Category Archives: Index of Authors

Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning

Fortunes of War: The Levant TrilogyFortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy
by Olivia Manning
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Fortunes of War #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1981
Genre: fiction
Pages: 548
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

It’s the spring of 1941 and the German army’s eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city’s bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines.

Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning’s magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband.

As is often the case, while I meant to read this second omnibus on the immediate heels of finishing the first, I didn’t. I needed a bit of a break from Harriet and, especially, Guy Pringle. It took me several months to pull this chunkster off my NYRB shelf.

I am so glad I did. When I last left Harriet and Guy, they had managed to publicly shame a quartet (or so) of deeply self-centered jerks into allowing a much larger group of refugees to board their ships for Egypt. This set of three books begins with Harriet and Guy in Cairo. Guy is still bound to employment with The Institute, but there is no one there to oversee him.

The three books in this omnibus are The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978, and The Sum of Things, published in 1981. Harriet and her marriage remain a narrative focus, but Manning adds a second POV character, Simon Boulderstone, a young English soldier who arrives in Egypt at the beginning of The Danger Tree. I really loved his contribution to the story, which brought verisimilitude as well as an emotional anchor to the trilogy.

The title of the first book is a reference to the mango tree which grows outside of the room where Harriet and Guy are living in Cairo. I struggled with Guy in The Balkan Trilogy. That did not change throughout these three books. I know that the entire six book cycle is based, at least in part, on the author’s experience as a young married woman during the war. How she did not punch her husband in the face will remain a mystery for all eternity.

Because Guy is worse, here. He is self-centered and pompous, barely giving his wife a thought from time to time. He has a grotesquely overblown sense of his own importance. When Harriet tries to make him understand that he shouldn’t treat her like shit, his response is basically that she is “a part of him” and he can treat himself like shit if he wants. He constantly puts her last. She should have shoved him out of a window and gone home. There were a few times that I had to rage quit and walk away.

But, even for all of this, I loved this book. It was a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I am already planning to reread it in a few years or so.

I want to close this with the Coda that Manning put at the end of the final book:

Two more years were to pass before the war ended. Then, at last, peace, precarious peace, came down upon the world and the survivors could go home. Like the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy, they had now to tidy up the ruins of war and in their hearts bury the noble dead.

I wonder what happened to Simon and Harriet and Guy. Did they return to England and find work in peacetime? Did the Pringle’s marriage survive peace as it survived war? Did Guy ever pull his head out of his ass and figure out how to be a decent human being?

These are questions that will never be answered.

2023 Reading Journal: Books 1, 5, 9, & 12

The next round of quick updates is the golden age mysteries I’ve read so far this year: The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie; Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard and Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham.

The Mad Hatter MysteryThe Mad Hatter Mystery
by John Dickson Carr
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Gideon Fell #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1933
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.

This was my first book of the year. I’ve read several others by John Dickson Carr, and I pretty much always enjoy them. This was not a “locked room” mystery, which is his specialty, and wasn’t as good as The Hollow Man, which seems to be the acknowledged masterpiece, and which I rated a full five stars. The Mad Hatter Mystery is set in London, and is the second in his Gideon Fell series; Gideon Fell, for some reason that I can’t really explain, sort of reminds me of Nero Wolfe, although he is modeled on G.K. Chesterton. This one has quite a twist at the end, that I wasn’t expecting. I read the American Mystery Classics edition, published by Otto Penzler’s press.

One, Two, Buckle My ShoeOne, Two, Buckle My Shoe
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #20
Publication Date: November 1, 1940
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

Even the great Poirot harbours a deep and abiding fear of the dentist, so it is with trepidation that he arrives at the celebrated Dr Morley’s surgery for an examination.
Yet even Poirot couldn’t have guessed that only hours later he would be examining the dentist, dead in his surgery – an apparent suicide.

Why would a successful dentist choose to kill himself on such a busy day? Poirot turns to the other patients for answers – but only finds other, darker questions.

This one of those Christie mysteries that gets better every time I read it. It’s not her strongest work, and the first time I read it, I was actually not that impressed. It has improved on reread. I enjoyed the political element, and thought that Christie did a good job of portraying privileged individuals who believe – and are treated as though – they are above the law. Given the political realities in both my home country of the U.S., and in the British government, this seems to be a depressingly accurate depiction of power and the people who wield it.

Murder's a SwineMurder's a Swine
by Nap Lombard
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1943
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 280
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

In the blackout conditions of a wintry London night, amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof and a young air-raid warden have stumbled upon a corpse stowed in the walls of their street’s bomb shelter. As the police begin their investigation, the night is interrupted once again when Agnes’s upstairs neighbor Mrs Sibley is terrorized by the sight of a grisly pig’s head at her fourth-floor window. With the discovery of more sinister threats mysteriously signed ‘Pig-sticker’, Agnes and her husband Andrew – unable to resist a good mystery – begin their investigation to deduce the identity of a villain living amongst the tenants of their block of flats.

A witty and light-hearted mystery full of intriguing period detail, this rare gem of Golden Age crime returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1943.

This book was so much fun – one of the best BLCC reissues that I’ve read. It is set in 1943, in London during the earliest part of the war, with the victim found in an air raid shelter among the sandbags. The main “sleuths” are a married couple, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, with some of the same sparkle as Tommy and Tuppence or Nick and Nora (note the name alliteration, which seems to be a requirement). The killer taunts and scares his/her victims before murdering them by wearing a pig’s mask and appearing in windows before the murders; it’s a bit disturbing. There are motives aplenty. Overall, I really enjoyed this golden age mystery.

Coroner's PigeonCoroner's Pigeon
by Margery Allingham
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Albert Campion #12
Publication Date: October 1, 1945
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 241
ReRead?: No

World War II is limping to a close and private detective Albert Campion has just returned from years abroad on a secret mission. Relaxing in his bath before rushing back to the country, and to the arms of his wife, Amanda, Campion is disturbed when his servant, Lugg, and a lady of unmistakably aristocratic bearing appear in his flat carrying the corpse of a woman.

The reluctant Campion is forced to put his powers of detection to work as he is drawn deeper into the case, and into the eccentric Caradocs household, dealing with murder, treason, grand larceny, and the mysterious disappearance of some very valuable art.

I always want to like the Campion mysteries more than I actually like the Campion mysteries. I find Allingham’s plots to be convoluted and sometimes difficult to follow, although I do like her characters. I think that if I can just get a handle on the series, I will enjoy it more. I’ve been reading them out of order, and I’m wondering if it might be better to back up and start at the beginning – this was 12th in the series, and maybe that’s why I tend to struggle a bit. I have read The Crime at Black Dudley, which is nominally first in series, but barely includes Campion. When I dive back into this series, it will be with Book 2, Mystery Mile, and I’ll see if I make any headway.

Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Various Authors

Marple: Twelve New MysteriesMarple: Twelve New Mysteries
by Alyssa Cole, Dreda Say Mitchell, Elly Griffiths, Jean Kwok, Karen McManus, Kate Mosse, Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Foley, Naomi Alderman, Natalie Haynes, Ruth Ware, Val McDermid
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 13, 2022
Genre: short stories
Pages: 384
ReRead?: No

A brand-new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Mystery’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.

This collection of a dozen original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Agatha Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

Whew. I am not going to lie – this was a slog.

Let me explain.

I’m an Agatha Christie fan – I’ve read all of her full-length mysteries at least once, and most more than once. I’ve read much of her short fiction; I’ve read The Mysterious Mr. Quin and Parker Pyne Investigates; I read, and loved, the linked Poirot anthology, The Labours of Hercules, and the linked Marple Anthology, The Thirteen Problems, and the Tommy & Tuppence short stories collected in Partners in Crime. I haven’t read every single Poirot or Marple story, but there are only a handful left that remain unread.

So, I feel like I know Agatha. She’s a friend of mine.

Half of the stories in this book are not worthy of publication in any way associated with her name. From best to worst: The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse was excellent. It was a believable Marple story. It actually made me want to read more by Kate Mosse, as she was unknown to me.

Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage and Elly Griffith’s The Villa Rosa were both well done. I felt like McDermid, in particular, really accepted the challenge of writing a Marple story with an appropriate amount of respect and love for the source material. In addition, the Vicar – Len – and his wife – Griselda – are two of my favorite characters from the Christieverse, and she did right by them. Griffith’s story was set at a luxury resort on the Amalfi Coast and I thought it was really fun and well done.

The third tier stories were the contributions by Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok and Dreda Say Mitchell. Each of them had elements worked. They were fine. There was a lot of hauling an aged Marple around continents in this anthology – and the Kwok story had her on a cruise to Hong Kong. It also had two of the best placed Marple-ish clues in the entire anthology.

Now we come to the fourth tier: Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, shamelessly stole its plot from a Dorothy Sayers/Peter Wimsey short story. She acknowledged it, but still. Lucy Foley’s story, on the other hand, has Marple acting like an idiot with a non-functioning sense of self-preservation, which is not how Jane Marple would ever act.

But, it gets worse from there. The only resemblance that the final four stories bore to a Marple mystery was that they included the word “Marple” and there was a mystery. They were irredeemably bad. I don’t have an issue with YA, and I have enjoyed books by both Karen McManus and Leigh Bardugo, but their stories were horrid. McManus’s story might not have been bad, if it hadn’t involved Jane Marple and if it had been in a YA mystery anthology. Bardugo’s story was the worst piece of fiction in the book, and that’s saying something, because Alyssa Cole’s Miss Marple Takes Manhattan was truly terrible. And Naomi Alderman’s story was better written than some of the others, but it had a plot hole the size of Greenland.

So, overall, if you are actually a fan of Miss Marple, I would give this anthology a miss. It’s a publisher’s money grab and I’m surprised that the estate of Agatha Christie approved publication.

My Vintage Mystery Series: Volume 2

Inspector Henry Tibbet by Patricia Moyes

Why I read it: I first started reading this series years ago, when I picked one up at the UBS. Which one is lost to the sands of time. The first book was published in 1959.

C.I.D. Inspector Henry Tibbets, with his famous “nose” for crime, and his wife Emmy are a delightful pair. The series makes use of their travels – so far, I’ve accompanied them to a posh ski resort in the Italian Alps, a rustic resort on a Caribbean island, an international drug conference in Switzerland, and Emmy’s 20th WAAF reunion. I’ve been collecting the paperbacks as I find them, and I’m up to book 7, Murder Fantastical, which is sitting on my shelf waiting for me.

The Inspector Luke Thanet series by Dorothy Simpson.

Why I read it: I don’t remember how I found this series. I may have picked up an old paperback at the UBS and then, after reading it, found the series was available as some kindle reissues at my local library. The first book was published in 1980, when I was in the 9th grade, but I didn’t read it until the last few years.

The main character is Luke Thanet, a British police inspector. It’s set in Kent, England, and has a total of 15 entries, the last having been published in 1999. Thanet has a sidekick, Sgt. Lineham, who helps him with his investigations. In addition, Luke’s wife, Joan, and his two children feature prominently in the books and they provide an interesting sociological review of changing marriages and mores during a time when women were more actively entering the full-time workforce. Joan is hired as a probation officer in the third book, and Luke occasionally ruminates on how much his internal male compass struggles with having a wife who has interests beyond home and family (i.e., beyond him).

Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson

Why I read it: It might be a little bit of an overstatement to say that I “read” this series, when I’ve actually only read the first book, and that only a few weeks ago. But, Inspector Banks has been on my radar for a while, and I enjoyed the first book enough to check out the next two. Gallows View was published in 1987, and there are a total of 27 books, with a 28th to be published in April. In fact, it’s probably a bit of a misnomer to even call this “vintage” at this point. Although, 1987 was a looong time ago, and it therefore feels pretty vintage to me.


The Richard Jury series by Martha Grimes

Why I read it: I started reading Richard Jury in high school – my mom read the mass market paperback editions, and I would read them after she finished with them. I read them through high school (the first several), college (the next few) and law school (through maybe book 11 or so). There are 25 of them, reaching all the way into the end of the twenty-teens. I quit reading them at some unidentified time in the past, but have been picking them up and rereading over the past few years.

These books are, honestly, a little strange. Richard Jury is a recognizably normal Chief Inspector, but the side characters can be quirky to the point of bizarre. Melrose Plant, Earl of something or another and his not-even-remotely-likeable Aunt Agatha, Jury’s gorgeous neighbor, whose name I have forgotten but it might be Carolanne – it’s all very over the top. It’s sort of like Northern Exposure, but in book form, and in England. I am also fairly sure that Grimes (an American, but who writes books set in England) titled all of her mysteries after fictional pubs, and they have some of the greatest titles in the history of mystery fiction.

Pollard and Toye by Elizabeth LeMarchand

Why I read it: This is sort of a “village murder” series, also set in England. I obviously have a thing for mystery series set in England, and I’m not even a little bit guilty about this. The first of the Pollard & Toye murders was published in 1967, and there are 17 of them. The last, The Glade Manor Murder, was published in 1989. I’ve read more than half of these – the last one I read was (according to Goodreads) Unhappy Returns, and I finished it in March 2020.

I recall that one being a bit of a disappointment, which may explain why there has been a delay in continuing with the series. They are all available through the Kindle Unlimited Library, though, so I’m sure I will continue on at some point.

2023 Reading Journal: Books 3, 4, 6 & 11

Every year I make a (very quiet, very private) resolution to post about every book that I read. I promptly (sometimes within hours) abandon this notion, because I read so much that a full blown post for each book is a completely unattainable goal. This also presupposes that I have enough to say about every book I read that I could even write a full-blown review. This is simply not the case – I enjoy most of the books I read, but just because I enjoy a book doesn’t mean I have a lot to say about it.

This year, I thought to myself “there is no rule that you have to do a full-blown review for every single book you read.” So, I’m giving myself permission to knock off several books in a post, with a few quick words about each book.

The Bullet that MissedThe Bullet that Missed
by Richard Osman
Rating: ★★★★
Series: The Thursday Murder Club #3
Publication Date: September 15, 2022
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 413
ReRead?: No

It is an ordinary Thursday, and things should finally be returning to normal.

Except trouble is never far away where the Thursday Murder Club are concerned. A local news legend is on the hunt for a sensational headline, and soon the gang are hot on the trail of two murders, ten years apart.

To make matters worse, a new nemesis pays Elizabeth a visit, presenting her with a deadly mission: kill or be killed...

While Elizabeth grapples with her conscience (and a gun), the gang and their unlikely new friends (including TV stars, money launderers and ex-KGB colonels) unravel a new mystery. But can they catch the culprit and save Elizabeth before the murderer strikes again?

It’s always fun to spend some time with Joyce and the Thursday Murder Club gang, and this third book in the series was no exception. I’d had the book on hold since before it was released, and it finally came up for me so I read it right away. The circle keeps widening and the hi-jinks (and danger) never end.  This is basically Scooby Doo with old people (I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling pensioners!) and I will read this series forever.

Lavender HouseLavender House
by Lev AC Rosen
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Andy Mills #1
Publication Date: October 18, 2022
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 274
ReRead?: No

Lavender House, 1952: the family seat of recently deceased matriarch Irene Lamontaine, head of the famous Lamontaine soap empire. Irene’s recipes for her signature scents are a well guarded secret—but it's not the only one behind these gates. This estate offers a unique freedom, where none of the residents or staff hide who they are. But to keep their secret, they've needed to keep others out. And now they're worried they're keeping a murderer in.

Irene’s widow hires Evander Mills to uncover the truth behind her mysterious death. Andy, recently fired from the San Francisco police after being caught in a raid on a gay bar, is happy to accept—his calendar is wide open. And his secret is the kind of secret the Lamontaines understand.

Andy had never imagined a world like Lavender House. He's seduced by the safety and freedom found behind its gates, where a queer family lives honestly and openly. But that honesty doesn't extend to everything, and he quickly finds himself a pawn in a family game of old money, subterfuge, and jealousy—and Irene’s death is only the beginning.

When your existence is a crime, everything you do is criminal, and the gates of Lavender House can’t lock out the real world forever. Running a soap empire can be a dirty business.

Lavender House got all kinds of buzz when it was released. I would describe it as a queer historical noir set in 1950’s San Francisco. If that appeals to you, well, come sit next to me, because my immediate response was “yes, please,” and it didn’t disappoint. I really enjoyed this book – and it was my favorite of the year (so far) until I read:

The ScholarThe Scholar
by Dervla McTiernan
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: Cormac Reilly #2
Publication Date: May 14, 2019
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 400
ReRead?: No

From the author of The Ruin comes a compulsive new crime thriller set in the fiercely competitive, cutthroat world of research and academia, where the brightest minds will stop at nothing to succeed.

When Dr. Emma Sweeney stumbles across the victim of a hit-and-run outside Galway University early one morning, she calls her boyfriend, Detective Cormac Reilly, bringing him first to the scene of a murder that would otherwise never have been assigned to him. The dead girl is carrying an ID that will put this crime at the center of a scandal--her card identifies her as Carline Darcy, heir apparent to Darcy Therapeutics, Ireland's most successful pharmaceutical company. Darcy Therapeutics has a finger in every pie, from sponsoring university research facilities to funding political parties to philanthropy--it has even funded Emma's own ground-breaking research.

As the murder investigation twists in unexpected ways and Cormac's running of the case comes under scrutiny from the department and his colleagues, he is forced to question himself and the beliefs that he has long held as truths. Who really is Emma? And who is Carline Darcy?

I don’t think I’ve been this enthusiastic about a series since I read The Blackhouse, book one in Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis off Scotland. This is the second in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series, set in Galway, Ireland. I read the first in series last year, The Ruin, and liked it a lot, but The Scholar blew me away. I’ve already put all of her other available books on hold at my library. Great characters, great setting and a dynamite plot.

The Madness of CrowdsThe Madness of Crowds
by Louise Penny
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #17
Publication Date: August 24, 2021
Genre: mystery: modern (1980-present)
Pages: 436
ReRead?: No

Time and again, as the New Year approaches, that charge is leveled against Armand Gamache.

It starts innocently enough.

While the residents of the Québec village of Three Pines take advantage of the deep snow to ski and toboggan, to drink hot chocolate in the bistro and share meals together, the Chief Inspector finds his holiday with his family interrupted by a simple request.

He’s asked to provide security for what promises to be a non-event. A visiting Professor of Statistics will be giving a lecture at the nearby university.

While he is perplexed as to why the head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec would be assigned this task, it sounds easy enough. That is until Gamache starts looking into Professor Abigail Robinson and discovers an agenda so repulsive he begs the university to cancel the lecture.

They refuse, citing academic freedom, and accuse Gamache of censorship and intellectual cowardice. Before long, Professor Robinson’s views start seeping into conversations. Spreading and infecting. So that truth and fact, reality and delusion are so confused it’s near impossible to tell them apart.

Discussions become debates, debates become arguments, which turn into fights. As sides are declared, a madness takes hold.

Abigail Robinson promises that, if they follow her, ça va bien aller. All will be well. But not, Gamache and his team know, for everyone.

When a murder is committed it falls to Armand Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team to investigate the crime as well as this extraordinary popular delusion.

And the madness of crowds.

I’m a huge fan of the Chief Inspector Gamache series, but I have to admit that this installment left me cold, and not because the whole thing is set during a snowstorm. I didn’t like the basis of the plot and I thought that the investigation itself was sort of plodding. Not Penny’s best work, but finishing it means that I’m only one behind and will be caught up once I read 2022’s A World of Curiosities.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

by Marilynne Robinson
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: March 1, 1980
Genre: fiction
Pages: 219
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.

Marilynne Robinson has been on my TBR list for decades, at least. When I was putting together my second Classics Club list, I dithered between Housekeeping, her debut novel, and Gilead, her unconnected follow-up. I ultimately settled on Housekeeping. I had little background on the book, and even fewer expectations, when I started.

This book is so beautifully written that the sadness is almost lost in the gorgeous prose. I gather from my research that Robinson was previously on the faculty at University of Iowa, and was part of the well-regarded Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Housekeeping is the story of a family – told from the perspective of Ruth – that has experienced more than its fair share of tragedy. It begins with the death of Ruth’s grandfather in a spectacular train derailment into Fingerbone Lake off of the long railway bridge into the town of Fingerbone, where he and his wife, Sylvia, live in the home he built. Fingerbone is never situated on a map, but seems to correspond to Sandpoint, Idaho.

The timeframe is also not clearly identified – it feels like it is set in the 1940’s or 1950’s, but that may simply have been because the narrator, Ruthie, isn’t particularly interested in the trappings of modernity. Published in 1980, It seems likely that Ruthie would have been slightly older than I was, so she was probably born in around 1960, which would mean it is occurring in the 1970’s.

Aside from the beautiful writing, it is hard to say that I “liked” this novel. The tone is melancholy and almost elegiac. The actions of most of the women in the book who preceded Ruthie are inexplicable at best, indicative of serious mental health issues. Her mother, Helen, abandons her two girls, Ruthie and Lucille, to their grandmother and commits suicide by driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The lake looms large over the family, a reminder of tragedy that is inescapable.

Helen’s older sister, Molly, developed a religious fervor and disappears into China, presumably as a missionary. After Helen’s death, the girls are raised by their grandmother until her death.

After Sylvia dies, the youngest sister, Sylvie, returns to Fingerbone after being essentially a drifter for the years since she has left, and ends up as the caregiver for Ruth and Lucille, a job for which she is poorly equipped. The townspeople ignore the neglect and oddness of the behavior of the three until Lucille decides that she has had enough of the squalor and strangeness of their living situation and leaves to live with a teacher. This seems to breach the code of silence that the three of them have operating within and provides a glimpse to the rest of the community about how things really are in the old, crumbling house within an orchard inhabited by the strange aunt and her two odd school-aged nieces.

The title of the book comes from Sylvie’s increasingly frenetic behavior to try to stave off the removal of Ruthie from her car. Her “housekeeping” before intervention consisted of piling up newspapers and cans in what was previously the parlor of the home:

The visitors glanced at the cans and papers as if they thought Sylvie must consider things appropriate to a parlor. That was ridiculous. We had simply ceased to consider that room a parlor, since, until we had attracted the attention of these ladies, no one ever came to call. Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobsebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers – things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she consider accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

Ruth speaks of the conditions in which she is living with no insight to their strangeness. Ultimately, the actions of the Sheriff and well-meaning townspeople lead to far reaching consequences, Sylvie’s attempts to align Ruth’s living conditions with the expectations of the community being inadequate to stop the proceedings that have already  begun.

In the same way I’m not sure how I feel about the book, I’m not sure how I feel about the ending.

Near Neighbors by Molly Clavering

Near NeighboursNear Neighbours
by Molly Clavering
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1956
Genre: fiction
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

At number 6 Kirkcaldy Crescent lives Mrs. Lennox and her five children (all in their late teens or early twenties). Number 4, the house next door, Miss Balfour, a gentle and unassuming spinster who was constantly surprised to find "how astonishingly nice and good people were when you knew them..."

What she did not know and would not have believed was that the people who knew her could not help living up to her belief in their good qualities.

This was the third of my DSP in December books. You can find out more about DSP December which is the brainchild of Liz from Adventures in Reading…: here.

It was also my second by Molly Clavering – last year I read Mrs. Lorrimer’s Quiet Summer, and while I liked it, it didn’t wow me the way that Near Neighbours did. I found this book completely delightful. The interactions between the main character, Miss Dorothea Balfour, and her young neighbors, the four Lennox children, are charming and heart-warming.

Molly Clavering was D.E. Stevenson’s neighbor and her books are similar in tone. This one is actually set in Edinburgh, so it is a town book as opposed to a country book. There is lots of lovely detail around the activities of all the young people as they are beginning to form their relationships as young adults. The book really focuses on Rowan Lennox, who is the first of the young adults to venture a friendship with Miss Balfour. Miss Balfour has previously been under the thumb of her older sister who has passed away and who kept her very isolated. She blossoms under the attention of the family next door and begins to really live her own life for the first time.

I will definitely be reading more Clavering at this point, and will likely reread this one in the future.

Water Weed by Alice Campbell

Water WeedWater Weed
by Alice Campbell
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1929
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 294
ReRead?: No

Young Virginia Carew is making a trip to England when she encounters old friend Glenn Hillier—strangely altered from the last time they met. Glenn is besotted with a glamorous middle-aged lady, with whom he’s been staying in the blissful English countryside. It isn’t long before Virginia too is a guest of the family, but there are snakes in this garden of Eden—snakes at first entangled in jealousy; then blackmail; finally murder.

In the events which follow, Glenn disappears, suspected by some of suicide. Virginia finds her world up-ended as events take an ever darker turn. It’ll be up the intrepid young American to stay one step ahead of the police, and finish the case before the deadly water weed pulls her down . . .

My DSP December started out very productively – I finished this one on December 8. Since then, I went on a short holiday getaway with my husband and have also been sick with whatever part of the tripledemic I’ve been unfortunate enough to develop, so I’ve only finished one more, which I will review shortly. I am still planning to get one more of the Furrowed Middlebrow titles read – probably something by Molly Clavering – but 4 is not as many as I had hoped to complete!

I bought Water Weed in October, after eyeing the Alice Campbell mystery tranche for a few months. There were elements of it that I really liked, and then there were elements that I felt could have been done better. I liked the main character/amateur sleuth Virginia Carew but was pretty annoyed by Glenn, and the murder victim, Cuckoo, was beyond unlikeable.

There were some plot points that didn’t startle me because Campbell definitely hints around them, but that were likely very shocking for readers of the time. The book itself had a bit of a gothic feel to it – it reminded me of one of Patricia Wentworth’s darker-toned mysteries a bit, maybe Lonesome Road or The Catherine Wheel, relying on shocking family secrets for the resolution. I will definitely read more of Campbell’s mysteries.

The other DSP that I have finished is also one of their golden age mysteries – Dead Man’s Quarry by Ianthe Jerrold.

The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons

The Woods In WinterThe Woods In Winter
by Stella Gibbons
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1970
Genre: fiction
Pages: 226
ReRead?: No

...for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.

Ivy Gower, a curmudgeonly middle-aged charwoman with some slightly witchy talents, inherits a rural cottage in Buckinghamshire and takes up residence near the tiny village of Little Warby. Having settled in with a rescued dog and a pet pigeon, she manages, despite her anti-social instincts, to have surprising effects on her new neighbours, including Angela Mordaunt, a spinster still mourning her dead beau, Coral and Pearl Cartaret, ditzy sisters who have just opened a tea shop, the local vicar, and wealthy Lord Gowerville, whose devotion she earns by healing his beloved dog. But her biggest challenge will likely be the 12-year-old runaway who shows up at her door...

Blending vivid characters and a deep knowledge of human nature, this is also a funny and poignant tale of the challenges and freedoms of old age and solitude.

There really couldn’t have been a better start to my DSP December than The Woods in Winter, which is placed primarily within a wintry landscape, exactly as the title would suggest. You can find out more about DSP December which is the brainchild of Liz from Adventures in Reading…: here.

Now it was December. The last leaves had gone and the beeches stood naked and strong, and breathing out calm, or rocking slowly in the tearing winds that whirled their copper carpet in showers. With her winter hat rammed well over her brow, and followed by Neb leaping and pouncing after the flying leaves, Ivy walked in the woods, with step light as the racing clouds above; unnoticeable, dark and small in the bronze and russet glades, below the giant branches.

This is my 4th Stella Gibbons, and I have several more on my TBR, some of which were also published as part of DSP’s Stella Gibbons tranche, some of which are print Vintage paperbacks that I’ve picked up here and there. Somewhat oddly, none of them are her best known work, Cold Comfort Farm, although I’m sure I will get to that one sooner or later as well.

What I like best about Gibbons is that she writes really interesting women characters – her men tend to be placeholders and catalysts around which the action happens, but her women are really complex. She absolutely does not write characters that are either unremittingly good or relentlessly bad; every character has positive traits, negative traits, blind spots, stupidity, bad behavior, brilliant moment of insight (OK, maybe not always brilliant moments of insight). They make terrible decisions, which sometimes turn out badly, they make decisions that would have been terrible for the time in which they lived, but which turn out to be exactly right, or they make the right decision, but it turns out to make them miserable.

This book centers around a middle-aged char lady, Ivy, who inherits a life estate in a dilapidated cottage in the country and who sets about living her life for the first time. She rescues a dog – Nebby – from an abusive situation and the two of them live in harmonious austerity.

In Ivy’s case it was because, for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.

I read Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner a couple of months ago – I haven’t gotten around to writing about it, yet, but I will. There were elements to this book that had that same witchy, supernatural vibe.

She began to dance; round and round the table and between the mattress, pulling him after her in awkward mimicry while their shadows reared and dwindled, reared and dwindled, against the fire-painted walls. Green and blue flames from the logs on the fire were their torch-light, and Neb’s wild barking was their music. The cottage rang, glowing like some fiery cave

There are also four unmarried young women in this book: Coral, Pearl, Helen and Angela. By the end of the book, each of them is married, and their travails are lightly covered – Angela gets probably the most page time, as an unmarried woman in her thirties whose beloved died in the war, she has been living in the past. She makes a pretty bold decision to climb out of the grave in which she has buried herself next to Peter and live again.

There is also a wonderful interlude between Ivy and a boy of approximately 12, Mike, who shows up at her cottage having run away from home, and who lives with her for a brief period. Ivy has approximately the same sensibilities as a 12 year old boy, when it comes right down to it, and there is definitely loss when he leaves.

I really enjoyed The Woods in Winter – it’s probably my favorite by Gibbons that I’ve read. Published in 1970, it was the last book that Gibbons submitted for publication. She went on to write two others, but those were not published until after her death. Most of the book takes place in the late 1940’s – I think – but there is an epilogue from 1970 that provides a nice birds-eye view of the lives of all of the side characters who are in late middle age, including Mike. His fate was absolutely one of my favorite elements of the book.

A Pair of Maigret Mysteries

Maigret and the Reluctant WitnessMaigret and the Reluctant Witness
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #53
Publication Date: January 1, 1955
Genre: crime, mystery
Pages: 172
ReRead?: No

A once-wealthy family closes ranks when one of their own is shot, leaving Maigret - along with a troublesome new magistrate - to pick his way through their secrets.

It was as if suddenly, long ago, life had stopped here, not the life of the man lying on the bed but the life of the house, the life of its world, and even the factory chimney that could be seen through the curtains looked obsolete and absurd.

I haven’t posted in months. I don’t know what my blogging problem has been – like Maigret’s reluctant witnesses from this book, I have been the reluctant blogger. Every time I consider opening a new post window, I immediately reject the idea. Usually to return to doomscrolling on Twitter. About the only good thing that would come from the potential impending Twitter collapse would be my inability to waste so much time on it.

Anyway, from time to time I feel the need to binge on something, and this month, apparently, it is Maigret. I checked out a small pile of the new Penguin translations from my local library: Maigret and the Killer (#70, published in 1969), Maigret and the Reluctant Witness (#53, published in 1955), Maigret and the Ghost (#62, published in 1964), The Judges House (#21, published in 1940) and Maigret Enjoys Himself (#50, published in 1957).  These were selected for no rhyme nor reason, in no particular order, and without even really looking at the plot synopses. I just picked books that were available. That’s it.

The first one that I finished was Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses. This is set in Paris and is in the later half of the series; Maigret is seemingly getting accustomed to the idea of retirement – although now that I know that there 74 books total, which means there are 21 books that follow this one, the immediacy of his retirement seems quite exaggerated. Maigret is sent to investigate a murder that has occurred in the Lachaume family home, where they have lived for many generations, the owners of a biscuit factory. No one seems to actually buy, or eat, their biscuits, so how the factory keeps churning them out is a significant part of the mystery.

It is necessary to get into a bit of a groove with Simenon and Maigret. These books look slight, but they are really not. At a mere 183 pages, the book is full of character and social commentary. Like Agatha Christie’s England, Simenon’s France is a place both in and out of time. The “mystery” is almost beside the point, and I make very few efforts to “solve” the case; enjoying, rather, the sensation of slipping into a very distinct world. The mystery itself, here, is well rendered, as is the fading, insular upper class Parisian family at the center of it.

Maigret and the KillerMaigret and the Killer
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: Inspector Maigret #70
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: crime
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No

When a tape recorder is found on a murder victim, Inspector Maigret hopes this will be the clue he needs to track down the killer.

This entry was very late in the series, and Maigret still hasn’t retired, although he continues to mention that it is imminent. As someone who is – myself – planning to retire in less than a year, I find this vaguely hilarious. Do it, Maigret, and spend some delightful years in the company of Mrs. Maigret.

I really liked this one. First of all, I’m grooving on Simenon’s Paris here, but also, this is a psychopath mystery and it’s really intriguing. It’s proto-Criminal Minds.

In addition, Mrs. Maigret plays a significant role and shows bravery and resourcefulness. I always enjoy seeing functional marriages between the detective/inspector and spouse in crime fiction because they are the exception and not the norm. I grow weary of the fictional brilliant damaged detective who can’t maintain a healthy relationship with other human beings. At this point, it’s a trite stereotype.

I think that I will read The Judge’s House next, because I love the cover, and I love it when Maigret gets sent to coastal France. This is an early entry into the series, at #21, and was published in 1940.

I am also going to take a moment to talk about these new Penguin editions because I love them. I think that the book design is really appealing – the print is a big bigger than usual and they are a nice, slim size. All of the covers are details from photos by a photographer named Harry Gruyaert. I had never heard of him until I noticed that several covers credited his photographs so I went down a tiny internet rabbit hold and found this wonderful feature from the Guardian: Georges Simenon’s Maigret gets a new look – in pictures, which provides some context for the project.

Lucky for me, it seems that one of my two library systems has all of them. I’m not sure how long this binge will last, but so long as it does, I intend to indulge it.