2020 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

2020 stats

Total number of books read: 59

average read per month: 4.9 books
average read per week: 1.1 books
number read in worst month: 2 (March, April, June)
number read in best month: 10 (November)

percentage by male authors: 20% (12 books)
percentage by female authors: 80% (47 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 92% (54 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 70% (38 of 54 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 8% (5 books)

percentage of total liked: 70% (41 books)
percentage of total so-so or disliked: 30% (18 books)


Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our local library was closed to the public entirely from the beginning of March until July (when it reopened for pick-up only), which drastically reduced the number of books I could get my hands on. I’m trying to make up for lost time now.

I read a bit more fiction that wasn’t crime fiction this year than usual, and I liked most of it, in particular Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018), Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (2016), Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis (2003), and Karolina Waclawiak’s Life Events (2020).

Some favourite crime fiction this year included the Louisa Luna series featuring private investigators Alice Vega and Mac Caplan; Susie Steiner’s DS Manon Bradshaw series set in Cambridge, England; Val McDermid’s latest in the Karen Pirie series, Still Life; Tana French’s The Searcher (2020); Squeeze Me (2020) by Carl Hiaasen; The Split (2020) by Sharon Bolton, an uber psychological thriller set partly in South Georgia, near Antarctica; Louise Penny’s All the Devils Are Here (2020) in the Gamache series; A Bitter Feast (2019) by Deborah Crombie in the Kinkaid/James series; The Thursday Club Murder (2020) by Richard Osman, set in a British retirement community; and the latest in Cara Hunter’s DI Adam Fawley series, suspenseful police procedurals set in Oxford.

I liked a few non-fiction books a lot: The Unreality of Memory: Essays (2020) by Elisa Gabbard, which was just fascinating all the way ’round; The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping (2020) by Samantha Harvey, a meditation on her inability to sleep, which may not sound grabbing but I really enjoyed it; and Autumn Light: Season of Fire & Farewells (2019) by Pico Iyer, a slow sweet meditation that made me want to visit Japan (though there was too much ping pong!).

Biggest disappointments: By far the biggest was The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (2020) by Emma Copley Eisenberg, which felt muddled and disorganised, not compelling. Also: A Long Petal of Sea (2019) by Isabel Allende — but I always find her disappointing — though I was interested in the subject matter here, the Spanish Civil War and aftermath; Such a Fun Age (2020) by Kiley Reid, which was more mom-lit than I expected and whose ending rang false to me; The Truants (2020) by Kate Weinberg, which was compared for some reason to an Agatha Christie novel, but no, it’s a coming of age novel that’s not very mysterious.

Full book list.

number of books read in 2020: 59
number of books read in 2019: 67
number of books read in 2018: 63
number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

Books Read 2020

Once again (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year, recording brief notes about each book. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!


A Shot in the Dark (2018) by Lynne Truss. Crime fiction, sort of, set in the 1957 seaside town of Brighton, England. Inspector Steine doesn’t want actual crime in his seaside town, Brighton. He prefers to rest on his laurels and was happy to let the criminals kill themselves while he and his men ate ice cream during the Middle Street Massacre of 1951. But unfortunately for Steine, the too-clever-by-half, eager beaver Constable Twitten comes to town and immediately starts putting two and two together concerning robberies always preceded by a visit to the burgled house by a phony public opinion pollster, and then when a much-loathed theatre critic comes to town and is shot while sitting next to Twitten in the theatre, there’s lots more to investigate, seemingly related to the unsolved Aldersgate Stick-up Case of 1950. A quirky, slyly silly novel about dastardly crimes and human relationships written with a light, whimsical touch. I would have probably liked it better had it not been yet another mystery novel set partially in the world of the theatre and sideshow.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal (2017) by Tamara Shopsin. I thought it was going to be a non-fiction book about the benefits of an arbitrary stupid goal — a goal that isn’t too important but makes you live in the moment and gives you a driving force, that allows you to “find ecstasy in the small things, the unexpected, and the everyday” — and it is actually that but wrapped in an elliptical memoir of an unconventional upbringing set mostly in the Greenwich Village of Shopsin’s bohemian 1970s childhood, where her parents ran a legendary greasy spoon. Family photos and other illustrations decorate the story, much of it about her father and a family friend named Willy, who were building supers on the same block at one time. One of my favourite lines: “My parents were pretty tolerant. They had this belief in supporting us in whatever we were passionate about, even if it was self-destructive or cost-prohibitive.” A quick, whimsical, imagination-inspiring read.

A Student of History: A Novel (2019) by Nina Revoyr. A novel about Rick Nagano, a half Japanese, half white doctoral student in history at USC in Los Angeles. He’s barely scraping by financially so jumps at the chance to type up the personal and family history of an extremely wealthy woman, Mrs. W– (and that long dash was endlessly confusing, continually making me think there was going to be an aside coming; I don’t know why “Mrs. W” wouldn’t have been adequate as an abbreviation), and soon he’s accompanying his employer to high-level fundraising events dressed in clothes she’s bought him and noticing he’s the only non-white other than the servers at these events. The novel is told in the first person by Rick in retrospect, which is perhaps what gives it such a flat quality, almost journalistic. The plot is simple, and fairly common in fiction, the writing serviceable, the few main characters not quite relatable, a bit wooden. All in all, it didn’t live up to its hype as a “searing novel of thought-provoking complexity,” nor was it “mythical” or “spellbinding.” Perhaps if you live in southern California this novel will resonate more for you than it did for me.

The Man That Got Away (2019) by Lynne Truss. Crime fiction that “couples suspense with dark hilarity in the manner of the British black comedy film The Ladykillers,” says The Wall Street Journal, and if you go into these books expecting that you’ll probably enjoy them, though there’s not that much suspense.  Set in the 1957 seaside town of Brighton, England, where attractive young women called Brighton Belles help tourists with all manner of things, this installment deepens the relationship between Constable Twitten and Mrs. Goynes (which I enjoyed), with smaller roles for Sergeant Brunswick, undercover playing the trumpet at a nightclub, and Inspector Steine, modelling for an inferior wax museum and drooling over one of the Belles. I don’t think I can even begin to describe the plot without giving too much away.

No Way Out (2019) by Cara Hunter, in the DI Adam Fawley series set in Oxford, which the publishers label a ‘thriller’ — I’d say it’s more of a police procedural with elements of suspense, provided by interleaved accounts of the victims (including two young children) of a deliberate house fire. There are plenty of possible psychopaths among the characters, or are they just villains, or neither? The pacing is fast and flawless, and the elements of the story, including details of Fawley’s and other police officers’ lives, all work together to enrich it. If you can’t tolerate children in jeopardy, or worse, avoid this book; I’m not usually very sensitive to this but I found parts of the book painful to read. People who have been traumatised by fire might also want to skip this one. Otherwise, highly recommended.


A Bitter Feast (2019) by Deborah Crombie, in the Kincaid/James series. Duncan and Gemma and kids (Kit, Toby, and Charlotte), plus Doug, are spending the weekend with their colleague Melody at her parents’ estate in the Cotswolds (Beck House in Upper Slaughter) but before they’re even all there, Kincaid is in a serious car accident in which two other people are killed, including a famous London chef who, it appears, may have been dead before the accident. Soon an injured Kincaid is working with the local constabulary to look into the chef’s reasons for being in the village, which included visiting Viv Holland, the current chef and co-owner of The Lamb, the local pub. The last few books in this series have left me a little meh but this one was great and I didn’t want it to end. Maybe it was the village setting, the posh charity food event and the food element generally, the several interesting women involved in the plot, Kincaid’s physical vulnerability, Melody’s expanded role, or the relationship between a more mature Kit (now 15) and Gemma, but whatever it was it worked for me.

Many Rivers to Cross (2020) by Peter Robinson, 26th in the DCI Alan Banks series, set in Eastvale, Yorkshire. This one follows directly on the previous book, Careless Love, following Annie’s father’s girlfriend Zelda, a super recogniser (never forgets a face), who is searching for the men who trafficked her from Moldovia. The current investigation for Banks, Cabot, and Masterson (WInsome is on pregnancy leave) is a young dark-skinned boy found stabbed and left in a wheelie bin in a housing estate. Robinson definitely has a point of view on current politics, the racist anti-immigrant far-right, Brexit, etc., but it’s fairly softly pedalled here, while his taste in music and scotch are on display as always. There was a little too much detail and repetition about the intricacies of the local drug ring for my taste so I skimmed some of that. The ending to both stories was no surprise, and the next book will surely continue with Zelda’s situation. Not his best.

Winter Grave (2019) by Helene Tursten, an Embla Nystrom investigation, set mainly in Strömstad, Sweden. Police procedural. It’s a complicated plot that starts out with two young children missing over the course of a couple of weeks, an off-duty police officer found dead while running, and a Norwegian man stabbed to death at a New Year’s Eve party. With all this crime in a small town, Embla, Göran, and Hampus (the Violent Crimes Unit) are brought in from Gothenberg to help find the missing children, but their investigation widens as they learn more. Satisfying.

The Rabbit Hunter (2016) by Lars Kepler, in the Joona Linna and Saga Bauer series set in and around Stockholm, Sweden. Joona has been imprisoned but after the gruesome murder of the (sadistic) Swedish Foreign Minister in his house, the Security Police need his help. Working for the most part separately, Saga and Joona try to track down a focused killer with military training — is he a terrorist? a serial killer? a spree killer? Why has he chosen the men he’s chosen to murder? And why does he leave 19 minutes between his initial assault and the fatal blow? The plot is creepy and harrowing, the murders planned, gory, and horrific, the psychological underpinnings of the killer and other characters interesting. The last short scene (epilogue) seems to be a tease for the next novel.

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, & Plants (2019) by Georgina Reid and Daniel Shipp, a sumptuous large-format book with lush photos and interviews with interesting plantspeople, gardeners, designers, artists. Provided inspiration and discussion for my permaculture group in the middle of a northern New England winter. A great gift book for any gardener.  My only quibble is that all the people interviewed live in either Australia, New Zealand, or California.


Crudo: A novel (2018) by Olivia Laing. When I finished this slim volume (about 130 pages of undense type) and my spouse asked me what it was about, I said I don’t know. But I sort of know: it’s about Kathy, who lives in the UK in 2017, and her constant anxieties about what’s happening in the world specifically with regard to Trump (and Trump tweeting), North Korea, fascism, the threat of nuclear war, and Brexit. It’s also about Kathy, afraid of commitment, who is going to get married, who gets married, and who is learning how to be married (to a husband 29 years older than she is, but that’s inconsequential to the novel). As the book’s jacket sleeve says, she’s “learning to love when the end of the world seems near.” It’s a little stream-of-consciousness, a little journalistic (there are Kathy-referential “sources” as endnotes; she reports news events), a little poetic, and a lot relatable.   I could reread it a few times and enjoy it.

The Drowned Man (2013) by David Whellams, in the (retired) Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Cammon series, set mainly in the UK, Montreal, Maryland, and New York state (Rochester, Buffalo), and a bit in other parts of the eastern U.S.  It’s a complicated plot. Retired inspector Cammon is asked to accompany the body of a murdered Scotland Yard colleague home from Montreal and ends up investigating a seductive and dangerous young Pakistani-British woman, Alice Nahri, girlfriend of the dead man; three perhaps valuable letters written by or concerning Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; and a phone-hacking scandal involving cricket-match fixing by gangs. I had trouble keeping focused on the many plot strands and characters, but the writing and the definition and development of the main characters and their relationships was adept enough to get me through.


The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (2020) by Emma Copley Eisenberg. This one got too much hype. It was OK but I was expecting a lot more based on many glowing reviews. It’s a sort of disjointed mostly non-fiction story about the murders of two young women in West Virginia in Sept. 1980, who were hitchhiking to the annual hippy Rainbow Gathering held that year in Pocahontas County, WV, when they were shot and left on a dirt road, and about the various investigations of about 10 men and the two main trials of one suspect. (If you’re looking for something conclusive concerning the murders, this isn’t the book for you.) Eisenberg weaves into this her own memoir of being an intern and VISTA worker at the Mountain Views non-profit summer school for teenage girls in the same area, beginning, I think, in 2009; and she goes on at length about her relationship with a group of mostly local men who make music, party,  and drink until the wee hours of the morning (as does she), I guess in an effort to demonstrate that her sympathies lie not only with the murdered women but with the men who are part of a psyche-damaging culture. She adds to this odd brew some psychological information about memory-making, suggestibility studies, and the two main ways the brain makes decisions. The original story of the women was interesting — though the third girl, who parts from the other two women in North Carolina, is almost not in the book at all; I wonder if Eisenberg thinks of herself as the “third girl” in some way? — but the rest of it just muddied things without adding mystery or interest.

Under the Snow (1961, 1996) by Kerstin Eckman. A strange mystery set in the remote northern village of Rakisjokk, either in or very near Finland, near the Arctic Circle, with dark winters and light summers. Constable Torsson from Orjas investigates the death of an artist, Matti, with not much result, then returns to the town a few months later with David Malm, an artist friend of Matti’s, after some new evidence (perhaps) comes to light. I got lost along the way, distracted by the shooting of two reindeer, the missing mah-jongg tile and the other painted tiles, the former passesadie (‘place of sacrifice’), the noose with dark hair, and so on. Felt extremely disjointed to the point of nonsensical to me. Others laud it as irresistible, engrossing, thrilling (never, IMO), taut, and so on.  I liked her Blackwater but just couldn’t get on board here. It was atmospheric, I have to give it that.


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (2016) by Dorthe Nors, Man Book Prize finalist for 2017, a stream of consciousness novel set in Copenhagen. I really liked this book. Sonja is our protagonist, a single woman over 40 originally from Jutland who makes a living translating the wildly popular, extremely violent sexual crime fiction of Gösta from Swedish to Danish, and it’s her thoughts we hear throughout the novel. She’s got inherited positional vertigo, which can strike whenever she moves her head wrong, as for instance might occur when she looks in her car mirrors and then over her shoulder before she signals to turn or change lanes during her driving lessons, which aren’t going particularly well. That’s the whole story, really, except for her memories, her unsent letters to her anxious and superficial sister Kate, her ruminations while her massage therapist Ellen is psychoanalysing her every physical symptom, her desire for real wild places instead of the managed parks she encounters. A sense of unease, alienation, and struggle suffuse the story.

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf. A favourite book, and a re-read for a bookgroup. Woolf was a post-modernist about 100 years ahead of her time.  This book takes place in London in the course of a June day in 1923, when the shadow of the war and the flu still loom. Fifty-one-year-old Clarissa Dalloway is a woman of privilege and leisure who enjoys beauty and giving parties; as she prepares for a party that night, we follow her on her errands and are privy to some of her thoughts and nostalgic memories of childhood, and we get a glimpse into the thoughts of her husband Richard and a former love interest Peter Walsh who has reappeared from India. She is contrasted with a young war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, who seems to have PTSD or some other undiagnosed mental disorder, but whereas for Clarissa, “the ‘continuous present’ of her charmed youth at Bourton keeps intruding into her thoughts on this day in London, for Septimus, the ‘continuous present’ of his time as a soldier during the Great War keeps intruding, especially in the form of Evans, his fallen comrade.” The book was to have been called “The Hours,” and time is of the utmost importance to the story — the way we move in the moment through the past, present, and future (Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing emphasises this); Big Ben’s clock rings out every half-hour; there is a sense of approaching death for many of the characters –and the character of Septimus, unplanned when she outlined the novel, acts as a sort of double for Mrs. Dalloway. There’s a lot to ponder and to feel in a rather short novel, almost a novella.

A Long Petal of Sea (2019) by Isabel Allende. Read for a book group. I don’t know why I always feel when I finish an Allende book that I’ve been sold a literary novel but actually given a family saga/romantic tale. Maybe she’s just a good storyteller. And I don’t want to imply that the book is light — it concerns the bloody Spanish Civil War, just prior to World War II, leading to Franco’s coming to oppressive fascist power, followed by the hasty and dangerous exile or emigration to South America of many of the Republicans (unionists, communists, anarchists, workers, peasants) as it became clear the Nationalists (army rebels,bourgeoisie, landlords, the upper classes) would win. There’s no shortage of cruelty, impossible decisions, blood and sickness, torture, and death in the book, which follows primarily doctor Victor Dalmau and his family through “typhoid, dehydration, displacement, torture, exile, and death.” Victor and his brother’s wife Roser, posing now as married partners but privately not (they’re friends, and parents to her son), are able to escape through France to Chile as refugees and make a home there, until that home is also threatened in 1973 when U.S.-backed General Pinochet and the military oust (and likely kill) President Salvador Allende and come to power, and Victor and Roser are forced to flee to Venezuela. Allende examines ideas of home, love, humanity: “The question that interests Allende is to what extent love awakens the feelings that make us human even as war and exile work to destroy them. She alerts us to suffering only to investigate the alienation — or personal exile — that drips from the tap of a savage world” (Los Angeles Review of Books).

A Murderous Summer at Bard (2017) by Glenda Ruby, second in the “Hudson Valley Mysteries” series. I found this book (signed by the author, to “Cindy”) at a local coffee shop free for the taking. It’s set at Bard College and among the mansions and cottages of the Duchess County Gold Coast, an area I’d like to visit some time. Lindsay Brooks is an antiquarian, real estate agent, and part-time sleuth, working in this case with Paul Whitbeck, the sheriff of the county north of Duchess, to solve the murder of a theatre student on stage during a play and the concurrent death (suspicious?) of newcomer Cassandra Chappelle,  a wealthy former minor actress with a past.  I was pleasantly surprised by the plotting and most of the writing and I appreciated the several paragraphs of Hudson Valley history interwoven with the mystery.


The Dutch House (2019) by Ann Patchett. Read for a bookgroup. A novel about a family inhabiting (and then not inhabiting) a house near Philadelphia once owned by wealthy Dutch family. Cyril, a real estate landlord, buys the unusual and very large house for his wife, Elna, in the 1950s, but it’s not her thing. Their children — Danny, the narrator, and his older sister by seven years, Maeve — reminisce about the house as their lives unfold, and in some ways cling to it. It’s a modern fairy tale, with a wicked stepmother, exiled orphans, and the castle at the heart of the story. Engaging. It was a world in which I enjoyed dwelling for a time.

Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, 2nd Ed. (2006/2015) by Rosemary Morrow. Read for permaculture group. Of limited use, as the plant and animal examples are Australian (kangaroos and eucalypt figure largely), but there is helpful info for any permaculture practitioner or newbie about permaculture ethics and principles and their applications. The book has five sections: intro to permaculture and observation of the land; water, soil, climate, trees, and other basics; reading and designing your land in terms of zones (zero to V) and briefly on permaculture practice at work; resilience planning for disasters big and small (from pandemics and tsunamis to pests, weeds, and wildlife); and social permaculture and a sense of place. Each chapter ends with a list of practical things to try.


Revolver Road (2020) by Christi Daughtery, 3rd in the Harper McClain series. McClain is a crime reporter for the Savannah, GA paper, and when this novel starts it’s winter and she’s still hiding out on nearby Tybee Island after being warned by a stranger — a stranger with a lot of specific knowledge of her — that someone wants to kill her. Coincidentally, a hot singer, Xavier Rayne, has gone missing after a night of drinking with his housemates on Tybee, and McClain is on hand to investigate by trying to get chummy with his three friends. Soon she’s contacted again by the stranger with more information about the danger she’s in, and she tries to cope with this along with a former boss’s professional and personal overtures, her own newspaper’s financial woes, and her ever-present feelings for Luke, the detective working the Xavier Rayne case. I enjoy these for the setting and the plots.

A Conspiracy of Bones (2020) by Kathy Reichs in the Tempe Brennan series, this one set entirely near Charlotte, North Carolina. Tempe is recovering from aneurysm embolism surgery and dealing with a new boss who doesn’t want her around.  So she’s working unofficially with ex-homicide detective Skinny Slidell to investigate the identity of a corpse found eaten by feral hogs — who turns out to be a man whom she had seen a week before outside her home. That investigation leads to lots of Dark Web research into conspiracy theories, endangered children, and former-defense dept. underground real estate for sale. Tempe’s love interest, former Montreal detective, and now private investigator Andrew Ryan, flies in for a quick visit but is a small part of the story this time. This series is always a good read.

Soldiers of Salamis (2003, transl.2018) by Javier Cercas. Exceptional novel, written like a non-fiction book, in three parts: the middle section is the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a writer with “an irresistible propensity to lordly idleness” who helped found the fascist Spanish Falange (to reestablish “the securities, privileges and hierarchies of his own people”) and incite with his rhetoric the Spanish Civil War, pivoting on a moment in time about 60 years before, near the end of the war, when he escaped execution by firing squad and then escaped death a second time when a soldier found him hiding but walked away without shooting him or revealing him; the first and third sections are set in the present, when the book’s author, a journalist, learns of this story and investigates it by talking with various people including men (and their descendants) with whom Sánchez Mazas hid out on a farm, Sánchez Mazas’s son, a soldier on the other side of the war, and others. The novel looks at memory, “the elusiveness of truth,” heroism and cowardice (and heroism and virtue), greatness and goodness, the freshness and necessity, perhaps, of battle and the disappearance of the story of war as the people involved die. It asks How are stories kept alive? and Whose version of the story is the true one? There are some amazing run-on sentences filled with interesting words and ideas that I enjoyed reading over and over again.


The Golden Cage (2019/2020) by Camilla Läckberg. 4.5 stars. A psychological novel about revenge, set in and near Stockholm, Sweden. Faye, a woman in her early 30s with a hidden past, is billionaire businessman’s Jack’s wife and she loves him, desperately, though the reader sees that Jack is not a good guy. Events transpire and now Faye, once one of the top socialites in Stockholm, is walking dogs and seeing her 4-year-old daughter Julienne every couple of weeks while she plans her revenge, which turns on a very carefully calculated multi-year plan, as she relies on a few female friends (those outside the golden cage of high society, that is) for emotional, practical, and monetary support. Fair amount of explicit sex in this book, most of it casual, some of it fun, some of it simply necessary to achieve a goal. The first part of the book is more of a suspense novel, as the reader anticipates what nasty business is certain to come given Faye’s level of delusion, and the rest is more like the movie The First Wives’ Club. I enjoyed it, though it’s one of those novels that makes the reader somewhat complicit with an amoral character.

Catherine House (2020) by Elisabeth Thomas, a debut novel. Creepy, dreamy, slightly gothic novel about Catherine House, a college-level boarding school at which all students must reside without ever leaving the campus, talking with anyone (including family) from their past, watching TV or listening to current music. “Cloistered” is the word that comes to mind, but these students spend a lot of their time drinking the wine provided to them by the college and having lots of sex. The story is told by Ines, who’s left a troubled past behind but who doesn’t fully fit in at Catherine House, either, and she’s suspicious of what the school is really doing besides offering its students a full wardrobe of clothing, continual rich and sumptuous feasts (starting with morning tea on a tray) and a rigourous courseload of far-reaching studies. I liked it, especially the dreamy quality of writing and the expansive campus and its labyrinth-like, architecturally interesting buildings, but I felt uneasy after reading it, which is probably a success for the author.

The Guest List (2020) by Lucy Foley. Suspense novel.  A wedding party converges on a remote island off Ireland’s coast, the groom the handsome star of a survival TV show, the bride a stylish and beautiful magazine publisher. Among the wedding party for this power couple are several classmates from the groom’s prep school, the bride’s closest friend, Charlie, and his wife Hannah, and the bride’s troubled younger half-sister, Olivia. The novel is told in short chapters, most narrated by wedding party members beginning the day or two before the wedding, along with a “Now” narration of events on the night of the wedding. This is the first wedding event on the island for the wedding planners and new owners of the venue, but with the island’s haunted history, its dangerous bogs, its sheer ocean cliffs, the strong winds in the forecast, and the secrets, resentments, fears, and anger bubbling up among those assembled, the party may not go as smoothly as hoped. I enjoy one-venue novels, especially set in atmospheric places like Inis an Amplóra, and reunions of characters who knew each other formerly, so I liked this book, but some of the plotting and coincidence seems preposterous. (If you heed trigger warnings — and I don’t want to say specifically what they are because they’re spoilers — this book may not be for you.)

Suspended Sentences (2006) by Patrick Modiano (2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). A sort of trilogy of novellas, or a dreamy autobiography, rendered piecemeal, the focus jumping, narrowing, widening, of growing up in France during and after the Nazi occupation. I wish I could say what any of it is about. I liked it.

The Lantern Men (2020) by Elly Griffiths, 12th in the Ruth Galloway series. Ruth has moved with her American partner Frank and her now 9-yr-old daughter Kate from Norwich to Cambridge to teach at St. Jude’s College. She’s also finished another book at a retreat center called Grey Walls, and that connection is ostensibly why DCI Nelson pulls her into a case involving Ivor March, a convicted serial killer who has ties to Grey Walls, among them his ex-wife Crissy Martin, who runs the place and with whom Ruth bonded. Nelson, still with wife Michelle and baby Georgie (and their two older daughters), is missing Ruth and jealous of Frank, and Ruth is trying not to miss Nelson and to appreciate Frank’s good qualities. Clough comes back for a cameo, and a new recruit, Tony Zhang, is introduced.

Such a Fun Age (2020) by Kiley Reid. A suspenseful sort of mom-lit book that looks at race, women’s friendships, and as the cover of the book asks “what happens when you do the right thing for the wrong reason?” There are three main adult characters in the book, none of them particularly likable: Alix is a wealthy entitled deceitful white mom in her early 30s who knows what she wants and nurtures unhealthy obsessions, and who has a trio of unhelpful women friends and the most interesting 3-year old ever; Emira is a 25-year-old black woman who has no idea what she wants, is mostly passive until she’s mean-spirited, and also has a trio of unhelpful women friends; and Kelley is a white man in his early 30s with an unhealthy (possibly racist) predilection, no self-awareness, and a cruel streak. The redeeming traits of Emira for me were her total unabashed love and simpatico feeling for Alix’s oldest daughter, Briar, whom she babysits, and her unwillingness to engage in people’s drama … until near the end, when she completely (and unreasonably, but egged on by her friends) does a 180. I like the way the story is told, how it unfolds, what the readers learns and when. I just wish I could have rooted for someone a little.

The Secret Guests (2020) by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). A very straight-forward imagining of what might have happened had the British Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret been sent for safety to “neutral” Ireland during the bombing of London in World War II. The story is narrated but we’re also privy to the thoughts of some of the characters, most notably Anglo-Irish Detective Garda Strafford and the younger princess, Margaret. I thought some of the writing was awkward and the plot simplistic, but the novel was interesting for its historical setting in the Irish Free State, with the contentious and nuanced relationships among nationalists and unionists.

The Tenant (2020) by Katrine Engberg, debut crime fiction set in Copenhagen, Denmark. Police detectives Jeppe Korner and Anette Werner investigate the murder of a young woman on the first floor of a small apartment building, which they soon realise almost mimics  the draft of a mystery novel written by the owner of the building, who is also the third floor tenant. All of those the detectives interrogate lie about something relevant to the crime, but which lies matter? I really enjoyed this crime novel, part police procedural and part thriller, for its plot and for its insight into human feeling and behaviour.

The Truants (2020) by Kate Weinberg, a debut novel that I hoped would be more mysterious than it actually was. The narrator, Jess, is a young college student in England, naive and obsessive, as many are at that age, open to the charm of liars, pretenders, and manipulators. She falls for her new dorm-mate, Georgie, a luminous and voluptuous risk-taker with dark undertones, and also falls for both fellow student Alec and professor Lorna Clay, storytellers who enrapture her with not only their shadowy tragic stories but their glances, their focused attention, their slight touches, their “vibrating, restless souls.” But is either one a murderer? That’s the mystery at the heart of the book, as Jess writes in her journal and dissects every email, conversation, look, and gesture, trying to make sense of relationships, betrayals, and the consequences of her own actions. Like others, I found the writing a little better than average but the plot and relationships fell flat for me soon after the midway point, though I enjoyed the change of scenery to an Italian volcanic island. Christie fans, there’s not a lot here for you.


The Absolution (20216/2019) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Third in the Children’s House series. It’s subtitled “A Thriller” though I’m not sure why. Detective Huldar and another detective, Gudlaugur, of the Reykjavik police are being sidelined by their boss, Erla, but they manage to stumble onto the scene of the second murder by a killer who’s posting Snapchats of the victims’ last moments. When they bring in Freyja, a child psychologist, to help with interviews of the victims’ friends, they begin to realise that the crimes might be revenge killings for bullying, which leads them to children who have been bullied, and their parents. A very well-constructed and complex (but not overly complicated) plot, excellent writing and dialogue, satisfying character depth. Recommended for those who like psychological crime fiction and police procedurals.

Persons Unknown (2017) by Susie Steiner, second in a series. A really well-written crime novel, set in Cambridgeshire, England, with a terrific plot and an extreme amount of character delving and relationship exploration for a 300-page book. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is single, quite pregnant, has recently adopted a 12-yr-old black boy who’s having trouble, and she’s living with her sister, a nurse, who has a 3-yr-old; there is a lot of parenting talk in this book, but somehow it all melds together seamlessly with the overall story, and because Manon is mostly miserable and very unsentimental, and because there is some focus on other interesting single non-parent characters, it wasn’t cloying and boring in that way that books about parenting can be for non-parents (and maybe for parents, too). Quite an accomplishment!

Two Girls Down (2018) by Louisa Luna, a novel set in down-and-out (fictional) Denville, PA, about two kidnapped girls (ages 8 and 10) and California-based bounty hunter Alice Vega, brought in by the family, and former police detective Max (“Cap”) Caplan’s search for them (he’s brought in by Vega for local knowledge), sometimes with and sometimes without the support of the police department where Cap was formerly employed. Vega’s character is really interesting — secretive, sad, driven, armoured, highly disciplined — which charming and more laid-back Cap soon realises and appreciates as well. She’s a woman who sleeps little,  taught herself to do a free-standing 15-minute headstand each morning, doesn’t want to waste time eating, and likes to break down rifles to relax. I liked the team and hope there are more to come featuring these two.

Read & Buried (2019) by Eva Gates, 6th in the Lighthouse Library mystery series. It’s a cozy mystery, with a cat who’s fairly prominent, no bad language (the protagonist, Lucy, goes so far as to call one vicious woman “not-nice”), and a plot that’s second to the familial and (very innocent) love relationships. I chose it because of the setting on Nag’s Head, NC, and it wasn’t terrible, just a bit tedious and boring, though the author’s treatment of slavery and the freed slaves — whose history is an important aspect of the plot — was extremely white-washed and difficult to stomach. I don’t think I’ll read any others in the series, but if you’re looking for something light, non-demanding, summery, and filled with mostly nice, polite people and relationships, you might enjoy this.

Autumn Light: Season of Fire & Farewells (2019) by Pico Iyer. A meditation on being in Japan in autumn, playing ping pong, visiting shrines, musing about his wife’s father who recently died, about his wife’s mother whom they recently moved to a care home, about his wife’s brother who’s estranged from the family, and about dying, aging, loss, beauty, life, and death in general. Not as poetic as I had hoped, boring in parts (too much ping pong, for one thing), but overall a calming and thoughtful book that made me want to visit Japan in autumn and that reminded me of what matters.


All the Devils Are Here (2020) by Louise Penny, 16th in the Gamache series, this one set almost entirely in Paris. The Gamaches have gone to Paris to await the birth of Jean-Guy & Annie’s second baby and to visit Armand’s elderly godfather, Stephen, a billionaire, who is soon critically injured in a hit-and-run. Meanwhile, Jean-Guy wonders what his role really is at GHS, a private engineering firm where he now works, and Daniel, the Gamaches’ son, is forced to confront his long-standing bitterness and resentment towards his father. As usual, the various stories, complex and richly textured, come together elegantly. Always a joy to read these books.

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping (2020) by Samantha Harvey, a meditation, memoir, interior monologue on Harvey’s inability to sleep, mainly due to anxiety (though she investigates other causes, like menopause and road noise), and her thoughts about sleep, writing, Brexit, doctor-patient relationships, time, faith, science, childhood events, swimming, more. It’s quite a dreamy book, at times stream-of-consciousness, with many more questions than answers, and I loved it. There’s also a little short story about an ATM robbery tucked into it.

The Split (2020) by Sharon Bolton. Talk about a psychological thriller — there’s more thrills and more psychology in this book than you’ll see in twenty other books combined, plus a dash of detective novel. The story begins in the icy world of South Georgia, near Antarctica, where Felicity works as a glaciologist. We learn early that she’s very afraid of someone, who is soon to arrive on the last ship of the season. Soon, we’re taken back to Cambridge, England, nine months before, and Felicity’s life there, which is unsettled to say the least, and then to seven months before, in Cambridge, after Felicity has left for the hinterlands, and finally back to present-day South Georgia, picking up where we left off but understanding a lot more about what’s going on and who these people are. Excellent and villainously complex plotting, characters, and relationships, with interesting sidelights on ice science, the homeless community, therapy and hypnosis, etc.  Recommended.  

Tea & Treachery (2020) by Vicki Delany, the first in the Tea By the Sea mystery series. An old-fashioned cozy murder mystery set on Cape Cod, in a fictional town near Truro. Lily runs a tea shop next to her outspoken grandmother Rose’s Victorian B&B (where Lily makes full English breakfasts for the guests before her tea shop opens at 11), and both are suspected when a local developer, Jack Ford, is found dead on the beach at the bottom of a cliff on their property. The police in town (one in particular) seem either incompetent or corrupt so of course Lily, her best friend Bernie, and Rose have to do some investigating of their own. The mystery plot is liberally sprinkled with references to baking and tea making, with lots of details about scones, cupcakes, tea sandwiches, tea types and brewing, and so on. This sort of mystery isn’t really my cup of tea, shall we say, but I liked it better than most of its kind, which is a strong recommendation for those who enjoy food-focused cozies set in charming coastal towns.  I’ll read another.


Squeeze Me (2020) by Carl Hiaasen. Hilarious send-up of Trumpworld in Florida, just post-pandemic, complete with Casa Bellicosa (the Winter White House), the Potussies (POTUS pussies — extremely wealthy older women who adore the Pres.), loads of Secret Service agents who know their main charges as Mastadon and Mockingbird, a flaming tanning bed, scads of giant Burmese pythons, charity balls for obscure diseases, and Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler and former felon. The ex-Gov. Tyree (Skink) makes an appearance, too, foreshadowed early in the book. All the typical vivid, concentrated description and the fast pace you’d expect in a Hiaasen novel. The Sunday Times of London puts it well: he’s the “undisputed master of organised chaos.” 

The Searcher (2020) by Tana French. A novel more than a mystery novel, although there is a mystery (a few actually) and the book’s protagonist, Cal, is a retired Chicago cop now living in the hinterlands of Ireland. He’s enjoying fixing up his cottage, fishing, and occasional pub nights and cryptic conversations with his nearest neighbour, Mart, when into his life pops the disturbing force of 13-year-old Trey, whose older brother went missing six months ago. Trey wants Cals to investigate, and Cal, against his better judgment and inclinations, does, with powerful repercussions. Beautifully written — slow, almost meditative, in parts (musings on morality, one’s inner compass, raising kids, hunting, life in a small stagnating village, etc.), peppered with violence, action, and cruelty. Recommended.

Still Life (2020) by Val McDermid, sixth in the Karen Pirie (cold case) series. I pulled up maps on my phone to follow the route taken by the two plots in this book, with locales including many in Scotland — the Firth of Forth, St. Monans, Kilconquhar, Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milton of GlenIsla, Hawick, and more — and across the channel to Paris and Caen in France, and across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland and County Donegal, Ireland. Karen, Jason, and DS Daisy Mortimer (temporarily assigned to the Historic Cases Unit) are following up the old case of Iain Auld, missing for more than ten years and declared dead by his wife Mary a few years before, after Iain’s brother Jamie is found in the Firth of Forth with his head bashed in. Meanwhile, Karen and Jason are also investigating the death and identity of a skeleton that’s turned up in a garaged camper van after the owner of the house dies in a road accident. Since the book is set from February to March 2020, there are a few hints of the burgeoning pandemic beginning about a quarter of the way into the book, as well as some minor speculation about the Brexit fallout. This is my favourite McDermid series.  

One By One (2020) by Ruth Ware. Staff — and one former staff member who’s a shareholder — of a privately held ultra-hip music tech app called Snoop arrive at a luxurious chalet in the French Alps for a corporate retreat and ski week that pretty quickly devolves, aided by a massive snowstorm and avalanche. The story is narrated from the alternating points of view of Liz, the former staffer, and Erin, who manages the chalet and acts as host to the group along with Danny, the chef. That several people die is no secret; the book begins with a news clipping reporting it. What’s revealed in the novel is how and why the deaths occur. Though we know most of the characters only superficially and don’t develop strong feelings about them, I enjoyed the setting and build-up, the interactions among the characters, but I felt the book became weaker as it went on. There was something flimsy about this one for me.  

The Unreality of Memory: Essays (2020) by Elisa Gabbard. Fascinating set of essays written from 2016-2018 or so, including a prescient one about how the next pandemic would very likely be a flu virus. She writes about disasters and catastrophes (9/11, Titanic, volcanoes and tsunamis, plagues and pandemics; radiation and nuclear destruction, climate change, more); threats — including the big amorphous threats that humans have trouble grappling with, like a volcano (Cumbre Vieja) in the Canary Islands whose tsunami will probably inundate the east coast of the U.S.  to 16 miles inland, and the caldera under Yellowstone that when it blows will boil alive most of Montana and Wyoming and spew ash (really, more like very fine jagged glass) three feet deep in Denver (both of those scenarios discussed in her online 2017 essay, which is reproduced in the book); the evolution of empathy and her own experience of compassion fatigue; the unknowability of the past — even our own past (online here); pandemics and vaccine rejection; the hunting of witches in Salem, MA; and more. I like the subtlety of her thought, her insight and the connections she makes, the patterns she notices, and her homing in on the vivid details of a handful of scenarios.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill (2020) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. This one is set in the 1930s in England, mostly in a luxurious mansion. Poirot and his  companion, Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool, travel to the estate on a luxury coach after being summoned there by Richard Devonport to prove that his fiancée, Helen, who has confessed and is waiting to be hung, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. On the coach, two women come to Poirot and Catchpool’s attention: one insists she will be murdered if she sits in a particular seat, and other is a beautiful but spiteful woman who tells Poirot an interesting story. Of course both women are connected to the estate to which Poirot and Catchpool are headed. I’m not sure about this novel; I enjoyed it for the most part, especially the setting, but some of the dialogue seemed just a shade uncharacteristic of Poirot.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018) by Leah Penniman. Read with my permaculture group. Excellent resource for people of colour (and others) who are drawn to the land, or those who are repelled because farm work = slavery. There’s a lot of history (mostly American, some African), advice about farming/gardening and teaching young people about farming/gardening, business start-up and land-buying advice, herbal medicine info, seed-keeping techniques, (true) soul food cooking recipes, plus so much inspiration and many creative ideas packed into this well-footnoted 300+-page book. Useful photos and charts, too. Highly recommended.   

Life Events: A Novel (2020) by Karolina Waclawiak. Exactly my cup of tea but won’t be for everyone. Evelyn is a woman in her late 30s, living in Los Angeles, unhappy in her marriage, unhappy in many ways, and trying to come to terms with her life and with death, loss, and grief. She trains to be an “exit guide” — someone who helps terminally ill people with emotionally and practically preparing for assisted suicide — which includes among other exercise five minutes spent answering the question “How do you avoid pain?” with a trainee partner; some of her responses: Xanax, a weed pen, wine (a bottle each night, as we later learn), sex, making jokes, avoiding people and relationships, etc. Each client helps her consider her self-destructiveness and her strategies for suppressing pain in a new light. I appreciated her internal monologues, her fraught (anxious, angry, detached, impulsive) reactions to people and situations, and her yen for escapism, including many long drives around California and Arizona backroads, through Mojave, Death Valley, various deserts, where she occasionally spends a night or two alone in a motel. It’s one I’ll re-read.      

The Monogram Murders (2014) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. This one is set in London in the 1920s, beginning when a panicked young woman, Jennie, runs into the coffee shop in which Poirot is dining. Most of the story takes place at the Bloxham Hotel, where it soon transpires that three people have been killed, posed, and had a monogrammed cufflink placed in their mouths; there is also a foray to the small town of Great Holling, where the root of the murders seems to lie. I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a convoluted plot, with more twists than a box of fusilli, and so farfetched as to be laughable; I ended up skimming a bit. Worse, as in The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, Poirot is portrayed in an unflattering light, unpleasant and rudely condescending, and without, for the most part, the humourous and affectionate touch Christie lent him and his foibles. The only aspect of Christie’s novels that Hannah nails (at least in the two of these I’ve read) is the setting — the coziness of the boarding house where Catchpool is living, the luxury and grandeur of the hotel (and the estate, in Kingfisher), the repressiveness and seething emotions often found of small towns. 2.5 stars.

Closed Casket  (2016) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. I enjoyed this one more than the other two I’ve read because Poirot seemed more “himself,” every bit as immodest but not nearly as pedantic or rude as in the other novels. The plot, though, was just as farfetched in its way as the Monogram Murders, but the telling of this story was better — more concise, clearer, and less repetitive. Briefly, in October 1929, a wealthy woman who writes children’s detective books summons Poirot, Catchpool, her lawyers, and her children and their partners to her estate in Ireland, where she announces she’s signed a Will leaving everything to her research assistant, a charming man who doesn’t have long to live. What could go wrong? I knew (or suspected) early on whodunnit but that didn’t diminish my pleasure in reading the denouement. 3.5 stars. 


Remain Silent (2020) by Susie Steiner, 4.5. Another in the Manon Bradshaw series set in Cambridge, England. Sort of a police procedural about Lithuanian illegal immigrants and the risks and traumas they encounter in the U.K. — not only from UKippers but also from their Lithuanian overlords — and alloyed with long sections on the nuanced struggles of marriage and child-raising. An interesting combo! I liked it.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes (2020) by Alexander McCall Smith, a Detective Varg novel. I’m unsure what to make of this fairly amusing novel. The novel is strictly speaking not crime fiction, except in the sense that the Encyclopedia Brown series is crime fiction. Varg and his three colleagues investigate three cases (a knee stabbing, a missing boyfriend, and a hotel haunting) but it doesn’t seem like the crime is what matters here; this book was really about the interactions of Swedish people — and it’s a very different and morally centered Sweden presented by Smith than, e.g., in the Jo Nesbo books — and their sundry chit chat and thoughts, mostly centered on how to behave well in a civil society.  

The Thursday Club Murder (2020) by Richard Osman. A charming murder mystery set at an upscale retirement village in rural Kent, England. Four residents — Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Ron, and recently joined Joyce — meet weekly to talk over old murder cases (co-founder Penny, now in a coma in the hospice wing, is a former Detective Inspector who kept copies of some cases) until a murder takes place involving a contractor who works on their campus. The club members work in an irregular way with PC Donna and DCI Chris at the local police force, though that doesn’t always go smoothly. Most of the book is narrated in the third person, with interspersed short diary entries written by Joyce. Quite amusing, and rather cozy (sherry, lots of tea, drizzle cakes, friendships, possible romance, etc.), though the contractor’s murder is far from the only death and the plotting is actually quite complicated, in a good way.

Snow (2020) by John Banville. This crime novel, written under Banville’s own name, is labelled as the first in the series but it continues the Inspector Strafford series written under Banville’s pseudonym Benjamin Black, set in County Wexford, Ireland, in the 1950s. A priest is killed and mutilated in the Osbornes’ Irish country manor house, and while the Archbishop hushes it up in the press, Strafford and Jenkins investigate the Osbornes and others, as snow piles up and makes driving treacherous. If you’re reading it for the many feelings of snow — the cozy feeling of being in a tavern with friendly folks, the alienating feeling of being in a huge manor house that’s being selectively maintained (many rooms closed off), the claustrophobic feel of driving when you can’t see the road ahead of you and walking through deep snow in an unfamiliar place, etc. — you’ve come to the right place. On the other hand, the plotting and particularly the revelations about the murdered priest seem pretty predictable. 

The Mystery of the Three Quarters (2018) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot and Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, who “writes” the story. Several people come to Poirot with a letter purported to have been written by him accusing them of the murder of a man who was believed to have simply fallen asleep and drowned in his tub. Poirot and Catchpool try to determine the relationships of the letter-receivers to the dead man and to an unknown letter writer. There is quite a bit of discussion about character vs. actions and about estrangements, grudge-holding, guilt, and forgiveness. The book was a pleasant read but it ultimately failed for me because a key scene, in which something is realised by one of the characters, was unconvincing. 

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018) ed. Martin Edwards. A collection of eleven British crime stories set around Christmas. The quality of the stories, which are arranged in chronological order of publication from 1909 to 1965, varies fairly widely. By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson was my favourite.

Snow Drift (2018/2020) by Helene Tursten, the third in the mildly police procedural Detective Inspector Embla Nyström series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden, and further north, near rural Dalsland and Bengtsfors. This investigation brings traumatic pieces of Embla’s past into the present — including the disappearance of her best childhood friend Lollo — as she and local police officer (and K9 trainer) Ollie Tillman search for the killer or killers of some wealthy gang members with ties to Croatia.  Extremely prosaic writing, as usual, which may be the translation; and I noticed a lot of mundane description of rooms, clothing, and meals featuring wild game. I like this series because of Embla’s character and the far north setting, and I don’t mind the needless reports of what everyone wears and eats and what their homes and offices look like.

The Janes (2020) by Louisa Luna, 2nd in the Alice Vega/Max Caplan series. Private investigator and hand-stand practitioner Vega is asked to help the San Diego police solve a case involving the trafficking of underaged Mexican girls, and she invites Cap to fly out and help her. Once they find the girls, though, the police push them out in no uncertain terms, along with their own detective McTiernan (who will hopefully make a return appearance in a future novel). Not a book for the faint-hearted: very violent, brief descriptions of torture, lots of blood, gore, and pain; children in peril; and our heroes facing death-defying odds several times a day. But somehow, it ends up being heart-warming. As Cap says he’s learned over the years, “Trust the girl.”

2019 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

2019 stats

Total number of books read: 67

average read per month: 5.6 books
average read per week: 1.3 books
number read in worst month: 1 (February)
number read in best month: 11 (June)

percentage by male authors: 37% (25 books)
percentage by female authors: 63% (42 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 91% (61 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 79% (48 of 61 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 9% (6 books)

percentage of total liked: 70% (47 books)
percentage of total so-so: 27% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 3% (2 books)


This year I read the books in Peter Lovesey’s Inspector Diamond series (set mainly in and around Bath, England), most of which I enjoyed, some of which were just OK; reading his series raised my “percentage of books by male authors” quite a bit. I continued reading the Thea Kozak series by Maine writer Kate Flora, after a break of several years. And I started reading both Christi Daugherty’s new Harper McClain series set in Savannah, GA, and Cara Hunter’s new DI Adam Fawley series, both of which I really liked.

My favourite books of the year were The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jansson, stories about a grandmother’s summer with her 6-year-old granddaughter on an isolated Finnish island; Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach, a lovely meditation on spending a couple winter months alone in Sargentville, Maine; Alice’s Island (2019) by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo, a novel about loss, betrayal, redemption, hope, and community set on a fictitious island off Cape Cod; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) about novel about race, gender, class, and identity in America and, to a lesser extent, in Nigeria; and The Scholar (2019) by Dervla McTiernan, an Irish police procedural with a dash of suspense. Milkman: A Novel (2018) by Anna Burns, set in Ireland during the Troubles, was hard to get into but I ended up loving it, particularly for the diction and feel of the language.

Biggest disappointments: Nothing hugely disappointing this year but the non-fiction Three Women (2019) by Lisa Taddeo, about the sexual desires, disappointments, traumas, risks, sacrifices, etc. of three American women was not nearly as good as it could have been; Magpie Murders (2017) by Anthony Horowitz was a bit of a let down in the second half of the book (I was looking for a lavishly cozy crime story but got a cozy that morphed into a slightly postmodern novel); and both the short story collection Mouthful of Birds (2019) by Samantha Schweblin and the debut psychological novel Looker (2019) by Laura Sims were not nearly as satisfying as the hype. Monday Night (1938), the gritty novel by Kay Boyle recommended by Doris Grumbach, was no fun at all.

Full book list.

number of books read in 2019: 67
number of books read in 2018: 63
number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

Books Read 2019

Once again (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!


Light Thickens (1982) by Ngaio Marsh, the 32nd and last of the Inspector Alleyn series. Much less detective work, no Troy, and lots of MacBeth. The first 2/3 of the book is the casting, staging, and rehearsing of the Shakespeare play, “MacBeth,” at the Dolphin Theatre in London, directed by Peregrine Jay, just as his play “The Glove” was in #24, Killer Dolphin. If you’re a “MacBeth” aficionado you’ll love this; if you wanted more detecting, you won’t. But I still wish there were more books in the series.

Kingdom of the Blind (2018) by Louise Penny, 14th in the Gamache series. Gamache is suspended due to events in 2017’s Glass Houses, but when he, bookstore owner and psychologist Myrna Landers, and a young man — Benedict Pouliot, a builder/custodian who lives in Montréal — are named as liquidators (executors) for the estate of a deceased woman none of them knew, a house cleaner named Bertha Baumgartner, who called herself The Baroness, he’s drawn back into crime and detection, along with the now-acting head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec (and his son-in-law), Jean Guy Beauvoir. Meanwhile, more spillover from previous events, rebellious police cadet and former homeless drug addict Amelie Choquet is out on the streets searching for the Carfentani opiates that Gamache, for a greater good, let flow into Canada from the U.S. There’s a lot about revenge, secrets, and lies here. I read it in two days and was sad when it was over.

The Witch Elm (2018) by Tana French. Charming, easy-going Toby is involved in a dodgy scheme at the art gallery where he works, then is attacked at home and winds up recuperating from the attack at Ivy House, where his Uncle Hugo lives and where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, who are more like siblings to Toby, spent summers together growing up. When a skull is found in the trunk of a tree, events of a decade ago are revisited with a fine-tooth comb by the detectives investigating and by the family members. Atmospheric, gripping, terrifying in multiple ways, so well-written with characters you come to know.

Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (1985 compilation) by Agatha Christie. The coziest of cozy books, a compilation of Christie’s 20 short stories featuring Miss Marple, from The Tuesday Club Mysteries (in the first seven, Miss Marple, her nephew the writer Raymond West, clergyman Dr. Pender, solicitor Petherick, retired head of Scotland Yard Sir Henry Clithering, artist Joyce Lempriere each present an unsolved mystery and try to solve the others’ … includes “The Bloodstained Pavement;” in next six, including “The Blue Geranium” and “A Christmas Tragedy,” it’s Miss Marple, Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Sir Henry, actress Jane Helier, and Dr. Lloyd trying to solve each other’s mysteries; and in the last, “Death by Drowning,” the mystery is current, with Sir Henry Clithering on the spot); The Regatta Mystery (“Miss Marple Tells A Story,” to Raymond and Joyce); Three Blind Mice (“Strange Jest,” “The Case of the Perfect Maid” (with Inspector Slack), “The Case of the Caretaker” – Dr. Haydock writes this mystery for Miss Marple to solve as she’s recovering from illness and feeling depressed, and “Tape-Measure Murder,” again with Inspector Slack) ; and Double Sin (“Greenshaw’s Folly,” featuring Raymond West, and “Sanctuary,” featuring Miss Marple’s goddaughter Bunch Harmon, a vicar’s wife).

Lilac Girls (2016) by Martha Hall Kelly is a novel based on real people and real events, set from Sept. 1939 to 1959, told from the points of view of three strong women: Caroline Ferriday, a 30’s something (when the book starts) high-society do-gooder working at the French consulate in NYC and living on an estate in Connecticut with her mother; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, living with her parents and older sister Zuzanna in Lublin, Poland, when the book begins; and Herta Oberheuser, an ambitious young German doctor who answers an ad for a government medical position at a “re-education camp.” The sections with Kasia and Herta, who end up at the same concentration camp, Ravensbrück — where deforming and life-threatening surgery is done on perfectly healthy girls and women to give them infections so that sulfa drugs can be tested …with varying success, — are often harrowing and sad. The Caroline section, set in or near NYC, or in post-war Paris, is a relief throughout the book, although Caroline herself is often sad and heart-hardened because the man she loves, a French actor, is married. The first 300 pp of the novel is set during the war, with all of its cruelty, cowardice, suffering, bravery, and confusion; the last 180pp are devoted to the years and events after the war, as each woman, but especially Caroline and Kasia, struggles with the war’s aftermath and seeks justice. Both Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser, as well as other concentration camp staff, were real people. The writing and plotting are clear, detailed, and nuanced, with images that will haunt the reader, an unflinching, unsettling, and embodied expression of living in this horrific time.


Milkman: A Novel (2018) by Anna Burns. To say, as Wikipedia starts with, that it’s a novel “set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland …. follow[ing] an 18-year-old girl who is harassed by an older married man known as the ‘Milkman'” doesn’t really summarise this book. For one thing, neither “the Troubles” nor “Northern Ireland” is mentioned, nor is any other country, city, or place other than with archetypal, mythic names like “the 10-minute place” (a borderland or no-go area), “the usual place” (cemetery), and “the country over the water.” People aren’t called by their names, either. The narrator, “middle sister,” is someone who by personality, habit, and training keeps herself to herself, so much so that she makes a blank slate of herself onto which the “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian” community, which doesn’t trust her because they don’t know what she’s thinking, writes whatever gossip they like. This leaves her vulnerable when the married milkman, a paramilitary fighter twice her age, starts wooing her in a creepy, not-quite-wooing her way that soon has her hyper-vigilant to avoid him and second-guessing herself constantly. But even this description of the main plot doesn’t relay the humour of the narrator and the book nor does it mention the many detailed digressions concerning people’s motivations and actions, the many reasons for marrying the wrong person, the community’s irritation with women with issues (the feminists), the ordeal of finding a cat’s head after a small bombing, the community’s uneasiness with sky colours and the sunset, her mother’s dismay concerning her own aging body, her wee sisters’ delight (along with other young girls in the neighbourhood) in mimicking the dress and dancing of the now-famous international dancers from their area, the thoughts of “tablets girl,” the community’s very successful poisoner, and so on. Lack of many paragraph breaks is annoying, but the unimpeded flow of the writing, or sometimes overly-impeded-with-commas-and-hyphens flow of the writing, expresses the complexity of the situation and the narrator’s thoughts perfectly.


book cover: Careless Love by Peter Robinson

Careless Love (2019) by Peter Robinson, 25th in the DCI Banks/DI Annie Cabot series set in Eastvale, Yorkshire. A young woman is found dead in someone else’s disabled car. Then an expensively dressed older man is found dead in a gully in the moors, and despite differences, there are also certain similarities in these possible suicides/accidents/murders. Meanwhile, Annie’s father Ray’s new love interest, Zelda, who works in exposing sex trafficking rings, reveals shocking information about Phil Keane, the psycho that burned down Banks’ home and betrayed Annie in a previous book. Good, as usual. Lots of references to music, classical, jazz, and 1960s pop/rock, more than usual, I think.

The Hunting Party (2019) by Lucy Foley, a suspense novel about a group of friends who met (most of them) at Oxford ten years before and who always celebrate New Year’s Eve together. This year, Emma has planned the event for Loch Corrin, a pricey lodge in the remote Scottish Highland wilderness, but all does not go smoothly. The novel is very dark, with lots of drinking, a bit of drugs and sex, and much reminiscing, often in a harrowing way, about the past. There’s also a nasty game of Truth or Dare. The story is told from the perspectives alternately of Miranda, the golden girl; Emma, who admires her; and Katie, her best friend from before college; and from the pov as well of Heather, who runs the Lodge, and Doug, a war veteran who’s the gamekeeper, and events “now” (2 Jan 2019) are intertwined with events from one to three days earlier. Besides the three women (Miranda, Emma, and Katie), Miranda’s husband Julien, Emma’s boyfriend Mark, Nick and his boyfriend Bo, and married couple Giles and Samira along with their infant Priya make up the group. The writing is serviceable, certainly not poetic or complex, and the plotting well-paced, though unfortunately the killer is strongly hinted at about 1/3 of the way through the book. Still, I enjoyed it.


Look Alive Twenty-Five (2018) by Janet Evanovich, in the Stephanie Plum, NJ bounty hunter, series. I haven’t read one of these in about 10 years but they are always a quick, amusing read, if formulaic and predictable. In this one, Stephanie and side-kick Lula, and even Ranger and some of his team, find themselves working (sandwich-making, waitressing, cleaning, managing) at a local Trenton deli after several deli managers disappear, each with only one shoe left near the dumpster. Turns out, of course, there is a connection between one of Stephanie’s failed-to-appears and the disappearing managers. Unlike other readers, I’m fine with Stephanie never choosing between durable Morelli and mysterious Ranger, though I’m happy to have Ranger feature large as he does in this one.

Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration (2015) by Tao Orion, an excellent and extremely well-researched book, with lots of real-world examples, about rethinking the concept of “invasive” species and advocating a systems-thinking approach in considering and (sometimes) managing them. The main point is that we can (and should) look at invasive species — terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals, though she mainly focuses on plants — as a reflection of the ecosystem they’re part of; they tell us about the underlying conditions of the ecosystem: the soil and water health and makeup, the nutrients and metals in the soil/water, the climate and changes to the climate, the other plants and animals in the ecosystem, etc. The “invaders” don’t change the ecosystem so much as the ecosystem determines which species will grow rampantly. Invasive species fill a niche in the ecosystem and provide benefits to the other plants and animals as well as challenges. A secondary point is that no ecosystem is static; all ecosystems are dynamic and characterised by constant change. Ecosystems move through various states (a process called succession) toward a brief –in geological time — state of equilibrium, and all the while they are subject to natural and human disturbances (fire, storm, flood, drought, human encroachment and fragmentation). An ecosystem that’s unrecognisable to us over time isn’t necessarily a dysfunctional ecosystem; it may just have transformed itself, or been transformed and adapted to become, a different and functioning ecosystem.

Broken Ground (2018) by Val McDermid, in the DCI Karen Pirie series, set in and near Edinburgh, Scotland. I’d stopped reading McDermid because many of her books are too full of torture and disturbing images for me, but this series is a police procedural and much easier for me to handle; I’m going to go back now and read the others in the series. In this novel, recently bereaved DCI Pirie, head of the Historic Cases Unit, is working on several cases at once, two of them historical in nature and one, which she stumbles into, very current. The focus is on a crime (or crimes: war looting and murder) dating partially from 1944 and 1995 in rural Wester Ross, Scotland. Pirie is also under fire from her new boss, Asst. Chief Constable Ann Markie, who has personal reasons for undermining her at every step and who has saddled her with a spying detective sergeant.

No Sunscreen for the Dead (2019) by Tim Dorsey. Zany crime fiction/thriller set in the Sunshine State (known as the bastion of former Cold War era spies), among the retirees of Boca Shores Retirement Trailer Park, featuring lovable manic psychopath Serge and sidekick druggie Coleman. This is the first Dorsey I’ve read and I’ll be back.

Out of Bounds (2016) by Val McDermid, in the DCI Karen Pirie series set in Edinburgh, Scotland. Karen investigates a 1994 plane bombing that killed four people, including a Northern Island minister (a bombing presumed then to be the work of Irish terrorists), which she learns about when someone related to one of the plane bombing victims dies, either by suicide or murder. Meanwhile, the DNA of a joyriding teen in hospital turns out to be related to the perpetrator of a 1996 rape and murder, but the teen was adopted, so it’s not as straightforward as it seems. A further plot involves Syrian refugees that Karen meets on her nocturnal wanderings. Complicated and engaging plot.

A Darker Domain (2009) by Val McDermid, the first in the DCI Karen Pirie series set in and near Fife, Scotland, and, in this novel, partially in Tuscany, Italy. Pirie, DS Phil Parhatka, and DC Jason Murray are working on two investigations, one the disappearance of a miner during the 1984 miner strikes, and the other the disappearance of a young boy in 1985, kidnapped with his mother, who was killed in a shootout during the hostage hand-over. An ambitious investigative journalist, Bel Richmond, is also assisting the family in the second search. McDermid’s writing is a pleasure to read.

The Stranger Diaries (2018) by Elly Griffiths. I guess I’d call this a gothic suspense novel, set in modern-day England, not too far from Cambridge. The story is narrated in turns by Clare Cassidy, her 15-year-old daughter Georgia, and an investigating officer, DS Harbinder Kaur. Clare is an English teacher at Talgarth comprehensive high school, which is situated partly in the home of R.M. Holland, a Victorian writer of Gothic novels, whose creepy short story The Stranger begins the book and is interleaved throughout; Clare is writing a biography of Holland. When another teacher at Clare’s school is found murdered, and a line from The Stranger is found next to the body, DS Kaur starts to look with suspicion at Clare. Then a note addressed directly to Clare suddenly and unsettlingly appears in her own diary. The three main characters — mother and teenage daughter (both of whom keep diaries and are readers), and Harbinder Kaur, a gay policewoman who in her mid-30s lives at home with her Indian parents — are engaging, and I enjoyed reading their perspectives on each other, especially as Harbinder and Clare evolve from distrusting and disliking each other to cautiously sharing information and seeking each other out. But the other characters, including victims and the other potential perpetrators, are cardboard; I never felt anything one way or the other about them, which lessened my interest in the plot. I noticed Louise Penny’s blurb on the books cover — “I loved this book!” — but Penny’s novels, IMO, have significantly more depth and complexity of character development.

Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach. Lovely meditation on spending 50 days alone on the coast of Maine (Sargentville) in the winter of 1993, mostly without speaking or listening to the spoken word except for 40 minutes of NPR news per day. I read it in about an hour but I marked many passages to copy and consider more fully later. I also learned a few new words (inguement, endolithic — neither of which my spell-checker seems to know either). She quotes from many other writers (and a few visual artists), including some of my favourites on solitude like May Sarton and Henri Nouwen. Politics oozes in, as she mentions Bill Clinton’s election and inauguration and the AIDS epidemic particularly. Besides musing on solitude and loneliness, she talks about writing, community, the self, art, winter, planning and serendipity, among others.


The Reckoning (2015, transl. 2019) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a thriller with police procedural elements. A grisly, harrowing, complexly plotted novel that begins with a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twelve years later, Icelandic Detective Huldur, languishing at the bottom of the investigative team, is given the task of following up on a strange time-capsule message — a prediction of six people who will die in 2016, giving initials only — written by a schoolchild ten years ago when the capsule was buried. He enlists the help of Freyja, a child psychologist with the Children’s House, who is not particularly eager to help, given that she has also lost her position because of recent work-related incidents involving Huldur, but she becomes curious about the list and about the court records concerning the list’s writer that seem to have been expunged from all the official files. The characters (not just Huldur and Freyja) are interesting and believable, and the dialog, motivations, and actions ring true for the most part. Not for those who can’t bear to read about children in jeopardy.

The Skeleton Road (2014) by Val McDermid, 2nd in the DCI Karen Pirie series, set in Scotland. When skeletal remains are found on a rooftop in Edinburgh, it’s up to DCI Karen Pirie and team to identify the remains, determine how the body ended up on the roof, and find a killer, all of which requires lots of backstory of the Balkan civil wars (1991-2001) and alliances made there. Not my favourite in the series.

Murder By the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’ London (2019) by Claire Harman. A quick and cogent read about the murder of 73-year-old “unobtrusive minor aristocrat” Lord William Russell in Mayfair, London, on 5 May 1840, including the investigation, trial, execution, and aftermath, and with emphasis on the sensational novels of the time, especially William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, which seemed to lionise a ne’er-do-well. The chapters about that novel, the many plays and broadsides it spun off, its influence, and its critics (including Dickens and Thackeray), are the least interesting, but the whole book was a bit disappointing somehow. I got completely lost in the many names of Lords, Dukes, Duchesses, etc.

A Curious Beginning (2015) by Deanna Raybourn, set in the 1880s in and near London, featuring lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell, whom we meet when the last of the two sisters who raised her dies, followed immediately by someone ransacking their house and attacking her, followed immediately by another someone rescuing her and bringing her to a warehouse on the Thames in London where he entrusts her life to his unkempt taxidermist/natural historian friend Stoker and then is himself promptly murdered. So begins a feisty friendship between Veronica and Stoker and a series of narrow escapes from whoever is hunting them. I figured out the “mystery” fairly early on but enjoyed the plot, the characters, the relationship development, and Stoker’s bulldog, Huxley. Some amusing writing, too: “Most of the furnishings had been carted away and sold, leaving the few pieces that had come with the cottage — a couple of chairs, a kitchen table, a grievously worn rug, and a poorly executed still life that looked as if it had been painted by someone with a grudge against fruit.”

Stalker (2014/2019 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 5th in the Joona Linna series, set in Stockholm. A weakened Linna is back, just as unconventional in his methods as always, though not officially on the police force; he’s helping his replacement, very pregnant Margot Silverman and her associates, including a hypnotist, try to track down a killer who, minutes before killing in a gruesome and brutal way, first sends a video to the police of the victim (always a woman) doing ordinary things. Page-turning.

Monday Night (1938) by Kay Boyle, a work of modern fiction I saw recommended by Doris Grumbach in her Fifty Days of Solitude. Takes place in France (various cities) on a Monday night into an early Tuesday morning. I lost count of the number of drinks had by the long-winded alcoholic protagonist (?), Wilf, as he dragged around Bernie (who, thanks to Wilf, has had no sleep and no food for too long — “lost between a whine and a yawn,” as the New York Times review of the book aptly puts it), a young American who’s recently graduated medical school and who has come to France looking for Sylvestre, his toxicology idol, a man who is connected through his damning evidence at trial with the conviction of several notorious poisoners. The writing is dense but not beautiful, the plot grimy and full of diversions, and would-be-writer Wilf’s verbosity and intense focus on a mission — perhaps on behalf of Bernie at first, to locate his idol, and then on behalf of others as time unfolds, or perhaps simply for his own benefit, as he envisions the book that will come of his suspicions, and even if no book comes, for the moment his vision of it is enough — is frustrating to witness, particularly the way he goes about it, steamrolling all and sundry with his baseless speculations, his “subterranean fantasy.” The contemporary NYT review of the book captures well the feeling of the reader: “The abnormal is not only obvious, as Gertrude Stein remarked; it’s also darned fatiguing. It’s true, of course, that Miss Boyle does not always concern herself with the abnormal as such; but when your people are never anything but sufferers, when they are always trapped between a blow and a scream, it’s difficult not to want a little more light and air.” The Kirkus review of the book in 1938 includes this line: “Her concentration on the gutter side of life is unpleasant.”

Blood Oath (2019) by Linda Fairstein, 20th in the Alex Cooper series. Alex is back and immediately presented with a cold case of sexual abuse to a minor that has consequences for the present District Attorney bid now that Battaglia is gone. At the same time, a co-worker is taken seriously ill a few blocks from Alex’s welcome-back party, and it soon becomes clear that Mike and Mercer will be working that case. The plot is solid, and I liked the pacing, though the ending was more “thriller” than I thought it needed to be. Rockefeller University/Hospital is the NYC centerpiece, though it doesn’t come into the story until later in the plot. This series is comfort food for me.

Mouthful of Birds (2019, and in translation) by Samantha Schweblin, a book of 20 short stories, each one creepy and strange. Schweblin is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lives now in Berlin. Her stories are otherwordly, sometimes gruesome, sometimes just horrific. I read the whole book in about 2 hours. My favourite story was “The Size of Things,” about a toy store, but the title story will stay with readers for a long time. There were a couple I really didn’t follow at all (“Rage of Pestilence,” for one, and “Olingris” for another, at least the ending).


Looker (2019) by Laura Sims, a debut psychological novel about a 30-something woman, living in New York City, slowly losing her grip on reality. The woman (not named) has lost a lot — her husband has just left her after they couldn’t conceive the children they desperately want — but she still has some life (including work she enjoys) when we meet her but she quickly puts everything at risk as she entangles herself in obsessions and makes poor choices. I felt empathy for her but also frustration when she sabotaged herself over and over. A good beach read but not much more.

The House Sitter (2003) by Peter Lovesey, an Inspector Peter Diamond mystery, #8 in the series. I couldn’t get the first several in the series right away, so I started with this one, which is equally Diamond (inspector in Bath, England) and another senior investigator, Henrietta Mallin from Sussex. A woman is strangled on a busy beach, and her profession ties her to a serial killer who’s announced his future victims and who is using “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as the stylistic basis for the killings. I enjoyed it; it’d be a creepy beach read.

The Circle (2005) by Peter Lovesey, one of the two Henrietta Mallin crime novels, though she only comes in to it about halfway through. Pure luck I read this one after The House Sitter, which it apparently follows on and references. “The Circle” refers to a Chichester writing circle, which Bob — a widowed single father, van driver, and doggerel writer –attends a day or so before a publisher who had recently spoken to the group is found dead in his torched house. When the chair of the writing circle comes under suspicion, Bob and the others start to investigate each other as well as others on their own to find the real culprit, but the arson and killings continue. Eventually Hen and Stella are called in to help. Interesting.

Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey, 4th in the Peter Diamond series. Another sort of coincidence, I guess: like the previous Lovesey book I just read, out of order, this one is again about a literary circle, in this case fans of crime fiction. When one of the Bloodhounds, as they’re called, is implicated in a stamp heist, and then another of their own is found dead on the first member’s canal houseboat, in a classic “locked room” murder, all eyes are on the Bloodhounds as not only unravelers of mysteries but perpetrators.

Diamond Dust (2002) by Peter Lovesey, #7 in the Peter Diamond series, set mostly in Bath, England. Peter’s wife Stephanie is gunned down in broad daylight in a public park, and there is no lack of suspects, including her ex-husband, several of the men Diamond has put away in prison, wives of the men Diamond has put away in prison, possibly a stranger she’s gone to meet there? Of course, Diamond can’t investigate his own wife’s murder, officially, so unofficial it is. Great, twisted plot.

Diamond Solitaire (1992) by Peter Lovesey, the 2nd in the Peter Diamond series. Diamond, after being fired from the police, is working as a security guard at Harrod’s when a young abandoned Japanese girl is found in the store after closing. She can’t or won’t speak, and no family can be found for her, so she is given the name ‘Naomi’ and taken to a local school, where it’s determined she’s autistic. Diamond spends a lot of time with her at the school trying to communicate so he can return her to her family. Then a Japanese woman appears and claims her, whisking her away to New York … so Diamond follows and works with the NYPD to find Naomi. Meanwhile, there’s another plot that eventually dovetails with this one, about an American pharmaceutical company working on a promising drug for regenerating brain cells. And then there’s the Japanese sumo wrestler. Complex but it works fairly well, though I don’t buy the reason Naomi was removed from her mother (given four pages from the end of the book).

Upon a Dark Night (1997) by Peter Lovesey, the 5th in the Peter Diamond series. A young woman awakes in a hospital with no memory of who she is, what her name is, where she lives. She (nicknamed “Rose” for now) and her new friend Ada seem to be making headway in learning more about her when a woman who says she’s Rose’s sister comes and whisks her away. Meanwhile, a cantankerous old farmer has died of a shotgun wound through the jaw, and a young woman is found dead after a fall from a roof during a party. Of course, everything is connected.

The Vault (1999) by Peter Lovesey, the 6th in the Peter Diamond series, this one set in and near the vault under the Bath Abbey churchyard, where a hand has been found in concrete. Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein while living in Bath (see news article), and this novel imagines the discovery in modern day Bath of her copy of Milton’s poems as well as her writing desk and sketchpad.

The Secret Hangman (2007) by Peter Lovesey, the 9th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. Someone is stringing up couples, the woman first, then the man, in parks, from bridges, at other public structures in Bath. Meanwhile, Peter has a female admirer. Not my favourite; I don’t care about the detective’s love life.

Skeleton Hill (2009) by Peter Lovesey, the 10th in the Peter Diamond series, set mostly around Lansdown Hill in Bath and also a bit in Bristol, England. Not a favourite: Ukranian sex trafficking, British Civil War reenactments, horse racing, another case of injury-induced amnesia.

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants (2016) by Tammi Hartung. A permaculture group book discussion choice this spring, and a good, light, easy-to-read with not too much to think about, antidote to our previous book. I think we took it in four or five sections of about 45 pp each, which took me less than an hour to read. Lots of photos, illustrations, anecdotes, trivia, and facts about the different medicinal, health, food, instrument-making, fiber arts, industrial, and Native American (a variety of tribes named) uses of each plant, including Agave, Cranberry, Echinacea, Horsetail, Nettles, Panic Grass, Pine, Squash, Valerian, Wild Rice, Witch Hazel. Many of the plants grow in New England, where our group is located.


Stagestruck (2011) by Peter Lovesey, the 11th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. A pop idol turned leading lady is sticken in the first moments of the Bath Theatre Royal’s production of the play I Am a Camera, apparently burned by tainted stage makeup, and then someone else connected with the play is found dead, apparently of suicide. Meanwhile, Diamond is dealing not only with his own theatre phobia, stemming from childhood, but with a new and garrulous policeman assigned to his team against his will. Reminded me, of course, of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn series, often set in theatres.

Cop to Corpse (2012) by Peter Lovesey, the 12th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England, and nearby. A very complicated plot; I lost count of the number of crimes and criminals involved. Basically, three policemen walking their beats have been killed by a sniper, including Bath’s own Harry Tasker. Diamond’s team is a part of the investigation headed by Serial Crimes’ senior officer, Jack Gull, which is challenging for Diamond’s need to be in control. Much of the action — and there is a lot of action — takes place in Becky Addy Woods in Wiltshire, with Diamond in mortal danger more than once. One of the more suspenseful and action-packed in the series, which isn’t a compliment, but the plotting is tight for all that.

The Tooth Tattoo (2013) by Peter Lovesey, the 13th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. This one revolves around a string quartet, and anyone who enjoys classical music of the sort a string quartet plays will find a lot to appreciate in this book. Mel Farrar, a jobbing violist, is offered a spot with the Staccati Quartet a few years after their previous violist went missing in Budapest, not long after the body of a young Japanese woman is found in a canal in the city where they had their last gig, Vienna, which, coincidentally, is where Peter Diamond and girlfriend Paloma are spending a vacation looking at locales from the film The Third Man. Coincidentally, again, the string quartet gets a 6-month residency in Bath, where, surprise, another Japanese woman is found dead in a canal. Besides lots of info about string quartets and classical music, there’s also info on netsukes, mammoth ivory, Japanese gangsters (the yakuza), and more.

The Stone Wife (2014) by Peter Lovesey, the 14th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath and Bristol, England. The title refers to a heavy stone sculpture, the Wife of Bath (dating from around the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), up at auction and fetching far more than expected when three people break in and kill one of the high bidders, a local Chaucer professor, with a Webley automatic revolver. Ingaborg goes undercover in a dangerous bid to learn more from a known arms dealer in Bristol while the others zero in on the man’s widow and her ex-husband and one of the victim’s co-workers.

The Island: A Thriller (2019) by Ragnar Jonasson, 2nd in the Hulda series (Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police department; the trilogy works backwards; this novel finds Hulda in the middle of her career) set in Iceland, in this book mainly in the Westfjords and in Elliðaey as well as Reykjavik. It’s a confusing plot to follow because several stories are started but not connected or explained (and some key names are omitted) until about halfway through. We first learn about a young couple on a romantic trip to a remote cabin in the Westfjords (5 hours or more northwest of Reykjavik), ending in something catastrophic, followed by a conclusive police investigation. Next, it’s 10 years later and some friends are meeting after years apart at a hunting lodge on the remote island of Elliðaey (about 3 hours southeast of Reykjavik), in the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. Meanwhile, Hulda is dealing with her own personal and work issues over these ten years. More suspense than police procedural, though there is some of that. Lots of description of Icelandic landscape and specific mountains. The second half reminded me strongly of The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, which I read earlier this year: old friends with secrets reunited uneasily in a remote place with a creepy vibe. Suspenseful but not all that satisfying for me.

Down Among the Dead Men (2015) by Peter Lovesey, the 15th in the Peter Diamond series, set in and near Sussex, England, this time. This is one of my favourites, for three reasons: Peter and his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore, are paired in an internal investigation of a colleague in Sussex; that colleague is Peter’s old friend, Hen Mallin; and also in Sussex, some art students at a private girls’ school are infatuated with an attractive male teacher with an MG — their replacement after their previous teacher goes missing — who hosts live drawing sessions and nighttime parties on weekends for adult artists.

Beau Death (2017) by Peter Lovesey, the 16th in the Peter Diamond series, set in and near Bath, England. A skeleton is found — sitting in a chair in a building that’s being demolished — in a 1760s Beau Nash costume, complete with black wig. When it turns out the man died more recently than the 18th century, and by being stabbed, Peter and team get to work to try to identify the victim so they can perhaps find the killer. This turns out to mean mingling with the glitterati of the Beau Nash Society. So-so plot, a little too much history for me. The interplay of the police (it’s not all Peter) is definitely a strength of this series.


99 Nights in Logar (2019) by Jamil Jan Kochai, fiction about American 12-year-old Marwand’s visit (99 days and nights) to his family home in Logar, Afghanistan, with his parents, his brothers, his many cousins and other relations. It centers on the search for a wolf-dog, Budabash, that Marwand tortured on his last visit six years before and was bitten by (leaving him with an infected stump on one finger) soon after he arrived for this visit. During a search for the dog, he and his brothers and cousins get lost in or near a maze, along with a thief, some American soldiers, some Taliban fighters (“T”s), some drug dealers and users, and others, who all appear again later in the book. Marwand spends a lot of time either escaping the family compound or secretly listening in on the conversations of his parents and other adults. He is also sick the whole time, with “land-induced seasickness” that leaves his bowels a mess. I can’t say I enjoyed this book but it gave an interesting perspective on living in Afghanistan as the war(s) continue to be waged there.

A Beautiful Corpse: A Harper McClain Mystery (2019) by Christi Daugherty. Really enjoyed this novel, whose protagonist is a relatable crime reporter for a paper in Savannah, GA (it was fun knowing where some of the places mentioned are). A young law student is shot on River Street in the wee hours of the night, after her bartending shift ends; is the killer her boyfriend, the bar owner or a bar customer, the local district attorney’s son, or someone else? The plot was tight, though a bit obvious (but satisfying), and I enjoyed the newspaper background and goings-on. I’m looking forward to the next one already, and may go back and read the first, The Echo Killing, in which Harper thinks she’s found the person who murdered her mother, though I know how it ends and all the fallout from it after reading this book.

Magpie Murders (2017) by Anthony Horowitz, crime fiction. Lengthy, about 500 pp, and it felt long, though I enjoyed the first half the crime story within the crime story, set in a 1955 English village with the usual classic crime suspects (lord of the manor and family and servants, vicar & wife, village busybody, and so on) and a private detective (Atticus Pund) working with the police. That story, cut short before the murderer is announced, has been written by Alan Conway, whose eight previous novels have been published by Cloverleaf Books; editor Susan Ryeland is curious about the manuscript’s abrupt end and becomes all the more so when foul play moves from the 1955 story to modern day real life. I’d rate it a 4/5: It was fun to read, with a plot and characters (especially in the manuscript section) that held my attention, but the second half dragged in parts and overall I thought the book was too clever by half. Still, I think most Agatha Christie fans will find it engaging

The Echo Killing (2018) by Christi Daugherty, first in the investigative crime reporter Harper McClain series, set in Savannah, GA. A young woman is murdered and the similarities between her crime scene and that of Harper’s mother, killed when Harper was 12, is too much for her to ignore. As she digs deeper, taking greater risks that eventually lead to a 2-week suspension, the evidence seems to point to one of the women’s ex-lovers, including a police detective.


Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney. Fiction. This book is exactly what it’s marketed as: a coming-of-age love story. Marianne and Connell are high-schoolers in Carricklea, County Sligo, Ireland, when we meet them, Marianne an independent intellectual misfit from an abusive but wealthy family and Connell a smart and popular guy who needs to feel popular, with a good mother (Marianne’s family’s maid, in fact) from a poor family. They start a secretive friends-with-benefits relationship, and over the course of their college years at Trinity in Dublin and beyond, they continue an on-again-off-again emotionally and sexually intimate relationship. The story is told from the points of view of each, though not in a formal way. It’s a simple novel on some levels, made complex by its incisive emotional nuance, and the way it weaves ideas of power, passivity, shame, secrecy, safety, and of course normality throughout. One of my favourite lines is Connell’s thought about Marianne early on: “She’s not living the same kind of life as other people.”

Killing with Confetti (2019) by Peter Lovesey, the 17th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. The Deputy Chief Constable’s daughter is marrying a crime baron’s son — what could go wrong? Peter is chosen to make sure nothing does, either at the Abbey wedding or the reception in the Roman Baths. But of course, the crime baron, recently released from prison, has a lot of people who’d like to see him dead, including not only rival gang leaders but enemies dating back to an attempted prison break three years before (which takes up the first 50 pp of the book). No mention of Peter’s girlfriend Paloma in this one (did they break up between books?), but several mentions of his deceased wife Stephanie.

Clock Dance (2018) by Anne Tyler, set near Harrisburg, PA, Tucson, AZ, and in Baltimore, MD, the story of a woman whose life is mostly disappointments and whose overarching concept of relationships is either be Gandhi or marry Gandhi — either be the self-sacrificing one or be the self-centered one. Her mother (and therefore her childhood) is unstable; her first and second husbands are both tedious, thoughtless, and mildly demeaning of her (not Gandhis); her sister and her two sons are emotionally and geographically distant. Then she gets a call out of the blue from Baltimore to come help someone she doesn’t know in the midst of a little crisis, and her life changes. Or does it?

Three Women (2019) by Lisa Taddeo, non-fiction about three women and their sexual desires, disappointments, traumas, risks, sacrifices, needs. It’s about how these women, and how women generally, define themselves by their sexuality, their sex lives, their sexual desires, what they want, what they allow themselves to want and the desires they hide, what they don’t want but acquiesce to anyway again and again. All the stories, oddly, IMO, are about transgressive sexual relationships, those outside the accepted norms of the culture.

I actually skipped most of the Maggie story, knowing that North Dakota’s “Teacher of the Year” walked free after criminal court cases in 2015 and is teaching even now. The court cases against him for corrupting a minor and statutory rape ended in either acquittal or mistrial. Of the other two, the Sloane story — about a privileged young woman (42) who lives in Newport, RI, and runs a restaurant with her chef husband, Richard — is by far the more complex. Sloane’s husband wants sex at least once every 36 hours and prefers it when another man (for Sloane), or sometimes another woman (for both him and Sloane), joins them; Sloane defines herself as a “submissive,” so she wants to please her husband even though she doesn’t need or really want a third person in the sexual constellation, and in fact she feels “everything inside herself evaporate” when her husband has sex with other women, even though she knows (somehow) that he cares only for her. Sloane keeps herself very thin, through eating disorders, starvation, and compulsive exercise. Lina, living in Indiana, is a bit younger, in her 30s, married for 10 years to Ed, who won’t French kiss her and with whom she hasn’t had sex in 3 months (she’s been counting every day) when she reconnects with her high school lover, Aidan, on Facebook; Aidan is no prize — selfish, careless of Lina, texting her for sex on the spur of the moment when he feels like it and when there is an opportunity away from his wife and kids (“he almost never considers her heart”) — but having sex with him, and being kissed by him, makes Lina feel alive, not like she’s dying, which is how living with Ed feels. Her section feels mildly pornographic, I think because it’s so repetitious: all the same graphic anticipation and fantasy, all the same graphic sex (with Aidan) repeated over and over so that I feel like I know his body parts, in particular, all too well. The Sloane section focuses more on Sloane’s personality and the complexity of her desires.

In each of the three stories, someone is having a sexual relationship with someone not their spouse (Maggie’s teacher, in his late 20s, is married with 2 young kids; Sloane and Richard are married and including other men and women, some also married, in their trysts; Lina is married to Ed, with two young kids, and Aidan is also married with young kids). Is desire that transgresses cultural norms the only desire worth writing about? It’s interesting to me that Taddeo ends the book with a vignette about her mother, dying in an assisted living home, not interested in the chicken wings her daughter has brought her at her request: “I was angry. At her lack of want. I was angry because she was barely trying to want.” Her mother also tells her: “Don’t let them see you happy. … Other women, mostly. … They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.”

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jansson, just a charming book of stories — days, moments — set in summer on an isolated Finnish island, where a 6-year-old girl, Sophia, and her father have come to stay with the girl’s grandmother. Sophia and her grandmother spend the summer in exploration, conversation, pretending, accommodating each other, having a real relationship in a real place. I bought 5 copies for friends.

A Better Man (2019) by Louise Penny, 15th in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in Quebec province. Spring flooding of epic proportions, a missing battered young wife, and vicious tweets about Clara’s latest art (miniatures) and Gamache’s recent harrowing police raid create the drama, and the plot is fairly intricate, but it’s the characters we’re really here for.

An Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack (2002) by Deborah Daw Heffernan. Excellent non-fiction about Heffernan’s surprise massive heart attack due to a spontaneous coronary artery dissection at age 44 in a yoga class (she was fit, ate well, didn’t smoke, had good cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, etc.), her care at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, her recuperation at her home in western Maine (near Bridgton, it seems, with a Reny’s on Main Street), and all the questions, struggles, emotions, revelations, and realisations attending it. What comes through clearly is that her support system of 15 or more close friends and family, with her husband Jack at the rock-steady core, was crucial to her immediate and long-term healing, along with the very rapid arrival of cardiac EMTS and her swift transfer initially to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, the devoted care of her physicians, surgeons, nurses, and therapists at Mass General, a raft of medications, an implanted defibrillator (for deadly ventricular tachycardia) , various complementary health practices, and her own otherwise very healthy body at the start of the ordeal. Half of all women in American will have heart disease, and it’s the number one cause of death of white and African-American women in America, killing 1 in 3 women (vs., e.g, 1 in 31 women dying per year of breast cancer).

The Whisperer (2016/2019) by Karin Fossum, transl. Kari Dickson, 13th in the Inspector Sejer series, set in Kirkelina, Norway. Ragna Riegel is a lonely woman who works as a shop clerk and whose primary happiness is derived from the scantest postcards and Christmas cards from her only son, Rikard Josef, living in Berlin and apparently running an upscale hotel. Her whisper, due to a botched operation, alienates her from most people. When we meet her, she is being gently interviewed by Inspector Konrad Sejer about a murder in which she’s implicated; chapters detailing events in her life and her thoughts are interwoven with the interview.  I thought it was actually going to be much darker than it is, though it’s plenty dark, in the usual quiet Sejer series way.

The Last House Guest (2019) by Megan Miranda, a slowly building suspense novel set in fictional seaside Littleport, Maine, where the wealthy, powerful Lomans and others like them (summer people) use the services of the locals like Avery Greer, who is our narrator and the Lomans’ rental manager. Avery’s past is checkered, but somehow she & Sadie Loman became best friends a number of years ago, which has made her life not only much easier but also much better — until Sadie dies in a cliff fall during a “Plus-One” party (held a week after most of the summer visitors leave), and now Avery’s world is turned upside down. The book moves back and forth between Summer 2017 (when the incident occurs) and Summer 2018.

If She Wakes (2019) by Michael Koryta, a thriller set partly in southern Maine and partly in a hospital in Massachusetts. The “she” of the title is Tara Beckley, a college student charged with driving a speaker to a conference; after a car wreck, neither makes it there, but Tara remains alive and in a coma. Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator and former stunt driver realises early on that the car crash is not all it seems, but this knowledge only leads her into the path of ruthless killers who want the speaker’s phone, which has vanished. Very gripping, full of action, with a plot lead by strong and smart female characters (Tara, Abby, and Tara’s sister Shannon) who negotiate their way among heroic guardians and opportunistic sociopaths. A little too heart-thumping for me but I liked the internal monologues and thought processes of the main characters.


In the Dark (2018/2019) by Cara Hunter, #2 in the DI Adam Fawley series. A woman and child are found locked in a basement in Oxford, England, barely alive;  the old man who owns the house, who has dementia, persists in saying that he doesn’t know them. But then this case is tied to a similar unsolved case years ago, when another young woman and child went missing, from a house behind this one, and things get exciting.  A twisty, turning police procedural with a very satisfying plot, interesting characters, a good mix of crime fiction elements, and excellent pacing.

Big Sky (2019) by Kate Atkinson, with former police detective Jackson Brodie. As one review puts it, this book is in no hurry to get where it’s going but it doesn’t tread water. With writing that’s often amusing and a plot short on graphic violence, the novel feels light in some ways, but most of the crimes committed are related to the gritty and exploitive sex trade industry, selling naive 14-year-old girls to businessmen. Several plots meet in this book, with Jackson involved in all of them, but the complication level is satisfying, not overwhelming, helped by several strong and interesting female characters (detectives Reggie & Ronnie, wives Rhonda and Crystal).

The Scholar (2019) by Dervla McTiernan. Police procedural with a dash of suspense, set mostly in Galway, Ireland, featuring Garda detectives Cormac Reilly, Carrie O’Halloran, and Peter Fisher, investigating the hit-and-run killing of a young woman on a college campus, whose body was discovered by Reilly’s partner, Dr. Emma Sweeney. It’s soon clear that the murdered woman has some connection to Carline Darcy, heiress and granddaughter of billionaire John Darcy whose biotech lab operates on the college campus, where Carline also works. One of the best modern-day (set in 2014) crime fiction plots I’ve read, twisty and compelling, with particularly excellent relationship nuances among the often-conflicted characters. Recommended.

Hunting Game (2014/2019 transl) by Helene Tursten, crime fiction set in rural Dalsland, Sweden, introducing Detective Inspector Embla Nyström, who’s 28 and also a prize-winning boxer and accomplished hunter. She, with her uncle and some friends, are spending a week or so at the hunting cabin as they do each fall, hunting moose together with a small group of wealthy men from the city who have a “hunting castle” nearby. Naturally, there is a lot of talk of killing and gutting animals. This year, Embla’s group is joined by attractive and mercurial Peter Hansson, who used to live in the area and has returned to his birthright. Everyone’s eagerness for the hunting vacation ebbs as nasty little surprises crop up, building to a conclusion that most readers will see long before getting there. The book is very prosaic, possibly due to the fact that it’s in translation or possibly that’s just how it’s written by Tursten. I’ve enjoyed her DI Huss series and liked this one as well, but if you’re looking for lyrical writing or a breathtaking read, try elsewhere; this plot moves at a steady pace that feels muted and understated most of the time, which I like for a change from overblown thrillers that grip and don’t let go. Character development is strong here, too.


Liberty or Death (2003) by Kate Flora, 6th in the Thea Kozak series. Educational consultant Thea is moments away from marrying Maine state homicide detective Andre Lemieux when he is kidnapped by a Maine militia group as a bartering tool for release of a political prisoner. Against the wishes of the Andre’s colleagues, Thea goes to the backwater town of Merchantville, ME (fictitious) and goes undercover as a waitress, working overtime hoping to learn anything she can to help find and free Andre. What she learns is that the town is in the grips of a violent, arrogant, ultraconservative pastor and his similar cronies, all armed to the teeth, who suspect, berate, grope, threaten, intimidate, stalk, and attack her, partly because she’s a woman (a pregnant woman) and they just enjoy treating women this way, and partly because they think she’s a cop, which isn’t too far off the mark. The women in the town tell her to stop asking questions and try to be invisible to avoid attracting the militia’s attention. The novel is nerve-wracking, with Thea (and others) in danger constantly, but mainly for me because it’s obvious, 16 years since the book was published, that there are many places and people in the U.S. just like those described: men (primarily) who are defined by their resentments, their sense of themselves as victims, their dual anti-women and anti-government stance, and who are psychopathically and indifferently cruel, a law unto themselves in their quest for male and white supremacy. The novel is well-written and complex, with various driving motives among many of the main characters (not all believe the complete militia doctrine), though how Thea survives on so little sleep, much less manages to be persistently energetic, is pretty unbelievable.

Stalking Death (2008) by Kate Flora, 7th in the Thea Kozak series. This one is set on the campus of St. Matthew’s, a private boarding school in central New Hampshire, where educational crisis consultant Thea is asked to rubber-stamp a letter to parents in the midst of stalking allegations by an athletic black student (age 16). She quickly realises that the school administration has not investigated the matter seriously and plans on scapegoating the accuser. Anyone who likes boarding school mysteries will like this one, tightly plotted, with a chilling and frenzied climax.

Alice’s Island (2019) by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo. This novel is a sort of mystery but really more a psychological novel about loss, betrayal, redemption, hope, community. Alice and Chris have a good marriage, loving and trusting, but when Chris dies at age 35 of a car crash resulting from a brain aneurysm, on a road 100 miles away from where he should have been, Alice starts to question everything, quickly becoming obsessed with discovering why Chris was there and what other secrets he hid. As she starts on a desperate and decidedly reckless path to finding out, she’s led to Robin Island, a small (fictitious) island near Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, where her water breaks and she immediately gives birth to her second daughter, Ruby, delivered by a veterinarian and a dentist.  Soon she, Ruby, and her 6-year-old Olivia, who is beginning to struggle with compulsive behaviours (not unlike her mother), are living on Robin Island and Alice is inserting herself into people’s lives, often at their invitation, and making a list of people she suspects were the reason Chris came to the island. She slowly pieces together bits of the puzzle, running into deadends but learning a little more all the time. The plot’s pace is steady but not plodding. The characters and their intimate lives interested me. Would be a good bookgroup read.

Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a longish but very readable novel set on the east coast of the U.S. (Philly, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore), a bit in London, and in Nigeria. Ifemelu, a young Nigerian (Igbo) woman, gets a U.S. visa after her Nigerian college repeatedly shuts down for strikes, leaving behind her family and her boyfriend, Obinze, who can’t get into America and instead goes to live in London as an undocumented citizen always anxious he’ll be found out and deported. The two spend fifteen years apart, each learning more about who they are, what they want, how race and class work in the western world, and in Ifemelu’s case (we learn many more details of her story) how being a non-American black differs from being an American black person, a contrast she explores in her blog.  Obinze ends up back in Nigeria, where he marries and becomes very financially successful; fifteen years after leaving Nigeria, with lots of education, work experience, and relationships under her belt, Ifemelu also returns after a family crisis, and the two former lovers reconnect. It sounds like a romance but it’s not; it’s more an exploration of race, identity, coming of age, and did I mention race? I loved it.


The Old Success (2019) by Martha Grimes, a Richard Jury/Melrose Plant crime novel. It’s a short book — 230 pp with largish type and plenty of white space — and I could have read it in an afternoon, but instead I re-read it after getting almost to the end and feeling I had missed something (I had). For a short book, it’s got a lot of characters packed into it, including police, suspects/victims, a handful of kids, and the usual Northants gang, wealthy friends of Plant’s. The story starts with a woman killed on the Cornish coast of a remote island requiring a ferry from Land’s End to reach it. Jury is called in to help and soon Plant is part of the team too, along with Sir Thomas Brownell, former head of the Metropolitan Police. It’s a fun romp, if a plot with four or five murders can be said to be such. I particularly enjoyed it because of Plant’s enlarged role. Horse training and racing are once again an aspect of the story.

Seratonin (2019) by Michel Houellebecq, pretty much his usual fare, a lot of sex to start with, described as mechanically as possible, then no sex at all but lots of thinking about aging and dying (at not even age 50ish), and lots of regretting, and a fair amount of fooling around with firearms. Our “hero,” Florent-Claude Labrouste, thinks he could have made two women happy but instead he cheated on them and they split up years ago. His professional work promoting local cheeses in France has been overtaken by globalization and the demise of the French farmer, leading to national and personal despair that not even a prescription anti-depressant can ameliorate. A few really incisive lines in the midst of it all, like this one: “… he was bound to be happy, that brief happiness that comes with having just escaped a considerable misfortune and finding oneself confronted again with ordinary unhappiness.” Also, a brief but horrific description of factory chicken farming.

A King Alone (1947) by Jean Giorno. A strange little novel, called by some “an existential detective story” but though the book is mysterious, poetic, even mystical in some ways, the crux of it is not crime fiction, though it is a book about a police officer, Langlois, an outsider to a small French alpine village who arrives first to investigate the disappearances of several people and returns a few years later to guard the town from wolves. This description is apt: “This novel about a tiny community at the dangerous edge of things and a man of law who is a man alone could be described as a metaphysical Western. It unfolds with the uncanny inevitability and disturbing intensity of a dream.”

2018 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2018: 63
number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2018 stats

average read per month: 5.25 books
average read per week: 1.2 books
number read in worst month: 1 (February)
number read in best month: 8 (June, August)

percentage by male authors: 14% (9 books)
percentage by female authors: 86% (54 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 92% (58 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 85% (49 of 58 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 8% ( books)

percentage of total liked: 57% (36 books)
percentage of total so-so: 37% (23 books)
percentage of total disliked: 6% (4 books)


Many more “so-so” books this year than usual, and ten or so were Ngaio Marsh books; I read 31 of her 32 Inspector Alleyn series this year — one book left for 2019! I like her writing, characters, many of her plots, but the books set in the theatre for the most part didn’t appeal to me as much as the others. I particularly liked Death in a White Tie (1938, 7th), Death of a Peer (1940, 10th), Scales of Justice (1955, 18th) and Clutch of Constables (1969, 25th).

My favourite books of the year were Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith, which I didn’t expect to really enjoy but it’s written so well; A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley; and Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett, a sumptuous, ‘densely patterned’ historical saga that’s not my usual type at all. I’ve also really enjoyed reading almost all of Marsh’s series this year, even the ones I didn’t like as much.

Biggest disappointments: Two of the five non-fiction titles, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance, quite a let-down after Fair & Tender Ladies, which was so much better about a similar topic, and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which everyone else in my bookgroup loved (her writing felt forced to me). And also the novel Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan, which was media hyped, seemed interesting in summary, and started off well but then became both predictable in plot and unfathomable in character (Donna Tartt’s The Secret History was so much better).

Full book list.

Books Read 2018

Once again (2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!


Nature’s Everyday Mysteries: A Field Guide to the World in Your Backyard (1993) by Sy Montgomery. Short essays (3-6 pp each), organized by season, about the natural world of plants, animals, weather, soil, underwater life, and so on. Some of the essays felt like they ended abruptly,  but most were interesting and informative with an easy-to-read style. My favourites were those on lightning, skunks, beavers, and geology.

Murder for Christmas (1949/2017) by Francis Duncan, a cozy Mordecai Tremaine mystery. Tremaine, an amateur detective, is invited to spend Christmas at a country house in England, whose owner, Benedict Grame, likes to play Father Christmas, complete with full costumes and presents placed on the tree on Christmas Eve for each guest. But from the start, Tremaine feels that the whole tableau is not quite as it’s presented, and when Father Christmas is murdered right next to the tree on Christmas Eve, he and the police have lots of questions for the uneasy guests.  I quite liked it.

Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith. For a bookgroup, along with Hillbilly Elegy. Really excellent fiction about the life of Ivy Rowe, from her time as a girl in a big family growing up on Blue Star Mountain in western Virginia (Appalachian mountain country), around the turn of the 20th century, through her life into the mid-1970s, all told through her letters to various people. Ivy’s confiding voice is authentic, and Ivy herself is impetuous, poetic, sometimes naive and sometimes insightful. Her character profiles of family, friends, and others are adroit. Her writing reflects the poverty and hardship of living hand-to-mouth on a hardscrabble farm, the beauty and consolation of nature in rural places, both the warmth of community and the squalor and ugliness of the coal mining town she lives in for a time, and how life changed in Appalachia in the 70+ years of her life (including the introduction of electricity, radio, TV, and store-bought clothes and foods). Highly recommended.

The Old Wine Shades (2006) by Martha Grimes, a re-read of this 20th book in the DCI Richard Jury series, introducing us to Harry Johnson, who appears in later novels in the series. Johnson tells Jury — on suspension due to events in the previous book, The Winds of Change, a story about the disappearance of a woman, her autistic young son, and their dog Mungo (but the dog comes back), which leads him and Melrose Plant to investigate. Quantum physics plays a role in the story. I particularly appreciate Grimes’ wry sense of humour and her depiction of animals and children in these novels.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance. After reading Lee Smith’s Fair & Tender Ladies, this book was a bit of a let-down. Prosaic, a bit boring and repetitive, Vance’s memoir takes us from his chaotic childhood — multiple men in his mother’s life, lots of screaming and fighting that are part of the hillbilly code apparently, the unpredictability and lack of stability of his home life, his mother’s opiate addiction, the family’s irrational behaviour of spending their way into the poorhouse, etc — through his success, finally, in school, acceptance to Yale Law School, and his life as a conservative hedge fund manager (and on the book tour circuit) since.  He makes a number of points, including that the working poor didn’t like Obama because he was an elite (pretty much no mention of race, which seems highly disingenuous) and that people from Appalachia need to stop cutting off their nose to spite their face, stop making irrational choices because it feels good to lash out.  What’s clear in his story, and he does emphasise this a bit, is that without a lot of luck — a lot of encouragement from teachers and mainly his hillbilly grandmother, and a lot of financial help, emotional support, practical advice, Yale old-boy networking — he’d never have succeeded in the way he has.  His time in the Marines also mattered because it was the first time he saw people in much worse conditions than those he was raised in, yet with a good attitude and without his resentment of rich people. This interview with Elizabeth Catte (author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) is a good critique of the book’s thrust.


The Legacy: A Thriller (2014/2018US) by  Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, crime fiction set in Iceland. The book flap says it’s the first installment in a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and police officer Huldar, who in this book are thrown together when a young child is found in the bedroom where her mother has been gruesomely murdered; but they have met once before, hooking up for a one-night stand after meeting in a bar (and in the morning, Huldar crept out before she woke up), so there is some tension. The crime plot is complex and as the title suggests, the action that erupts now has been many years in the making (though triggered by a recent event), born perhaps of a few decisions that were the best that could be made at the time. Characters are well-drawn, even those we know are going to meet their end in a torturous way a few pages later. Looking forward to the next in the series.


Snowblind (2010/U.S. 2015) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, new to the tiny town of Siglufjörður, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle. Although nothing ever happens there, soon after his arrival in the winter of 2008-2009 things start to happen, including the aged co-head of the dramatic society dying after a fall down some stairs and a woman found in the never-ending snow bleeding from stab wounds. Meanwhile, Ari Thór has left his girlfriend behind in Reyjkavik and is interested in another woman in Siglufjörður. I liked it until the end, where I felt it fell flat.

Nightblind (2015/U.S. 2016) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, set in the tiny town of Siglufjörður, Iceland. This is apparently the fourth book in the series, but the others aren’t available yet here in the U.S. Ari Thór’s old boss has moved to Reyjkavik but soon returns to help solve the case when the new boss is shot. The current plot is interspersed with diaries from a man in a psychiatric ward, date unknown, and of course the stories dovetail at the end. Not particularly thrilling or gripping, and again the end was a let down. I like the sparsely descriptive quality of the writing, though.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for a group. Everyone else in my group loved it but I felt Kimmerer was trying too hard to sound poetic. There were a few chapters I really liked (I gave the book to someone else and can’t recall them now — one about moss in the rain) but mostly it felt repetitious, overdone, and tedious to me. I think the idea was to meld and/or compare her experiences as a woman embracing the indigenous, traditional stories and rituals with a scientist looking at data.

A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley. Novel, read for bookgroup. Set in rural Iowa over a few decades, the novel features Ginny Cook & her husband Ty; Ginny’s sister Rose Cook and her husband Pete; their other sister Caroline Cook, a city slicker lawyer who lives in Des Moines; and their father, Daddy (Larry), who’s not easy to get along with. Two things happen that trigger changes in all their lives: Daddy decides to deed his property to his daughters; and Jess Clark, a neighbor draft-dodger who’s been away on the west coast, returns after 13 years to try to mend his relationship with his father. It’s a poignant, King Lear-ish story (even down to the letters that begin the first names of Ginny/Goneril, Rose/Regan, Caroline/Cordelia, and Larry/Lear) that also reminded me of Wendell Berry’s novels, with the sharp dividing line between those who remain on the farm and those who leave — and those who wish they could leave and those who leave but come back.  Themes include gratitude and ingratitude and how they’re communicated and understood; the importance of appearances and the way that being known in a small community shapes personality and actions; sibling rivalry; marital conflict and the silences and secrets that often mark it; revenge and rebellion; the vagaries of memory; the differences in the way that men and women suffer; condemnation vs. pity toward someone who’s tyrannical.

Mephisto Waltz (2018) by Frank Tallis: #7 in the Liebermann Papers crime series set around the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, featuring psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann — single, but now with a live-in lover, the scientist Amelia Lydgate — and his friend, the married father and detective Oskar Rheinhardt of the security service. Not quite as good as most of the others, because there were too many disparate threads that were confusing and probably extraneous. The plot concerns anarchists who, believing they are working toward world peace, the end of poverty, and some kind of equality of gender and personhood, act to assassinate emperors to destroy empires. Newfangled crime tools like fingerprinting and lie detectors are just beginning to be used. Liebermann speaks with Freud about mob psychology and the diffusion and indeed debasement of the individual’s morality in the midst of a crowd.


Sleep No More (2017) by P.D. James, subtitled “Six Murderous Tales.” None is a whodunit, most are sort of murder retrospectives. A quick semi-satisfying read.

The Knowledge (2018) by Martha Grimes, in the Det. Supt.  Richard Jury series. A convoluted plot set in London and Kenya is a bit hard to follow and somehow not all that engaging. A husband and wife — whom Jury had met very recently and come to like very much — are shot outside Artemis, an exclusive London casino/art gallery, by a shooter who commandeers a black cab to the airport, where a 10-year-old homeless girl attaches herself to him. Her exploits after her landing in Kenya, then combined with Melrose Plant’s after Jury convinces him to go there as well, are interleaved with Jury’s and Wiggins’, and with Marshall Trueblood’s (who’s gotten a job as croupier at Artemis), as similarities between this murder and a past shooting at another club, in Reno NV, owned by Artemis’s owner, come to light. Grimes seems to be in a nostalgic mood as she references many of her other books in this series, and their past plots and past characters, while telling this tale. Always a few very funny lines (often Melrose’s words or thoughts), but the plotting felt almost ridiculous at times, and there was a red herring I wasn’t fond of.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018) by Kate Bowler. Non-fiction, about Bowler’s Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in 2015 and her journey before and after. Previously she studied and wrote about the prosperity gospel and churches, so when she gets incurable cancer at age 35, a year after her son is born, lots of folks associated with those churches write and say to her things like “everything happens for a reason” — you sinned, you’re being taught something or other people are being taught something by your illness, God needs a new angel, whatever — and even worse things. About 1/3 of the book is about the terrible things that well-meaning people say to her; the other two thirds are her life before and after her diagnosis, and the way prosperity churches frame life events. Could have used a little more editing — some jagged edges — but all in all, a useful, moving book about one woman’s experience of living in the awful and beautiful moments between the certainty of life and the shadow of death, plus short lists of a. things never to say to people with cancer and b. things to say and do for people with cancer. Recommended, especially for friends and family of people with cancer.


Murder by Yew (2009) by Suzanne Young, a cozy mystery set in coastal Rhode  Island, first in the Edna Davies series. Edna Davies is a new resident in town, still exploring and wondering about the previous owner’s penchant for poisonous garden plants. The owner has left journals and herbal recipes, which Edna is trying out, and after her handyman Tom has some of her homemade tea and dies, Edna is suspected in his death. Not bad. Features a sort of nosy, friendly neighbour, Mary; Edna’s cat, Benjamin; and Edna’s daughter, Starling, who lives in Boston.

The Sandman (2012/2018 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 4th (I think) in the Joona Linna series. Featuring the psychopathic serial killer Jurek Walter, who’s in a max-security prison and yet people are still being held hostage and are still dying. After one of Walter’s victims, Mikael Frost, is found walking along a railroad track and eventually reunited with his father, who has held continual parties and been continually drunk and surrounded with people since Mikael went missing 13 years ago to avoid killing himself, young and beautiful Inspector Saga Bauer goes undercover in the prison to see if she can get Walter to talk so that they can find Mikael’s sister, Felicia, still being held.  At the same time, a new naive, and sexually sadistic, doctor, Anders Ronn, is temporarily in charge of the prison. (What could go wrong?) Nail-biting plot, well-written.

Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan. A rather simple novel, told in two similar voices, about two former college roommates with a fraught past, in their 20s now in Tangier, Morocco, Alice with her husband, John, and Lucy who has come to Tangier to find Alice. There’s been a lot of hype for this book, which begins promisingly with descriptions of Tangier (that reminded me of  Camus’ The Stranger with the constant mentions of oppressive heat) and hints of psychological entanglement and abuse but then becomes both predictable in plot and at the same time, unfathomable in character (except for Lucy’s character, which is predictable throughout); and it’s just hard to believe that everyone — family, acquaintances, officials — who could question what they’re told never seem to consider doing so. The first chapter or prologue basically gives the plot’s ending away, but still I was disappointed once I knew how it was all going to go (by p. 176 of 388) and from then I skimmed the rest. Still it took me two weeks to finish, because it wasn’t captivating anymore. I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which this book has been (laughably) compared, and Tartt’s book was so much better, so much more complex and nuanced.

Letting in the Wild Edges (2013) by Glennie Kindred. A book meant to encourage us to spend more time in nature and aware of natural cycles in our lives, focusing on growing and foraging medicinal and native plants to make medicine and to support nature’s regeneration. There are chapters on kitchen medicine (how to make tinctures, etc) and seasonal celebrations, followed by a seasonal guide from October through September with all kinds of activities, rituals, projects, plants, and recipes pertinent to each time. An interesting read.

A Man Lay Dead (1934) by Ngaio Marsh, 1st in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. Funny, nicely written, with some Briticisms of the 1930s that may sound quaint or be opaque to the modern American reader but which add to the stylish tone of the book. The plot was convoluted, to say the least — — wealthy man is killed at a country estate weekend, Russians abound, plus a love triangle and other murder motives — and not up to Agatha Christie’s elegant standards at all, but I’ll read a few more.

Enter A Murderer (1935) by Ngaio Marsh, 2nd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again with reporter Nigel Bathgate as sidekick. The setting this time is the theatre, where at rehearsal one of the actors shoots a gun with a supposed prop bullet cartridge and kills his fellow actor.

The Dark Angel (2018) by Elly Griffiths, 10th in the Ruth Galloway series.


The Nursing Home Murder (1935)  by Ngaio Marsh, 3rd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with Nigel Bathgate).  My favourite so far. The British Home Secretary, Derek O’Callaghan, is introducing a bill in Parliament to clamp down on anarchist activities and has been threatened by anarchists/Bolsheviks, while at the same time his dalliance with a young woman (and nurse) has led to threats on his life from her and the man who loves who (who’s a surgeon). When Derek is taken to the hospital with a burst appendix and dies within an hour of the surgery, there are many personal and political suspects. Complex and interesting plot. I love this bit of musing about the relationship between Derek and his wife, Cicely, who is remote and aloof: “Their very embraces were masked in a chilly patina of good form. Occasionally he had the feeling that she rather disliked him but as a rule he had no feeling about her at all. He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar expedition.”

The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie, a re-read, and I’ve got it on DVD as well, so when I read it I saw the sets and actors. Nominally a Miss Marple Mystery, but she only enters into it 3/4 of the way through and though she is of course pivotal in unmasking the murderer, she has very few lines. One of my favourites, anyway, because of the plotting, the setting (in the quiet little village of Lymstock), the characters (especially Jerry and Joanna, the brother and sister who come to stay in the village while he recuperates from a flying accident, and 20-year-old Megan, a sort of rural sprite), and it’s also a bit of a romance novel.

Three Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie, nominally a Poirot mystery but he plays a minor role at the start and a somewhat greater one at the finish. Instead of Poirot throughout, a Mr. Satterthwaite, who enjoys observing people, is the head sleuth until Poirot finally takes over. I rather like this one, set mostly in a British harbor town (Loomouth) and featuring a former actor, Charles Cartwright, as well as a vicar, a doctor, an actress, a playwright, and some gentlefolk. When Rev. Babbington dies after drinking a cocktail at a party, opinion is divided on whether it was a natural death. Not too long later, Sir (doctor) Bartholomew Strange, who had attended the previous party, dies of nicotine poisoning after drinking some port at his own party, attended by many of the same people; and meanwhile, after an exhumation, the verdict is nicotine poisoning in Babbington’s death, making it murder as well.  Charles, Satterthwaite, and Egg Lytton Gore — a young woman in love with Charles — begin to investigate the party attendees of the two linked murders. I felt the murderer was obvious very early on but I still enjoyed the plotting.

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie, a favourite Miss Marple re-read.  Colonel Lucius Protheroe, disliked by one and all, is found murdered in Rev. Leonard Clement’s home study, and two different people confess to the killing. Jane Marple happens to live next door and exercising her deductive reasoning skills, along with the vicar’s, she gets to the bottom of the matter. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the vicar and his younger, somewhat unconventional wife Griselda.

The Gap of Time (2015) by Jeanette Winterson, a modern retelling — complete with webcams and a complex virtual reality video game, but also with a medieval and also perhaps futuristic BabyHatch for leaving unwanted babies —  of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s  Tale. Interesting as a retelling –I especially liked how MiMi becomes essentially a living statue — and also interesting on its own, though I can’t say I really liked it or any of the characters all that well, though Pauline was probably my favourite. The plot: Leo and French singer MiMi (Hermione) are married, but Leo is jealous of this best friend, the bisexual Xeno, and irrationally, groundlessly believes that Xeno and (pregnant) MiMi are having an affair and the unborn child is Xeno’s, not his. Bad things ensue.  Themes and motifs: Falling; being trapped; gaps in time (stopping time; what we can or can’t do to change the past or future; can we make things unhappen?); dark fallen angels of death, the trapped fallen angel of Gerard de Nerval’s dreams, who folds in its giant wings as it falls into a courtyard amid buildings filled with people and who will die if it can’t escape but can escape only by opening those wings and destroying everyone in the buildings; “What do you do, said MiMi, if to be free you demolish everything around you?”; redemption: can one generation’s evil and death (“necrotic longings”) be escaped by the next generation — how does the past mortgage the future, can the past be redeemed, can time be redeemed or are we ineluctably trapped in it and in ourselves? As Winterson remarks in the last pages, A Winter’s Tale and this retelling are fairy tales of a sort, but in this case the danger or threat is not external (dragon, army, sorcerer), but “Shakespeare, anticipating Freud, puts the threat where it really is: on the inside.”

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie, an early one I hadn’t heard of until now, featuring neither Poirot nor Marple nor Tommy & Tuppence. (And also published as Murder at Hazelmoor.) Christie recycles the last name of the sleuth in this book, Emily Trefusis, later in a Poirot mystery (1951’s short story “The Underdog”). The plot is that Captain Joe Trevelyan is murdered while a bunch of people miles away in a snowstorm who are table-turning (a common pastime, like playing with the Ouija board) get a message that he is dead. His friend, Major John Burnaby, is worried and tromps to his house to check on him, finding him indeed dead.  When Inspector Narracott arrests Jim Pearson, his girlfriend Emily Trefusis seeks to exonerate him by finding the real murderer. I enjoyed it.

Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh, 4th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with journalist Nigel Bathgate). Another good one, this time set at the House of the Sacred Flame, a religious cult situated across the street from Bathgate and headed by Jasper Garnette, whose rituals involve a host of pagan gods, initiation ceremonies, and a Chosen Vessel. When Cara Quayne, the latest Chosen Vessel, drops dead at the ceremony of cyanide poisoning, Bathgate is on the spot, his curiosity of a rainy evening taking him to the monthly service, and he calls Alleyn in to investigate. Lots of clues lead to a satisfying ending.  (The book’s paperback cover, on a 1983 reprint, is ridiculous and bears no resemblance to the story.) The setting, in part: “The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture. The treatment was abstract, but from the slithering curves and tortured angles emerged the forms of animals and birds — a lion, a bull, a serpent, a cat and a phoenix. Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer. In the nearest of these figures Nigel fancied he recognised Odin. The god was draped in an angular cloak from the folds of which glared two disconsolate quadrupeds who might conceivably represent Geri and Freki, while from behind a pair of legs suggestive of an advanced condition of elephantiasis peered a brace of disconsolate fowls, possibly Huginn and Muninn.”

Vintage Murder  (1937) by Ngaio Marsh, 5th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand and without Nigel Bathgate. Another theatrical mystery, my least favourite kind. Involves a troupe of British actors en route to and in New Zealand to perform. When the producer is killed by a surprise rigging of his own (a jerboboam of champagne to be lowered to the stage for this wife’s birthday), Alleyn — who is in New Zealand on a medical leave  of some vague sort — is there to assist Inspector Wade and his team as they investigate the other players and crew.


Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 7th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [The 6th, Artists in Crime, which introduces Alleyn’s love interest, artist Agatha Troy, was not available through inter-library loan in NH.] This one is set during débutante season in London, with a blackmailer extorting money from wealthy women and the sociable Lord Robert informally on the case for Scotland Yard — until he is murdered in a taxi cab after a ball. My favourite so far — I just love English high society crime fiction. Complex plot, though it was fairly obvious who dun it three-quarters of the way through.

The Late George Apley (1936) by John Marquand, a classic novel, told mostly in letters, about an elite Bostonian man and his family, dating back to 1636 but mostly set during the span of George’s life, from 1866-1933, with all the cultural, sexual, literary, political, and social changes occurring then.  Lots of noblesse oblige (taking care of the poor and giving them respect), the need to adhere to tradition and convention, the need to do one’s duty rather than seek pleasure. George is often appalled and perplexed by the newfangled mores of his children, John and Eleanor, and of that generation — girls entering speakeasies; girls unchaperoned with boys; men having any physical relationship with any woman not already their wife (chaste kissing might be allowed); people rejecting membership in the posh social clubs, debating societies, and Harvard-related clubs; Bostonians courting and marrying crass New Yorkers or worse, Mid-Westerners; radical agitators wanting to be paid more and not be cared for like children at the mills; and so on. Don’t even mention the Irish or other lower classes. He struggles at times with his own conformity, which he believes to be essential for the common good, even as he recognises that”conforming to type” has perhaps made his life unhappy and less vital in some way. He is also very concerned with his country house and the minute details of its upkeep. An interesting insight into that time period, quite well written, often amusing. Most of the letters are from George to his son or his (male) friends from college; women are better unseen and unheard in this book.

Artists in Crime (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 6th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [Read out of order.] Alleyn meets independent and somewhat iconoclastic artist Agatha Troy on a cruise ship, falls in love with her painting and with her, then meets her again shortly after landing back in England when someone is murdered at her group studio session. Nigel appears in this one, as does Alleyn’s lovable and wise mother.

Death at the Bar (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 9th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set on the Devon coast in Ottercombe. Alleyn and Fox are called in to sort a cyanide death — accident or murder ? — during a darts dare at Abel Pomeroy’s pub. Complex. I liked this: “If Nark’s theory of how cyanide got on the dart was ever understood by him, he had no gift for imparting it to others. He became incoherent, and defensively mysterious. He dropped hints and when pressed to explain them, took fright and dived into obscurities. He uttered generalizations of bewildering stupidity, assumed an air of huffiness, floundered into deep water, and remained there, blowing like a grampus.”


Death of a Peer (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 10th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, set mostly in London. The plot involves a quirky, charming, somewhat dysfunctional family — similar to some of Anne Tyler’s families or HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May —  who are investigated by Alleyn when a wealthy relative is killed in a gruesome manner at their home after refusing to give the family any more money. I enjoyed it.

Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) by Ngaio Marsh, 11th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again set at an English country house, this time at the diabolically planned party of Jonathan Royal, who is bringing together romantic, family, business, and other sorts of enemies — to see what kind of drama they create. If you consider murder dramatic, he is successful. Not a favourite.

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth.  I found this somewhat autobiographical alternative history novel hard to get into but eventually I did. It reminded me faintly throughout of Neil Diamond’s song “Brooklyn Dreams,” with two brothers living on the second floor of an apartment building in a city, in this case in the 1940s in Weequahic, a Jewish section of Newark. For me, it was an extremely depressing novel to read now, with the alt-right on the upswing again everywhere.  The plot, which I’ll describe below and which contains spoilers (sort of), moves from the personal and intimate family portrait to the national and international political scene seamlessly, for the most part. The effects on brothers Philip and Sandy of political rhetoric, public policies, media coverage, whispered conversations among frantic adult neighbours and their own classmates, and differences of opinion among family members are subtly and elegantly delineated. The political is shown to be extremely personal in an ordinary person’s daily life.  Plot: Philip and Sandy, two brothers ages 8 and 11, and their parents Bess and Herman Roth — an insurance salesman who makes less than $50/week — live happily if frugally in an apartment house in a Jewish section of Newark in 1940, when German- (Nazi-) sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the U.S. The neighbours are stunned and dismayed; they gather around their radios each evening to listen to gossip columnist Walter Winchell speak against Lindbergh and fascism. Soon after the election, the family takes a vacation to Washington DC and experience anti-Semitic discrimination. Phil’s brother Sandy goes to rural Kentucky to live with a gentile farm family for the summer as part of the federal Office of American Absorption’s ‘Just Folks’ program — “a volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life” — and comes back enamored of this kind of opportunity and bitterly derisive of his parents and other adults (whom he calls “ghetto Jews”) who seem to him to be paranoid, plagued by a “persecution complex.” Their older and much-admired cousin, Alvin, joins the Canadian Army (the U.S. not taking a side in the war under Lindbergh) to fight against the Nazis and returns changed. Phil’s aunt Evelyn marries a collaborationist rabbi; they attend a fancy and highly publicised state dinner at the White House in honour of Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Another federal policy, “Heartland 42,” aimed at dispersing Jews from urban communities and into the American ‘heartland,’ is put in place, and when “the Metropolitan,” Herman’s insurance company, is ordered to send this family to Kentucky as part of this relocation program, Herman quits and goes to work hauling fruit and veg for his brother, Monty, so they can stay in Newark. When Walter Winchell is assassinated at one of his own rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, riots break out around the country with anti-Semites smashing store windows, burning synagogues, and killing Jews.

Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this sumptuous, “densely patterned” novel, which is an historical novel-family saga, not my usual type. It’s primarily set on the large estate of Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England, in 1663-1665, 1961, 1973, and 1989, and told in the voices of a landscape designer, a gay art dealer, a journalist, an art historian, the land agent’s young daughter, the estate owner’s wife, and others, as well as narrated. The creation and destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East from West Germany is central to the plot/theme, and the Wall’s significance in terms of imprisonment, sanctuary, choosing and not choosing to be walled in or out, and exclusion and inclusion are echoed in the estate’s landscaping, with a wall around the property within which the estate owners and staff can live and walk vs. the villagers who are allowed in on occasion. Trespass, boundaries, a sense of entitlement and ownership, spying (secretly gathering information across borders), infiltrating, fleeing, internment, the Biblical Garden of Eden, prison, home, and the building of walls are all explored directly and subtly, in real time and in a handful of folkloric stories. Other motifs are celebrity, theater, illicit acts, religious oppression and stereotyping, women’s roles and the treatment of women, the force of water, et al. A fascinating book, beautifully imagined and written.

Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh, 8th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series [read out of order due to ILL vagaries], set in the fictional village of Pen Cuckoo in England, several hours from London. When one of two nasty town busybodies is murdered while providing music on stage during an amateur production, Alleyn and Fox and team are called in.  Complicating the investigation is the fact that the other nasty town busybody may have been the target, making the list of possible suspects about 100% of those with opportunity. This isn’t really a theatre crime, more of an English village cozy, and it held my attention.

Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh, 12th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, though Alleyn only enters midway through and without Fox, Bailey, and the others on the police force. This one’s set in New Zealand at (fictional) Wai-ata-tapu Hot Springs in Harpoon Inlet, near the real town of Rotorua on the North Island, a place teeming with geothermal activity and Maori culture (the Maoris are integral to the story). The spa is run by the hapless Claire family (parents, son, daughter, and brother/uncle), who from the start of the novel seem to variously resent, fear, suspect, and fall under the influence of Maurice Questing, a businessman staying there. When he dies in horrifying circumstances, there’s no lack of suspects. Not a favourite, though I gather from online reviews that for many who’ve read the series, it is. The scenery is dramatic, but I prefer Alleyn throughout and in full police persona. Also, I figured out a key piece of the solution fairly early in the plot, even before the murder. Favourite quote: “‘But you can’t miss your way, really,’ [Mrs. Claire] added. ‘There are little flags, white for safe and red for boiling mud. But you will take care of him, Mr. Bell, won’t you? Come back before dark. One would never forgive oneself if after all this …’ The sentence died away as a doubt arose in Mrs. Claire’s mind about the propriety of saying that death by boiling mud would be a poor sequel to an evening of social solecisms.”

Died in the Wool (1945) by Ngaio Marsh, 13th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand (South Island). Flossie Rubrick, a formidable member of New Zealand Parliament,  disappears in 1942 after heading to the wool shed to rehearse a patriotic speech; three weeks later she turns up packed inside one of her own bales of wool.  Alleyn, doing counter-espionage in New Zealand during the war, isn’t on the case until 15 months later, when Flossie’s husband’s nephew Fabian Losse invites him to re-open the case. Alleyn has to investigate the cold case by interviewing family members and staff, including Flossie’s niece Ursula, nephew Douglas (who with Fabian is working on a secret anti-aircraft device for the Allies), secretary (Miss) Terry Lynne, manservant Markins, and wool workers Cliff Johns and his father.  Not one of her better plots, though the method of murder is unique.

Final Curtain (1947) by Ngaio Marsh, 14th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Alleyn is back in England and reunited with wife Troy again after a 3-years absence to NZ during the war. Just before his return, Troy has gone to the Ancreton estate, a ways from London, to paint the portrait of Henry Ancred, noted Shakespearean actor and wealthy family patriarch, but when he dies in the night after his birthday party, it’s Troy’s who’s back in London and Inspector Alleyn (and Fox) at Ancreton to sort through the temperamental family  members and their motives. Good.


Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Golfing really has nothing to do with the setting of this book (except that the body is left on a golf course), or with the plot, which is one of Christie’s most complicated (convoluted?). Most of it takes place in Merlinville-sur-Mer, France, after Paul Renauld writes requesting Poirot’s help; of course, as happens with some regularity in these stories, when Poirot and sidekick Captain Hastings arrive, Renauld is already dead, stabbed in the back with a special letter opener, and his wife has been bound with rope. During the investigation, Hastings — who is presented in a somewhat different light than usual — unexpectedly runs into a woman he’s met and become infatuated with on a recent train trip, known to him only as ‘Cinderella.’

Easy to Kill (1938) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Not a Poirot or Marple. A young policeman recently returned from the Mayang Straits,Luke Fitzwilliam, meets Lavinia Fullerton, an old lady, on a train into London. She tells him she’s heading to Scotland Yard to alert them to several murders  by the same person (whose identity she knows but doesn’t tell him) in her town of Wychwood. When Luke learns she’s been hit and killed by a car, he decides to visit the town, staying with a friend’s cousin, Brigit, to investigate Miss Fullerton’s claims. I like this book but the killer is “easy to suss out” fairly early on.

A Wreath for Rivera (1949, aka Swing Brother Swing) by Ngaio Marsh, 15th in the Inspector Alleyn series. I liked this one. A bit complicated as to plot and characters’ relationships, with jazz, drugs, blackmail, an Agony Aunt column in a rag, uncooperative wealthy  eccentrics, servants and lowly cops in trouble with their superiors, etc., as Alleyn and Fox investigate the murder of a Latin American piano-accordion player on stage during a jazz act in London.

Night at the Vulcan (1951, aka Opening Night) by Ngaio Marsh, 16th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Another theatre mystery, this one from the point of view of a young, aspiring actress, Martyn Tarne, who hails from New Zealand and is in London auditioning with no luck. Hungry, tired, and homeless, she takes a job on the spur of the moment as a leading lady’s dresser at the Vulcan theatre. There are undercurrents of jealousy, resentment, envy, fear, and outright rows before murder occurs and Alleyn (with Fox, Bailey, et al) investigates. As one reviewer writes, “Although the play being performed exudes Existentialism, the characters (and Alleyn too) are forever quoting Shakespeare. This is fun.” It was one of her better theatre pieces, I thought, mainly due to Martyn’s engaged, wise, compassionate attitude. The killer was not a surprise, though the motive was.

Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh, 17th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Asked to investigate a drug ring in the French countryside, at a chateau in which black magic is practiced, Alleyn and wife Troy decide to combine his work with a holiday for their family (including young son Ricky), possibly to meet a cousin Troy’s never met before (P.E. Garbel). While on the train heading to Roqueville, Troy and Alleyn both glimpse through a window what seems to be a murder in the chateau (as in Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 from Paddington,aka What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw!, published in 1957); also while they’re on the train, a middle-aged woman becomes ill with acute appendicitis and needs immediate medical attention — so the Alleyns take her to the chateau, where an eminent surgeon, known to be working with the drug ring, operates. After Alleyn’s cover is blown, he, the local police, and Alleyn’s driver, Raoul, enact schemes to catch the bad guys. A bit fantastical, but I appreciated Alleyn and Troy’s understated parenting, Raoul’s character, and the French slant.


Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh, 18th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Colonel Carterette — enthusiastic fisherman, husband of Kitty, a lower-class outsider, and father of Rose, enamored of Dr. Mark Lacklander — is killed soon after he’s asked to publish the controversial memoirs of Sir Harold Lacklander, head of the feudal Lacklander family of  the English village of Swevenings. Beside Carterette’s body is a freshly killed trout. Alleyn is very interested in the trout. I liked this one a lot.

Death of a Fool (1956) by Ngaio Marsh, 19th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in the village of South Mardian (England), a community that re-enacts the pagan Morris Sword Dance of the 5 Sons each year on the Wednesday before Christmas. The five sons in this case are the Andersen brothers, sons of the irascible William Anderson, the town smithy and Fool. When German Mrs. Anna Bünz of the Friends of British Folklore Guild of Ancient Customs comes to town to research the dance, she’s rebuffed by the men (“My dad don’t rightly fancy wummen”) but she’s persistent. After the Fool is killed during the dance, one of his sons accuses Mrs. Bünz, but Alleyn’s got a wider net of suspects. Not a favourite, but if you like folklore, you’ll probably like this.

Singing in the Shrouds (1958) by Ngaio Marsh, 20th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set aboard the Cape Farewell, a cruise ship out of London, with a handful of suspects on board. Alleyn is incognito on the ship on the slimmest of clues tying one of the passengers to the Flower Murders, a recent spate of stranglings involving broken necklaces and flowers placed on the victims (all female). So-so.

False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh, 21st in the Inspector Alleyn series. Setting is a large house, probably in London. Mary Bellamy, stage star in comedic plays, is turning 50 (shh) but she’s in a very bad mood, not improved when her adopted son Richard shares with her a serious play in which she’s obviously not meant to be the lead (someone much younger is) and a couple of her acolytes are found to be involved in another play she’s not part of.  Before her big party, she receives a gift of a “vulgar” perfume called “Formidable,” which she insists on dousing herself in, much to her husband, Charles Templeton’s, dismay. Templeton asked her to not to use it, and he’s asked her to throw out an insecticide, Slaypest, because it’s much too dangerous to have around, but again she refuses. Once the party starts, she has a major “temperament” (temper tantrum) and things go from bad to worse.

Hand in Glove (1962) by Ngaio Marsh, 22nd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Mr. Pyke Period, a genteel old bachelor has regrettably opened his home to Harold Cartell and his dog, both somewhat disagreeable. Things look up a bit for him when typist Nicola Maitland-Mayne, a friend of Alleyn and his wife Troy’s, arrives to help with Period’s book on etiquette, and things look up for Nicola when she falls for Andrew Bantling, Lady Desiree Bantling’s son by her first marriage, and he returns the feelings. But then things look down when a slippery thief and his besotted girlfriend, both quite without manners, make trouble for several people, and they further deteriorate when a scavenger hunt at an upper-class house party leads to murder and lots of lying.  Fairly good.

Dead Water (1963) by Ngaio Marsh, 23rd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set on fictional tiny Portcarrow Island (14 acres in size), in the UK. After a mysterious “Green Lady” speaks to young Wally near a hilltop spring and apparently rids him of his many warts overnight, the Island becomes a mecca for medical tourists who want healing and a boon to shop owners, the pub and inn landlord, the mayor, and even the doctor and the rector, all making much more money than ever before. But then Alleyn’s friend and mentor, Emily Pride, who now owns the island after her sister’s death, decides to put a stop to the crass commercialism of the Green Lady cult. Her visit to the island, to make her announcement, leads to murder and mayhew, of course. Not a favourite.

Life in the Garden (2018) by Penelope Lively, a Booker Prize winning horticultural memoir. Six fairly simple essays about gardens in history, in literature and painting, as metaphor, and in her own life. A pleasant read, nothing earth-shaking.


Killer Dolphin (1966; UK: Death at the Dolphin) by Ngaio Marsh, 24th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in London at the newly restored Dolphin Theatre, with playwright and director Peregrine Jay at the helm — and eccentric magnate Vassily Conducis his silent partner. The plot revolves around a glove — originally worn by William Shakespeare’s doomed young son, Hamnet — that’s recently surfaced and provides the focus of the play Jay writes and directs with a handful of temperamental and star-crossed actors.  I found it hard to get into but interesting enough as it went along.

Clutch of Constables (1969) by Ngaio Marsh, 25th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set largely on a small boat, the M.V. Zodiac, cruising for 5 days on a river with locks between (fictional) Longminster and Norminster, England. Troy — Alleyn’s wife and now a quite famous artist — spontaneously decides to book passage on the ship after seeing a card posted in a window of a last-minute cancellation (Alleyn is in the U.S. on business).  Of course, someone on the ship is a master-mind criminal, coincidentally the same one Alleyn is hunting (Foljambe, or the Jampot), but Troy knows nothing of that; still, she gradually notices small but nagging incidences that she brings to the local constabulary’s attention, and which they all but ignore. Alleyn doesn’t really appear in the book until 3/4 through, although the story is framed by his telling it to a detective class a couple of years later. One of my favourites for the way it’s told, Troy’s outsized role, and the setting on a boat in the ancient English countryside.

When in Rome  (1971) by Ngaio Marsh, 26th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in Rome. Alleyn is incognito as part of an expensive tour group, investigating international drug smuggling and sales. The group leader, Sebastian Mailer, seems a rum character (as Marsh likes to say), and in the first chapter we learn he has returned a lost book manuscript to author Barnaby Grant with a blackmailing demand that he lend his name and himself to tours of the basilica of San Tommaso.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson, a novel/mystery involving several “case histories”: a small girl goes missing during a night tent-camping in the yard with an older sister;  a father mourns his daughter and seeks her killer; a man is killed by a woman in a frenzied moment; a former cop, now private detective, tries to piece together his own life while searching for missing persons, killers, and the truth.  I enjoyed it, the way I enjoy Carl Hiaasen’s crime fiction (Jackson, the PI, reminded me of many of his PI characters), and I appreciated the plot and thematic connections among the stories, but I thought her Life After Life was richer.

Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh, 27th in the Inspector Alleyn series, back in England. Alleyn’s wife, Troy, is painting Hilary Bill-Tasman’s portrait at his country home, Halberds, which is staffed entirely by one-off murderers (who have done their time, if found guilty), when dangerous practical jokes occur one after the other to the guests staying there, each evoking the elements of one of the murderers’ crimes. During a Christmas performance in which a guest is to dress up like a Druid and give out Christmas gifts to local children to much fanfare, a manservant named Moult goes missing. Alleyn is called in to help the local constabulary find him.


Black As He’s Painted (1973) by Ngaio Marsh, 28th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set mostly in London near the fictitious Capricorn Mews and the Embassy of an African  British commonwealth country-cum-independent nation Ng’ombwana, whose president, colloquially the Boomer, is a former public school chum of Alleyn’s. The president’s visit to England is fraught with security issues both because of the transitional and unstable nature of the country and the devil-may-care nature of the president himself. Coincidentally, former Foreign Service official Mr. Whipplestone is recently ensconced in Capricorn Mews, along with stray cat Lucy Lockett, who has a penchant for porcelain white fish. I liked this one.

The Craftsman (2018) by Sharon Bolton, a stand-alone suspense/crime novel set in 1969 and 1999 in the town of Sabden, Lancashire, England, featuring WPC Florence Lovelady, new to the police squad in 1969 and the only woman officer. She and other officers investigate several cases of missing children (later found dead) and make an arrest, her landlord and the local casket & coffin maker Larry Glassbrook; the story of the 1969 investigation is sandwiched within Lovelady’s visit back to Sabden for his funeral and her subsequent re-investigation of the case. Witchcraft is an element of both parts of the story. A quick and well-paced read.

Last Ditch (1977) by Ngaio Marsh, 29th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in a fictitious seaside village (Montjoy, Deep Cove) not far by boat from Brittany (France), where the rest of the book is set. Alleyn and Troy’s now-grown son Ricky is on the spot when murder occurs at an equestrian stable, to Dulcie Harkness, known to be a bit loose with the boys, daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Alleyn himself ends up investigating the murder along with drug running in the area.

Grave Mistake (1978) by Ngaio Marsh, 30th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in “Upper Quintern,” not too far from London. When Sybil Foster goes to Greengages Hotel & Spa for a rest cure, she gets more rest than she bargains for.  She seems to have killed herself, but when the autopsy casts doubt on this idea, Alleyn turns up; he smells a rat, so he and Fox look at the motives, opportunity, and means of Sybil’s obnoxious ne’er-do-well son Claude, her seemingly loving daughter Prunella — who has just become engaged to wealthy Gideon Markos against her mother’s wishes, Sybil’s new gardener, named Gardener, and the new medical practitioner at Greengages, Basil Schramm, to whom Sybil has become engaged and whom her best friend Verity Preston knew years ago, among other suspects. I liked the setting and characters, especially Verity; the plot was a bit much.

Bubba Heard a Whale (Trying to Sing) (2018) by Bubba’s Dad, illus. Faryn Hughes. Children’s book about a French Bulldog helping a shy whale who is struggling to belong and find her voice.

Photo Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh, 31st in the Inspector Alleyn series, set on a lavish island estate in New Zealand. Troy has been invited to paint a portrait of temperamental opera diva Isabella Sommita, and Alleyn has been invited to find out who’s been taking and publishing ugly surprise photos of Sommita (meanwhile, Scotland Yard wants him to investigate the drug trade, as usual). When Bella is murdered during a “Rosser” (a lashing rain and wind storm that cuts the island off from the mainland), Alleyn takes charge.



metalorbburiedfernKCCExtNLNH29Sept2018Welcome to day 18 of 31 Days of Apocalypse, Now, a month of posts about apocalypse, revelation, uncovering what’s been hidden. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally seem related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


Note to those looking for gardening posts: This is not one. This may not be for you.

My thoughts on apocalypse, and my world view in general and thoughts on psychology, sociology, culture, politics, history, and literature specifically, are shaped by mimetic theory and Girardian thought, as articulated by René Girard, James Alison, Paul Nuechterlein, Bob Hamerton-Kelly, and others.

One can get very deep and very heady researching and applying mimetic theory (there are many long books written about it). I want to concentrate as concretely as possible on the concept of apocalypse; but there is a great deal of background to cover to get there.


When most Western people think about the word “apocalypse,” they think about the book of Revelation in Christian Bible. Gil Bailie, in his book Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads (1995), writes a clear one-paragraph summary of a Girardian view of apocalypse:

The word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘unveiling.’ What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any ‘unofficial’ violence whose claim to ‘official’ status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always doesit incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control.

To go back just a bit and talk about violence from a Girardian perspective, the first thing to say is that humans are made in such a way that our desires are always mediated, that is, called into being by other people. We learn to desire from the very start according to the desire of a social other; desire is wholly dependent on relationship. We think we are individuals but we are entirely interdividuals (Girard’s coinage). We think we have autonomy, spontaneously desiring and acting, but we do not. We spend a lot of energy hanging onto this notion and protecting it, wanting to believe that we originate our own desire. And whether we see ourselves as originals or imitators, both perceptions belie a shoring up of identity based on ‘the other,’ based on relationship with the other … Am I like you or not like you?

Second, our desires are mimetic, i.e., we imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously and intentionally at times.  We share desires among ourselves and we can either cooperate towards them — this is called love, compassion, generosity, etc., and is related to a sense of abundance — or we can lock into competition, conflict, and rivalry with other desirers — this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity.

Envy, says Girard (in an 18 Sept  2005 interview with Robert Harrison, transcript available), “is the emotion that plays the greatest role in our society…. The real repression is the repression of envy. … You cannot help imitating your model. It’s the most difficult to acknowledge because it involves your whole being, you know. In a way, envy is a denial of one’s own being, and accepting the fact that you prefer the being of your rival.”

From suppressed envy comes resentment (ressentiment in French, “a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement”). When rivals fight (however subtly or outwardly, whether one-on-one or collectively), “one of them may win out over the other and regain his illusion of autonomy; the other will then be humiliated to the point of seeing his adversary as sacred. This attraction-repulsion is at the base of all pathologies of resentment” (Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010)


SIDEBAR: Interestingly, Franklin Foer, in an article titled Apocalypse Now: What’s Behind the Volatile Mood of Today’s American — and European — Voters,” a review of Age of Anger: A History of the Present by Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times (13 Feb. 2017) comments: “The market society, [John Jacques] Rousseau warned, would dangerously unmoor individuals. He saw how humans aspired to surpass one another in wealth and status, which meant they were capable of great cruelty. The modern world weakened religion and the family, the emotional buffers that provided comfort. Without these supports, individuals came to depend on the opinions of others for their sense of self-worth, which inflicted terrible cases of insecurity, envy and self-hatred. This, in Mishra’s argument, remains the nub of the world’s problems: ‘An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, ressentiment, as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.”


Third, we’re most likely to imitate people who are similar to ourselves, or whom we see as similar to ourselves. We want what they want, and we want to be them, partake of their being, in some way. But rivals experience each other as totally different, as “other,” though to those looking at it from outside, the two antagonists look exactly the same, and the more they hate each other, the more they resemble each other.

Finally, we’re not only acquisitively mimetic — that is, we imitate each other in acquiring what we desire; we are also accusatively mimetic — that is, we band together to accuse another. The first kind of mimesis seems to divide us (we fight over desires), while the second seems to unite us and bring peace because we are all unified in desiring to do away with someone else.


To prevent the violence that flows from our conflicted desires, cultures establish boundaries, systems of differentiation: “People are given names, body markings, prohibitions, social roles, moral rules, and so on, to keep them from becoming too much alike. … People who are either too much alike for genetic reasons (like identical twins) or too different (like “colored” people) are considered dangerous. Their biological difference threatens to reveal that cultural systems of sacred differentiation are actually artificial.” (Britt Johnston, in “Why Does God Allow Evil?,” 2006)

Bob Hamerton-Kelly (in an essay that’s no longer online and whose title I didn’t record) explained well the origins of religion in violence:

“Human desire is radically imitative; we learn from the other what to desire, thus come to desire the same thing because the other desires it, and so fall into competition that turns violent.” … Because desire is contagious, violence is like a pandemic. In this turmoil of violence, the war of all against all, the social system reaches a culminating level of disorder and then spontaneously mutates back to order. It is a self-regulating, self-healing system, so there is no question of anyone deciding to enter into a contract, rather spontaneously the war of all against all becomes the war of all against one. … Thus the foundation of society is not a social contract, nor a natural affinity and mutual attraction, but a swerve in the symmetry of a self-healing system that throws up a victim, whose death in turn stabilizes the systemSociety is fundamentally the unity of the lynch mob. …

The mob [way back in history] pauses before the body of the first victim and to its astonishment realizes that it has experienced its first moment of peace and unanimity. Violent desire stops {briefly]. From this surprised tranquility flow the fatal misinterpretations.

The first and fundamental misunderstanding is that the victim was the cause of the violent disorder. If by his death he brings peaceful order, in his life he must have caused the violent disorder. He is, therefore, very powerful; he is a god, the creator of the world, in the sense of the order of culture and society.

This misunderstanding [that the victim was the cause of the disorder] unfolds along three lines, all of which are religious.”

Ritual: If one death brings order to the society at last, regular deaths might maintain order. So the sacrificial death is ritually institutionalized. Girard’s central belief about all religion is that it is founded on a particular ritualthe ritual of sacrifice. Sacrifice – the art of making the victim sacred — occurs in a culture as a way to bring peace and unity in the face of conflicts and divisions.

Sacrifice is seen as a non-violent, or less violent, or justifiably violent, way to keep the community from worse violence. Humans make a solid distinction between sacred violence and profane violence, though they are really one and the same — they’re equally violence; but we perceive them to be completely different from each other and in fact we are very attached to the distinction we make between these violences.

Myth: Creation stories that “occlude the primal murder and present the dying creator as either the victim of an accident, or a mysterious tragic destiny, or willing, or deserving of death. Myth never discloses that he died by the hand of the mob and that his death is a disclosure of your violence and mine in and through the mob. We hold our mob innocent and non-violent and transfer all responsibility for violence to the victim. He deserved it, invited it, or it was an accident; we are not to blame. Culture comes into being as a cover-up of our own violence.”

Prohibitions: Remembering that “the erasure of differences caused the violence of unbridled competition, therefore we avoid behavior that threatens to erase distinctions.” We create prohibitions and taboos to prevent too much similarity or seeming similarity.

So, to recap, as Cynthia Havens writes in her recent biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire (2018), Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence: first, that our desire is authentic and our own; second, that we fight from our differences, rather than our sameness; and third, that religion is the cause of violence, rather than an archaic solution for controlling violence within a society, as he would assert.”


Cultures (as well as individuals and allied groups) elude responsibility for their violence by sacralizing it, ritualizing it, and justifying it as a sacred act — as Paul Nuechterlein writes, “Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence” — and to do this the culture requires itself to perpetually misunderstand what it’s doing (Girard uses the French word ‘méconnaissance’ for this necessary misapprehension.)

In his essay titled “Sacrifice and the Sacred,” Matthew Becklo at Strange Notions summarises the situation: “According to Girard, ancient human societies were destabilized by mimetic conflicts: two parties who desired the same object would start to imitate each other’s desire until the rivalry erupted into a kind of contagion which threatened to destroy the whole community. Then, a hidden mechanism was triggered which transferred the blame onto a third party, one that was either uniquely strong (e.g., a mighty king) or uniquely feeble (e.g., a decrepit itinerant). The collective sacrifice and sacralization of this figure, enshrined in religion, was a sort of release valve that restored peace and order in the community.”

Almost all ancient cultures regularly performed ritual religious sacrifices. At least 5000 years ago in Europe, “Danish farmers sacrificed their stone axes and flint tools, their amber jewellery and their food, by depositing them in pots, together with human offerings, in bogs. Probably the earliest case in the world is that of two girls found at Sigersdal near Copenhagen, killed about 3500 BC. One was about 16 while the other, who was about 18, still had a cord around her neck.”

During the Iron Age in Europe ( c.750 BC to AD 43),

many bodies have been found completely preserved in peat bogs” and in places “where people had made offerings to an afterworld [in Denmark, Germany, Holland]. It seems clear that these were not murders, but deliberate, socially sanctioned, killings. Writing much later, in the first century AD, the Roman historian Tacitus tells us that these Germanic peoples executed their social outcasts — cowards, shirkers and those of disrepute — by pressing them down into bogs,” where they also made inanimate offerings.  Human sacrifice was practised in China, Egypt, Rome, and in the Americas; “Aztec priests believed that the sacrifices they performed in the temples on top of pyramids — cutting out the still-beating heart of their victims with the blood flowing down the steps of the pyramid — were necessary to keep the sun on its daily path. … Within the Inca empire of South America, children and teenagers were sacrificed to the sun god, bestowing considerable prestige on the child’s parents and on their local community.


And now we come to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Girard’s contention (and James Alison’s, quoted below) is that the Jewish texts, starting with the story of Cain and Abel, “gradually dissociate the divinity from participation in violence until, in the NT, God is entirely set free from participation in our violence — the victim is entirely innocent and hated without cause — and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.” (James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996) The scapegoat is the focus of many a Bible story, and the victim is revealed as such over and over again, though not every time. The Hebrew Scriptures show how tough it is for us to kick the idolatry habit, even to come to monotheism.

The Hebrew scriptures are “texts in travail” — struggling to finally, clearly give voice to the victim. Even in the story of Cain and Abel, Abel’s blood cries out from the ground and is heard. Jesus’s death at the hands of his accusers reveals the vacuous power of such expelling violence. His death represents an act of “righteous” violence — i.e., an act of violence justified by one of our violent gods (whom we are deluded in seeing as God). His death reveals our enslavement to violence and reveals God’s righteousness as non-violence, radical non-retaliation, forgiveness of enemies, not vengeance.


SIDEBAR: I highly recommend Kelly Thompson’s interview in Guernica, “Lacy M. Johnson: Moving the Conversation Toward Justice,” 17 Oct. 2018, in which Johnson says, “our narratives [of redemptive justice] are not necessarily serving us from the perspective of building real justice in the world.” Johnson was kidnapped, held in a soundproofed room, and raped by someone who had been her boyfriend when she was in her 20s:

Everybody assumed I would want him not only punished, but killed, and that was so surprising to me. I was shocked by it. It bothered me so much. I started thinking, and wondering, What’s with that? Where does that come from? But it’s a very ancient impulse, older than the Bible even, the sort of eye for an eye that we find in Leviticus. And it goes all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, written laws dating back to about 1754 BC, which, interestingly, meant to put an upper limit on vengeance rather than to suggest that vengeance or retribution should be a mandate.

Perhaps it’s an innate instinctual impulse to want to harm the person who harmed you, not just the way that they harmed you, but to completely destroy them as a way to get even. We feel like there would be pleasure in that, or that it is a natural desire. I just wanted to put some pressure on that idea, and see if there are in fact other ways of being, and also to think about what kind of harm we perpetuate by insisting on that mode of justice, if it is justice at all.


Jesus’s death continues the process of progressive unveiling of sanctioned violence, showing it to be simply violence. It does so because the victim’s perspective is actually available to challenge the perpetrators’ false interpretation. But — this unveiling removes our bulwark against apocalyptic mimetic violence; the only other bulwark against it is to live God’s desire, which is love and pacific mimesis, giving up all claims to difference.

So, in the Girardian construction, Jesus’s death was not a substitutionary atonement — i.e., God killing Jesus instead of us, letting Jesus take the rap for our sin. It’s we who are the killers, not God. Jesus doesn’t win our salvation but launches it through revealing the nature of reality and the nature of human culture. It’s not our sins that put Jesus on the cross. It’s the Satanic sin par excellence of scapegoating: i.e., of accusing, judging, and executing, and lying to ourselves about how blameless we are.

This is radically different from the usual Christian way of understanding Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Mark Heim in Saved from Sacrifice (2006), directly addresses the role of violence in the Bible:

“What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. …

It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community. It is showing us the religious dynamic of scapegoating sacrifice that arises to allay such crisis. It is letting us hear the voices of the persecuted victims and their pleas for revenge and vindication. It is showing God’s judgment (even violent judgment) against violence, and most particularly, God’s siding with the outcast victims of scapegoating persecution. The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims. This landscape is either the product of an idiosyncratic, bloodthirsty imagination or the actual landscape of history and religion. If the latter, then what is remarkable is not that the scriptures describe it, but that we should think it normal not to.

Girard says in Evolution and Conversion that “[i]deologies are not violent per se, rather it is man who is violent. Ideologies provide the grand narrative which covers up our victimary tendency. They are mythical happy endings to our histories of persecution.”


We who live post-Bible, post-Resurrection, we “moderns,” have been in the process of desacralizing violence, of coming to see it for what it is (just violence), a gradual but inevitable process begun when the veil was lifted from our eyes by the Judeo-Christian revelation. Some would say that the Enlightenment got us where we are today, that “[w]e’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence? Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization. … But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. [Humanists] are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods. But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)


Here’s where we finally make a return to the idea — and the likelihood — of Apocalypse. The veil has been lifted: we are coming more and more to recognise that sacred violence, religious violence, justified violence, is in fact, just violence. We can’t whitewash and smokescreen our true motives like we used to be able to do, in pre-modern times. That’s good, and bad:

As more and more people come to see the revelation (apocalypse in the Greek) of sacred violence, however, it also means the increasing ineffectiveness of the sacrificial institutions to contain mimetic violence. The times of sacrificial crises increasingly come closer together, and what looms on the horizon is the possibility of a truly apocalyptic violence: a sacrificial crisis in which a new sacrificial solution cannot assert itself because the revelation of the cross has finally made such solutions impossible. In short, the Apocalypse would be a sacrificial crisis that doesn’t result in a new sacrificial solution — no sanctioned violence to contain the random, mimetic violence.  … Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of sacred violence.

The frightening alternative to enlightenment humanism has been the desperate attempts at sacred violence in the past century, resulting in genocides. Nazism is still the most infamous but, unfortunately isn’t the only one. In our current attempts to wipe out terrorism, how desperate will our sacred violence become?” (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)

It seems to me that this what Girardian anthropology would predict: As humans more and more see (because of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and what it reveals through the intelligence of the victim of the societal mechanism for creating so-called peace) that violence is simply and completely violence — that there is no true distinction between sanctioned violence and any other kind of violence — and as we struggle at the same time to come to terms with our own relational and personal violence — still sometimes attributing our violent acts as imitation of a sacredly violent God, sometimes believing there is no god and that we have to save ourselves from violence and war through meditation, affirmation, good deeds, enlightened thought, and so on — and often fail in controlling our violence impulses, we need an explanation for this cognitive dissonance, a reason why we don’t seem to act on what we believe … OK, so far, that’s just simple psychology, the cognitive dissonance thing, but the explanation we seem most comfortable with is what seems Girardian to me: I have to do this little bit of violence, nasty though I know it to be (maybe), to keep much, much worse violence from happening.

In other words, it’s the same explanation cultures have offered for centuries. It’s how we comfort ourselves as we destroy.

I wrote this in Jan. 2006:

What if human civilisation is entirely founded and maintained upon the entrenched and largely unquestioned belief that the way to live in peace is to kill, expel, destroy, blame, marginalise, root out, get rid of, cut off, exorcise, seek vengeance against, weed out, tune out, slander and libel, speak against, make an example of, mock, attack, go to war against … and in any other way do anything but embrace the other? And what if each of us can see others doing it, but not ourselves, because our own actions seem justified and maybe even sanctified in our own eyes?

This, I think, is our plight as humans. And even when we’re aware of this mechanism, it’s hard to recognise in ourselves in the moment. And when we do recognise it in ourselves, it’s almost but not quite impossible to act differently.


I was reading recently about how Jews were blamed and killed for the Black Death in Europe in the mid-1300s (almost 600 years before the rise of Hitler). The formulation then for rationalising their extermination was something like this: We’re not persecuting Jews because they’re Jewish and weird (they’re not like us) and somewhat wealthier as a whole than we Christians, and because we envy, loathe, and fear them as “other;” no, it’s not persecution of an enemy at all but simply protecting God-fearing Christians from disease, and in fact have you noticed that many fewer Jews are dying of the Plague [probably due to their sanitary rituals]? Why should that be … unless they are causing it, by poisoning our water and wells, because they hate us and want to eradicate us?

Once the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells, a wave of pogroms ensued. In January 1349, the entire Jewish community in the city of Basel was burned at the stake. The Jewish communities of Freiburg, Augsburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Konigsberg, Regensburg, and other centers, all were either exiled or burned. In Worms, in March 1349, the entire Jewish community committed suicide. In Cologne, the Jews were forced to flee.

In Mainz, which had the largest Jewish community in Europe, the Jews defended themselves against the mob and killed over 200 Christians. Then the Christians came to take revenge. On one day alone, on August 24, 1349, they killed 6,000 Jews in Mainz.

Of the 3,000 Jews in Erfurt, none survived the attack of the Christian mobs. By 1350, those Jews that survived the Black Death itself were destroyed by the ravages of the mobs. The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. There were almost no Jews left in Germany or the Low Countries by 1351. (Source)

This, despite that the official Church position on Jews was that they should be protected; the Christian people (the mob) by and large didn’t agree.


So, to a greater or lesser extent,  we no longer quite believe our own lies about why we expel others, indeed why we are so intent on demonizing “others” (who resemble us in many ways, in fact who may demonize us for exactly the same reason), and about why we do violence to each other on an interpersonal, societal, international level. We don’t think we can restore order, bring peace, allay existential anxiety, solve the contagion of all-against-all conflict by scapegoating the king or the diseased or the demonic or by sacrificing the pure — though we still try, over and over, in small and enormous ways over the centuries, but in modern times in almost all cultures around the world, there are always those who would, by refusing to do violence, shame us for this, who shudder in compassion at our injustice, who would call us out on our scapegoating. No one wants their scapegoats revealed to them. It’s hard to really enjoy that temporary feeling of tranquility and pseudo-order that the ritual of sacrifice lent a society, when increasingly the society is noticing a sort of pattern of “violence to cure violence” and wondering where that will end.

sacrificial crisis … occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimately divine sacred violence.

But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic)


An apocalypse, as we’ve said, is an unveiling, a revelation, a seeing. When our own violence is unveiled, it has ‘apocalyptic’ consequences. Before the unveiling, our own violence seemed respectable and justified; afterwards, we see it for the violence, hatred, rivalry, and envy that it is.

Girard writes extensively about apocalypse in “On War and Apocalypse” in the Aug/Sept 2009 issue of First Things, including this:

… [D]emystification, which is good in the absolute, has proven bad in the relative, for we were not prepared to shoulder its consequences. We are not Christian enough.

The paradox can be put in a different way: Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. …

A scapegoat remains effective as long as we believe in its guiltHaving a scapegoat means not knowing that we have one. Learning that we have a scapegoat is to lose it forever and to expose ourselves to mimetic conflicts with no possible resolution. This is the implacable law of the trend to extremes. The protective system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the Crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, that of all analogous victims. The process of education away from violent sacrifice thus got underway, but it moved very slowly, making advances that were almost always unconscious. It is only today that it has had increasingly remarkable results in terms of our comfort — and at the same time proved ever more dangerous for the future of life on Earth.

To make the revelation wholly good and not threatening at all, humans have only to adopt the behavior recommended by Christ: Abstain completely from retaliation and renounce the trend to extremes. Indeed, if the trend to extremes continues, it will lead straight to the extinction of all life on the planet.

Girard writes in Battling to the End that “Christ took away humanity’s sacrificial crutches and left before us a terrible choice: either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is non-belief.”




René Girard, Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre, 2010. French title: Achever Clausewitz; Clausewitz is Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), the Prussian military theoretician who wrote On War.

René Girard, “On War and Apocalypse”, First Things, Aug/Sept 2009.

René Girard, Entitled Opinions, interview with Robert Harrison, 18 Sept  2005. Partial transcript availableAudio of whole interview (mp3).

René Girard, Intellectuals as Castrators of Meaning: An Interview with Réne Girard. Girard interviewed by Giulio Meotti in Il Foglio, March 20, 2007, reprinted at First Principles in Sept. 2008.

Paul Nuechterlein, Opening Comments on Apocalyptic, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, last revised Nov. 2015.

James Alison, “Girard’s Breakthrough,” 1996. Really everything by James Alison is worth reading.

James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination, 1996.

James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, 1998.

Cynthia Haven, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, 2018.

Cynthia Haven, “History is a test. Mankind is failing it: Rene Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse,” by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Magazine, July/Aug 2009.

Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, 2006

Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads, 1995.

Featured photo is of part of the “Sorrow” sculpture at the Path of Life, Windsor, VT. Final photo is at Popham Beach, Phippsburg, Maine.

2017 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2017 stats

average read per month: 4.3 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (October)
number read in best month: 7 (January)

percentage by male authors: 40% (21 books)
percentage by female authors: 60% (31 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 88% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 57% (26 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 12% (6 books)

percentage of total liked: 58% (30 books)
percentage of total so-so: 13% (7 books)
percentage of total disliked: 29% (15 books)


I have time and inclination to read more but have trouble finding books I want to read.

My favourite books of the year were A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016), short stories by Fouad Laroui, The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo, and the Elena Ferrante 4-book Neapolitan novels. The only book I didn’t finish — just could not get into it — was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I read almost as many novels that were not crime fiction this year as I did crime fiction, which is unusual. Full book list.

Books Read 2017


Once again (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I kept track of what I read this year; here is the full list.  As always, my reading is limited each month by being able to find books I really want to read. Recommendations always welcome!


Chaos (2016) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Set entirely in Cambridge, MA. Much more personal detail in this one, about her relationships with Lucy, Benton, Dorothy (her sister), Marino — which I like. All the action takes place in a 24-hour period, though there are memories and reminders of the past; if you haven’t read others in the series, the plot — a young woman is killed while riding her bike in a park — and musings may be a bit difficult to follow. I enjoyed it.

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997) by Tom Wessels. For permaculture group. A sort of identification guide for central New England landscapes, looking at the signs of disturbance — fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beaver activity, blowdowns from various  kinds of storms — as a way to understand how the land has been used, how healthy it is, what kind of substrate underlies it, what woody and non-woody plants characterise it and why, etc.  Interesting and relevant.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. For a bookgroup. Spoiler below. One of the better books I’ve read in recent years (including his first book, Rules of Civility, which wasn’t nearly as good, IMO). Briefly, the plot is that in June 1922, as the Bolsheviks take over Russia, Count Alexander Rostov (Sasha to his friends) becomes a ‘Former Person,’ sentenced to live his entire life in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow and threatened with death if he steps outside it. As the book jacket puts it nicely, “the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges relationships with the hotel’s other denizens,” including an earnest child called Nina who later has to leave her own child, Sophia, with the Count. The plot is simple, the book — moving among times and places; examining motives and intentions; and briefly but effectively considering such topics as the peppered moth of Manchester, the measurement of gravity, the movie Casablanca, bits of philosophy from Aristotle to Montaigne to Hobbes to Locke, etc. — is richly and elegantly complex.

The Trespasser (2016) by Tara French. Police procedural (most than most), crime fiction. A woman — dressed up, made up, “blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up …. [s]he looks like Dead Barbie” — is found dead in her home, obviously interrupted while preparing a cozy dinner for two there.  Antoinette Conway, fairly new to the Murder Squad but already made wary and cynical by harsh hazing/sabotage, and her ready-to-please partner Steve Moran are given what looks like a simple domestic violence case. Excellent plot — much of it involving police work, suspect interviews, the delicate dealings within the team — with complex and interesting characters and relationships. Page-turner. Recommended.

Missing, Presumed (2016) by Susie Steiner. Crime fiction, another police procedural, set in Cambridgeshire, told in short chapters from multiple points of view, mainly Manon Bradshaw, the 39-yr-old single DS; Miriam Hind, the mother of the missing woman, Edith; and Davy Walker, Manon’s colleague on the police  force; and also Helena, Edith’s best friend. The police don’t have many leads after Edith disappears from her house one night and weeks go by as they investigate various possibilities. Well-written, heavy focus on Manon’s singleness and her attempts to find a man, offshoots about children in need of social services, lots of drinking, shagging, girl talk. I liked it but it probably has more appeal for women.

Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medical Care (2015) by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. Extremely important book that I wish everyone would read. Welch — a Dartmouth medical school professor, internist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, and a medical researcher — looks at the beliefs physicians and patients have that lead them to make poor decisions concerning medical care and provides evidence to show why we are mistaken. He makes convincing arguments that risks can’t always be lowered and trying to do so creates risks of its own; trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing it; early diagnosis can (and usually does) needlessly turn people into patients; data overload can scare patients and distract doctors; action (vs. inaction) is not the reliably right choice; new interventions are typically not well tested and often end up being ineffective or even harmful; a fixation on preventing death diminishes life. If you have ever had CTs and MRIs that show nodules in organs, if you are considering surgery for lower back pain, if you are taking cholesterol lowering medication, if you are thinking about an ablation for a heart arrhythmia, if you are a woman at average risk of breast cancer getting yearly mammograms or a man at average risk of prostate cancer getting yearly prostate tests, if you are someone with a serious chronic disease trying to make decisions about what to do, if you are a well person who spends a lot of time worrying about your health — please read this book.  And if you smoke, stop!

Depraved Heart (2015) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. (Read out of order). Like the one that follows, this one is also set entirely in Cambridge, MA, in about a one-day period, and also focuses on Carrie Grethen, Lucy’s psychopathic former girlfriend, who two months earlier had tried to kill Scarpetta underwater with a spear as she was diving in the Bahamas. The plot starts with Scarpetta and Marino at the home of a woman who seems to have fallen and died while trying to change a lightbulb; as their perceptions of that scene shifts, Scarpetta is also watching a video on her phone, shot in 1997 when Lucy was at FBI school in Quantico. Scarpetta, made anxious by the video, rushes with Marino to  Lucy and Janet’s mansion, to find the FBI there with a blanket search warrant. The fun never really ends for this family. Reading it now, in the early days of Trump’s administration, is spooky, because at the heart of the novel is something called data fiction, or completely false data and information planted in official places like FBI records, medical records, criminal records, airline reservation databases, etc., to create chaos and suffering.


The Lost Boy (2009/2016) by Camilla Läckberg, in the Fjällbacka (Sweden) series with Erica and Patrik. Sort of a police  procedural — in the sense that the police solving crimes, and the character development of the officers, is central to the plot — but it’s even more of a creepy thriller. Multiple narratives are intertwined in alternating chapters; the one thing they all have in common is a heavy and usually not particularly happy focus on parents and their children (the last line of the liner jacket blurb asks “Is there anything a mother would not do to protect her child?”). There’s something for most everyone here: ghost stories about a small island, with a supporting 1870s flashback; domestic violence; bad childhoods; grandparents caring for kids; loss of a child and the grief that follows; adjustment to having infants; drugs, biker gangs, etc.

Stone Coffin (2011, 2016) by Kjell Eriksson. An Inspector Ann Lindell crime novel, set in Uppsala, Sweden. The novel starts with a brief glimpse of pharmaceuticals researcher Sven-Erik Cederen’s visit to the Dominican Republic, then switches to the hit-and-run deaths of his wife and their 6-year-old daughter in Sweden. Along the way, we’ve got animal rights’ protestors forcing a statement to be read on TV, a trip to Malaga, Spain, to work with detectives there on the case, and Ann, almost 40, considering whether and how to continue her relationship with Edvard, who is living on the isolated island of Gräsö. Eriksson’s writing and tone are always understated.

Crucifixion Creek (2014) by Barry Maitland, the first Harry Belltree crime novel (of three) set in Sydney, Australia. Harry is a homicide detective with a personal interest in the current case, which seems tied to the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife, Jenny, three years ago. Joining forces with reporter Kelly Pool, he gets involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Crows, as well as local politicians, lawyers, accountants, real estate developers, and others whose professional façades hide their degenerate hearts. Complex and engaging plot.

The Undesired: A Thriller (2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Two intertwined stories, one set at a juvenile detention home an hour outside of Reykjavik in 1974, the other set now, in Reykjavik, involving the death of a woman who falls out of a window, leaving her young daughter in the sole care of her ex-husband. Both stories are interesting but there are unresolved questions at the end, I thought.


The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Re-read, for a bookgroup. A book about teenage angst and alienation. I’m not sure whether it’s meant as a parody or not. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caufield comes from a wealthy NYC family and is now flunking out of his third prep school, not because he’s not smart enough but because, if we take him at his word, he can’t stand all the phony and mean people at this school and the other schools. Holden narrates the story, which he writes while in a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, which covers the week or so from the time he leaves his prep school (a few days before his expulsion would be enforced) after a fight with his roommate over a girl and heads to New York City, where he drinks a lot, sleeps little, and has disturbing and unsatisfying meetups and conversations with taxi drivers, an ex-girlfriend, a former teacher, a former prep school classmate, some women he dances with in a bar, a prostitute and her pimp, and finally, his beloved sister Phoebe. He’s a pathological liar with most people but less so with Phoebe. Other aspects of Holden’s life are told through an essay he writes about his late brother Allie, and some memories he shares with the reader, including about a classmate who jumps to his death after being bullied. Throughout his time in NYC, he is preoccupied with whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate in winter; people react oddly when he asks them. He is frequently depressed by what he sees, hears, and thinks, his thoughts seem to run in circles, and often he’s “not in the mood” to do things. He feels sorry for people frequently, gets a kick out of things that kids do and say, and he tells Phoebe that what he really wants to do in life is save children who are about to go off a cliff (the cliff of innocence?).

Garden of Lamentations (2017) by Deborah Crombie, #17 in the Kincaid/James series set in London. Much of this book is set around Duncan and Gemma’s home in Notting Hill. Gemma is investigating the case of a young nanny found murdered in the gated communal garden of a posh Notting Hill housing development, while Kincaid, after his former boss is brutally attacked moments after a clandestine meeting with Kincaid, is following through on his suspicions about corruption in the police force dating back 20 or more years. Complex plotting, which frankly lost my interest a few times as one too many names was introduced. I have read the previous book, of which this is a sort of continuation, but it had been a while and I didn’t remember exactly what happened; the events of the past (involving Angus Craig, Ryan Marsh, and others) are alluded to but not really stated clearly until page 300! Not her best effort, IMO.

The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. A book I have tried to read before without luck, but I finally got through it this time (for a bookgroup)! A sort of fantastical, dreamworld book — blurring the line between what’s real and false, what’s imagined and actual — apparently about life under Stalin and choices authoritarian leaders make believing (perhaps) that they are for the good of the state, but also a Faustian book about good and evil, the bargains we make in our lives, how to evaluate what we envision or sense when it seems impossible, etc.  Woland (the devil) and his retinue — consisting of Koroviev aka Fagott, wearer of checks and a pince-nez, an illusionist, “former choirmaster,” and nominal translator for Woland;  Behemoth, a large black who likes firearms and who can transform himself into human shape for a short time; and Azazello, a short broad-shouldered man with flaming red hair, a fang, a wall-eye, wearing a bowler hat — come to Moscow and wreak havoc, particularly among members of the Variety Theatre, with decapitations, lots of arson, black magic, abductions, counterfeiting. It’s one of those books that reminds me of a lot of other books I’ve read, especially Alice in Wonderland (with things turning into other things — like the Russian money turning into bottle labels and illegal foreign currency; things and people appearing and disappearing suddenly and impossibly; secret doors; grinning cats; people turning into pigs (the Duchess in AiW, Margarita’s downstairs neighbour in M&M); the imperious and nonsensical authority of the Red Queen; Alice‘s confusion and dismay and wanting things to make sense; and so on), and also The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a little of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and the Pontius Pilate story reminded me of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. The Master of the title is the author of a novel (within the novel) about Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed and the guilt he holds because of that decision; Margarita is his married lover. I’m not sure why this novel is such a favourite of so many. Chapter by chapter annotations are online.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohllben. Read for my permaculture discussion group. Thirty-six short chapters about trees, with a focus on central Germany (and beeches) but nevertheless applicable to Europe as a whole, to North America (which is mentioned from time to time), and perhaps to other places. Wohllben — a forester who now runs an “environmentally friendly woodland” — is a tree sympathizer, cheerleader, and supporter. Sometimes his purple prose concerning trees’ feelings and body parts is scientifically suspect — as when he talks about pruning as “actually more like a massacre” and girdling as a brutal slow death; when he speaks of trees as having nerves, brains, and blood, and says that they “analyze” information; when he tells us that it’s “really painful” for a tree when chunks of its bark are pulled off or its roots are snipped; when he talks about trees’ alarm calls and their screams; and so on — but he also explains clearly and simply how trees communicate and share resources with other trees and defend against predators, how transpiration works, how trees reproduce and avoid inbreeding, how they age, what happens when they are wounded, how tree species adapt to climate and terrain (become specialists) over time, how trees interact with soil microbes, how various birds, insects, and other plants use trees, etc. His main case is that, for various reasons including how comparatively slowly trees grow and act, we maintain a false moral barrier between animals and plants, which, if we understood plants, and especially trees, better, we would realise is in error.

Death and the Maiden (2011/2012) by Frank Tallis, 6th in the crime series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer, and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve the murder of an opera diva in Mahler’s opera house. I read the other five in 2012 but missed this one. Set in 1903, already the menacing shadow of incipient Jewish persecution hangs over the city and the novel, as Vienna’s powerful and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger is front and center. (Lueger, like Mahler and Freud, was a real person; he established the Austrian Christian Social Party, kept Jews from serving in his administration, and Hitler viewed him as an inspiration.) Meanwhile, Liebermann makes the moves on his heretofore friend, Amelia, who is more than ready for him to act.


The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery. For a bookgroup. Loved it. Well-written book that’s packed with information and yet flows like a narrative. We get to know the individual personalities of four octopuses who have lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, learn a bit about scuba diving and observing octopuses in the wild, get a play-by-play account of two octopuses mating, and learn a lot about the intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, and individuality of octopuses.  Recommended. 

Heart of  a Dog (1987, but written in 1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov. For a bookgroup. Satire. Much shorter than Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, for which I was thankful, but just as unaffecting for me. The back of the book advertises it as “hilarious” and “brilliantly inventive,” but I didn’t find it either particularly, though at times it was amusing; this 123-page book felt to me like a simple conceit dressed up as a novel: Two scientists transplant the pituitary gland  and testes of a small-time criminal into a hapless stray dog, resulting in an ugly man who’s lecherous, vulgar, proletariat, a poor dresser, an alcoholic, a glutton … and who still likes to chase cats.

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016) by Fouad Laroui (transl. Emma Ramadan). For a bookgroup. Loved it … resonated for me in many places, and it’s very funny. The book is only 130 pp long, a series of short stories that sometimes verge on philosophical meditations about — and explorations of the nuances of — feeling foreign, displaced, dislocated, an outsider, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The stories are somewhat connected by allusions, characters’ names, settings (a couple of stories are told in a coffee shop, the Cafe de l’Univers). Laroui is Moroccan and most of the stories are set there, with two in the Netherlands, one in Brussels. “Born Nowhere” really made me laugh, as did “The Invention of Dry Swimming.” “What Was Not Said in Brussels” felt so true, the way random phrases insert themselves in our brains and sometimes direct our thoughts.


The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein. Re-read, for permaculture group. Good intro to the basics — principles, soil and mulch, seed starting and seed saving, fruit guilds, perennial and other vegetables, fruits and nuts, mushrooms — with lots of photos, sidebars, and illustrations.

A Glass of Blessings (1958) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. It’s hard to beat Pym for a certain kind of fiction: British cozy (but not mystery), insightful as to human psychology and motivation, brimming with observations about the nuance of relationships that look simple. In this one, Wilmet Forsyth is a woman of leisure in her 30s whose marriage, without children, is somewhat staid and settled; her husband gives her cash on her birthdays and is indifferent to what she does with her days. As she goes about her prescribed life of church-going, doing good works (but not nearly as earnestly or often as some of her friends, for which she feels guilty), and shopping, she imagines minor dalliances with a friend’s brother and her best friend’s husband. My favourite character is her mother-in-law, Sybil, who lives with them and who sees Wilmet as a complete individual despite her marriage to Sybil’s son; Sybil doesn’t seem to expect Wilmet to be anyone other than who she is (and never laments her lack of grandchildren).

No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. I loved that this one references Wilmet and Rodney and Piers and Keith from A Glass of Blessings (pp. 191-193), visiting a church that the main characters in this book, middle-aged unmarried women (and temporary housemates) Dulcie and Viola, are visiting. Pym was post-modern before post-modern was cool. This book is quite funny, because both Viola and Dulcie, free-lance researchers by profession who meet at a literary conference, are a bit obsessed with literary journal editor Aylwin Forbes, for reasons the reader really can’t understand other than his good looks; his unsuitable-by-all-accounts wife Marjorie is divorcing him, and he seems a rather weak and typical fellow, dodging devoted “suitable” women right and left as he falls in “love” with girls half his age and younger. Dulcie and Viola use their research skills and curiosity to track him down in various places, and they also track down Marjorie, her mother, his mother, and his celibate vicar brother, surreptitiously visiting their homes, churches, the bed & breakfast in Tavistock run by his mother, the family cemetery, and so on.

Bilgewater (1976) by Jane Gardam. Unfortunately, I read the Europa (2016) edition, which had at least 10 glaring typos that detracted and distracted from the story. I really liked Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, but this story, about a 16-year-old girl — intellectually precocious but socially stunted, and naive, isolated, used to the company of eccentric adults, now coming into her own — was not terribly engaging for me.

The Dollhouse (2016) by Fiona Davis. For a bookgroup. Debut novel. Rather run-of-the-mill “women’s novel” (focus on relationships among women and romances with men), told in alternating chapters, of a young woman (Darby) who came to New York City from Ohio to study at the Katherine Gibbs’ secretarial school in 1952, boarding at the Barbizon Hotel along with other wanna-be secretaries and models, and of a journalist (Rose) in her 30s living now in the same building. There is some intrigue concerning jazz clubs, a Korean spice store, the hotel maid, and Darby herself. All in all, a pleasant, undemanding read that gives a little flavour of 1950s New York.


The Wonder (2016) by Emma Donoghue, for a bookgroup, a novel set in the Irish countryside in the late 1850s (several years after the potato famine ended) about an English nurse, Lib Wright (trained by Florence Nightingale), who is brought to a small Irish village on a 2-week temporary assignment to observe — along with another nurse, a nun — what appears to be a miracle: an 11-year-old girl who is said to have survived for four months without food. It’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction. The most interesting aspect of it for me is Lib’s ambivalence about interfering to change a situation that she has been hired only to observe and report upon. When she feels a conflict between obeying her contract to the community to be a detached observer and obeying her conscious as she becomes attached to her patient, how does she resolve it? In that way, the book explores a deep question; in other ways, it’s somewhat formulaic and the ending much too pat and fantastic.

The Chalk Pit (2017) by Elly Griffiths, ninth in the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway series. Bones found in Norwich’s tunnels and homeless people being stabbed to death converge in a ludicrous plot. If you can overlook that, the storyline of Ruth’s relationship with DCI Harry Nelson advances a bit, and there are some funny lines in the book. Cozy, but a bit inane this time.

Pastoralia (2000)  by George Saunders, for a bookgroup. Six short stories, all more or less contemporary, on themes of self-worth, status-seeking, shame, blame; the difference​ ​between​ ​how​ ​people​ ​present​ ​themselves​ ​and​ ​what​ ​they’re​ ​really​ ​thinking; the dichotomy​ ​between​ ​what​ ​we​ ​think​ ​and​ ​what​ ​we​ ​do; how ​we​ ​elevate​ ​and​ ​then​ ​degrade​ ​ourselves​ ​(and others)​ ​in​ ​seconds​ ​in​ ​our​ ​minds.​ ​Most of the characters are pathetic to some degree (weak, self-absorbed,​ ​unattractive​ ​physically,​ ​anxiety-ridden,​ ​callous​ ​and​ ​cruel, desirous​ ​of​ ​power​ ​and​ ​status,​ ​vengeful​)​, living demeaning lives, trapped in dysfunctional ​relationships — and yet sometimes it seems there’s more worth there than meets the eye. Someone else has said that in​ ​each​ ​story,​ ​”defective​ ​characters​ ​are​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​operate​ ​outside​ ​their​ ​comfort​ ​zones.” The tone is grim and sordid mixed with relentlessly optimistic dreams of grandeur. I enjoyed them.


The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo. For a bookgroup.  Historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century (1900 or so), about a family with deep dark secrets and four boys (three Braithewaite brothers plus a friend, aged 13 to 18 or 19) with dreams of glory, love, adventure. They begin a 3-month journey in a schooner from Maine to Cuba as relatively naive and protected boys and end it much more worldly-wise, wearier, and still unaware of the Braithewaite family secrets, which great-granddaughter Sybil, living in Arizona in the 1990s,  tries to piece together from scrapbooks, letters, the ship’s log. Fascinating and definitely worth the read.

The Second Deadly Sin (2012./2013 transl) by Åsa Larsson, crime fiction set in northern Sweden, featuring Rebecka Martinsson and Kister Ericksson. Complex and engaging plot, with two alternating and related stories, one set in Kiruna today, the other in Kiruna in 1914, concerning multiple deaths in the same family, spanning several generations. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the author’s choice to put Rebecka in the situation she did in the last action scene angered me and seemed totally unnecessary.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), first of the four Neapolitan novels. I could not get into it for 2/3 of the book, but by the end, I wanted to read the next one in the series. Story of two girls and their impoverished, rivalrous, close-knit Naples community in the 1950s, as Lena and Lila grow up together from about age 8 to age 18, as friends, as competitors, and as models for each other in school, in love, in life. What finally won me over was the writing and plotting; as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, “The most beautiful part of the story is the way it is told: in a simple, anecdotal way without any intention of moving towards any climax.”


Police (2013) by Jo Nesbø, 10th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway (Oslo and other locations). Briefly, someone seems to be killing cops who were involved with unsolved cases. There are serial (gruesome, as usual) murders and multiple murderers, making for a complex, twisting, surprising plot. Enthralling but like all of Nesbø’s novels, not for the faint of heart.

Deadfall (2017) by Linda Fairstein, in the Asst. DA Alex Cooper series, set in New York (mostly uptown and the Bronx). Sort of a spoiler but it’s revealed on the second page: District Attorney Paul Battaglia, Alex’s boss, dies in her arms on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after being shot. The feds wonder if Alex lured him to the killing spot, so she’s under serious and hostile scrutiny by the U.S. attorneys as they investigate his murder. Meanwhile, NYPD detectives Mike and Mercer, along with Alex, follow their own lines of investigation, which lead to the Bronx Zoo, the St. Hubertus Society (which Justice Antonin Scalia belonged to), Animals Without Borders, and a quick trip to a Montana big game hunting ranch.

Two Nights (2017) by Kathy Reichs, a stand-alone (or perhaps start of a new series) NOT in the Brennan series. There’s no forensic talk in this fast-paced thriller. Sunday (Sunnie) Night is a recluse of a woman who lives (with a feral squirrel) on an island off of Sullivan Island in SC, reachable only by boat. A former police officer and military veteran who saw action in Afghanistan, Night has deep psychological (and physical) scars and a small arsenal of Glocks and other assault artillery, though her sarcasm may be her most deadly weapon and her wariness her best defense. She’s asked to find a missing girl and the four perpetrators who killed the girl’s mother and brother in a terrorist bombing, which takes her to Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. I wasn’t sure if I’d continue for the first 30 pages or so but then got into it.

The Thirst (2017) by Jo Nesbø, 11th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway, following immediately on the plot of Police, though taking place three years later. The vampirist is back, meeting women at bars through Tinder and then ambushing in their homes and killing them in gruesome ways. A vampirist expert is called in. Meanwhile, Rakel is having headaches and gets checked out at the hospital.

Walking on My Grave (2017) by Carolyn Hart, in the Death on Demand/Annie Darling series set on (fictional) Broward’s Rock Island, SC. These aren’t very good and I haven’t read any in a while but sometimes you just feel like a cozy, involving mostly rich people, set on an island, and this is the series for that time. The six or seven future heirs of Ves Roundtree’s considerable fortune all need money now and some resent her continued existence. How far will one of them, driven by greed, fear, or desperation, go? Meanwhile, Henny, Emma Clyde, and Laurel are all writing chapbooks about, respectively, classic crimes, the wisdom of her crime fiction detectives, and “merry musings” on life; these comprise the final pages of the book.


The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), second of the four Neapolitan novels. Lena continue her memoir, telling her story of growing into her 20s, her sexual coming of age (particularly one summer vacation), her time at university in Pisa, and she tells Lila’s story of marriage, adultery, having a child, continuing her tumultuous life. The two women grow apart, come together, grow apart, come together, grow apart.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), third of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set as much in Florence as in Naples. Here, with the women in their 20s and 30s, Elena marries, has children, publishes a book that is provocative and makes her a bit famous and then struggles with her writing and in her marriage. Meanwhile, Lila works in a meat factory and lives with another man, Enzo, in a low-rent district, raising her son. Eventually both Lila and Enzo work as programmers for IBM. Both women become involved in the politics of the time, and this book focuses on social activism, feminism, socialism, the rights of the worker. As in book two, Elena and Lila move uncomfortably and ambivalently in and out of each other’s lives, often not seeing or speaking with each other for months. As Elena has expressed before, she comes again to the realisation that “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”

The Maytrees (2007) by Annie Dillard. A hard book to get into. It’s a novel of a couple and their life together and apart, set mostly in post-war Provincetown, Cape Cod. Lou, not much of a talker, and Toby Maytree, a poet — who thinks a lot about how various kinds of natural light represent Aristotelean or Platonic thought, — meet and marry, have a son, make friends among their bohemian artist and fisherman neighbours (characterised early on as “social thinkers”), and care for each other and their friends in ordinary and remarkable ways. They are both big readers and laughers. The writing is often uber-poetic, spare yet awkwardly descriptive, as if trying hard to pack the array of short sentences to the brim with unheard-of word combinations, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense at times, even on an emotional level. I stopped reading about halfway through and read another book, coming back to this one afterward. I appreciated the focus on “the meaning of life” and how love manifests itself over a lifetime and among many relationships, but I didn’t actually care about any of the characters, whose self-containment was admirable but distancing. Lou is described as “throughout her life … ironic and strict with her thoughts.” She is described, when they are courting, as having “no agitation in her even gaze. …. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular.”

Sleeping in the Ground (2017) by Peter Robinson, in the Banks/ Cabbot series, set in Eastvale and surrounds (Yorkshire). On the same day that Alan Banks attends the funeral of his first true love, Emily, several members of a wedding party are shot and killed or critically wounded by a sniper. Lots of twists and turns as the detectives — newbie Gerry Masterson is featured in this one — trace relationships backwards to find the motive for the killings. Very readable but not as engaging as some.


The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), last of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set almost entirely in Naples. Elena is with Nino, and she becomes pregnant with their daughter, Imma, while Lila becomes pregnant with Enzo with their daughter Tina. At Lila’s urging and for other reasons, Elena moves back to Naples, where the women live one floor apart. The years pass, the children grow, Elena has writing successes and failures, Lila struggles with some illnesses and her dissolving boundaries feeling, and at one point there is a crisis that forever affects Lila’s outlook and actions. When the book ends, the women are 60ish, their children grown, their lives still somewhat unsettled.

The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) by Eudora Welty. For a bookgroup. I read this short novel (180 pp but in big type with large margins) in about 2 hours. The plot is that Laurel’s father, Judge Clinton McKelva (age 71), undergoes eye surgery, dies soon thereafter in hospital (in New Orleans) as he is recovering, and Laurel (in her late 40s?) and her graceless, jealous, narcissistic step-mother of one year, Fay (also in her 40s), go home to the family house in small-town Mississippi, where friends and family await, to have the funeral and sort through things. It all takes place in about a week, with a little bit of flashback, mainly to Laurel’s brief marriage to Phil (he dies in the war), the Judge’s first marriage to Becky (Laurel’s mother), and Becky’s early life in West Virginia and the deaths of her parents (Laurel’s grandparents).  It’s the tone or attitude of the book that just escapes me. Fay and Laurel are counterpoints to each other in some way, some of the women in town are like a Greek chorus, and the book seems to explore the realms and limits of empathy and compassion. My favourite line is spoken by one of Fay’s relatives, a man who has spent most of his visit in the yard, who tells Laurel that “You got a lot of fat squirrels going to waste here.” The moral seems to be that “any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”


Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, for a bookgroup. A complex, long novel about Fanny Price, one of nine children of a disorganised “slattern” and an unmannered alcoholic, who goes to live with her wealthier aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and their four children when she is ten years old. Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is 16 when Fanny comes to live with his family, is empathetic and kind and takes a particular interest in Fanny when he sees how miserable she is. He teaches her manners, honour, kindness, etc., and she in turn falls in love with him, but she can’t ever let that be known to anyone. Five years later, wealthy, agreeable Henry  Crawford falls in love with Fanny and wants to marry her; she wants none of it, seeing him as shallow and not very honorable, having observed him trifling with both her female cousins’ affections.  Still he perseveres, enjoying the challenge. Meanwhile, Edmund has fallen for Crawford’s sister, Mary, who is also a bit superficial and who, though she has feelings for him, is not happy that he has no inheritance and wants to be a lowly clergyman. The novel is nuanced, and though it’s written of the kind of society that doesn’t exist (at least in most places) anymore, many of the themes and truths are universal and timeless.

The Scarred Woman (2017) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dept. Q novel (#7), set in Copenhagen, Carl Mørck. A bunch of cases, some cold and some not, come together, sending Carl and Assad investigating young women being hit by cars, another young woman shot, two beating deaths, and the death of their colleague Rose’s father. Complex and engrossing. I really like this series.

Death in the White Mountains: Hiking Fatalities and How To Avoid Being One (2017) by Julie Boardman. Non-fiction details of 219 deaths from 1849-2016 of hikers, ice- and rock climbers, and backcountry skiers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sections on death by  hypothermia (body temperature going too low), falling, avalanche, drowning, lighting and other freak accidents, hyperthermia (overheating), murder, and also from natural causes (mostly heart attacks), as well as a few accounts of lost hikers who have never been found. There’s some info about every death and longer stories about a handful in each category, some conclusions about common mistakes that lead to injury or death (e.g., not heeding weather reports, not turning back when weather worsens, not packing enough clothing or other items, hiking or climbing alone), plus warnings and suggestions about how to avoid dying in these ways when hiking, climbing, or skiing in the White Mountains or any wild place.

The Mistletoe Murders (2016) by P.D. James, four short stories. The first, third, and last are set at Christmas time and rather Agatha Christie-ish. The last two star detective Adam Dalgliesh. The second one (“A Very Commonplace Murder”) is quite different from the others, not at Christmas, no Dalgliesh nor any detective, rather sordid. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” the third one, Dalgliesh investigates a murder that took place on Christmas Eve, over 50+ years ago.  I read them all in about 1-1/2 hours.

Dead Woman Walking (2017) by Sharon Bolton. Crime fiction/thriller. Fairly gripping throughout, quite gory and deeply unsettling at the start. Police detective Jessica and her sister, Isabel, a nun, go on a balloon ride with others in the north of England for Isabel’s 40th birthday. Mayhem ensues, entangling one sister in the black market organ market.

Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) by Jill McGown. I read this in the early 1990s but it was a nice re-read before Christmas. It’s in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England (Suffolk area). Lloyd and Judy have their own issues, which pale in comparison to those of the Wheeler family — George, the non-believing vicar; Marian, his controlling wife; Joanna, their protected daughter; and Graham, Joanna’s frustrated husband. On Christmas Eve, things come to a head in the Wheeler household and then the lies and misdirection begin. A nice romp.


The Other Woman (1992) by Jill McGown, in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England. Complex crime novel with names/characters I could never keep straight. Well-written, and I think the convoluted plot hangs together,  but it didn’t compel me.

The Witches’ Tree (2017) by M.C Beaton, in the Agatha Raisin series, set some place in England (fictional Sumpton Harcourt). Pretty awful. The writing is clunky, the plot — involving witches, sex, money — convoluted and dumb, and the editing atrocious (lines repeated from one paragraph to the next, improper punctuation, and the last name of key characters in the cover flap doesn’t match their surname in the book!

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937; 2016) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a classic crime novel republished recently. The story starts on a train but soon moves to a recently deserted manor home in the country where a disparate group of people (who have left the stalled train in a snowstorm to try to reach another station) finds shelter … and more. Part creepy ghost story, part traditional murder mystery, the novel is set at Christmas, with blinding heavy snow all around a well-provisioned house — food, fires, beds — and a cast of characters animated by complex motives and desires.

The Devil’s Wedding Ring (2015, transl. 2017) by Vidar Sundstøl, a crime novel set in Telemark, Norway, involving a 13th-century stave church and pagan midsummer rites, and spanning 30 years, from the time a folklore researcher disappears on Midsummer Eve in 1985 to the disappearance of a woman researching the same rituals in 2015 and the apparent suicide of a former policeman, who had been a colleague of Max Fjellanger, now a private investigator living in Florida. Fjellanger returns to Norway to attend his friend’s funeral, suspicious that he didn’t die by his own hand. He soon partners with quirky, insightful librarian and single mother Tirill Vesterli, and together they investigate, becoming convinced an ancient ritual is behind the violence. OK but not all that engaging.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-¼ Years Old (a novel by Hendrik Groen, 2014/2017). Groen, an “inmate” in an Amsterdam old age home, colludes with several other oldies to form the Old But Not Dead Club dedicated to keeping life lively and worth living; the club members plan interesting outings and meals for each other, look in on each other, and resist the unexplained rules and regulations of the institution where they live. Eventually, since most of the members are over age 80, illness and infirmity cast a dark shadow over the lighter aspects of living in community. Written with a light touch, but sometimes darkly humourous, the novel references many real and difficult issues of growing old.   

Dream City Home

Welcome to day 31 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They are all listed here.

To be an outlaw you must first have a base in law to reject and get out of, I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room. … Am I alien? Alien from what exactly? Perhaps my home is my dream city, more real than my waking life precisely because it has no relation to waking life…  — William S. Burroughs

Dream city as home. This idea works for me. My dreamspace, which feels like a place where I live even more vividly, more sensually, than usual, is often architectural in form and setting, with past houses (which obviously do have a relationship to waking life) — especially this one …

Maine house, Feb. 2001

partial kitchen, Maine house, 1994

Thanksgiving in Maine house, 1995

fireplace and living space, Maine house, 1994

stairs and warming oven, Maine house, 1994

Christmas 1996 (with Cactus) in Maine house

… and apartments, hotels, restaurants, frequently other people’s houses, auditoriums, hospitals, bridges, schools, bathrooms, meeting rooms, buildings and built spaces that I don’t think I have ever been in except in dreams (and there they are typically recurring settings) — all common in my dreams. Of course, dreams have to be set somewhere, like plays, but what interests me is the transformation of knowledge and memory of the building, and the exploration of it in the dream, and how often dreams are set in places I don’t recognise except perhaps from previous dreams. (This dream, e.g., about my dad a year or so after he died, takes place in several buildings I’ve never been in in waking life.)

My “dream city” feels like a multiplicity of places — some real, some not real as far as I know (or at least not remembered by me in real life) — that are significant for various reasons: because of my emotional and aesthetic memories of a real place; because of the feeling evoked by its architecture or layout; because of some association with it through other people’s stories (what my imagination conjures — from novels, from what friends have described, from song lyrics or lines of poetry, from what I’ve heard on the radio — or what my eyes have actually glimpsed, momentarily, in paintings, on TV or in movies, riding past, etc.); or who knows what reason.

Yemassee SC Dec. 2013

Rocky Mount MC Dec. 2013

somewhere in Rhode Island, Feb. 2008

somewhere in Connecticut, Feb. 2008

Why do buildings and other places resonate and spark imagination? Why do they “make us” feel a certain way, evoke moods and sensations (e.g., “haunted houses”)? Is it because they contain us, hold us, bring us together or split us apart, both exclude and include us? Do they somehow form an external correspondence to our interior spaces?


More to Burroughs’ point, my sense of homelessness, placelessness, alienates me from real life sometimes. My family moved often — due to my dad’s corporate life promotions and transfers — so when asked, e.g. as a security question on a financial site, “what is your hometown?,” I have no idea. I have no hometown, and my home is pretty much where I am at the moment, so in one sense I feel “at home” almost anywhere. But coming home after being away feels jarring — home is familiar, a place I know well and am comfortable, but re-entry to normal life after being away feels oppressive, constrictive; I feel restless, like I’ve lost something. I think it’s partly that on the road (hotels, motels, trains), there is much less stuff and therefore less emotional tiredness brought on by the emotional and physical demands of stuff.  But I think it’s more than that, perhaps something to do with the way, as I’ve mentioned previously, that travel disrupts, questions, and subverts conventional thought and behaviour. Coming home, I feel the demands (that word again) reinstated, the sense of what I am expected to be and do limited by the circumference of “home.”


Unlike Burroughs’ experience (“I never had such a base. I never had a place I could call home that meant any more than a key to a house, apartment or hotel room”), I have in my life almost always had a base, a room, apartment, or house to come home to day after day — and yet these places have always felt transitional to me. (I’ve written about this before, 5 years ago, in Oct. 2012). I can’t help but notice that all our lives and all our places are transitional, ephemeral, not made to last. In the short run, someone will dig up my garden or terrace it, a storm or fire may take out trees and destroy homes and towns, objects and materials constantly wear out, living things die (some exceedingly quickly, others at a slower rate) and everyone I know, including me, including friends’ children and their children, including all the animals now alive on earth, will die soon. In the long run, all bodies, all buildings and things, all governments, all human constructions will disappear and wild nature will take over, as it is wont to do now when given half a chance.

seaweed growing on rock, Kennebunk ME, Dec. 2014

fern growing out of rock, brick, in Colonial Park Cemetery, Savannah, GA, Dec. 2015

trees growing out of rock ledge, Northern Rail Trail, NH, April 2015

watermelon plant growing on beach, Jekyll Island, GA, Sept. 2013

And in the longer run, land, sea, and all mortal beings, all species of flora and fauna, will disappear.

Which is why perhaps a heterotopia appeals to me so deeply … the placeless place, neither here nor there: a ship between shores on which an ad hoc society exists only as long as a cruise or passage; a tourist town, which shutters up and closes down after a few months; a public garden, where antiquity meets modernity (and as Louis Marin says, “the unsurpassable contradiction, where art and nature, artifice and truth, imagination and the real, representation and being, mimesis and the origin, play hide-and seek”); a museum (hard on the back and wearying though they are), where the past is reinterpreted by the present (“Foucault’s museum is not a funereal storehouse of objects from different times, but an experience of the gap between things and the conceptual and cultural orders in which they are interpreted”- from Beth Lord); a cemetery, where past and present collide and almost all of us have a relationship with it. A place, in other words, where here-there-everywhere and now-then come together in some ambiguous, disturbing, provocative way. A place that deviates from conventional norms, a constant reminder that ‘normal’ is always and everywhere just a temporary construct. These heterotopic places are where I feel I belong, if one can be said to belong to such a place, because they match my sense of what’s real.

my mom, Evergreen Cemetery, Roanoke, VA, 13 Dec. 2014

Dad’s ashes, scattered in Mt. Rogers National Recreational Area, Virginia, June 2013


We each exist in a place now, places that seem real, solid, geographically tangible. At the same time, or in another time that runs alongside the chronology we obey, we are placeless, standing at a threshold, that liminal space, waiting, one foot here and one foot there, waiting, inhabiting multiple realities, multiple places and times in one moment, in one space. That’s how it feels to me, and I guess it’s why hotels, motels, lodging, and the movement of travelling resonate for me, reminders of the non-linear world beyond and inside and overlapping this other world we are inexplicably placed in. They remind me that we’re here for the moment, we’re in this spot in each moment as we move toward another spot in each moment, places we’ve never been, or have visited in dreams and in memory.

We live out of suitcases, uncertain in the middle of the night how to find the bathroom and the lights; we wake up disoriented, aware of strangers coughing, flushing, moving about next door; we check ourselves in the mirror before opening the door and stepping through.



Thanks for traveling with me on this part of my journey.