Once again (2020, 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!
The Naturalist’s Notebook (2017) by Nathaniel Wheelwright and Bernd Heinrich. Half beautifully illustrated instructions and musings on observing, recording, and analysing the natural world, no matter where you live, and half five-year calendar journal for recording observations. More inspirational than educational, though there are suggestions for becoming an observant naturalist and ways to record and analyse information year over year.
White Pine: American History and the Tree That Made a Nation (2018) by Andrew Vietze. 3.5 stars. A book made up of longish essays on the white pine in American history (mostly northern New England history), arranged in roughly chronological order from about 1600 to the 2000s. The main point of that history is that the American Revolution was preceded and probably brought about in large part by colonists’ deep resentment of Britain’s insistence on ownership of all pines in the colonies over 24″ diameter for building the masts of their naval ships, as well as by anger for England’s burning of Portland, ME in 1775 in retaliation for one of several conflicts between colonists and surveyor generals in Maine and NH during the 1700s. There’s also some discussion of native tribes’ use of white pines ceremonially, medicinally, and to make canoes and such, as well as a chapter on the history and management of Hancock Lumber in Maine and about another firm that reclaims sunken masts from Maine waterways for use as timber and other items with patina and history in taverns, businesses, etc. The stories, detailed and succinctly written, engaged my imagination, though the organization of the book felt a bit haphazard.
We Are All the Same in the Dark (2020) by Julia Heaberlin. I love this novel, set in a small town in Texas and narrated mainly by two young female voices. I didn’t want it to end. It’s been 10 years since 19-year-old Trumanell Branson disappeared from her home, leaving a bloody handprint on the door frame and a cloud of suspicion around her brother Wyatt, who has, as the novel opens, just found a one-eyed girl left on the side of the highway. It’s been 10 years since Odette Tucker lost her leg in a car accident on the same night Trumanell disappeared. Now Odette is a cop, like her father before her, and she’s come back to town with her lawyer husband from the city to get to the bottom of things. That doesn’t begin to tell you how tender, chilling, haunted, and emotionally complicated this story is. The characters are so well-drawn, the writing, the pacing, the plotting so perfect.
Want: A Novel (2020) by Lynn Steger Strong. Another novel I didn’t want to end. This is more mom-lit than I tend to like but it’s so well done. A white woman — Elizabeth, but her name almost never appears in the novel though the reader inhabits her life — lives in Brooklyn with her “cool” husband, who does high-end carpentry, and their two little girls, ages 2 and 4. They rent a tiny apartment they can’t afford and are barely able to get by financially. She’s a high school teacher in a mostly black school as well as an adjunct professor at a college, teaching literature at both schools. The titles of the books she reads in her spare time and for class are recorded. Her actions and thoughts most days are recorded, from waking up to sleep. Alongside her current, daily life are short sections about her earlier life and key relationships, including with her parents, who are both a threat and a financial resource for her, but mainly her 20+-year friendship with Sasha, who now lives in California and with whom she is barely in contact. Throughout the book, the thread of “want” pervades, and specifically women’s wanting: what does our wanting do to us, what does it cost those we love, how do we manage the guilt of wanting, how do we make choices that will sustain us?
Tragedy at Law (1942) by Cyril Hare. Nicely plotted and well-written crime fiction concerning London Judge William Barber doing his assizes in several outlying towns in 1939 — i.e., making a seasonal circuit of these towns and setting up court for several days in each to try criminal and civil offenses. The judge receives handwritten threats from an unknown source, but worse, he’s driven drunk and uninsured and has hit a pedestrian who sustains injuries, and he and local police have covered up his crime so that it’s not leaked to the press. As the court group, including a sheriff and under sheriff, marshal, clerk, butler, as well as a barrister, Francis Pettigrew, and eventually the judge’s dynamic wife, Hilda (who is also a student of the law) move from town to town, small and perplexing incidents befall them, and eventually Inspector Mallett of Scotland Yard is brought in.
Flight Behavior (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver. I read this for a bookgroup. It’s really like two books, or a novel and a pamphlet, the first an engaging and steadily unfolding story of the impoverished and largely uneducated Turnbow family, farming lambs in Tennessee, the wife (Dellarobia) yearning always for something better, the stolid husband (Cub) just accepting that their life is their life, and then monarch butterflies arrive to overwinter where they shouldn’t be and not only the monarchs’ survival but the survival of the family as a family hang in the balance; the rest of the book is a didactic lesson on the reality and sadness of climate change, the importance of basic science, and how to convince skeptics of these things. While I too think science is critical and human-made climate change is occurring, those long dialogues, mostly between Dellarobia and the lepidopterist Ovid Byron, interrupted the flow of the story for me. I appreciated Dellarobia’s character and her insights, her evolving relationship with her mother-in-law (Hester), her interactions with her young kids and her best friend, Dovey, the novel’s apparent contrast between the scientist and the family’s religious leader (Bobby Ogle), the humour and revelation of an activist talking with Dellarobia — who can’t afford a computer, meat, bottled water, new clothes, enough heat, visits to a town 15 miles away, much less anything like airline travel — about reducing her carbon footprint. I enjoyed Dellarobia’s story, and sometimes the monarch piece felt well-blended, especially when describing the beauty of the vast numbers of butterflies and in the weaving of key relationships around their appearance, but too often the non-fiction arguments concerning the settled science of climate change felt intrusive to me.
Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York (2017) by Roz Chast. Cartoon book, written partly as a guidebook for her daughter going to college in Manhattan after living in the suburbs outside NYC. Humourous, moving at times, and useful, with drawn maps, explanation of the street grid, subway info, Central Park details, curated lists of parks and museums, etc.
The House on Vesper Sands (2021) by Paraic O’Donnell. I hope this is the first in a series. Set in London in 1893, this somewhat supernatural crime novel follows several characters: Gideon Bliss, a forthright, determined, and impoverished ministry student whose uncle, a rather aloof minister, pays all his expenses; Octavia Hillingdon, a young newspaper reporter whose interest has been captured by the mysterious disappearances of young women; and the impatient, private, wry, and iconoclastic Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard. They each for their own reasons want to track down the “Spiriters” who are luring young women to their doom. Of course, given the time period and place, a séance, a spooky seaside house, and the budding women’s movement are all given a role in the story. Very well written, atmospheric, amusing in places and horrifying in others, and quite haunting, though with true warmth at its heart.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (2020) by Katherine May. May — a 40-year-old with a husband and 5-year-old son living in south west England (in or near Whitstable, in coastal Kent), is writing about figurative winter, the times in our lives when sadness, grief, failure, anxiety, illness, catastrophe, rejection, and similar experiences and emotions require us to pare down our lives to what’s necessary to survive, and to revive, as spring and summer follow winter. But she is also writing about how people survive actual winter — cold, snow, isolation, the holidays, etc. — and not only survive it but accept, find nourishment in, and celebrate winter as a necessary, supportive, and repeating part of the natural cycle of seasons. There are sections on saunas, cold water swimming/immersion, snow, trips to Iceland and Finland, Halloween and Samhain, dealing with illness, marking time through observing natural cycles (a trip to Stonehenge on the solstice, e.g.), sleeping and dreaming, alternative Christmastide rituals like Sankta Lucia, mindfulness practice, more. She writes best of her own experience, and also incorporates myth, history, natural science, poetry, etc. A restful book, one I will probably turn to again.
Death in the Off-Season (1994) by Francine Mathews, a Merry Folger mystery set on Nantucket MA. A solid mystery novel with a great setting that’s really part of the story, including the wet-harvesting of cranberry bogs in September, the upper-class/working-class divide, and the (perhaps overdone?) way that most year-round residents know or know of each other. I enjoyed the characters of Merry (Detective Meredith Folger) and her grandfather as well as Peter Mason, a very wealthy man who lives in semi-solitude, whose brother Rusty has returned to the island after 10 years only to be murdered almost as soon as he steps off the plane. I guessed the murderer about halfway through but that didn’t interfere with my engagement in the story. Apparently there are six books in the series, so I’ll try another.
Party Going (1939) by Henry Green. A sort of novella (144 pp), set during four foggy hours at a railway station in London. The characters are mostly fairly interchangeable rich young people (plus an aunt who’s taken ill) who have arrived separately and at various times, eventually locating each other at a train station from which they have planned to travel to a boat that will deliver them to their house-party holiday in the south of France; but the dense fog is preventing the trains from departing, and soon there are tens of thousands of people awaiting trains on the platform, so the wealthy group decamp to three or four rooms at a terminus hotel, ordering whiskey and gin to their rooms throughout the afternoon as they ponder events, vacillate endlessly and anxiously about remaining or leaving, and manoeuver for the attentions of each other. Meanwhile, the throngs of working and middle-class class people (including their own luggage porters), seen from the hotel windows high above, chant (We Want Trains!), sing songs in rounds, cluster in makeshift rooms created by their luggage, chat, and grow weary. Green’s writing is like poetry: there are often no periods to set off sentences or commas for clauses, the events occurring for one set of characters gives way without demarcation to the events of another set, and, as John Updike says in the introduction to the edition I read, Green mediates “tiny events, magnifies and patterns them into a paradigm of life, life surrounded by a fog of death and threatened Departures.” Green observes, reveals, examines life as it’s lived — in word, deed, thought — during these four heterotopic hours.
The Night of the Fire (2020) by Kjell Eriksson. Crime fiction. 3.5 stars. Ann Lindell has left the Uppsala police force and is living in a small village, Tilltorp, where she works at a small cheese-making company, tries not to drink so much, and can’t help but nose about trying to solve crimes, like who set the deadly New Year’s Eve fire to a village school where asylum seekers were living? When someone from her past calls the police asking to speak with her and saying “someone might die,” she has another clue to follow. She and her former colleague Sammy Nilsson, who have real affection and respect for each other, make a good team, asking questions and ferreting information from reluctant witnesses, trying to learn what happened and how to prevent further deaths as the “National Swedes” and others who don’t want non-native Swedes in their country plot terror. The book is a strange combination of the creepiness of dark perversion and damage (cruelty, automatic weapons, animal killings, bombs, deep hatred, ingrained racism, psychopathology) and the reassuring nature of ordinary life (laying in the hammock on a spring afternoon, planting potatoes, a village birthday party, marriage and relationship issues, the reality of ambivalence and mixed motives).
Before the Ruins (2020) by Victoria Gosling. Debut novel set over roughly 25 years about a small group of childhood friends — Andy (Andrea), Peter, Marcus, and Em — who in 1996 meet at a deserted manor house where they’re surprised by the presence of a charming stranger, David, who soon becomes part of their group. They all learn about a diamond necklace that was stolen from the house 60 years before, never to be found. Over the years, the group returns to the manor house, where they spend hours together, including playing a game of searching for a fake necklace that one of the group hides, and as they grow up, as they go to college, start work, move away, the relationships among the group change in response to events and what they learn about each other and themselves. Andy is the protagonist and we see the world through her eyes. I enjoyed it.
Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (2021) by Doug Tallamy. Tallamy lays out the case for creating and supporting ecosystems rather than focusing narrowly on trying to save single plant and animal species, because species depend on swaths of habitat; “conservation cannot be done piecemeal.” As long as humans keep developing, sanitising, and fragmenting nature, we’re only putting off the inevitable when we “save” an endangered species. He’s a strong advocate for native plants (vs. introduced plants) because native plants support the most diverse and thriving habitats, including populations of butterfly and moth larva as well as native bee species. His big idea is for individuals, families, groups to create green corridors and contiguous habitat — like the national parks but much bigger — that support a diversity of native species, mainly by replacing most of their lawns with native plants appropriate to their climate, terrain, and other conditions. Chapters include Shrinking the Lawn; Homegrown National Park; Restoring Insects, the Little Things That Run the World; and What Have Weeds Done for Us Lately? I find him a bit patronising and admonishing.
Old Herbaceous: A Novel of the Garden (1950) by Reginald Arkell. A sweet story (150 pp) set in England concerning one Herbert Pinnegar (called “Old Herbaceous” by some), who rose from orphanhood to winner of a flower show as a youth to head gardener of a grand mansion. The story is told in the third person from his point of view as an 80-year-old, remembering the highlights of his life, most of which included plants, gardens, and Mrs. Charteris, the owner of the mansion and grounds on which he worked for more than 60 years.
The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health ( 2016) by David Montgomery and Anne Bikle. Read and discussed with a permaculture gardening group. I like and accept the general notion, that our gut microbiome and plants’ roots do similar jobs to keep our bodies and the soil thriving and full of life, via microbes and the partnerships between them; and that disturbing or disrupting the microbiome of either leads to dysfunction and disease. But I found the book dry, with little bits and dabs of history — largely, the men of science and medicine who made discoveries about microbes, diseases, and agronomy — that felt distracting and impeded my reading flow (although a few were interesting to me, particularly concerning smallpox and polio). It also felt both too detailed and weedy — in terms of short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), the exact features of commensals, mucous, et al. in the colon, the particular roles of various species of bacteria, types of T-cells and B-cells and how they function (this is important, but it went on and on), details of reams of experiments and lab results, the history of evolution, and so on — and on the other hand, oddly, quite vague and repetitious throughout. I probably learned more than I think from reading it, though, and if I hadn’t been in this group, I wouldn’t have gone past a chapter or two.
Death in Rough Water (1995) by Francine Mathews, in the Merry Folger series. It’s a complicated story of jealousy, murder, fraud, arson, and more, set on Nantucket around Memorial Day weekend. A little too much romance between Merry and Peter in this one for me, but the crime story — especially the interplay among the detectives — was interesting.
Death in a Mood Indigo (1997) by Francine Mathews, in the Merry Folger series. This is a darker book than the previous two, with less of the cozy personal relationships and more focus on a serial killer, someone who convicts serial killers, danger to children from abuse, neglect, and violence, and even danger for Merry. I liked it and the characters involved in the murder plot.
Death in a Cold Hard Light (1998) by Francine Mathews, in the Detective Merry Folger series set on Nantucket (mostly). This is my favourite so far in the series. Scallops, their endangerment due to “brown tides,” and bioengineering to save them are the heart of the this novel, which begins with Merry’s father, Chief John Folger, re-calling her to the island from her uncomfortable vacation/visit with Peter’s family to investigate the apparent drowning of a young man with fresh heroin track marks in his arm. She also learns that her coworker, Matt Bailey, is missing. Both Peter, who hasn’t returned with Merry, and her father are behaving oddly, unsupportively, but Merry plunges ahead anyway with the tasks at hand.
Weather: A Novel (2020) by Jenny Offill. Somewhat similar to Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018), Weather explores the intersection of climate anxiety with existential dread. (“First they came for the coral, but I did not say anything because I was not a coral.”) This short book — 200 small and widely indented pages — is at times wryly funny, sad and dismaying, comforting, and unsettling as its narrator, Lizzie, writes of dark news accounts, unnerving political doings, lurking climate change disasters, and the future doomscape accompanied by her episodic commentary about interactions with her husband (who reads the Stoics with breakfast), their young son Eli, her brother Henry, with whom she is “enmeshed” and who is recovering from addiction, her boss Sylvia whose podcast, Hell & High Water, deals with human extinction, her yoga teacher Margo, her bartender friend Tracy, people at the library where she works, acquaintances and strangers. The mood of the book is uneasy and jumpy, the theme soft-apocalyptic as Lizzie ponders what she needs for her doomstead, recounts jokes, proverbs, and little stories, and thinks and reads about disaster psychology and preparation, the Desert Fathers, the 2016 election, how to channel her dread into helpful action, death anxiety, aging in a youth culture, her propensity for bad decisions. Her final page links to a website called Obligatory Note of Hope, which in turn links to three ways to get involved in something hopeful as we face the end times: Sunrise Movement, Transition Towns, and Extinction Rebellion.
Days of Distraction: A Novel (2020) by Alexandra Chang. The narrator is a 24-year-old Chinese-American woman who’s coming to terms with her identity and what it means for her: how does her identity as an Asian-American intersect with her work, her long-term relationship with a white American man, her other relationships? To what extent is she invisible or misunderstood because she’s Asian, because she’s a woman, and/or because of her other characteristics? The story starts in San Francisco, where she’s a tech writer; takes a side trip to Davis, CA, where she and her boyfriend J grew up and where their families’ live; then continues across country to Ithaca, where she and her boyfriend move so he can go to grad school, and where she is lonely, unfocused, and questioning their relationship; and finally to Zhuhai, China, for a visit with her oft-absent father. I like it, though I felt the story dragged a bit at times.
The Postscript Murders (2020) by Elly Griffiths, in the DS Harbinder Kaur series. This one is set in Shoreham, England, and in Aberdeen, Scotland. A personal caregiver (Natalka) of an elderly woman (Peggy) is suspicious about her death, and DS Kaur starts to believe her after a gunman breaks into Peggy’s flat, holding a gun on Natalka and her friend Benedict (coffee shop owner, former monk), who are there looking through Peggy’s books and personal effects for clues. Soon, Natalka, Benedict, and their elderly friend Edwin are on the case in this perfect modern cozy. Very enjoyable.
Death on Nantucket (2017) by Francine Mathews, in the Merry Folger series. The body of a family member turning up on the July 4th weekend, a month after its demise, sends Merry into a full-on investigation and the disharmonious Murphy family into a tailspin, especially Spence Murphy, a famous Vietnam War correspondent who is showing signs of dementia. Meanwhile, Merry is getting ready for her Sept. wedding to Peter and dealing with her no-nonsense new boss from Chicago. This book was written 20 years after the previous one in the series but takes place just after that one ends and fits seamlessly with the previous books. I’m glad to see there’s another one coming out in May of 2021.
Magpie Lane (2020) by Lucy Atkins, a sort of suspense novel about ordinary life — if one can call it that among the highest tiers of Oxford College — that’s creepy, totally engrossing, and heart-shredding. Dee is newly hired nanny to 8-year-old Felicity, who is eccentric, intelligent, terrified, and has selective mutism, speaking only to her father Nick, College Master at Oxford, and not to anyone else, including her stepmother Mariah, a Danish beauty without much maternal instinct; both parents neglect Felicity and seem to suffer under the shadow of her mother Ana’s death. Dee’s shadows also accompany and influence her actions as she negotiates her duty to care for Felicity amid growing fears for her well-being. The reader hears all about it through Dee’s interviews with police officers investigating Felicity’s disappearance.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (2021) by George Saunders, subtitled In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life. I like some of Saunders’ short stories and had not previously read any of these Russian stories, so I eagerly began the book, which offers seven short stories varying in length from 6 to 50 pp., by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol, and Turgenev, followed by Saunders’ explications — which I thought were hit and miss. Saunders’ assumptions and expectations about what would happen next in the story — how will the writer write so that the reader wants to follow along — were not often mine. Saunders is the respected writer and teacher, so he knows, but I’ve never felt a story needs much escalation or for someone to change their views (as he posits on page 51) to be a great story; in fact, I think that stories without much happening, or where people don’t change their minds and don’t have epiphanies, are more true to life. Annoyingly, Saunders continually says things like “we’re already waiting for” or “we care about” someone and “we’re waiting for” someone to do something, when I’m not. I didn’t care about many of the characters in these stories, and I didn’t interpret their motives or desires the same way Saunders does, for the most part, particularly in “In the Cart” (Chekhov), “The Darling” (Chekhov), “Master and Man” (Tolstoy), and “Alyosha the Pot” (Tolstoy), the latter two containing bits that Saunders critiques as weak while I thought they were just right. The story I liked most, as well as Saunders’ rendering of it, was “Gooseberries” (Chekhov again), which was somewhat philosophical, asking whether we can be happy, embrace happiness, in the midst of so much suffering in the world; and wondering whether we can be happy only because we’ve found a way to silence the cries of misery, which, if we were to hear them, would seriously harsh our mellow. “The Nose” by Gogol was fun, and reminded me of nothing more than Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie’s comic sketches and language hijinks (Saunders, in discussing this story, notes that language can make worlds that don’t and could never exist, and we habitually confuse these word-built worlds with the actual world). I do agree with Saunders on this: “It may be possible that, when all is said and done, that’s what we’re really looking for — in a sentence, in a story, in a book: joy (overflow, ecstasy, intensity). An acknowledgement, in the prose, that all of this is too big to be spoken of.” I’m giving it 4 stars even though I disagreed with his analysis often because I think it’s a book of depth and worth reading.
Anxious People (2019) by Fredrik Backman. I really loved this novel about a would-be bank robber who ends up taking hostage the people attending a nearby open house in an apartment. The book is empathetic, full of good humour, and satisfyingly complex in terms of motivations and relationships. We see the story from the perspectives of the almost-bank robber, two police detectives, all of the hostages’ thoughts and dialogue at times, and from the police interview notes with the hostages. No one in the book is perfect or makes uniformly good choices, in fact far from it, and that’s the humanity at the center of the novel.
The Foodscape Revolution: Finding a Better Way to Make Space for Food and Beauty in Your Garden (2017) by Brie Arthur. Read in my permaculture group, and not all that relevant to us in some ways, as it’s focused on people living in communities with HOAs and other restrictive covenants (none of us lives in this kind of community), and she lives in North Carolina, in USDA hardiness zone 7B, and most of us are in northern New England, zone 4-5. But much of what she talks about — how to design, plant, and harvest an attractive, useful garden that’s full of food mixed with ornamental plants — is applicable anywhere. The book inspired me even more to mix vegetables into the garden all over my yard, not just in the sunny vegetable garden site (where I already plant flowers to attract pollinators and predatory insects). One major detraction is the index, which is terrible (e.g., doesn’t include the words wheat, grain, or harvest, all of which she talks about often in the book).
The Great Believers (2018) by Rebecca Makkai. Fantastic and engrossing novel set in 1980s Chicago in the gay community and in 2015 Paris, tracing with perfect tempo and nuance the relationships among a group of friends and acquaintances from the first destabalising and panicked years of the AIDS epidemic, through a young man’s commitment to preserving a small collection of artwork from 1920s Paris, to a middle-aged woman’s search for her estranged daughter, a search that reignites for her and others the emotions and friendships of thirty years before. Highly recommended.
Not Dark Yet (2021) by Peter Robinson, #27 in the DCI Banks series (Annie and Gerry also featured). This is the third in the sort of trilogy about Zelda (Nelia Melnic), after Careless Love and Many Rivers to Cross. This one opens with Zelda in Maldova, looking to exact revenge on men who harmed her as a teenager, then moves on to Annie & Gerry’s investigation into a grainy video found in recently murdered Connor Blaydon’s house of a young woman being raped during one of Blaydon’s many parties. The book is about as dark as you would expect given the storylines, but I liked this one better than the previous two.
Go, Went, Gone (2017) by Jenny Erpenbeck. Really liked this book, and from the synopsis it seemed like one that wouldn’t resonate much for me. But it did, both Richard’s story — a recently retired and widowed academic living by a lake where someone drowned last year (and remains submerged) — and the stories of the refugees he befriends near his home in Germany as he steps into a new way of being, as well as the interactions between Richard and these men, whose lives are always on hold now, always unlocatable in the past, present, or future, as they live or die at the whim of others who don’t want them, trapped in a system of administrative posturing. The book is novelistic (it is a novel), but also philosophical, educational, lyrical in places, especially in Richard’s thoughts. There’s a lot here about Germany as well: Richard lived in East Germany most of his life and then one day in Nov. 1989 he lived in the unified country of Germany and his commute got a lot shorter. This is a book that could leave the reader thinking about its various strands long afterward.
Murder on Wall Street (2021) by Victoria Thompson, This is the 24th Gaslight Mystery, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. I haven’t read any others, but I didn’t feel at a disadvantaged by lack of a deep backstory. The main character is Sarah Brandt, an appealing midwife with two adopted children, who with her husband, retired police detective husband Frank Malloy, works to solve mysteries that come their way. This one is about an investment banker of ill-repute (we learn very early on that he’s raped at least one woman) who’s found murdered in his office, and the possible suspects are many. Historical fiction isn’t usually my fare, but this is a time period and place that interests me, with the nuances of social manners and the codified social stratification, the beginnings of investment banking and other vehicles for the very wealthy, the discrimination against Italians, the Irish, Jews, the Chinese, women, and others, the widespread (and legal) use of opium, and the dawning of that newfangled device, the car. Most of the crime solving is done by simply going to people’s homes or places of businesses and talking to them (after looking them up in the City Directory or the Social Register) — imagine that, in this day and age of internet research, CCTV cameras, and so on.
Shiver (2021) by Allie Reynolds. Suspense novel of a type that seems to be super popular at the moment: reunion at an isolated ski lodge (or other isolated and often cold spot) of old friends who haven’t connected since something terrible happened within their group a decade ago. The setting is a French ski resort, where high-level snowboarders Curtis, Milla (our narrator), Brent, Dale, and Dale’s wife Heather have been summoned a decade after Curtis’s sister Saskia has gone missing, presumed dead, only to find themselves in what starts as an awkward and unnerving series of events that slowly escalates into full-on drama. The story is told in alternating chapters from the present and from ten years ago, when most of them, along with Curtis’s sister Saskia and snowboarding champion Odette, among others, were training for the British Championships at the same resort. Besides the suspenseful plot and the snowboarding focus, the other major element explored is the complexity of the group members’ relationships, then and now. Recommended particularly for avid snowboarders, as there is a lot of sporting detail and enthusiasm.
The Unkindness of Ravens (2021) by M.E. Hilliard. A new cozy crime fiction series, featuring a young librarian, Greer Hogan, recently moved from NYC to the village of Raven Hill, NY, where she works in a gothic manor of a library. Hogan finds a member of Friends of the Library, Joanna Goodhue, dead in the building’s upper reaches, and fears she may be the first suspect in the minds of the police, because she also found her husband Danny murdered several years ago at their apartment in NYC. So she of course goes on the offense and tries to find the killer herself. I enjoyed this novel, including the interactions between Hogan and the other library staff, as well as with police office Jennie Webber, also new in town. The plotting could have been a bit tighter and the pacing a little more even, but on the whole, I look forward to the next one. (3.5 stars)
Bruno, Chief of Police (2008) by Martin Walker, first in the Bruno series set in fictional St. Denis (not the Saint-Denis outside Paris), a town of 2900 people in southern France, in the Périgord region. Engaging and interesting cozy police procedural set in a small town where the police chief and mayor know just about everyone, where there’s a parade and speeches commemorating Liberation Day, Bastille Day Armistice Day, and more, and where there’s been a weekly market held every Tuesday since 1346. With Bruno’s first murder investigation — an Algerian Arab killed, a swastika carved into his chest — the tenor of the town changes a bit, and outsiders are brought in to help solve the murder. Still, Bruno not only takes a central if sometimes subtle role in the investigation but spends much time cooking, planning to cook, eating, picnicking, sharing his vin de noix (green walnut wine) and various pâté, and drinking various wines and liqueurs. Even in the midst of the murder investigation and hot tempers, there is a mellow, slow pace to life in St. Denis. There’s also lots of World War II history, particularly of the role of North Africans in France, for those who like that.
Dark Vineyard (2009) by Martin Walker, second in the Chief of Police Bruno series set in the Périgord region of France, pitting, perhaps, environmentalists and others against a wealthy wine conglomerate that wants to buy up land in St-Denis. The novel opens with a fire at an agricultural research station working on GMO crops, but soon it turns even darker. Lightening the atmosphere a bit are the cooking, eating, wine-stomping parties, and friendships that endure.
Black Diamond (2010) by Martin Walker, third in the Chief of Police Bruno series set in the Périgord region of France. Something fishy is going on in the lucrative truffle trade, there’s competition in the mayoral race, and Asian clans are struggling for economic supremacy in this quiet part of France, with history back to the wars in Vietnam and further. Another complexly plotted story, and more heroics and dating negotiations for Bruno.
Close to Home (2017) by Cara Hunter, in the DI Adam Fawley series set in Oxford, England. Fawley and his team investigate the disappearance of Daisy Mason, aged 8. At first she seems to have disappeared during an evening family BBQ party but then it turns out that another little girl was wearing her costume and she may never have attended the party at all, significantly widening the investigation time frame. Her mother, father, and brother all act in suspicious and callous ways, and the scathing, threatening Twitter and Facebook comments from the public add to the novel’s drama. I won’t reveal the ending but when I read it I felt like I had recently read a similar book that ended almost the same way (and I had), which was somehow deflating. The plot, pacing, and order of revelations are gripping, though.
The Crowded Grave (2011) by Martin Walker, fourth in the Chief of Police Bruno series set in the Périgord region of France, this time concerning the barbaric French delicacy of foie gras, an architectural dig that turns up a modern body, and Basque terrorist groups who may or may not be planning to terrorise a meeting of French and Spanish ministers. The new magistrate, Annette, shakes things up a bit on the local St. Denis scene.
Murder on Astor Place (1999) by Victoria Thompson. This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Midwife Sarah Brandt finds a young girl murdered at the boarding house she visits to check on her new mother and baby patients, and she quickly discovers, as she helps NYC police Sergeant Frank Malloy investigate, that the girl is related to an old friend, a member of a prominent and wealthy New York family who doesn’t want her death investigated. Meanwhile, Sarah starts to patch up her relationship with her parents, whom she hasn’t had contact with in three years, since her doctor husband Tom was murdered.
Murder on St. Mark’s Place (2000) by Victoria Thompson, 2nd in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. When Sarah is summoned to the tenement apartment of Agnes Otto, a woman about to give birth, she learns of the murder of Agnes’ sister, Gerda, recently arrived from Germany. The family can’t pay the police to investigate, so Sarah turns to Frank Malloy to help, and the investigation leads them to Coney Island, seedy dance halls, a former classmate of Sarah’s from a prominent family, and to Gerda’s friends, all of them poor working young women who earn jewelry and clothing by having sex with men in dark and dangerous alleyways. Meanwhile, Agnes seems to be having difficulty caring for her new baby, but Agnes’s husband Lars doesn’t want Sarah coming around helping her. Sarah also spends some time with Frank’s son, Brian, and realises he’s not feebleminded but deaf. Quite a dark book, but with a little frisson of attraction between Sarah and Frank and a well-set scene in early 20th-century Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Butterfly House (2018/2021) by Katrine Engberg. Police procedural suspense novel set in Copenhagen. A body turns up in a city fountain, then another, murdered in the same sadistic way, and both victims seem to have had something to do with a teen psychiatric care facility called the Butterfly House, which closed a couple of years ago under a bit of a cloud. Meanwhile, a hospital nurse seems to want to do harm to some of her patients. Police Investigator Jeppe Kørner — without his partner Anette Werner, who’s home on maternity leave and very bored and irritable — is now paired with slow moving detective Torben Falck, working to discover who’s murdering healthcare workers, and why?
The Devil’s Cave (2012) by Martin Walker, the fifth in the Chief of Police Bruno series set in the Périgord region of France. A naked woman is found floating in a boat, the markings of the occult on and near her, which results in news headlines about Satanism that bring in more tourists. At the same time, a local farmer’s daughter is missing (and the farmer seems to have beaten his wife), and a real estate development company is pressing hard to build a big project in St. Denis; the mayor is convinced, but soon Bruno uncovers information that makes him suspicious about its motives and track record. A couple of climactic scenes are set in the dark wet caves. Isabelle is back for another weekend, Pamela is still away in England, and Bruno welcomes a new family member. There’s also a Red (formerly communist) Countess, a count, the town priest with a strong interest in Satanism and exorcisms, a beautiful enigmatic horseback rider, and other strange characters in this gripping and multifaceted tale.
The Resistance Man (2013) by Martin Walker, sixth in the Chief of Police Bruno series set in the Périgord region of France. A old veteran of the French Resistance dies with a 1000 franc Vichy banknote in his hands, which we later learn links him to the notorious Neuvic train robbery of 1940. Elsewhere, vacant homes are being burgled of their best art, antiques, and wine, including the estate of an English spymaster. There’s a lot going on in Bruno’s personal life as well as he hopes more and more to have a wife and children. I found this one to be more rambling and jumbled than the others.
The Children Return (2014) by Martin Walker, 7th in the Chief of Police Bruno series (titled Children of War in its UK printing), set in the Périgord region of France. Another plot with many strands, harkening back to either the Algerian war or the hiding of Jews in Vichy France during WWII. This time the Americans are also involved — a lawyer/FBI agent, Nancy, is sent to work with Bruno, J-J, the brigadier, and others on the jihadist torture and killing in St. Denis of a French agent, Rafiq, who had been working undercover on Afghan jihadists. She also spends time eliciting vital information from a returning St. Denis resident, Sami, an autistic (or traumatised?) young man who had been sent five years ago by his parents to a special school in Toulouse but then disappeared into Afghanistan where he became, or was made to become, a jihadist; Sami is being hunted by terrorists who want to stop him passing along any intelligence. Finally, a trust has been in touch with the mayor concerning the possibility of a large grant for the town related to the wartime sheltering of two young Jewish children by a Protestant couple in and around St. Denis; it’s down to Bruno and Florence and her students to create a presentation that honours the wishes of the donor. With all this afoot, everyone still manages to make food, eat, drink, and celebrate the wine harvest!
A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray (2019; transl. 2021) by Dominique Barbéris. A very quiet and spare book about two middle-aged sisters — the narrator unnamed, her older sister Claire Marie — who in childhood fantasised that they were Jane Eyre, meeting on a Sunday afternoon at Claire Marie’s house on the outskirts of Paris in Ville-d’Avray. Claire Marie tells her sister about a series of encounters with a man, one of her doctor husband’s patients, almost 15 years ago. Reviews call it unsettling, eerie, mesmerizing, which I didn’t find it; but it is evocative — the descriptions of weather, the light, the trees, the terrain, the gardens dominate — with a definite dreaminess and melancholy about it. In sparseness and mood, and with the many formal park settings, it felt rather like the film “Last Summer at Marienbad.” (In fact, in the final pages of the book, the author cleverly describes the plot of a 1962 French film “Les dimanches de Ville d’Avray” — “Sundays in Ville d’Avray;” English title “Sundays and Cybele” — without naming it, and the reader is thereby invited to find parallels between it and this similarly titled novel.)
Everything Like Before: Stories (2021, transl. from Norwegian) Kjell Askildsen. About 30 stories, most quite short, most with men as the narrators or focal characters, most situating the story in a season or month (sometimes a day of the week) in the first few lines. Many of the stories focus on people observing others, or cogitating on past observations and interactions. The stories explore a fairly narrow range of emotion from anger to confusion to disappointment to satisfaction, and they dwell in the awkwardness of human contact and conversation — with partners, siblings, parents and children, neighbours, strangers — and the seeming aimlessness of our easily triggered thought processes. In more than a couple, the characters make assumptions about the others’ intentions and are deceitful so as not to reveal their own feelings and intentions. (For example, in Sunhat, the man keeps picking up the book at the place the woman has left off reading to try to determine why she’s talking about what she’s talking about: “She went out to the kitchen and he picked up her book and turned to page thirty-three. He could find nothing there to account for the calling to mind of a sunhat or Yugoslavia.” In “The Grasshopper,” a man tells his wife he’s not hungry and that he’s going to see his father but instead he drives to an outdoor cafe and buys two sandwiches and a coffee, then returns home, where he answers his wife’s questions about this nonexistent visit to his father, thinking “You’re suddenly very interested in my father.”) One bit from “The Grasshopper” summarises the through-line for most of the stories: “‘You could have just said that straight off.’ ‘There are a lot of things that could be said straight off,’ he said. ‘What do you mean by that?’ she said ‘Do I mean something by it?’ he said.” As one review notes, there’s an off-kilterness to the stories. There’s an emptiness, a sense of something vital missing, and an abiding sense of dissatisfaction. Another review says they “could reasonably be called ghost stories in which there are no ghosts,” and that seems right to me.
Murder on Gramercy Park (2001) by Victoria Thompson, 3rd in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Edmund Blackwell, a magnetic healer, is murdered in his home office hours before his wife goes into labour, so Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy calls for his friend Sarah Brandt to come attend Mrs. Blackwell — whose opium habit has been passed on her to her new infant, a grand excuse for Sarah to come visit the household every day, learning more and more about its members and possible murder suspects. I enjoyed this one but for some reason the names of all the men (besides Frank and a 16-year-old boy) became interchangeable for me.
Murder on Washington Square (2002) by Victoria Thompson, 4th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Sarah’s neighbour, Nelson Ellsworth (whose mother is Sarah’s friend), asks her to meet with a young woman, Anna, who’s told him she’s with child but who refuses to marry him — she wants (more) money instead. The next night, that woman is found murdered, stabbed to death, and Nelson is arrested. But Sarah is sure he didn’t do it, so she convinces police detective Malloy to look at other suspects, including another man Anna’s also blackmailed. I particularly like this one, maybe because Sarah’s parents are back in the picture and she and Malloy are starting to realise how much they like each other.
The Patriarch (2015) by Martin Walker, 8th in the Chief of Police Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. At the lavish 90th birthday party of The Patriarch, Marco Desaix, a World War II flying ace with strong ties to Russia, one of Marco’s good friends and another war pilot, Gilbert Clamartin, dies of what appears to be excessive alcohol use and subsequent suffocation on his own vomit; but Bruno has the slightest suspicion that it may not be a natural death — several guests, e.g, say that Gilbert seemed sober moments before his actions became erratic — and his suspicion only grows the more he learns about this man and those who knew him, or who stood to benefit from his death. I admit I skimmed the history of the Franco-Russian ties after World War II and into the Cold War, but others may find find it fascinating. There are several accounts of food making, including for the honorary dinner of a new member (Bruno) of the Confrérie du Pâté de Périgueux, which involves roasting several wild boars over very hot spits all day. There’s also a side story pitting Greens against hunters in the matter of a protected deer herd that’s overpopulated, sickly, and fearless about nearby traffic, which causes a serious car accident.
Fatal Pursuit (2016) by Martin Walker, 9th in the Chief of Police Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. The book begins with a vintage and electric car show in St. Denis, and we learn that two men are avidly searching for one of three extant 1936 Bugatti Type 57c “Atlantic” cars, this one thought to have been hidden in France during WWII and worth millions of dollars. Soon, a researcher is found dead (murdered?) and it’s possible his death is related to his research concerning this car. Meanwhile, Bruno dallies with a woman who now lives in Paris but comes from the Périgord (and who, like all his other dalliances, doesn’t want to settle down or have a family), and he cooks local crayfish for her, plus blinis to serve with local caviar. He also tries to help a 16-year-old being bullied, as well as the bully (and his permissive parents) himself.
The Vacationers (2014) by Emma Straub. This was recommended in a recent article on novels about dysfunctional families, and it does fit that bill, minimally — they’re all flawed people and a couple have done some regrettable things but they’re also basically affectionate and caring towards each other. I enjoyed the setting on the island of Mallorca (Spain) + the general summer vibe + the beach house intermixing of friends and family each on their own schedules, making temporary alliances, spending time apart then coming back together en masse or in shifting pairs and triplets, eating, swimming, walking into town, taking field trips. I liked the tempo. What I didn’t enjoy was the cliched focus on family, the importance of having children (the two people who don’t have them and don’t want them are painted as particularly cold and unempathetic), the overlay of traditional family values onto the “dysfunctional” family portrait Straub is trying to paint. I didn’t care much for any of the characters though I did feel I understood most of them, their motivations. Overall it was a so-so read for me, starting strong but ultimately disappointing in its very predictable finish. Fine as a quick beach read.
The Enigma of Arrival (1987) by V. S. Naipaul. Classified as fiction and subtitled “a novel in five sections,” but this book reads like a memoir of a writer born in Trinidad, learning about literature, film, and cosmopolitan life only through books at first, educated at Oxford and spending many years in England. For me, this was a slow read, but I didn’t want to stop. There are a lot of incidents repeated in and among the first four sections (the last section is very short and discusses how the book came to be written), in fact repeated word for word at times, the same descriptions of the same places. Most of the book is set when the narrator lives in a cottage on a manor farm –a farm that’s seen better days — in the county of Wiltshire (near Stonehenge), which is a healing place for him, though the second section, “The Journey,” describes the narrator’s travels by plane and ship from Trinidad to Jamaica to New York City to Earl’s Court in London, and then his life at a post-war rooming house in Earl’s Court before he starts college at Oxford. A couple of themes throughout include the idea of change and decay/death, and the nuanced gradations of class and status among people and places: “I had lived, very soon after coming to the valley, with the idea of change, of the imminent dissolution of the perfection I had found. It had given a poignancy to the beauty I had experienced, the passing of the seasons. I had thought that because of my insecure past — peasant India, colonial Trinidad, my own family circumstances, the colonial smallness that didn’t consort with the grandeur of my ambition, my uprooting of myself for a writing career, my coming to England with so little, and the very little I still had to fall back on — I had thought that because of this, I had been given an especially tender or raw sense of an unaccommodating world. … I had trained myself to the idea of change, to avoid grief; not to see decay. It has been necessary, because the setting of this second life had begun to change almost as soon as I had awakened to its benignity.” A dreamy sort of book, very rooted in place, exploring the subtlety of thought, emotion, relationships.
The Templars’ Last Secret (2017) by Martin Walker, 10th in the Chief of Police Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. Bruno is being shadowed by a Paris bureaucrat from the Ministry of Justice, Amélie, as he investigates the death of a woman fallen from a rock face near the medieval fortress of Commarque in Les Eyzies, where Horst and Clothilde and other archaeologists are looking for another cave. That investigation broadens to include the brigadier and Isabelle, since it seems to involve ISIS terrorists. Yacov, from a previous book in the series, returns as well. Horst and Clothilde are finally getting married after decades of partnership, which of course entails many dinners and celebrations. Amélie’s native island of Guadeloupe provides a new taste, epice, a classic sauce of stewed hot peppers, and garlic, parsley, thyme, and scallions.
Murder on Mulberry Bend (2003) by Victoria Thompson, 5th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. This is my favourite in the series so far, and I’m not sure why. Sarah’s donated clothes on the body of a dead girl alert Malloy to her connection with that girl, whom Sarah had met and liked just a few days before at the Prodigal Son mission for wayward girls; she had visited the mission with her wealthy widowed friend Richard Dennis in an effort to help him understand his dead wife’s passion for volunteering there. Meanwhile, Malloy is also quietly investigating the murder of Sarah’s doctor husband, Tom, three years before.
Murder on Marble Row (2004) by Victoria Thompson, 6th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. An explosion kills wealthy businessman Gregory Van Dyke in his office and police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt asks Frank Malloy to investigate. Of course, Sarah and her parents are longtime friends of the Van Dykes, so Frank and Sarah end up working together yet again, along with Sarah’s very patrician mother, to solve the crime, including visiting Van Dyke’s son in the seedy Lower East Side. Did the anarchists do it (since everyone knows that anarchists use bombs) or was it someone closer to home? Sarah continues to visit the Prodigal Son mission (also in the Lower East Side) particularly to spend time with Aggie, the young mute girl she met there in the last book.
The Night Hawks (2021) by Elly Griffiths, 13th in the Ruth Galloway series set in Norfolk, England. Ruth’s now head of the archaeology department at the Univ. of North Norfolk, dealing with a newly hired lecturer, David Brown, who is inserting himself into her police work with Nelson and Judy. A group of amateur metal detectorists, the Night Hawks, have found a recently deceased body on a beach, along with some Bronze Age treasures requiring Ruth’s skills. Soon, a seeming murder-suicide in a creepy farmhouse, called in to the police by two of the Night Hawks in the wee hours, appears to be related. (The bodies certainly pile up in this one!) I really enjoyed the plot and especially the relationships continuing to develop among Judy, Cathbad, Nelson, Ruth, Kate, Michelle, and others. Although this series features a police team, it’s really the epitome of a serious cozy for me.
Prague: A Novel (2002) by Arthur Phillips. Should say, a novel not about Prague. But it’s about Prague in the sense that Prague is the place or time we think will be better — more glamourous, more desirable — than where we are now, which is Budapest, Hungary in 1990-1991, at least in terms of geography and chronology. There are four sections to the book, the first about a group of young expats (four men, including two estranged brothers, and one woman, none of whom is particularly sympathetic) living in Budapest in 1990, the second concerning the detailed history of Horvath Printing and the family that owns it from 1818 until present, and the rest about those expats; the current Horvath Printing (“The Memory of Our People”) owner, Imre Horvath; a bald bisexual female artist; and an elderly female jazz singer with an interesting story to match every occasion. Throughout the novel floats a buoy tied to the lost past, a memory and a nostalgia for other times and other places, importantly pre-Communist central Europe. One of the expats, Mark, a Canadian, can’t bear to face a view, even for a few minutes through a coffee shop window, of intrusive modern architecture; and his mission in life is to quantify nostalgia: “to graph it backward into the misty and sweet-smelling past, to enumerate its causes and its expressions and its costs, to determine the nature of societies and personalities most affected by the disorder — these were Mark Payton’s obsessions, and he wove academic laurels from their leaves. He strained to establish laws as measurable and irrefutable as the laws of physics or meteorology.” In a way, most of the expats — who are after all in their 20s and who are after all displaced from their homelands and in a sense from their pasts — are seeking something solid, something they can hold on to: a stable relationship, a high-powered career, a sense of identity from among all the possibilities, a feeling of belonging. Another theme is that of history and the lens with which we view it and ourselves as we live in the present, making history. A peripheral character, a U.S. marine, asserts “The present has no right to judge the past. Or to act in order to win the future’s approval. They’re both irrelevant when an enemy’s at the door.” Mark, mentioned earlier, thinks “No one ever knew they were old-fashioned [at the time]; everyone always thought they were up to the minute. … Your two-piece telephone that demanded you hold a cylinder to your ear while you screeched into the wall demanding a particular exchange of a harried, plug-juggling operator was the highest of high-tech. To know it was anything less would have been like acknowledging you were going to die and life was transient and you were already halfway to being a memory or worse. The real and worst tragedy of twentieth-century Eastern Europeans: They had known there were old-fashioned before they could do anything about it. Their politics, their culture, their technology, their lives were out of date, no problem as long as they didn’t know it, but they knew. They knew that life was faster, sleeker, richer, and in full color just over that vicious Wall, just across that Iron Curtain ….”
A Taste for Vengeance (2018) by Martin Walker, 11th in the Chief of Police Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. My least favourite in the series so far — it’s more of a spy novel, with IRA (Irish Republican Army) international terrorism, Isabelle’s group and representatives from the U.S. and Britain involved (as well as ex-spyguy Jack Crimson), and an Irishman with a hidden identity at the center of it all. Bruno has been promoted and is now in charge of two police in two other towns, the somewhat bumbling and often drunk Louis and the keen Juliette. His chain of command is a bit unclear but the mayor soon sorts it. When one of Pamela’s cooking school students doesn’t show up, she asks Bruno to help track her down; the woman is found murdered, along with the owner of the house she’s surprisingly visiting. From there it’s a rather convoluted and hard to track story, punctuated with a romantic interlude with Isabelle and lots of food-making and -eating. Plus a side story about a young woman’s pregnancy and decision about abortion.
Murder on Lenox Hill (2005) by Victoria Thompson, 7th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Grace, the intellectually disabled teenaged daughter of the affluent Lintons, is pregnant but no one knows who the father is or how it happened since she’s never left on her own. As it appears to be rape, though the girl denies that anyone hurt her, Sarah enlists police detective Frank Malloy’s help to try to find out who did this and prevent it happening to another girl. As Malloy investigates, he realises all is not well in the church congregation that Grace and her family are part of; for one thing, the boys under the minister’s care, who spend many afternoons with him, seem too enamored of him, and for another, the Rev. Upchurch’s wife Rachel seems much less so. Meanwhile, Frank continues to look into the cold case of Sarah’s husband Tom’s murder, and Sarah has welcomed a child and her nanny to live with her. I really enjoyed this one.
Murder in Little Italy (2006) ) by Victoria Thompson, 8th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Nainsi O’Hara Ruocco, the young Irish mother of a baby Sarah delivers, is murdered that night in her bed, and it looks like it could be (among other suspects) any one of the Italian restaurant family the girl has married into who’s done it — when the baby was born very heavy and healthy, it was obvious that the girl had to have been pregnant a few months before she even met her new Italian husband, so this baby isn’t his, and most of the family want nothing further to do with him or his mother. But Maria (married to another brother), who hasn’t been able to have a baby herself, desperately wants the little tyke, and soon she wins over yet another brother and the boys’ harridan of a mother in her bid to keep him. Because Sarah is called down to the Little Italy apartment several times to help with the baby’s colic, she investigates as she can. Frank Malloy, given his marching orders by police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, spends his time trying to prevent an all-out street war between the Irish and Italian immigrants in the city by working hard to solve the murder, enlisting an Italian policeman to help.
Dial A is for Aunties (2021) by Jesse Sutanto. I loved this light, each-page-crazier-than-the-last, LOL crime romp about 26-year-old Medellin Chan, her mother, and her mother’s three sisters, all of Chinese-Indonesian descent and living in California, all opinionated and loud, all willing to help Meddy bury the body of a man she accidentally killed on their first date, a date set up by her mother cluelessly posing as Meddy on a match site. The women all also own a wedding business, and the day after the blind date they’re responsible for a doozy of an Indonesian wedding, handling cakes, hair and nails, flowers, entertainment, and photography for a couple with problems of their own. There is no way I can adequately summarise this novel, similar to one of Carl Hiaasen’s in its outrageousness and hilarity. There’s also a lot of heart, family affection, and some romance for anyone lucky enough to be reading this perfect beach book.
The Bone Code (2021) by Kathy Reichs, 20th in the forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan series, set in both Charleston, SC, and Montreal, QC. When a medical container washes ashore in South Carolina containing the bodies of two teens, it immediately reminds Tempe of an unsolved Montreal case from about 15 years before, one she and Ryan worked, in which a woman and a young girl were found in much the same condition and killed the same way. The complicated plot leads us from one locale to the other and back, as well as Isle of Palms near Charleston, as Tempe works with Ryan and her colleagues in Montreal and with a Charleston cop named Tonia Vislosky to solve both crimes, which seem to have their origins in genetic testing and pharmaceuticals. The Covid-19 pandemic is referred to vaguely a few times, as a past event.
The Body in the Castle Well (2019) by Martin Walker, 12th in the Chief of Police Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. When the body of Claudia, a wealthy young art history PhD student from America, is found deep in a well (with a kitten atop her), Bruno investigates to determine whether it was an accidental death or murder. Claudia, who’s well-liked and respected, had lived in the area for a few months, working with M. de Bourdeille, renowned art scholar and collector as well as a Résistance hero; during her time with him, she’s questioned the authenticity of some of his attributions and has suggested she might like to buy his home and collection. Claudia has also befriended a budding falconer, Laurent, who’s recently finished a prison term of 10 years for vehicular manslaughter. Meanwhile, Amélie has returned to sing a program at Château des Milandes, once the home of jazz singer Josephine Baker, and, much to my dismay, Bruno has again taken up with Pamela after she’s once more invited him into her bed, occasionally and secretly, having decided apparently that he’s had enough time to find a wife with whom to have children. There’s also a simple syllabub recipe given amidst another dinner party menu.
Such a Quiet Place (2021) by Megan Miranda. I didn’t think I was going to like this when I started reading — the narrator, Harper, seems such a pushover — but I did end up enjoying it. Reckless, scheming Ruby Fletcher has come back to the quiet, seemingly idyllic Hollow’s Edge neighbourhood after serving 14 months in prison, and barges back into Harper’s house and life, despite Harper’s ambivalence about having her there. Ruby had been convicted of killing a neighbourhood couple by carbon monoxide poisoning, but her conviction was overturned after some of the Hollow’s Edge Community Page screenshots came to light, suggesting a conspiracy against Ruby, including by a policeman living there. Is Ruby here to take revenge, or to do her own investigation? The neighbours for the most part try to ignore her (and Harper), though fear and anger are simmering dangerously just below the surface, but Ruby won’t be ignored. I felt the author played fast and loose with police procedure and ignored basic crime lab capabilities, but I appreciated the relationship dynamics, the overlay of suspicion and deceit, the oppressive vigilance of the Neighborhood Watch (both the formal Watch and the informal noticing), and the secrets that everyone knew but didn’t speak of and those that lay hidden.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (2012) by Maria Semple. I’d had this book sitting on my bookshelves for years (bought for $1 at a booksale, back when communities had giant booksales) and finally read it. Really enjoyed it and have already checked out another one of hers from the library. Loved the whole premise: the unconventional, creative architect mom, the smart teenage daughter who understood her mom, the absent and perplexed but loving dad, the insanely community minded and incestuous private school, the detailed trip to Antarctica, the notes, emails, faxes, and other bits and bobs that make up the novel. it’s set in Seattle, and Microsoft is part of the plot, but even if you don’t know anything about either the city or corporate culture (as I don’t), this book may well resonate with you if you’ve ever felt that the spoken and unspoken rules of those around you don’t make any sense. (Strange comparison, but this book reminded me of Camus’s The Stranger because of how the community, and at some points her husband, judged Bernadette as dangerously aberrant and severely mentally ill when she was just different, unorthodox, and a bit depressed.) I read it in a day, and I didn’t want it to end!
Murder in Chinatown (2007) by Victoria Thompson, 9th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. When an Irish-Chinese teenager, Angel Lee, goes missing soon after Sarah Brandt meets her while attending to her aunt’s labour, Sarah contacts Malloy to investigate; soon Angel, who had been promised in marriage to a Chinese man almost 40-yrs-old, but who has preemptively eloped with her Irish boyfriend, is found strangled. Both Sarah and Malloy investigate in their own ways, as Catherine’s nanny Maeve and their neighbour Mrs. Ellsworth hold down the homefront. Interesting tidbits of information about the Chinese who emigrated to New York City in the early 20th century.
The Man With the Silver Saab (2021) by Alexander McCall Smith, #3 in the Detective Ulf Varg (“wolf wolf”) Dept. of Sensitive Crimes series, set in Malmö, Sweden. This series is more novelistic and less crime fiction than most crime series, with emphasis on Varg’s life, thoughts, regrets, hopes, and relationships, including with his dog Martin. The crime plot here concerns an art authenticator whose reputation is being impugned by a series of strange and unsettling events. Varg and colleague Blomquist, who can’t open his mouth without his every thought about vitamins, health cures, and the benefits of shaving with old-fashioned safety razors popping out, investigate in their own way. These are quiet novels, with an essential kindness and honesty to them. Varg grapples with doubt and uncertainty even as he makes moral and forgiving choices.
Murder on Bank Street (2008) by Victoria Thompson, 10th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, Finally, DS Frank Malloy is tackling the murder investigation of Sarah’s doctor husband four years previously, and he’s getting some unsought help from Maeve, the 16-year-old nanny for Sarah’s adopted daughter, both children she met in the Christian mission downtown in a previous book. The field has been narrowed to three men, fathers of daughters who claimed before his death that Tom Brandt took advantage of them. Sarah’s parents both make appearances here, and of course neighbour Mrs. Ellsworth is ever present and supportive.
Murder on Waverly Place (2009) by Victoria Thompson, 11th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, As Mary Roach writes in her book Spook, “The heyday of spiritualism–with its seances and spirit communications zinging through the ether–coincided with the dawn of the electric age,” and this novel’s plot, concerning séances and a new gadget, the flashlight (which only flashes briefly and has to wait for its batteries to recover; but it’s not fire and it’s not gas!), nicely ties these implausible sorts of phenomena together. Elizabeth Decker, Sarah’s mother, desperately wants to contact her deceased daughter (Sarah’s sister) Maggie to ask her forgiveness, so she brings a very reluctant Sarah to a séance with Madame Serafina, to which she’s been invited by another wealthy woman. A couple of weeks later, someone is stabbed with a stiletto at another of Madame Serafina’s séances — but how, with all the clients and the medium clasping wrists around the table and no one else in the room? — and this time Mrs. Decker is involved in DS Frank Malloy’s investigation, as is Maeve, who grew up among confidence tricksters and grifters and is aware of their deceptions.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) by Marisha Pessl. This 500-page book is cram-packed with over-the-top detail, hilariously extravagant similes and metaphors, and parenthetical references to books and articles (some real, some made up vis-à-vis the physical world). It’s partly a story of six misfit high school kids — including Blue van Meer, the precocious, highly intelligent, and perhaps overly well-read narrator — and an enigmatic young teacher, Hannah, and it reminded me of the many novels in recent years about clever, emotionally incestuous, secret-keeping circles of students and charming teachers (Donna Tartt’s The Secret History came right to mind). It’s also a tender story of Blue and her father, irascible and pontificating political science lecturer Gareth, who seem often to have only each other as soulmates. And finally, it turns out to be — after hundreds of pages where we knew it was coming — a mystery, even a crime novel, and that’s when I really got into it.
The Perfect Stranger (2017) by Megan Miranda. Another suspenseful story involving two young women who are close friends and around whom the suspicion of police and townspeople coalesces. In this case, after her friend and roommate Emmy Grey goes missing, former newspaper reporter turned high school teacher Leah Stevens comes slowly to realise that though she knows some intimate details about Emmy, perhaps she doesn’t know the most important things about her. I appreciated Leah’s involvement with the cop, Kyle Donovan, who’s investigating Emmy’s disappearance along with the attempted murder of another young woman that Leah doesn’t know, Bethany Jarvitz; Kyle, like the rest of us, has good reason to wonder whether Emmy exists at all, and Leah’s history — which includes a restraining order and the sudden career change and move from Boston to a small town in western Pennsylvania — doesn’t inspire believability.
The Shooting at Château Rock (2020) by Martin Walker, 13th in the Bruno, Chief of Police series. Not his best. So much international intrigue (involving the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the family of an aging rock star), plus the usual unreasonably jealous Pamela and the unattainable (if always willing) Isabelle, and a new twist, all the deets about the first (and second, and third) mating of Balzac the Bassett hound with a female Bassett. Stay tuned for puppies! The meal prep interludes this time really sounded like food blogger patter. Also, not really a spoiler, there is no shooting at Château Rock that I noticed, though the château figures largely in the plot, as do the rules of French inheritance (again) and possible fraud (or murder?) perpetrated by upscale nursing homes along with insurance companies. Hoping this was just a one-off hiccup.
Say It With Poison (1991) by Ann Granger, first the (Meredith) Mitchell & (Chief Inspector Alan) Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, England. Meredith, a diplomatic consul, and Markby haven’t met when the story begins, but both are tagged to be part of a wedding for the daughter of Meredith’s cousin, film star Eve Owens. As soon as Meredith arrives, she’s uneasy after finding nasty notes (accompanied by an animal heart, then a strange doll), meeting the sour and snobby groom, and then stumbling over a dead Siamese cat in the local cemetery. When Meredith finds the body of the cat’s owner soon after, dead from poisoning, she’s a key witness, and she and Markby slowly move from a prickly relationship to one a bit warmer as they try to solve the murder — but how close to home will the solution hit?
Today Will Be Different (2016) by Maria Semple. Eleanor Flood, a graphic artist who formerly worked in television, living in Seattle, wants today to be modestly different — she wants to be present, kinder, more relaxed — and today is different but not necessarily in the ways she hopes or expects. The novel covers one long meandering day, with some history for the reader about Eleanor’s fraught relationship with her only sibling (a younger sister, Ivy; much of this takes place in New Orleans) and with her husband, Joe, a famous hand surgeon who seems to be lying to her. We move through her meeting with her poet mentor, Alonzo, to her picking up her 8-year-old son Timby from school early due to bullying (where Eleanor takes another woman’s keyring), to an unwelcome lunch with a former co-worker and artist (Spencer), back home, to Costco, to the Olympic Sculpture Park, and so on, as she thinks about Ivy and tries to trace Joe’s movements, all with Timby (and sometimes Spencer or Alonzo) in tow. I like Semple’s depiction of her mother-child relationships — affectionate, quirky, imperfect, funny.
Murder on Lexington Avenue (2010 by Victoria Thompson, 12th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, A wealthy businessman, Nehemiah Wooten — whose deaf daughter attends a school that teaches speech and lip-reading — is murdered in his office on a Saturday. Malloy is asked by a colleague of Wooten’s to investigate because he has a deaf son, Brian, who attends another school that teaches signing. Thompson explains, though her characters, the serious controversy then concerning these two methods of teaching deaf people to communicate; the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a eugenicist, believed deaf people should not marry each other because they would create more deaf (i.e., inferior, to his mind) people, so thought that teaching them to read lips and speak, even if their speech wasn’t perfect, was the only acceptable method, since it would allow deaf people to form relationships with hearing people. Midwife Sarah Brandt is brought in by Malloy to help investigate after she’s called to assist in a surprise birth by Wooten’s 40-ish wife, who has hidden her condition and who apparently has not slept with her husband in at least thirteen years, not long after their second child was born.
Murder on Sisters’ Row (2011), by Victoria Thompson, 13th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City, Sisters’ Row is the name for a cluster of seven brothels in a wealthy part of town. Sarah is called to help with a birth at one, though she doesn’t realise it’s a brothel at first. The new mother, Amy, begs Sarah to help her leave the house, and Sarah enlists a charitable organisation called Rahab’s Daughters to help rescue her. But all is not as it seems, either with Amy or with Rahab’s Daughters, and when its director, the calm and collected Vivian Van Orner is murdered, Frank gets involved. Sarah’s mother also gets in on the investigative action, making mourning calls and providing Sarah entrée.
The Beginning of Spring (1988) by Penelope Fitzgerald, a novel short-listed for the Booker Prize. Set entirely in the Khamovniki district of Moscow in 1913, the novel concerns the Reid family, of English descent, including Frank Reid who runs a hand-printing press company; his wife Nellie, who, when the novel opens, has left with the children and very little explanation; and the children, who are soon returned by train: precocious Dolly, Ben, and almost-three-year-old Annushka (Annie). They live in a home with several servants, a cook, a nanny, a maid, and so on. With Nellie gone, Frank relies somewhat on his co-workers and friends to guide him, particularly Selwyn — a do-gooder pacifist, follower of Tolstoy, and writer of a book of poems entitled Birch Tree Thoughts — who finds a young Russian (and Russian-speaking only) woman, Lisa, to join the family as the new live-in nanny. Frank vaguely tries to find out where his wife is, but no one seems to know, including Charlie, her brother, who comes for a visit. The pre-revolutionary rhythms and rites of Russia — such as the many holy days and public blessings of ikons, officials clamping down on anyone seen as possibly revolutionary (like students), bribes and enforced actions involving the police, household concerns, etc. — are evoked and detailed in this somewhat dreamy book.
A Season for Murder (1991) by Ann Granger, 2nd in the (Meredith) Mitchell & (Chief Inspector Alan) Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, England. Meredith has moved into Rose Cottage in the rural village of Pook’s Common, a bit of a commute from London, her latest consul posting, but she’s letting the place from friends very cheaply. The entire novel takes place in the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s, with Alan and Meredith once again seeing each other but stymied from anything beyond friendship by Meredith’s fear of losing her independence. The crime story involves the death of Harriet Needham, a headstrong horsewoman living in Ivy Cottage, across from Rose Cottage; no sooner has Meredith met and come to like her than Harriet suffers a fatal fall from her horse at a Boxing Day hunt club event, moments after several people have noticed that she seems drunk, slumped over even before a local anti-fox-hunt protester charged the horse with his sign. There aren’t a lot of folks in the rather isolated and somewhat creepy village but there are enough to make for a full slate of suspects. I enjoyed it, and it would make a good Christmastime read.
In the Cold Earth (1992) by Ann Granger, 3rd in the (Meredith) Mitchell & (Chief Inspector Alan) Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, England. Meredith is back in Bamford from London over the Easter holidays to house-sit for Alan’s sister Laura and her family while they’re away. After a body is found at a building site, Alan and his second, Pearce, investigate the death as well as that of a young woman who’s died of a heroin overdose, and Meredith pretends to be researching an old sect that lived in the area to give her reason to ask questions of the farming families nearby, one of which is very resistant to outsiders.
The Madness of Crowds (2021) by Louise Penny. This is the 17th in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set post-Covid-19-pandemic, mostly in the little Quebec village of Three Pines or nearby. When Gamache is asked to provide security for a quickly arranged lecture by statistics professor Abigail Robinson, who is spreading an ideological contagion with the tagline ca va bien aller, “all will be well,” he begs the University to cancel the lecture. They refuse, and Gamache, Beauvoir, and Lacoste are left to investigate the mayhem that occurs when someone tries to take a shot at Robinson. During their investigation they uncover many secrets about Robinson and her family, her assistant and close friend Debbie Schneider, the University Chancellor Colette Roberge, an “asshole saint” who lives in town (Vincent Gilbert), a Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Sudan, 23-year-old Haniya Daoud, who is visiting the village and who calls Gamache a coward, and a (factually real) lab run by Ewen Cameron and directed by the CIA in the 1950s & 60s; so when a murder takes place on New Year’s Eve in Three Pines, the team has many routes — possibly too many routes — to follow to find the killer. Meanwhile, Armand’s wife, Reine-Marie, who is helping a family look through their mother’s memorabilia after her death, comes across a mystery of her own when she finds scores of monkeys doodled on various papers. I enjoyed the Three Pines locale, with the usual network of friends and allies, and I appreciated the fine lines drawn between free speech and hate speech and between euthanasia and mandated “mercy” killing, and the tension around how to handle a persuasive ideologue who poses a grave danger to the common good. (I didn’t give this book 5 stars, though the content warrants it, because the dialogue felt repetitive, though it could just be Penny showing us how conversations really work, with people putting forth their opinions and ideas over and over.)
Murder on Fifth Avenue (2012) by Victoria Thompson, 14th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. A wealthy man, Chilton Devries, is stabbed in the back with something so sharp and thin that he doesn’t die until he reaches the very exclusive Knickerbocker Club some hours later. Felix Decker, the ranking member of the club, is sought to make a decision about what to do; he brings not only Frank Malloy to the case but also his own wife and his daughter, Sarah Brandt, who visits with the widow, Lucretia, and her daughter-in-law, Garnet, while Frank talks with the butler, a mistress, and others. There’s virtually no midwifing in this episode of the series, which is unusual, and Frank and the Deckers spend quite a bit of time together conferring about the case, also unusual.
Murder in Chelsea (2013) by Victoria Thompson, 15th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. The most satisfying of the series so far! Someone — who claims to be her nanny — is looking for Catherine, the 6-year-old girl Sarah has guardianship over (adoption wasn’t possible for single women) and whom she considers her daughter — and she’s not the only one who wants to find Catherine, whose father may be a wealthy “swell.” When the nanny turns up dead soon after Sarah and Maeve visit her, Frank’s on the case, trying to protect Catherine and Sarah while searching for a killer and learning more about Catherine’s birth families. The Deckers, Sarah’s wealthy parents, who consider themselves Catherine’s grandparents, are fully involved in this case, too.
What the Dead Leave Behind (2017) by Rosemary Simpson, the first in the Gilded Age Mystery series, set in New York City in the late 1800s, featuring young Prudence MacKenzie, who has recently lost her father, a judge, apparently of natural causes, and as the book opens, her fiancé Charles, also apparently of natural causes, though the reader knows that Charles was murdered in the raging blizzard of March 1888. Charles’ close friend, Geoffrey Hunter, a lawyer and former Pinkerton agent, starts investigating the death, along with Prudence and family lawyer and former NY senator Roscoe Conkling (who was trudging ahead of Charles in the snowstorm), when Geoffrey learns there was a playing card in Charles’ hand, a signal of danger between the two men. All eyes are on Prudence’s stepmother, Victoria, and her brother, Donald, who benefit by the terms of Prudence’s father’s will from keeping Prudence from marrying. It’s a complicated plot, not a mystery as such but a satisfyingly suspenseful cat-and-mouse game as well as an intriguing puzzle, with much attention to the goings-on in a wealthy, servanted household of the time as well as to legal matters of the day. The blizzard is a real event, and Roscoe Conkling a real person.
A Beautiful Blue Death (2007) by Charles Finch, first in the Charles Lenox series, set in wealthy Victorian England (mostly London and a little Sussex in this episode). I really liked this book featuring wealthy, aristocratic Lenox, his brother Sir Edmund, who’s a member of Parliament, and Lady Jane Grey, their wealthy, widowed, aristocratic lifelong friend, who lives next door to Charles in London. A maid is poisoned to death at the home of George Barnard (orchid-grower and something to do with the British Mint) — the poison a very unusual and expensive one, bella indigo. Finch, with the help of his butler/friend Graham, a doctor friend who drinks too much, Tom McConnell, and his brother Edmund — and without too much interference from Scotland Yard Inspector Exeter — investigates Barnard, Barnard’s two nephews staying at the house, a couple of wealthy men and politicians, and others, as he also seeks warmer boots and plans a trip to Persia. Eventually there’s another death. I appreciated the sensibilities of Lenox and those around him, and I found the plot satisfying. I also enjoy the curious and rather niche hobbies of the extremely well-heeled Victorian gentleman (and occasional gentlewoman).
Murder in Murray Hill (2015) by Victoria Thompson, 16th in the Gaslight Mystery series, set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York City. Now that Frank has inherited gobs of money, the police don’t want him on the force anymore, so he and Sarah are on their own — well, with some reluctant help from an oft-drunk cop, as well as the coroner and others — investigating a missing young woman who responded to a lonely hearts ad in the paper before disappearing. They discover a house of horrors and more women who have also disappeared from their prior lives. When not investigating, Sarah and Frank seem to be procrastinating on planning the wedding and looking for a larger home for themselves, the kids, Maeve, and Frank’s mother.
Murder Among Us (1992) by Ann Granger, 4th in the (Meredith) Mitchell & (Chief Inspector Alan) Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, England. During the fancy, celebrity-attended opening celebration of an upscale remodelled inn, Springwood Hall, in Bamford, Meredith finds the body of an unliked historical preservationist (and knitting shop owner) in the wine cellar, which puts a right damper on the affair and possibly on the business itself. Some locals would prefer it that way, as the hotel’s owner threatens to close down the abutting rescue home for aged equines, where Markby’s 11-year-old niece volunteers.
Where Old Bones Lie (1993) by Ann Granger, 5th in the (Meredith) Mitchell & (Chief Inspector Alan) Markby series, set in the Cotswolds, England. Meredith’s archaeologist friend Ursula shares her worries that her boyfriend Dan may have done away with his wife, though he says she’s away visiting her mother, who lives in Bamford; when Meredith tells Markby of Ursula’s concerns, he’s skeptical, but they all get drawn into the mystery when Meredith accompanies Ursula to the dig site (also in Bamford), where the recent arrival of a group of New Age travellers has tensions running high, escalating when a woman’s body is found in a rubbish dump nearby. [A note in the front of my library copy, written purportedly by an archaeologist’s wife, says “I can attest to the authenticity of the scenes of the dig.”]
The Man Who Died Twice (2021) by Richard Osman, 2nd in the Thursday Murder Club mystery series, set mostly at and near Cooper Chase retirement community in Fairhaven (not far from London). 4.5 stars. The Thursday Murder Club — Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron, all up there in age — really has its hands full this time, first with the surprising return of Elizabeth’s ex-husband Douglas, who needs their help evading a psychopath who wants his $20 million worth of diamonds back; then an attack on Ibrahim; and of course they want to help PC Donna DeFrietas and DCI Chris Hudson (who’s dating Donna’s mother) staunch the flow of cocaine in town. This series, which involves intertwined and deftly plotted capers, is such a joy to read, even as the bodies stack up, because of the heart and humour that pervades them.
Gone for Good (2021) by Joanna Schaffhausen, apparently the first of a series featuring Chicago detective Annalisa Vega. The “Lovelorn Killer,” a serial killer with a ritualised method of torture and murder, was never caught by Vega’s father and the other cops of his era 20 years ago. Now he’s surfaced again, killing Grace Harper, a member of the Grave Diggers, amateur cold-case investigators, as she was gathering clues and getting too close for comfort. Annalisa Vega and her partner on this crime, Nick Carelli, who happens to be her ex-husband, try to find and stop him before he kills again. Narrated in the third-person along with interspersed journal entries by Grace, the novel is well-paced and just complex enough.
The Book of Delights (2019) by Ross Gay, a book of short essays on various things Gay finds delightful. This is one of those books that sounded better in theory than it was in practice for me. I appreciated and enjoyed some of the essays — 47. Of Trains, 94. Pulling Carrots — but many I skimmed and I actually didn’t finish the book. I think his delights and mine don’t overlap enough for me to have felt a frisson of recognition or excitement about most of them, and the writing wasn’t sufficiently poetic nor the topics sufficiently interesting or revelatory to catch my attention or compel me to listen. Maybe if I read this at another time I’d find more ideas to ponder or in which to luxuriate.
Lies That Comfort and Betray (2018) by Rosemary Simpson, 2nd in the Gilded Age mystery series set in New York City, this one in 1888, just as Jack the Ripper is becoming known across the pond in Whitechapel, London. When heiress Prudence and lawyer and former Pinkerton detective Gregory, along with their former policeman friend Ned Hayes, learn of the murder of a young Irish maid whom Prudence knew from childhood, they wonder if the Ripper has come from Britain to America or whether there is a copycat killer about. When another Irish maid, in similar circumstances and having visited the same Catholic parish, is found murdered, her body left in the same condition a week or two later, they start to home in on their suspects, with the help of the charmingly street-savvy homeless duo Kevin and his dog Blossom, whose roles I particularly enjoyed in this plot.
Murder on Amsterdam Avenue (2015) by Victoria Thompson, 17th in the Gaslight Mysteries series. Sarah and Frank are renovating a large house in their current neighbourhood as they move ever closer to their wedding date, but are soon drawn into a case when Sarah’s mother, Elizabeth Decker, pays a bereavement call on Charles Oakes, a family friend, and is asked by the deceased’s father to investigate his death, which turns out to have been caused by arsenic — but by someone in his own home, at work, or elsewhere?
1979: An Allie Burns Novel (2021) by Val McDermid, the first in a new series about Allie Burns, investigative reporter in 1979 for a Scottish tabloid newspaper. Slow start for me but in the end a satisfying read. Allie, who’s new to the paper, having moved back to Scotland from London recently, and her colleague at the paper, Danny Sullivan, get to know each other better when they help a woman deliver a baby on a train they’re taking, and from there they collaborate on a story about the illegal tax evasion and fraud scheme orchestrated by Paragon Investment Insurance, where Danny’s disdainful brother Joseph works. At the same time, another colleague at the paper, Rona Dunsyre, a seasoned and somewhat flamboyant reporter who works on the women’s page, prods Allie to investigate a Scottish Nationalist group, which leads both her and Danny into a dangerous undercover operation. There’s a lot of detail — financial, legal, business — in this book but at its heart are relationships.
The Coldest Case (2021) by Martin Walker, 14th in the Bruno, Chief of Police series. This installment is not so much a crime novel as a novel that includes possible past criminality. Seeing an art exhibit on facial reconstruction of ancient skulls inspires Bruno to suggest to J-J that this method might help him solve a 30-year-old murder that was J-J’s first case. The investigation, and the coincidental death of a French special forces solider, soon offers new DNA evidence and leads police to suspect a local wine maker, Henri Bazaine, of killing his childhood friend Max many summers ago. Eventually, Isabelle and other top-level bureaucrats get involved because of a possible connection with the newly uncovered Rosenholz dossier, a file of East German Stasi agents operating in Germany, France, and beyond during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the Périgord region struggles with drought, heat, and wildfires that require heroic effort and creative means to control. Really, there are too many extraneous stories here, political and diplomatic in nature, and not enough focus on a local crime, its victim and its perpetrator. One new thing: Bruno makes a delicious vegan meal after concealing his shock that someone could actually be a vegan.
The Good Turn (2020/2021) by Dervla McTiernan, 3rd in the Cormac Reilly series, set in Dublin, Glasgow, and Roundstone, Ireland. Two major investigations very cleverly link up and provide a wholly satisfying crime novel. Reilly is on the outs with his boss and other cops, and what seems to be a precipitous and misguided act by a Garda detective working under him, Peter Fisher, leading to the death of a suspect, results in Reilly’s suspension and Peter’s transfer to a country department run by Peter’s churlish father, whose shoddy work in a recent double murder comes immediately to Peter’s attention. Meanwhile, Reilly is working in the shadows on his own line of inquiry that reaches to the very top of the police bureaucracy. Excellently plotted and written.
The September Society (2008) by Charles Finch, 2nd in the Charles Lenox, set in wealthy Victorian England, this time mostly in Oxford as well as London. For Oxford lovers, this book is a gift — so much loving description and depiction of life in Oxford, the college and the town, the streets, quads, pubs. Lenox is there at the request of Annabelle Payson, whose son, George, seems to have disappeared from the college. As Lenox investigates he finds what seem to be many clues that George Payson or someone has left behind, including a white cat stabbed through the heart. The reader knows, because of how the book begins, that this mystery will harken back to a crime in India almost 20 years ago; and the route taken to tie these stories together is clever and captivating.
Murder at the Mill (2017) by M.B. Shaw, first in the Iris Grey mystery series, set in a Hampshire village in Britain. 40-ish Iris Grey, portrait painter of some renown, escapes her acrimonious marriage in London for picturesque Mill Cottage, situated on the property of the Wetherby family, and soon she’s asked by Ariadne Wetherby to paint a portrait of her husband, Dominic, an affable and very popular TV detective series screenwriter. Though to most they appear an enviably perfect and devoted family, tensions run high in the household, which consists of Dominic, Ariadne, and their grown sons Marcus, a lawyer who lives in London with wife Jenna and their young daughter, and who is in constant contact with his mother; ne’er-do-well and recently released convict Billy; and Lorcan, who has Downs syndrome. On Christmas day, following the festive annual Christmas party the Wetherbys host on Christmas Eve, Lorcan finds a body in the river, and while the local constabulary targets a suspect right away, Iris thinks the mystery goes deeper and begins to investigate, spending a lot of time in and at Oxford, where Dominic went to university, unearthing a raft of dark secrets, rivalries, and resentments. She’s also getting to know Graham Feeney, a lawyer she met at the Christmas party, whose brother (also named Marcus) was a close friend of Dominic’s at school. I enjoyed this book, which is mainly told from Iris’s point of view but also reveals the thoughts of many of the characters without giving away the mystery. I do wonder about Lorcan’s role, which seems to be almost entirely to be traumatised by his father’s death, though his mother’s relationship with him is also used a foil to hers with Billy.
The Twelve Clues of Christmas (2012) by Rhys Bowen, 6th in the Royal Spyness series, set in Britain in the 1930s and featuring Georgie Rannoch, somewhat impoverished 35th-to-the-throne royal cousin. Very Christmasy, including an appendix of traditional recipes, games, songs, etc. Georgie is facing a depressing and demeaning Christmas spent at her brother and sister-in-law’s on an isolated Scottish estate when she finds an ad placed by Lady Hawse-Gorzley for a party hostess with impeccable background in the Devon village of Tiddleton-under-Lovey, not coincidentally where her mother, the wealthy actress Claire Daniels (along with bestie Noel Coward), and her grandfather are also spending Christmas. Georgie is there to help out with games and activities during a multi-day country house party attended by an ugly American family, a no-nonsense dowager countess, a colonel and his wife, a local couple, another couple with their grown daughter, and a lecherous free-spirited middle-aged bachelor, as well as Lady Hawse-Gorzley’s nephew Darcy O’Mara (coincidentally Georgie’s boyfriend) and his two friends, plus a village full of spinster ladies, church people, hunt club members, and “village idiots,” that’s laboring under the spell of an ancient witch’s curse. And did I mention that three convicts have just escaped a nearby prison? Every day there is plenty of traditional Christmas fare, ambiance, and old-fashioned activities, as well as a new death, most of which could be accident, suicide, or murder. This classic British village mystery set at Christmas in a country house is perfectly absorbing if a little too heavy on the romance between Georgie and Darcy O’Mara, a globe-trotting (mercenary? British secret spy?) heir to a peer without enough money to marry her. I have not read any of the other books in the series but may try another; it was the Christmas village aspect that drew me to this lighter fare, and it certainly succeeded in suffusing the few days during which I read it with yuletide atmosphere.
Life in the Garden (2017) by Penelope Lively. Re-read for a book group. A memoir plus meditation on gardens in literature, art, history. Very much a personal digression, not a comprehensive study in any way.
Murder on Christmas Eve: Classic Mysteries for the Festive Season (2017), short stories by Ellis Peters, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Margery Allingham, GK Chesterton, and others. Some are not murder mysteries but thefts or near murders. Style and quality varies. I especially liked Peters’ The Trinity Cat, Innes’s The Four Seasons, and Allingham’s On Christmas Day in the Morning.
The House in the Cerulean Sea (2020) by TJ Klune. This novel was touted online as “very close to perfect,” so I had to check it out. I could not get into it for about the first 100 pages but I plugged along because I was interested in the quirks of the characters, most of whom are magical creatures who have experienced some trauma in their lives, and in the setting of an island that’s a ferry ride from a small tourist town, but the milieu of the story felt unsettlingly foreign (the main character is a caseworker for the very bureaucratic Dept. in Charge of Magical Youth, on a one-month trip to investigate an unorthodox island orphanage), and I felt a sense of foreboding that made me uneasy; eventually I realised it’s actually a charming, gentle, light book — light not in the sense of being trivial or simplistic in any way, but in the sense that it’s about love, joy, home and belonging, real community, goodness, hope — and then I read on with delight, though it wasn’t until about 250 pages in that I started to love it.
The Darkness Knows (2017/2021) by Arnaldur Indridson. This is the first in a new series (of four books, so far, published in Iceland) featuring retired Reykjavik police detective Konrád, who also appeared in one of the Wartime trilogy books. Konrád is asked by the sister of a hit-and-run victim to look into his death, and at the same time the corpse of Sigurvin, the victim in a murder case of Konrád’s decades ago, surfaces on a melting glacier. Are they connected? Konrád misses his wife Erna, who died six years ago, and memories of their life together, and his childhood, are part of this story, along with his semi-private investigations into both crimes. Absences, silences, regrets, mixed motivations, secrets, and unknowns cast their uneasy shadow on this quiet book.
A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020 (2021) by David Sedaris. Very enjoyable, with lots of offbeat bits and bobs culled mainly from Sedaris’s interactions with drivers, signing attendees, and other strangers as well as from conversations with family members and friends. More scatological humour than I would have expected or wanted, but overall, I looked forward to re-opening the book and seeing more glimpses into his life, and into the strangeness and complexity of human relationships, animal relationships (lots of reptiles, amphibians, rodents, foxes, birds, snails, slugs, and other animals in this book), and many localities big and small all over the world — U.S., Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, South America — where Sedaris gives interviews and holds book signings (which commonly seem to last 5-6 hours at a time!). There’s also a fair amount of medical/health discussion, which always holds my interest, and many details of his anti-littering campaign and litter pick-up project in Sussex, England, plus his experiences being a gay man, living in Paris, learning languages, shopping for clothes and gifts, eating unusual foods, staying in hotels, not driving but being driven, buying houses (the one in Sussex, another on the beach in Emerald Isle, NC, and a condo in NYC), and so on.
The Fleet Street Murders (2009) by Charles Finch, 3rd in the Charles Lenox Victorian Era mysteries, set in and near London. Charles is campaigning for a Liberal seat in Parliament in the small town of Stirrington, where he’s meeting, greeting, and giving multiple speeches every day for a few weeks, but he’s distracted by the murders of two newspaper reporters in London. Are they linked, and if so, how? Lenox is again working with his apprentice investigator Dallington and with Scotland Yard investigator Jenkins to try to solve the murders.
Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue (2015) by Victoria Thompson, 18th in the Gaslight Mysteries series, set in turn of the 20th-century New York City. This story does take place just before Christmas but it’s not very Christmassy; the children visit Macy’s and see Santa, and some gifts and tree ornaments (and lights!) are bought, but that’s about it. Frank and Sarah, having married, are off in Europe on their honeymoon during 98% of the book. Which leaves Maeve, detective Gino Donatelli, and Sarah’s parents, Felix and Elizabeth Decker, to investigate when the mother of an accused murderer comes to the Malloys’ house looking for help. Her daughter Una was found cradling her bloodied and battered husband, Randolph Pollock, in their large house in Harlem on St. Nicholas Avenue, unable to recount what had occurred before his death, so she’s been locked up in the Tombs (jail). Maeve takes charge, finds her a lawyer, and enlists Elizabeth’s help to visit the house and poke around, where Maeve finds a large sum of cash in the man’s office safe, which she removes to the safe in the Malloys’ home. Soon Mr. Decker and Gino are involved, providing financial acumen and personal protection. I’m enjoying Maeve’s deepening connection with Felix Decker in particular, her sauciness contrasted with his staidness, both of them very efficient, insightful, and wryly humourous.
Featured image is from Rhys Bowen’s The Twelve Clues of Christmas (2012).
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