and shows the rot endemic in any hereditary aristocracy or class system.

I’m going to stop here, because I don’t want to spoil the story, but suffice it to say, it is really satisfying. I can’t say that I absolutely loved the ending, which is why I knocked off that final half-star. It could have been perfect, but it wasn’t. I wanted just a bit more.

Friday Reading Round-Up: 04.01.2022

Last week’s books:

I finished a bunch of books last week. I finally finished The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, although I need to take some time to write up a post about it. I also read all three of my #FridayReads books from last week: Close Her Eyes by Dorothy Simpson, Desolation Canyon by P.J. Tracey & Tempest Tost by Robertson Davies. On top of those four books, I read The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard and I finished A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman. A very good reading week, indeed!

This week’s plans:

I’m at a loose end right now, and ready to start something new!

 

Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple: I read The Priory earlier this year and really loved it. One of the bloggers I follow read & reviewed Because of the Lockwoods a few weeks ago, which inspired me to check it out of the library.

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie: This is not my favorite Christie mystery because I feel like the puzzle itself is lacking. However, I really like the characters in this one, including the narrator, Amy Leatheran, who is different from Christie’s usual young women, and I love the setting, so I always enjoy reading it.

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper: This will finish out The Dark Is Rising Sequence for me. It’s coming off of my TBR cart, so that’s another book to cross off the Mt. TBR Challenge list!

Library Loot

Print Books:

I returned a bunch of books this week that I didn’t get to – it was time to clear the decks a bit.

  1. Browsings by Michael Dirda: I have actually started this one, & I’m reading a few essays at a time.
  2. A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders: this is a bit of a project read, but I definitely want to get to it.
  3. Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban: NYRB title. I’m running out of time, so this may end up being catch & release.
  4. Dangerous to Know by Tasha Alexander: I want to get back to this series, but fitting this book into my reading schedule isn’t going to be easy.
  5. Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple: I checked this out because I read a review it from a fellow blogger & I loved The Priory.
  6. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge: This was a total whim checkout. I’ve never read Elizabeth Goudge.
  7. Read Dangerously: the subversive power of literature in troubled times by Azar Nafisi: checked out, will read.
  8. The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler: I’m not sure I will actually get to this one, but I haven’t ruled it out.

E-Books

  1. Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron: I heard about this on a podcast & it sounds really fun.
  2. The Nothing Man by Catherine Ryan Howard: I’ve been hearing about Catherine Ryan Howard for months and I’ve never read anything. This is supposed to be a good thriller. I’ve finished this one, but haven’t returned it because my mom might want to read it.
  3. Desolation Canyon by P.J. Tracy: I honestly can’t remember where I heard about this, but I know someone read & liked it. I also finished this one, but I’m holding onto it in case Caitlyn/mom want to give it a go.
  4. Pavilion in the Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith
  5. A Taste for Death by P.D. James: next up in my Dalgleish reread
  6. Hiding in Plain Sight: the invention of Donald Trump and the erosion of America by Sarah Kendzior: I follow Kendzior on Twitter and she has a new book coming out. That one wasn’t available yet, but this one is.
  7. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: I’ve only read Daisy Jones and the Six by Reid, but I really liked it. This one sounds like a page turner.
  8. The Dark Winter by David Mark: This one came up when I was looking for Winter Dark, which a friend mentioned yesterday and I thought it looked good. Checked out on a whim.
  9. The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard: After I consumed The Nothing Man, I decided to dig into Howard’s backlist. This is the first hold that has been delivered.

Book Haul:

I had tiny haul this week!

  1. Winter Dark by Alex Callister: my friend Mike Finn mentioned how much he enjoyed this, and it was only $2.99 for my kindle.
  2. The African Trilogy by Chinua Achebe: I bought this omnibus edition last weekend at my favorite bookstore/coffee shop. Achebe is a DWS author-in-residence for October-December, so I am planning ahead a bit here.
  3. Family Furnishings by Alice Munro: bought at a UBS.
  4. Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar: I forgot to mention this one last week, but I grabbed it for the Appointment with Agatha April side read.

Mt. TBR Challenge: Quarterly Update

My goal for the TBR cart* was to read 36 books this year – basically 3 per month. I’m on track so far:

Sunday, 3.27.2022 & first quarter update:

  1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain; 2/11/2022
  2. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather; 1/23/2022
  3. Waiting for Willa by Dorothy Eden; 3/6/2022
  4. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin: 2/17/2022
  5. Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper; 1/5/2022
  6. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper; 1/21/2022
  7. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper; 3/6/2022
  8. The Grey King by Susan Cooper; 3/12/2022
  9. The Maine Massacre by Janwillem van de Wetering; 3/9/2022
  10. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman; 3/27/2022

I have two reads from the TBR cart that I’ve been working on:

  1. Tempest Tost by Robertson Davies, which is the first book in the Salterton Trilogy and
  2. A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman, which has been my bedside book for a couple of weeks. I’m reading a chapter every few days. I would really like to finish this by the end of March, so I think I will buckle down. I only have about 3 chapters left.

As part of the quarterly update process, I have also decided that I will take the opportunity to review what’s on the TBR cart, and add books to fill the cart, but also to replace books that aren’t sparking my interest at all. So, my current cart, with new titles in red:

Tier One:

  • The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner
  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  • Death in Rough Water by Francine Mathews
  • Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple
  • Miss Buncle Married by D.E. Stevenson
  • Mariana by Monica Dickens
  • The Spoilt Kill by Mary Kelly
  • Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
  • Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • The Bowstring Murders by Carr Dickson
  • The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay
  • Professor Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto

Tier Two:

  • The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden
  • An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
  • The Road to Paradise by Victoria Holt
  • The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies
  • The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
  • The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander
  • The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander
  • Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander
  • The High King by Lloyd Alexander
  • The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman
  • The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
  • The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • My American by Stella Gibbon
  • The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbon

Tier Three:

  • Howards End by E.M. Forster
  • Shadows Waiting by Anne Eliot
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  • Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
  • The Shadow of the Lynx by Victoria Holt
  • The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
  • The Day of the Scorpion by Paul Scott
  • The Towers of Silence by Paul Scott
  • A Division of the Spoils by Paul Scott
  • Alanna by Tamora Pierce
  • In the Hand of the Goddess by Tamora Pierce
  • The Woman Who Rides Like a Man by Tamora Pierce
  • Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

I enjoyed re-reading/reading The Dark Is Rising Sequence (although I still have book 5 to finish) so I decided to pull a very few books, but to add two additional YA series that I have never finished: Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series and the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce. In addition, I bought the whole Paul Scott Raj Quartet at a UBS many years ago (in fact, the receipt is still in the books – it was 2013 when I bought them) and it has been hanging around, waiting to be read. This seemed like a good time to add them to the cart!

*For those of you who are wondering about the handsome ginger pictured, Sora is our youngest cat, named by my son after a character in his favorite childhood video game franchise of all time, Kingdom Hearts. Yes, his tail is incredibly long!

P.D. James: Cordelia Gray and Adam Dalgleish

An Unsuitable Job for a WomanAn Unsuitable Job for a Woman
by P.D. James
Rating: ★★★
Series: Cordelia Gray #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1972
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 256
ReRead?: Yes
Project: a century of women

Handsome Cambridge dropout Mark Callender died hanging by the neck with a faint trace of lipstick on his mouth. When the official verdict is suicide, his wealthy father hires fledgling private investigator Cordelia Gray to find out what led him to self-destruction. What she discovers instead is a twisting trail of secrets and sins, and the strong scent of murder. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces P. D. James's courageous but vulnerable young detective, Cordelia Gray, in a top-rated puzzle of peril that holds you all the way


This is the first book in the Cordelia Gray duology. Cordelia Gray is P.D. James’s less well-known sleuth: a young private detective who more or less inherits a nearly bankrupt business when her mentor and former “partner” dies by suicide unexpectedly at the beginning of the book. She decides to carry on, and accepts her first case, which requires that she travel to Cambridge to try to determine why the young son of a prominent scientist has also committed suicide.

While I enjoyed this book, I don’t think that this book is nearly as good as her Adam Dalgleish series, which I am in the process of rereading. I’m sure I’ll pick up the sequel to this one, just for the sake of completion.

Death of an Expert WitnessDeath of an Expert Witness
by P.D. James
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Adam Dalgleish #6
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 368
ReRead?: Yes

Dr. Lorrimer appeared to be the picture of a bloodless, coldly efficient scientist. Only when his brutally slain body is discovered and his secret past dissected does the image begin to change. Once again, Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh learns that there is more to human beings than meets the eye -- and more to solving a murder than the obvious clues.


This installment in the Dalgleish series was really good. The victim, Dr. Lorrimer, is deeply, deeply unlikeable: bitter, mean, angry, and self-absorbed. While they aren’t any really great motives here, all of his acquaintances had some reason to dislike the victim. When he is bludgeoned to death in the lab, everyone is a suspect.

P.D. James develops the various characters – from the lab assistant that Lorrimer has tormented into a nervous breakdown, his colleagues, all of whom loathe him, his cousin, Angela, who is involved in a relationship with a woman and who was cut from her grandmother’s will in favor of Lorrimer, when she could very much have benefited from a legacy, to his lover, who has lost interest in him but he can’t let go.

Any of them had reason to have murdered him.

I didn’t solve the mystery, but I wasn’t surprised by the solution. The biggest surprise was that the victim lived as long as he did, given how horrible he was to the people around him.

Triple Play: Firestorm, Moscow Rules and Shadows Reel

I’m going to quickly blow through a few contemporary mysteries – this type of book is my catnip and I read a lot of them.

FirestormFirestorm
by Nevada Barr
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Anna Pigeon #4
Publication Date: January 1, 1996
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 310
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

A raging forest fire in California's Lassen Volcanic National Park traps exhausted firefighters, including Ranger Anna Pigeon, in its midst. Afterward, Anna finds two from her group have been killed. One a victim of the flames. The other, stabbed through the heart. Now, as a rampaging winter storm descends, cutting the survivors off from civilization, Anna must uncover the murderer in their midst.


Firestorm is book 4 in the Anna Pigeon series. Anna works for the National Park Service as a law enforcement officer, and each book is set in a different National Park. This element is my favorite part of the series – one of my retirement goals is to visit every single National Park in the U.S., so getting the little vignettes is fun.

This one was set in the Lassen Volcanic National Park in California, and the book is set within and then in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire that has resulted in one of the firefighters being killed. Anna is trapped in a closed circle with a group of fellow survivors, one of whom is the killer. It kept me interested to the very last page.

Moscow RulesMoscow Rules
by Daniel Silva
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Gabriel Allon #8
Publication Date: July 22, 2008
Genre: suspense, thriller
Pages: 433
ReRead?: No

Now the death of a journalist leads Allon to Russia, where he finds that, in terms of spycraft, even he has something to learn. He’s playing by Moscow rules now.
It is not the grim, gray Moscow of Soviet times but a new Moscow, awash in oil wealth and choked with bulletproof Bentleys. A Moscow where power resides once more behind the walls of the Kremlin and where critics of the ruling class are ruthlessly silenced. A Moscow where a new generation of Stalinists is plotting to reclaim an empire lost and to challenge the global dominance of its old enemy, the United States.

One such man is Ivan Kharkov, a former KGB colonel who built a global investment empire on the rubble of the Soviet Union. Hidden within that empire, however, is a more lucrative and deadly business. Kharkov is an arms dealer—and he is about to deliver Russia’s most sophisticated weapons to al-Qaeda. Unless Allon can learn the time and place of the delivery, the world will see the deadliest terror attacks since 9/11—and the clock is ticking fast.


I cut my reading teeth on cold war spy fic – Len Deighton, Robert Ludlum, etc – so sometimes only a spy novel will do. This is book 8 in Silva’s series centering on Gabriel Allon, Israeli super-spy. In this one, Allon spends time in Moscow, but not the cold war Moscow of my memory (Gen X here – I grew up during the Cold War). It ended up being a particularly timely read since Russia has resumed their historical place as the West’s greatest enemy by invading the sovereign nation of Ukraine.

Shadows ReelShadows Reel
by C.J. Box
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Joe Pickett #22
Publication Date: March 8, 2022
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 384
ReRead?: No

Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett’s job has many times put his wife and daughters in harm’s way. Now the tables turn as his wife discovers something that puts the Pickett family in a killer’s crosshairs in this thrilling new novel in the bestselling series.

A day before the three Pickett girls come home for Thanksgiving, Marybeth Pickett finds an unmarked package at the front door of the library where she works. When she opens the package she finds a photo album that belonged to an infamous Nazi official. Who left it there? And why did they leave it with her?

She learns that during World War II several Wyoming soldiers were in the group that fought to Hitler’s Eagles Nest retreat in the Alps—and one of them took Hitler’s personal photo album. Did another take this one and keep it all these years? When she finds the name of a deceased local man who was likely in the unit, Joe visits the man’s son—only to find him brutally tortured and murdered. Someone is after the photo album—but why? And when a close neighbor is murdered, Joe and Marybeth face a new question: How will they figure out the book’s mystery before someone hurts them…or their girls?

Meanwhile, Nate Romanowski is on the hunt for a younger and more ruthless version of himself—the man who stole Nate’s falcons and attacked his wife. Using a network of fellow falconers, Nate tracks the man from one city to another, learning that his target is an agitator and a financier of anarchists. Even as he grasps the true threat his quarry presents, Nate swoops in for the kill—and a stunning final showdown.


The Joe Pickett books aren’t just catnip to me – they are really more like creamy, chocolate covered crack. This is book 22, and was released last Tuesday. I read it in one sitting on Saturday. Because we are 22 books into a series that is set in a location that contains approximately 22 residents – Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming – Box has increasingly imported his mysteries from outside of Saddlestring.

What that means is that the mysteries have become more and more implausible. But, who cares. I am wildly entertained when I read a Joe Pickett. I know exactly what I am getting: Joe, will be uncorruptible, Marybeth, will be smart and supportive, Nate Romanowski will rip someone’s ear off, and, at some point, Joe’s state vehicle is going to get blown up. This one was true to the formula, and even though the story was, as always, bonkers, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper TreeThe Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1985
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 173
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Bella Winter has hit a low. Homeless and jobless, she is the mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured by the scar she acquired in a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella has found not only a job but a vocation; not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns’s novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the happiness of others?


This is the second book by Barbara Comyns that I have read – the first was Our Spoons Were From Woolworths, which I read back in January, 2019. Like that one, this was a very unique book. Comyns is not a cozy writer, even if some of her writing is very beautiful. Her books are disturbing, and sometimes harrowing, with characters whose mental health is often tenuous at best.

The Juniper Tree is a retelling of one of the most terrible and terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales (also called The Juniper Tree), which involved monstrous step-mothers, child abuse, decapitation and cannibalism. It is noteworthy for the following poem:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The book begins with the meeting of the main character, Bella Winter, who is at a low financial ebb, and a wealthy couple named Bernard and Gertrude. Bella is unmarried, and has a toddler-aged daughter named Tommy. She becomes enmeshed with Bernard and Gertrude, who are childless, and begins a job in an antique shop. Things seem to be headed in a positive direction.

As Bella grows closer to Bernard and Gertrude, their lives becomes more and more idealized to her. She takes the place of beloved daughter of the home, especially where Gertrude is concerned. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, though, things start to fall apart. The juniper tree, a part of a thicket that is an especially important section of Gertrude’s garden, takes on increasing significance.

If you are familiar with the fairy tale, the trajectory of the book will not surprise, but I don’t want to spoil it for readers who aren’t. Suffice to say that there are significant losses ahead, and, as well, Bella’s mental health becomes more fragile until it breaks completely. The end of this book is quite different from that in the fairy tale, and, thankfully, Comyn’s skips the cannibalism element.

I read the NYRB print edition, which I checked out of my local library. These books are very well made, and are a pleasure to read. The Juniper Tree definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it well-worth reading.

Black History Month: A Rage In Harlem by Chester Himes

A Rage in HarlemA Rage in Harlem
by Chester Himes
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Harlem Cycle #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1957
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

A Rage in Harlem is a ripping introduction to Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, patrolling New York City’s roughest streets in Chester Himes’s groundbreaking Harlem Detectives series.

For love of fine, wily Imabelle, hapless Jackson surrenders his life savings to a con man who knows the secret of turning ten-dollar bills into hundreds—and then he steals from his boss, only to lose the stolen money at a craps table. Luckily for him, he can turn to his savvy twin brother, Goldy, who earns a living—disguised as a Sister of Mercy—by selling tickets to Heaven in Harlem. With Goldy on his side, Jackson is ready for payback.


This is the last of my Black History Month reads, and was also the Appointment with Agatha side read for February. Chester Himes was an African American novelist whose novels included the Harlem Detectives series, featuring two black police officers, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson.

This book has a definite noir flavor, and is also completely bonkers. It starts off with a bang, and continues to explode periodically throughout the entire experience. Non-stop action from start to finish, with a lot of twists and turns, and some extremely unexpected murders along the way. It’s an extremely violent book.

On my GR group, it has had a bit of a polarizing effect. There are several people who really liked it, but others who DNF’d early on because they couldn’t connect to the story or style. I’m in sort of middling position – I liked it, but it was really violent. Himes certainly did surprise me several times. I think it’s unlikely that I’ll continue with the series, even though I found it to be worth reading as an example of early crime fiction written by a Black author.

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The SentenceThe Sentence
by Louise Erdrich
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: November 9, 2021
Genre: fiction, supernatural
Pages: 387
ReRead?: No

In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost story, a tale of passion, of a complex marriage, and of a woman's relentless errors.

Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store's most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls' Day, but she simply won't leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.

The Sentence begins on All Souls' Day 2019 and ends on All Souls' Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written.


It’s been a long time since I read a book by Louise Erdrich – I think that the last one was The Beet Queen, published in 1986, or maybe her co-written project with her ex-husband, Michael Dorris, The Crown of Columbus, published in 1991. I remember finding both of them fairly stunning, along with A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, written by Dorris and published in 1987. So, I guess it’s been somewhere around 30 years. If I put it into perspective, I think that Erdrich was a casualty of my abandonment of literary fiction for law school, motherhood, a profession, and genre.

I have been feeling an inclination back in the direction of literary fiction, which was something that I didn’t think was likely to ever happen again. Now that my career is winding down – and it definitely is winding down – I think I’m moving into a place where literary fiction is both more manageable and more interesting to me. I’ve spent years reading genre fiction and backlist/classic fiction, having largely dismissed contemporary literary fiction from my reading life.

In any case, Ms. Erdrich, it’s been a long time. Welcome back to my headspace. Now that you’re in there, I’d like to invite you to stick around for a while.

This book had so many elements that I really loved. The main character Tookie, and, especially, her stalwart husband, Pollux. The nods to indigenous practices and Native American literature and history, and the books. Tookie works in a bookstore, and it is fair to say that books saved her life when she received a clearly excessive prison sentence for some stupid criminality. Covid plays a role, along with the murder of George Floyd and the protests in Minneapolis that occurred in its wake.

Much of the action of the book occurs in a Minneapolis bookstore modeled on Birchbark Books, owned by Louise Erdrich, which is now on my bucket list of bookstores to visit before I die, along with Parnassus Books in Nashville (owned by Ann Patchett), the entire town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, and the Persephone Shop in London. Here are a few pictures I sourced from the internet.

Now the question is, which Erdrich should I pick up next? If you have an opinion, or if you’ve read one of her books that you really loved, drop it into the comments.

Black History Month: Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

Go Tell It On The MountainGo Tell It On The Mountain
by James Baldwin
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: May 18, 1953
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 240
ReRead?: No
Project: back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

“Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It on the Mountain, originally published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery one Saturday in March of 1935 of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle toward self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.


I’m still catching up on my Baldwin reads. This was a powerful book – it’s Baldwin’s first major work, published in 1953.  Set all on one day, it covers four separate perspectives: the main character, John Grimes, his step-father, Gabriel, a minister, his father’s sister, Florence, a woman nearly overcome with bitterness, and his long-suffering mother, Elizabeth. It’s semi-autobiographical, and reading Notes of a Native Son after reading this helped me to better understand the character of step-father – who comes off quite badly – and the relationship between the protagonist and his step-father.

Set in Harlem in 1930, it provides deep insight into the depression-era African-American experience in the (supposedly) more welcoming northern states.

“There was not, after all, a great difference between the world of the North and that of the South. There was only this difference: the North promised more. And this similarity: what it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other”.

It also pays attention to, in particular, the deep reliance on Christian faith possessed by many (if not most) African-Americans, in spite of their oppression and marginalization. Written in poetic language that echoes the King James Bible, I would count Go Tell It On The Mountain as essential reading for anyone who is interested in understanding the history of racism in the United States.