2019 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

2019 stats

Total number of books read: 67

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Full book list.

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

Books Read 2019

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


book cover: Careless Love by Peter Robinson

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

2018 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

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

2018 stats

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Full book list.

Books Read 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


2017 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

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

2017 stats

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

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

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

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


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

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

Books Read 2017


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

2016 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

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

2016 stats

average read per month: 6 books
average read per week: 1.4 books
number read in worst month: 3 (June, Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (January), and 9 in Feb. and August.

percentage by male authors: 37% (26 books)
percentage by female authors: 63% (45 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 90% (64 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 69% (44 of 64 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 10% (7 books)

percentage of total liked: 66% (47 books)
percentage of total so-so: 25% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 9% (6 books)


My favourite books of the year were Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson, The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin, Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard (not an easy read but worth it), The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell, and Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein. Full book list.

Books Read 2016

Once again (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.


Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson. Fiction, alternative history, read for bookgroup. Ursula Todd is continually born on a snowy night in England in 1910, and she continually dies, at various points in her childhood, teen years, adulthood, in various ways. Her lives’ intersections with World War II provide intriguing points for the reader to ponder. Well-written, spare in a certain way and yet rich in detail, nuance, significance. Although Ursula at times is almost conscious that she has lived this life or other lives, the philosophical implications are largely omitted from the story, which actually reads like a couple of novellas and a dozen or two short stories. I liked it a lot and recommend it.

The Drowning (2008/2015 English) by Camilla Lackberg. Crime fiction set in the small town of Fjällbacka, Sweden. Compelling (I read the book in two days) dark crime novel featuring Swedish couple Erica Falck, a writer who is now hugely pregnant with twins, and Patrick Hedstrom, her policeman husband. At the center of the mystery is Christian Thydell, who, with Erica’s help, has just published his first novel, The Mermaid, and whose life holds secrets — one of which is shared with his three childhood friends, Erik, Kenneth, and Magnus — that seem about to be revealed by an anonymous and threatening letter writer. I guessed the ending well before I read it, but I was never 100% sure.  Dark, not for those squeamish about harm done to children.

Speaking in Bones (2015) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropologist series, set in North Carolina. I enjoy these. In this one, a websleuth comes to Tempe to get her help with a missing person case that’s three years old, which leads to some treacherous hiking, introduction to a Catholic sect that performs exorcisms and emphasises the role of Satan, a new and interesting (and single) coworker cop in another county, and repercussions for some children with genetic physical and mental illnesses. Also in this story is her angst about Ryan’s marriage proposal and her relationship with her mother, who has cancer.

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, a novel (read for a bookgroup) set post-Civil War mainly in Boston, a bit in NYC, with the fight for women’s rights front and center. Verena Tarrant is a naive, generous, beautiful young woman with a gift for charming crowds as she speaks about women’s rights; Basil Ransom is a Mississippian of staunchly traditional values (e.g., he believes that women exist “simply to be provided for, practice the domestic virtues, and be charmingly grateful”), now struggling to make a living in New York. When he visits his somewhat stern cousin, Olive Chancellor, in Boston, he meets Verena and falls under the spell of her looks and voice, her “genial, graceful, ornamental cast.” The writing is typically Jamesian, with long, convoluted, lovely sentences, often slyly acerbic (for example, about Olive “mortally disliking” Miss Birdseye’s flat: “in a career in which she was constantly exposing herself to offense and laceration, her most poignant suffering came from the injury of her taste.” Similarly, “for the first time in her life, Olive Chancellor chose not to introduce two persons who met under her roof. She hated Europe, but she could be European if it were necessary”). The story moves a bit slowly, though, and in the end seems quite conventional, but perhaps its greatness lies in its observation and explication of the contradictory, muddled motives, assumptions, feelings, hopes and fears within each person and driving their relationships, which often prompt unanticipated, dismaying reactions and consequences, or even if anticipated, then unable to be overcome or redirected, whether due to the characters and personalities of the people involved, societal mores, or human nature itself.

The Drowned Boy (2013/2015) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series set in Norway. Konrad Sejer, who is having dizzy spells and considering visiting a doctor, and his sidekick Jacob Skarre, are called to a pond where a 16-month-old boy with Downs Syndrome has drowned. His father, Nicholai, is stunned and grief-stricken, but the inauthentic reactions of his mother, 19-year-old Carmen, get the attention of the police officers and cause them to look more closely at the case.  The book is about evenly divided between the Sejer’s life and police work and the boy’s parents’ life in the months after the death of their son; the plot is quite tidy and draws a few threads together. I read it in a day. As always, these books are understated and spare, well- (if somewhat slowly) paced.

Silent Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, in the Maggie O’Dell/Ryder Creed series.  FBI Agent Maggie O’Dell and K9 Search-and-Rescue dog handler Ryder Creed (along with his dog Bolo) are sent separately to the scene of a landslide in North Carolina, at the site of a top-secret federal biological research lab, at the same time as a Congressional hearing is going on concerning tests of biological agents on unsuspecting civilians and military personnel. Pretty much all plot and not much else.

In the Dark Places (2015) by Peter Robinson, crime fiction set in rural North Yorkshire, in the Alan Banks/Annie Cabot series. Always well-written and -paced, this story is darker than most, heavy on abattoirs and the slaughtering of animals. Winsome plays more of a role here, and Annie, though Banks’ musing on his romantic life (and of course selecting booze and music) takes up some space as well. Read it in two days.

Black Skies (2015) by Arnaldur Indriðason, crime fiction set in Iceland. Usually these involve Inspector Erlendur but he is away throughout this book and is only peripherally mentioned. This one focuses on his colleague, Sigurður Óli (Siggy), who is not nearly so introspective as Erlendur, as he tackles a case that begins with blackmail and ends in uncovering an international fraud ring. A parallel story concerns a deeply troubled man who was sexually abused as a child by his step-father. Dark indeed, yet told as always in a neutral, even way.

A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin. Novel written by a poet, and quite poetic. It’s about Katherine Lind, a 22-year-old girl from Europe (we’re never told where) living in England during World War II, working in a library. The whole story takes up one winter day early in the war, in the first and last sections, and three weeks during the summer six years before, when she visited England for the first time, to stay with her pen pal Robin and his very English family (parents, sister Jane). Landscape is important in this book, both exterior and interior. The story is rather dark — not that anything awful happens but not much happy occurs, either. There’s a lot to think/talk about here, with Katherine’s sometimes suddenly shifting thoughts and impetuous actions, her constant thoughts about her own behaviour, her possible futures, the resignation she often seems to feel about it all.

The Crossing Places (2010) by Elly Griffiths, the first in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who lives in a small house on the edge of a saltmarsh (imaginary, apparently) in Norfolk England, near the North Sea. I envy her house. In this book, she meets and works with DCI Harry Nelson, who needs help with some cryptic letters he’s received about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years. We meet Ruth’s neighbours, colleagues at the college where she teaches and past colleagues from a dig in the saltmarsh, and an old boyfriend. Plotting and writing quite good, for the most part, but the location is what drew me to the book and kept me reading. My quibble (bit of a spoiler, though not of the crime plot per se) is that Ruth starts out the book an overweight, single, childless 40-year-old woman who knows her own mind, has some self-talk about her singleness and weight, and avoids her censorious Christian family, and she ends the book pregnant, suddenly understanding of her parents (“somehow,” when she held one child, “she found a way back to her own mother”), friendly with a glamourous woman who wants to give Ruth a makeover.  It’s all so pat and easy. Will she be thin and married in the next installment?


The Janus Stone (2011) by Elly Griffiths, second in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk, England. She and DCI Harry Nelson continue to negotiate their relationship, with Ruth now in the second trimester of her pregnancy, as the body and head of a small girl are discovered during the demolition of a mansion on an old street in Norwich– which had been first a family home, then a Catholic children’s home — to create condos. As Ruth is drawn into the case, someone begins to threaten her life. Bit of a police procedural, bit of a cozy.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2011) by Jussi Adler-Olsen. First in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite good, the writing, the plot, the character delineation. Carl Mørck is a homicide detective suffering PTSD after a shooting incident that left one fellow detective dead and another paralyzed and wanting to die. Carl’s boss recognises his worth as a crime solver but wants to contain and isolate his personality, so he promotes him to head a new department, Q, headquartered in the basement, with little staff or money and a mandate to solve certain cold cases. The first cold case concerns Danish parliamentarian Merete Lynggaard, missing five years ago and presumed dead. Her story and Carl’s are alternated. Carl’s new assistant, Assad, is a perfect foil for Carl. Similar to Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian Harry Hole series in style, tone, darkness, but not quite as gritty, gruesome, noir.

The House at Sea’s End (2011) by Elly Griffiths, third in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. She’s had her baby (Kate) and is trying to figure out how to work, care for Kate, handle Nelson’s role in her life, etc., while meanwhile, she’s drawn into the discovery of six skeletons on a craggy beach at low tide, which we soon learn are German soldiers, killed in World War II. The case becomes Nelson’s when an old man, a Home Guard veteran, dies of unnatural causes.

A Room Full of Bones (2012) by Elly Griffiths, fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. Ruth’s (and baby Kate’s) relationship with Nelson changes, and DS Judy Johnson is given a bit of a bigger role in this plot, which concerns a curse associated with unrepatriated Aboriginal bones at a local museum, horse stables and trainers, and drugs smuggling.

A Dying Fall (2013) by Elly Griffiths, fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this one set in Lytham and Blackpool, England. Ruth and DCI Nelson are both on vacation in the same place – quel surprise! Well, surprise for him, anyway. Ruth is there after a college mate dies in a suspicious fire after perhaps making a significant archaeological discovery, about which he’s sent her a letter which reaches her after his death. With her are her daughter Kate and their druid friend Cathbert. Nelson and Michelle have gone back to their hometown for two weeks of vacation with their mothers. Neo-Nazism, King Arthur legends, and academic shenanigans are the order of the day.

Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, crime fiction set in the Falkland Islands. Excellent, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Bolton tells the story of six days — from 31 Oct to 5 November 1994 —  with quite a lot of backstory included, from the point of view of three people involved in intense relationships, three years after one of them has lost her two sons in an accident, and the contemporary events of two missing children. I learned a lot about the Falkland Islands and a bit about the 1982 war, but the story itself is the thing: gripping, pulling the reader into its setting, into its web of relationships and secrets, into its atmosphere of grief and guilt. Highly recommended.

The Outcast Dead (2014) by Elly Griffiths, sixth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK. While Ruth is helping to present archaeological facts about Victorian-era childminder “Mother Hook” — hung for killing the children in her care — on a TV show called Women Who Kill, she’s also helping DCI Nelson and DS Johnson investigate after one child is reported dead by his mother and another goes missing. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Simon comes for a visit with his boys, and Judy Johnson grapples with her marriage to Darren.

The Ghost Fields (2015) by Elly Griffiths, seventh in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK, with a plot involving one local family, the Blackstocks, after a member of the family is found in a World War II plane dug up during construction for new homes. Ruth’s relationship with Frank (the American, back in England once again to narrate another TV episode), Nelson’s with Michelle, and David Clough’s with one of the Blackstock clan are all explored a bit. Not the best plot of the series so far.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) by John Irving. Novel (for bookgroup). Novel set in fictional Dairy (Derry?), NH, at a midcoast Maine seaside area (1937, then 1946-1957), for seven years in post-war Vienna Austria (1957-1964), and finally in New York City and again in midcoast Maine. You wouldn’t think that this story involving rape, prostitution, and bears, and narrated with an abundance of profanity, would be so funny, charming, sweet, and yet it manages to be. I liked it much better than Garp.


Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of An Acre, and the Making of An Edible Garden Oasis in the City (2013) by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Non-fiction, for  permaculture discussion group. The book, which focuses most of its attention on edible perennials (and not annuals like corn, tomatoes, etc), is divided into four sections — Sleep, Creep, Leap, and Reap — offered essentially in chronological order from 2000, when Toensmeier and Bates first rented a farmhouse together and started to put into practice some of their gardening ideas, to 2012, after they had lived in their duplex house in urban Holyoke, MA (zone 6) for about 8 years. Toensmeier writes most of the book, with Bates offering a handful of sidebars throughout. There’s more memoir in the book than in most gardening books, but it’s not overdone, and the experimental, “let’s try it!” farming and gardening practice of the two men (and later, their wives) shines through. Full-colour photos (center of book) and design sketches (Appendix A) help the reader envision the property and its changes, and Appendix B is a good list for northern gardeners of edible perennials to consider.

The Absent One (2012) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, second in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. I didn’t like this one as well as the first in the series, because there is some animal torture and killing and a lot of blood lust hunting in it. The plot concerns six basically psychopathic boarding school students (5 men and a woman), now grown up and several in prestigious positions of wealth and power in the Denmark, who for years thrived on watching “A Clockwork Orange,” doing coke, having orgies, and then terrorizing and sometimes killing random people. Their past has come back to haunt them now. Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekick Assad have a new member of their team, Rose.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, third in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Better than the second one, not as gruesome, though harm is done to children. Quite a complex crime plot; actually, there are two plots, unrelated, with the main one centering on a psychopathic, rather sadistic man, abused as a child, who makes money kidnapping children from large families involved in insular fundamentalist ‘Christian’ cults. There’s also growth in the Carl-Assad relationship as well as twists and turns in Rose’s character’s unfolding when her sister Yrsa comes to take her place for a while.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith. DNF. It took me 3 weeks to get to page 185 and then I gave up. I just never got into the story, about two men who met in World War II, Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. I looked at Wikipedia after I returned the book to the library and am glad I didn’t go any farther, as the plot seems to devolve. I found the part I read to be boring and tedious.

The Purity of Vengeance (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, fourth in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. The best so far, in my opinion, the plot concerns the Purity Party of Denmark, which seeks to rid Denmark of all unworthy people — people of colour, immigrants, poor people, people deemed to have mental and physical deficiencies, and so on — and as part of its strategy to do so sterilizes women it considers wanton or wayward without their consent and aborts children carried by these mothers. At the center of the story are Curt Wad, a doctor who strongly believes in The Cause of Danish purity, and who performs these procedures and orchestrates the actions of others; and Nete Hermansen, a 1950s victim of The Cause.  The Purity Party, by that name, doesn’t seem to be actual, but forced sterilization in the Nordic countries was, and the island of Sprogø is also real: “between 1923 and 1959 … the island was used for containment of women deemed pathologically promiscuous, the main concern being unwanted pregnancies.”

The Silence of the Sea: A Thriller (2011) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, #6 in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Thóra is hired by the parents/grandparents of a family missing at sea on a celebrity yacht to help them file insurance claims and maintain custody of their youngest granddaughter, the only member of the family not on the ship. The story is told in chapters alternating Thora’s investigative work with the events that took place on the ship., and it is more of a thriller than a crime novel or mystery.


Someone To Watch Over Me : A Thriller (2013) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Several storylines come together: a family is haunted after their prospective babysitter is killed in a hit-and-run; an on-air radio personality is hounded by accusing texts and phone calls; and Thóra is asked by a psychopath in a mental institution to overturn the conviction of a mentally disabled young man, found responsible for setting a fire that killed the other residents and a nightwatchman at the home for the severely disabled where he lived. Creepy in several ways. Took me a few weeks to read it, so I guess it wasn’t that enthralling to me, but the complex plots were well handled.

The Stranger (1942, 1988 edition Matthew Ward) by Albert Camus. Story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria: his mother dies, he has a girlfriend (Marie), he gladly helps a male friend (Raymond) lure his own girlfriend back so he can abuse her further, then he shoots an Arab man on a beach because he (Meursault) is very hot. That’s the first part of the book, and the second covers his trial and imprisonment, neither of which seems to concern him overmuch (though  eventually he is sentenced to death). Meursault is very detached from his world, inert really except for his reactions to the sun and its glare (if he’s hot, watch out!). He seems uninterested in the suffering of others (people or dogs), lacking in empathy or compassion. In modern terms, he would fall to one side of the autism spectrum, not really able to understand the feelings or actions of others except by the most obvious clues, not because he inherently understands people (ex: “[The priest] was talking in an agitated, urgent voice. I could see that he was genuinely upset, so I listened more closely.”) It’s one thing to comment (as more than one reviewer has) “Even if we exist in a world devoid of meaning, why is it that our actions still bear so much weight?,” which seems a valid question in the context of this book, if the idea of existentialism pulls you; on the other hand, I think one can also wonder if, even in the absence of meaning, humans (and other animals) might naturally feel compassion for others, not because it’s construed to mean something, intellectually, but because we have imaginations and hearts, we know what fear, anger, longing, pain feels like. And on the third hand, Meursault is basically condemned for the crime not of killing another man but of not mourning his mother appropriately (having put her in a home, and then smoking and drinking coffee at her wake, and not crying at the burial — but, take into account, it was a very hot day!); because Meursault isn’t strongly affected by his mother’s death — he seemed to like her well enough in life, as he does his girlfriend, who wants more than that, in the form of declarations of love and preference — he is seen as inhuman in some way when perhaps he is just content. Romantic love, and grief when loved ones are gone, is a sign of attachment to others but not necessarily a sign of compassion; those feelings may be just as self-serving, self-focused, and pleasurable as the feelings one has when fulfilling primal urges, though we may ennoble the former. I don’t know what to make of the fact that so many things seem to occur at 2 p.m. in the book.

The Meursault Investigation (2013) by Kamel Daoud. This very short novel (like The Stranger) is a response to Camus’ The Stranger, set 1962 Algeria, after the French have left, written by the brother of the Arab that Meursault killed. Kind of genius. Very Girardian, very reminiscent of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer in the double/twin aspect. Definitely a must-read with Camus’ work.

My Name Is Mary Sutter (2010) by Robin Oliveira: Historical fiction/romance set in the first two or three years of the U.S. Civil War, with its heroine a 20-yr-old midwife, Mary Sutter, who wants to be a doctor (surgeon). I found it lightweight, clichéd, and clumsily written, for the most part, with some good scenes and thoughts, particularly Mary’s struggle making good choices. I’m going to go back and count how many times Mary’s unruly curls (could it be a clunky metaphor? her twin’s are described as “more easily tamed”) are mentioned, as I know it’s more than 50. And though she is described as somewhat of a mess in looks — features “far too coarse,” her chin sharp-angled, her body often sweaty and bloody, a bit ungainly, etc. — every man she meets falls for her. I did learn more about the Civil War, though not much more than I saw in Gone with the Wind, but the setting here is the Union: Albany NY, Manhattan, and then Washington DC and the bloody battlefields of Maryland and Virginia. I liked the bits with Sec. of State John Hay and Pres. Lincoln (and other historical figures) mulling the early days of the war, believing it would end in a few months, then constantly rotating military and political leaders in and out, hoping someone could end it. Dorothea Dix has a small role in the book, portrayed as a self-centered and self-aggrandizing control freak who doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Some might find the detailed descriptions of amputations or even difficult births too graphic, but that aspect seemed realistic and relevant to me.

Ashes to Dust:  A Thriller (2010) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. She takes the case of  Markús after three bodies and a head are found in his family’s former house on Iceland’s Heimaey Island, which was evacuated and covered in ash in 1973 when a volcano erupted nearby. Not long after she takes his case, his childhood friend Alda is found murdered at home, and Markús is a suspect in that crime as well. Not as compelling a read as some of her others but a good plot nonetheless.


Splinter the Silence (2015) by Val McDermid, in the Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series. I haven’t read McDermid in years because her books became too tense and agonizingly torturous for me, so I picked this one from the library’s ‘new books’ shelf with some trepidation. And I liked it. Of course a serial killer is front and center, and Carol and Tony have their serious personal issues (Carol’s in particular threaten to derail her and those around her), but the plot is interesting — a man is killing feminist women who speak publicly against men, in ways that look like suicide — and the complex mix of characters engaging and realistic.

My Name is Asher Lev (1972) by Chaim Potok. For bookgroup. Asher Lev is both a devout Ladover Hasid, living in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and an artistic prodigy “compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy.” Asher is a child and teenager through most of the book, in conflict with his father, who travels the world to rescue Russian Jews and start Ladover (a made-up sect of Hasidism) yeshivos in many countries and who never understands his son’s unwillingness, as he sees it, to study and serve God in the way he (the father) sees fit. His mother, who loves them both, understands in part each of their passions, her husband’s for travel and salvation of Jews, her son’s for artistic expression of his feelings, though their conflict and their choices often leave her anxious, fearful, unsupported, caught in the middle of their tension between devotion to a moral calling and devotion to an aesthetic calling. Some themes explored: taboo, tradition, truth, honouring parents, family, what makes a satisfying life, individual vs. culture, religion, perception, imagination. Worth reading.

The Woman in Blue (2016) by Elly Griffiths, 8th in the Ruth Galloway series. This one, which includes very little archaeology (no digging and only a small bit of historical info), is set in Walsingham (Norfolk, England), the site of a religious shrine to Mary as well as a drug addiction center.  An old university friend of Ruth’s, Hilary, has become an Anglican priest (much to Ruth’s dismay) and is in town for a religious conference; she contacts Ruth because she is receiving nasty letters decrying women in ministerial positions. Even before she arrives, another woman, who has been getting treatment at the addiction center, is murdered on the church grounds, so Ruth’s and Inspector Harry Nelson’s paths cross once again. Clough, Tim, and Tanya are also featured, while Judy is home on maternity leave and Cathbad has only a minor role in the story.  So-so, not a favourite.

The Paris Wife (2011) by Paula McLain, a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Read for bookgroup. It’s the story of their almost-five years of marriage, most of it living in Paris, drinking heavily, meeting literary and other friends (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sherwood Anderson, Lincoln Steffens, etc), going to bullfights in Spain, him writing and her playing the piano, eventually having a baby (Bumby), eventually splitting up when Ernest falls for his second wife (of four), Pauline. Except for the time period (Paris in the jazz age)  and the people involved (pre-famous artsy people, either rich or bohemian or both), it a pedestrian story of a fairly ordinary, traditional marriage of a man who generally gets his own way and a woman who feels it’s her duty and pleasure to acquiesce to his needs and desires. Their suffering, even before the marriage begins to fall apart, is detailed.

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (2014) by Christopher Fowler, in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series. I haven’t read any others and I’m not sure why I started with this one, involving the digging up of recently buried bodies and the theft of the 7 ravens from the Tower of London. It’s well written, with quirky characters, but I got a bit lost in the all the convoluted plotting and occasional long lists of detail. By the end of the book, I had come back around but I can’t say I was really very engaged. If I read another, it will be for the characters.

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (2015) by Will Bonsall. Not a permaculture book per se, though he mentions it from time to time, but probably the best permaculture book I’ve read in the five or six years I’ve been studying it. Bonsall has an 84-acre farm in Unity, Maine, on which he raises (with very little rototilling) vegetables, fruits, permacrops, grains, pulses, oilseeds — and no animals at all. His writing is incisive, witty, clear, easy flowing, a pleasure to read. Topics covered include the vision of a garden without borders, composting, making mulch and green manures, soil and minerals, grassland management, propagating seeds, rocks and water, planting more efficiently (trellises, companion planting, new world vs. old world crops), chapters on crops (veggies, grains, pulses, oilseeds, permacrops), using the harvest by milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting, dehydrating, etc., and pests and diseases — usually the most boring (no pun intended) chapter in these books, this is one of the best in Bonsall’s.


American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard. Non-fiction, for bookgroup. A bit of a slog to get through unless you love history, but worth it to inspire thought and conversation about the various cultures that make up North America (the focus is mainly on the U.S. but also includes important insight into Canada and Mexico). The 11 regions are Yankeedom, New Netherland, El Norte, Left Coast, Far West, New France, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, Deep South, and First Nation. The American Revolution and the Civil War are discussed at length. One of Woodard’s conclusions is that the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently, because it’s one of the few things binding us together, since we don’t share ethnicity, religion, or near-universal consensus on fundamental political problems.

Stoner (1965) by John Williams. A sad little novel about a midwestern college professor of English, set at the end of the 1800s in Missouri. He marries a woman he hardly knows and over the years suffers a series of personal and professional disappointments; it’s the kind of book that makes the reader queasy all along because they can see it’s not going to go well for the protagonist. The blurb on the back of the book says that William Stoner emerges “as an unlikely existential hero,” and I guess by virtue of living through it somewhat stoically, he fulfills the existential part, but I’m not sure I could call him heroic.

The High Mountains of Portugal (2015) by Yann Martel. For a bookgroup. A novel in three parts, set mainly in Portugal, first in 1904, then in 1938, and finally about 50 years later. In the first section, Tomás borrows his rich uncle’s Renault to drive to the high mountains in search of a certain crucifix he’s read about in a priest’s diary; in the second, a more philosophical section, a Portuguese pathologist’s wife lectures him about the similarities of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and the Christian gospel, and then he is visited in his office by a woman who wants him to look at a body; and in the third (which reminded me strongly of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael), Peter, a Canadian Senator, leaves Canada for the high mountains of Portugal with his new companion, a chimpanzee named Odo. The stories are tied together, and many similar themes emerge from the three:  the pros and (mainly) cons of human civilisation and “the crowd;” men at the end of their ropes who need a respite from their workaday lives (and their jobs are prominently mentioned repeatedly); strong focus on fathers and sons, especially loss of sons; the idea of an “appointment with death” (a Christie title) and the role fate plays in our lives; lice, vermin, and bugs that eat living people and corpses; men and their sorrow, despair, grief; slavery/freedom; and so on. I had a lot of trouble getting in to it but it was pretty readable after the first section.


Orchestrated Death (1991) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, first in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. Slider is a middle-aged London cop, whose life is changed when a young violinist is murdered.

Death Watch  (1992) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, second in the Bill Slider crime series set in London.When the body of a womanizing traveling salesman, Dick Neal, is found in a compromising position in a blazing motel room, the team at first doesn’t know whether it’s murder or suicide.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (2015) by Linda Hirshman. Part law casebook, part biography of O’Connor and Ginsburg, a comparison-contrast through their histories, work experiences, values, law decisions. Ginsburg comes out looking much more of a champion for women’s rights, but Hirshman tries to make the case that if O’Connor hadn’t been the political, non-idealistic, non-activist she was, it would have been harder for Ginsburg and other judges to be appointed at high levels. Interesting discussions of feminism (equality feminism vs. difference feminism), co-ed vs. single-gender higher education, Ginsburg’s drive to have gender cases treated the same as race cases are under the 14th Amendment, etc.

Death to Go (1993) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, third in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. The crime plot is complicated, involving some bigwigs, some low-lifes, a bunch of Chinese men, and a lot of people named Peter; and Slider’s love life is also complicated when he can’t find his way clear to leaving his wife Irene, though it’s soon pretty easy to predict how that will be resolved. Seemed a particularly large number of puns and amusing wordplay in this one.

Grave Music (1994) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, fourth in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. When conductor Sir Stefan Radek is murdered as he’s about to start rehearsal in a nearby church, Slider has a new case and a reason to talk with his (barely) ex-lover Joanna again.  I guessed the killer (and motive) long before the book ended but it was still enjoyable.

Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson. For a bookgroup. Adventure novel, old-fashioned tale of murder and mayhem on a (n almost-) deserted island, with lots of greed, drunkenness, pirates, and immorality. From Wikipedia: “Treasure Island is traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, and is noted for its atmosphere, characters, and action. It is also noted as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children’s literature.”

Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein, crime fiction in the Alex Cooper-Mike Chapman series, set in New York City. I flew through it in a few hours. I don’t know why I like her books so much, but I do. Alex and Chapman are finally together (since the last book) but the trauma from her kidnapping is causing her to drink too much and to give more rein to her anger (and frustration with feeling sidelined from the case) than usual. The case involves a top fashion designer (Wolf Savage) who dies seemingly by suicide, with a bag over his head in a hotel room. Lots of fashion info in this one, plus quite a bit of the setting in the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a favourite spot of Fairstein’s (she featured it in an earlier book as well) and mine. Her boss, the District Attorney Paul Battaglia, doesn’t fare well here.


Blood Lines (1996) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 5th in the Bill Slider crime series. A music critic and opera expert, Roger Greatrex, is murdered in the bathroom at the BBC studios just before a panel discussion show.  Could the killer be his old friend and panelist opponent, Sandy Palliser; Greatrex’s or Palliser’s wife, or Roger’s mistress; another panelist, an audience member, or a BBC staff member; or even a fellow cop?

Killing Time (1997) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 6th in the Bill Slider crime series. Within a day after gay cross-dresser Jay Paloma comes to Slider for protection after receiving threatening letters, he’s murdered in his house. I guessed this one fairly early on but the plot and writing is interesting enough that that doesn’t really matter. DS Jim Atherton is in the hospital throughout (after his injury in Blood Lines), and DS Hart, a cheeky, confident young black woman, is filling in for him as Slider’s sidekick. More complications ensue in the Irene-Bill-Joanna triangle. Lots of Cockney slang in this one, much more than the others to date.

Shallow Grave (1998) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 7th in the Bill Slider crime series. Jennifer Andrews’ body is found in a trench dug by her jealous husband, who was repairing a terrace on the grounds of the Old Rectory in West London. But did he kill her? Meanwhile, Bill and Irene work through some divorce issues, and DS Jim Atherton continues to heal from his wounding in book 5. Not much Cockney slang in this one, but a new Det Sup — Fred ‘the Syrup’ Porson — brings his own brand of linguistic comedy to the series: “Porson talked like Peter Sellers playing a trade-union representative doing his first ever television interview. He chucked words about like a man with no arms, apparently on the principle that a near miss was as good as a milestone” (or, as Atherton says, Porson’s language mangling is “just psychosemantic”).

Blood Sinister (1999) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 8th in the Bill Slider series. When the body of middle-aged radical journalist Phoebe Agnew is found, strangled and tied to her bed, Slider and Atherton (who is unraveling emotionally a bit) look at people from her past and present: college friends Josh Prentiss and his wife Noni, Josh’s brother Piers, Piers’ lover and Phoebe’s downstairs neighbour Peter Medmenham, and others. Slider’s lover Joanna gets a job offer that would require her living in Amsterdam permanently.

Gray Mountain (2014) by John Grisham, for bookgroup, a novel about the destruction, corruption, and greed of the coal mining industry, and about a few lawyers who are trying to find justice for those destroyed by coal mining and the ills it brings to a community. It’s the first John Grisham book I’ve read and it was more meaty, detailed, and factual than I expected. The story focuses on Samantha Kofer, who’s just lost her high-flying corporate law job in NYC in the downturn of 2008, and who accepts an internship position at a tiny office in (fictional) Brady, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. Early on she learns never to drink the water in coal country — everyone drinks only bottled water, due to the coal sludge that pollutes the water sources. I lost interest halfway through and read a few other books, then came back to it and the last half flew and was much easier reading somehow than the first; I think my reluctance to read it stemmed from the knowledge that though this is fictional, the situation he describes is real, extremely disturbing and disheartening … and ongoing.

Gone Tomorrow (2001) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 9th in the Bill Slider series. The body of Unlucky Lenny Baxter turns up in a gated Shepherd’s Bush park. Baxter is a small-time dealer in stolen goods and drugs, but as the team investigates, they find his connection to a larger crime organisation, run by a vicious, ruthless boss. OK plot, not my favourite, and I’m tired of the Joanna-Bill romance. Atherton is still amusing, as are Porson’s language mix-ups.

Dear Departed (2004) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 10th in the Bill Slider series. Chattie Cornfeld is killed while jogging. Is is the Park Killer striking again, or someone nearer and dearer? I liked this one even though I guessed much of it about halfway through.

Boar Island (2016) by Nevada Barr. I stopped reading Barr’s Anna Pigeon series a few books back but decided to give this one a try and really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. I read it in a day. It’s set in Maine’s Acadia National Park and nearby in Bar Harbor, places I know fairly well; the book gives a bit of a flavour of the place, though not as evocative as her western-setting books. The plot — or actually, two separate plots — are about as twisted as they come. Anna’s goddaughter, teenaged Elizabeth, is being viciously cyber-stalked by someone in Boulder, CO (where she and Anna both lvie),  so when Anna is asked to fill in for 3 weeks as ranger at Acadia, she, Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s mom Heath (a paraplegic in a wheelchair), and their “Aunt” Gwen (a pediatrician in her late 70s), all head to Boar’s Island, a tiny private island owned by a friend of Gwen’s, off of Mt. Desert (where Acadia NP is). Meanwhile, NPS ranger Denise Castle, stationed at Acadia, has learned something that will change her life.

The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen. For bookgroup. Fiction, rooted in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. We learn early in the book that the unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese narrator is a man of two minds, a communist sympathizer and spy whose political beliefs are at odds with his personal loyalties.  He has been embedded as a captain with the military government in South Vietnam, and when Saigon falls in April 1975, he flees the country along with the South Vietnamese army general and the general’s family, as well as his close friend Bon (a true South Vietnamese patriot), leaving their other close friend, communist agent Man, behind. The narrator, along with many other South Vietnamese, lives and works in California for a while, where the narrator is called upon to act in ways he’d rather not, before he leaves for a 3-month stint in the Philippines to shoot The Hamlet, a film about the war in Vietnam, thinking he can give his countrymen a voice if he’s part of the project.  He later returns to California, then decides to go with Bon back to Vietnam to continue the fight for freedom. It’s made clear from the start that his narration is actually a confession to someone — and because it’s a confession, the narrator not only tells us about events but examines his thoughts, reactions, feelings, memories, and judgments to and about these events, and about his own stance as a man of two minds.  Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Extremely well written. To say it’s a story of war, loyalty,  and betrayal doesn’t capture half the depth of it. For some reason, the tone reminded me of the film Kind Hearts & Coronets.


A Banquet of Consequences (2015) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley-Haver series. Gripping story of a grasping mother, Caroline Goldacre, and her two grown sons, Charlie and Will, and the lies and secrets held within a family, whose consequences for everyone — including Caroline’s husband Alistair; Will’s girlfriend, Lily; Clare, a well-known feminist author Caroline works for; and Rory, the author’s good friend and agent — are devastating. Detective Sargeant Havers is on her best behaviour, with a possible transfer to the hinterlands always a threat that Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery wields. Detective Inspector Lynley mediates on Havers’ behalf, for Havers to have more leeway so that she can do her best work, but Ardery is having no part of it. Lynley, meanwhile, is contemplating the future of his relationship with his zoo veterinarian girlfriend Daidre.

Game Over (2003) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 11th in the Bill Slider series. An environmental investigate journalist, Ed Stonax, recently dismissed in a sex scandal from the Department of Trade and Industry, is found murdered in his home. His distraught daughter Emily,  a journalist in New York City, comes over and begins to help the team uncover clues. Meanwhile, Slider is dodging bullets and other dangers that Trevor Bates (arrested in a previous case, now having escaped prison) is aiming his way in an escalating campaign of threats.  The puns and word play is fun.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi, “a memoir in books,” for a bookgroup. Better than I expected, but still not a favourite. Nafisi, who grew up before the Revolution, when everyday life was much more liberal than it is now in Iran, is a professor of literature trying to instill in her regime-oppressed students, especially the girls, a love of literature and a respect for the power of their imaginations to help free them from their own prisons. The book moves from her small reading group of a handful of women, back in time to her university classes (mixed gender) and their studies of Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the trial of the book in her classroom was a favourite of many in my group), and few books each by Henry James and Jane Austen, back further in time to the (cursory) history of Iran, the Revolution and its changes, and her personal history living and going to college in America, then forward in time again to the small morning reading group. The book is centrally about how in literature, and in Iran, women are seen not as they are but only as figments of men’s imaginations and the focus of their desires. In exploring why we read fiction, the book also points to the prison we live in within our own experiences and point of view, and how fiction helps liberate us by giving us the opportunity to see through others’ eyes. Some themes: empathy vs. blindness/carelessness, imagination, integrity, dreams, banality and brutality (poshlost), identity (who names us?), ordinary life, freedom, absolutes vs. ambiguity.

Fell Purpose (2009) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 12th in the Bill Slider series.  Smart, beautiful, enigmatic, strictly parented Zellah Wilding is killed on Wormwood Scrubs, during the night of the fair. There is a selection of suspects, and the one you think probably did it, did. Not too much personal stuff about Bill and Joanna in this one, but there was a cringe-worthy, clichéd sentence near the start of the book about the feeling in a woman’s loins when she has borne a man a son. Gag.


Body Line (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 13th in the Bill Slider series. One of the better mysteries in the series. Well-to-do doctor David Rogers is murdered at home, execution style, and his girlfriend narrowly escapes out a window. Neither the girlfriend nor the ex-wife nor any of his other women, and there are many, seems to know what sort of medicine Rogers practices or where he works, but he has a huge amount of cash lying around and a lavish lifestyle, not totally attributable to the monthly checks he receives from a Swiss company.

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. For bookgroup. A postmodern novel that nests six different but interlocking stories into a fairly coherent whole. The first is Adam Ewing’s Journal, written mostly aboard ship in the Pacific, around 1850; the second, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his lover from Belgium in 1931; the third, a manuscript about a young woman journalist who’s uncovered a high-level corporate coverup in California in 1975; the fourth, a movie (it turns out) about a 60-something-year-old man trapped in a nursing home around 1990 or 2000; the fifth, a holographic recording of an interview with a cloned woman in Asia who has discovered the secrets of the corpocracy in which she lives in the near future; and last, an oral story told by a tribesman about a life-changing few months in his life on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the far future, when a woman from another culture visits them. Major themes include reincarnation, rebirth, and recurrence of patterns in people, cultures, and throughout the history of civilisation; predation, the strong vs. the weak, cruelty and domination; imprisonment, subjugation, enslavement and escape; perception, doubt, and how to know what to believe, especially about historical events. Motifs include ascents and descents and smoke and clouds (obscurity). Lots of think about.

Kill My Darling (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 14h in the Bill Slider series. Soon after Melanie Hunter goes missing, her body is found by a man walking his dog, and there is no shortage of suspects, including the convicted wife-murderer living in the basement apartment, her boyfriend, and her stepfather. Not much domestic life or word play in this one, Porson aside.

Blood Never Dies (2012) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 15h in the Bill Slider series. A man who looks too classy for the attic apartment in which he’s been murdered (in a bathtub) leads the team on a lengthy search just to learn his name.  Not much of the personal relationships between Slider and Joanna or Atherton and Emily. Held my interest.

The Weight of Winter (1991) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. I like her use of language and her stories set in fictional Mattagash, Maine. This novel is a sort of series of interlaced stories about various townspeople early one winter: Amy Jo Lawler, thinking about putting her mother, Sicily, in a nursing home; Lynn and Pike Gifford’s turbulent, violent marriage and its impact on their children; Mathilda Fennelson, in her early 100s and reflecting on emotional events in her past; Charlene & Davey and their sick daughter, Tanya; the local bar and its habitués; and others. The writing is humourous, often bittersweet, never sappy or mocking.


The Bubble Reputation (1993) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. “[B]ittersweet but affirmative novel about a quirky, crisis-ridden family in small-town northern Maine may remind readers of Anne Tyler’s work. Exploring the ways people tend to pair off and the ways they respond when these bonds are broken, she follows the course of lonely characters bereft of their mates …. Rosemary O’Neal, a 33-year-old teacher, falls apart when William, her live-in lover of eight years, commits suicide during a trip abroad. While Rosemary seeks solace in isolation, loved ones gradually intrude on her privacy. Among them are her sister, an oft-divorced neurotic; her uncle, an overweight and overwrought gay man; and her roommate from her college days, who is now choosing between husband and lover” (from Publisher’s Weekly) This family very much resembles Anne Tyler’s dysfunctional, chaotic families. The writing is poetic, funny, with much use of repetition in this novel to signify thoughts and events going round and round in Rosemary’s head. A wonderful record of a year of grieving.

Smoke & Mirrors (2015) by Elly Griffiths: I requested this from the library thinking it was part of the Ruth Galloway series but unfortunately, it’s not. It’s part of another series Griffiths writes, called Magic Men, set in Brighton, England, after World War II, featuring DI Edgar Stephens (and his team) and his magician friend Max Mephisto, who met in the war. In this one, Max is in town performing in a pantomime show, and two children have gone missing in snowy weather.  I didn’t like the book nearly as much as those in her other series. If you have an interest in post-war local theatre or in fairy tales, this might be for you.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York (2010) by Deborah Blum. Interesting look at the development of forensic toxicology in the U.S., from about 1920 to 19365, and at the effect of Prohibition on alcohol deaths, the early aspects of consumer protections, and the jurisprudence of the time. Chapters are arranged in chronological order, each focusing on a poison (though other poisons are mentioned in most chapters) and on a poisoning story. It’s come to mind often since I read it.

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi. Memoir. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.” The first part of the book is Paul’s life before his diagnosis, the second is his life after. The writing is sometimes spare, sometimes poetic, but what makes this book memorable is how Paul grapples with his new reality, depicting painfully the seesaw between hope and fear, acceptance and despair, that accompanies a serious medical diagnosis. The central question of the book, and Paul’s life, is, what makes life meaningful? How does one live “when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?”


When The Music’s Over (2016) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks-Annie Cabot series. I didn’t like this one as much as usual. Plot involves two cases, one Annie’s investigating with Gerry, a young woman raped, thrown out of a van, and then battered to death, and the other Alan and Winsome are investigating, a fifty-year-old rape allegedly perpetrated by Danny Caxton, then a much-liked celebrity, now an old man.

Razor Girl (2016) by Carl Hiaasen, featuring ex-cop-now-restaurant-inspector Andrew Yancy, set in the Florida Keys.  The usual unlikely characters and convoluted plot, this one revolving around a made-for-TV redneck named Buck Nance, star of the hit series Bayou Brethren (think Duck Dynasty), and a crazed Buck-wanna-be criminal named Blister. Again, new next-door neighbors are planning a mansion that will encroach on Yancy’s natural view and the livelihood of the resident deer, so they must be stopped. Meanwhile, a dazzling redhead is ramming cars for money, pretending she’s lost control of the car while shaving her never-regions while driving. The mafia is involved, too.

Rules of Civility (2011) by Amor Towles.  Set in 1938 NYC among mainly the upper class bright young things, the novel follows Katey Kontent’s year from the time she and her roommate, Evey, meet wealthy Tinker Grey, on New Year’s Eve, through the changes in her life, and theirs, in the year following. At times a bit hard to follow — the author makes references to names or fleeting events from 100 pages previous, which rang a bell but which weren’t entirely clear to me without going back through the book to find the original mention — and I wasn’t sure I really understood Katey’s personality, but on the whole interesting and evocative of a time and place. Felt a bit like some of the later Woody Allen movies (Match Point, Cafe Society, etc).

2015 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

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

2015 stats

average read per month: 4.5 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (April, June, Oct., Nov., Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (August), and 9 in July, 8 in March

percentage by male authors: 48% (26)
percentage by female authors: 52% (28)

fiction as percentage of total: 85% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 63% (29 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 15% (8 books)

percentage of total liked: 52% (28 books)
percentage of total so-so: 33% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 15% (8 books)


As always, the limiting factor in my reading this year was not being able to find anything I wanted to read.

I started reading two crime fiction series, the Joe Gunther series by Archer Mayor, set in Vermont, and the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie King, both of which came with high recommendations from friends. After reading quite a few in each series, liking some and not liking others, my interest in them just petered out; the Joe Gunther series became boring, and the Russell/Holmes series became annoying.

My favourite books of the year were That Distant Land by Wendell Berry (short stories), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. In general, I didn’t love much of what I read. Hoping for better in 2016! Full book list.

Books Read 2015

Once again (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.


Strange Shores (2010/US 2014) by Arnaldur Indridason, in the Inspector Ernaldur series, set in Iceland. This one differs from others in the series because it isn’t a police novel; it’s the story of Ernaldur’s investigations into a missing person event from the past. Matthildur — a woman who lived in the town in which Ernaldur grew up — went missing during a blizzard, but her body was never found. As Ernaldur relentlessly questions the few people still alive who may know what happened, he also relives the day when he, his younger brother, and his father were lost in a blizzard, from which his brother never returned. The book is haunting, atmospheric, beautifully written. Not a traditional crime or suspense novel.

Borderlines (1990) by Archer Mayor, 2nd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in the fictional town of Gannett in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The plot involves a back-to-nature cult that’s bought a lot of the real estate in town and runs the thriving restaurant, and a town divided for and against them.

Scent of Evil (1992) by Archer Mayor, 3rd in the Joe Gunther series. This one is set in Brattleboro, VT, where Lt. Gunther is based, and involves drugs, politics, wealth, and sex, an includes a high-speed chase, several shoot-outs, an unusual torturous death, and mistrust inside the police department. Good.

Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them (1993) by Thatcher Freund. NF. Read for a bookgroup.  One of the more boring books I’ve read (and finished) in a long time. If you like the TV show “Antiques Roadshow,” you will probably like this; if not, not. The book weaves the stories of three main pieces of American furniture – an 1750s American blue blanket chest made in Connecticut, a 1750s Chippendale card table from Philadelphia, and an inlaid sofa table made in Salem MA, of the Federal period (around 1800) — with the stories of many American collectors, dealers, buyers, restorers, sellers, pickers, and auctioneers incuding Henry Ford, Henry Du Pont, Joseph Hirshhorn, Bill Stahl, Allan Breed, Wayne Pratt, Fred Giampietro, Israel, Albert & Harold Sack, George Samaha, twins Leslie and Leigh Keno, and others. Structured well and written serviceably (though a bit over-the-top in places) but the topic, items, and people are just uninteresting to me.


The Brothers K (1992) by David James Duncan, a novel about the Chance family, obsessed with baseball and religion (Seventh Day Adventist), headed by two strong parents, with four sons and two daughters coming of age in the 1960s. As many reviews say, it’s at times very funny and very moving. By turns a philosophical treatise, a page from Sporting News, a family confessional along the lines of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, an epistolary novel, a travelogue of India, a Vietnam war memoir, etc., it’s a complex family saga fueled by pain, loss, eccentricity, and an all-embracing love.

Fruits of the Poisonous Tree (1993) by Archer Mayor, #5 in the Joe Gunther series. In this one, Joe’s longtime girlfriend and a town selectman, Gail Zigman, is raped, leading not only to pain and suffering for Gail and Joe but also to “a media frenzy due to her political prominence, his involvement in the case, and her refusal to hide behind a shroud of anonymity.” Set mainly in Brattleboro, but also in Thetford, where Joe’s mother and brother, Leo, live.

The Dark Root (1995) by Archer Mayor, #6 in the Joe Gunther series. The focus in this book is on rival Asian gangs, who are moving illegal aliens, guns, and drugs from New York and Boston to Montreal, and doing violent home invasions, money laundering, and protection rackets. Joe works with the Border Patrol, the FBI, and the Canadian Mounties chasing rival gangs from Brattleboro to Montreal to White River Junction & West Lebanon NH, which was interesting for me, as I know this area and could picture the (on-foot) chase scene quite well.

The Ragman’s Memory (1996) by Archer Mayor, #7 in the Joe Gunther series. Plot involves the discovery of the body of a troubled teenager from out of town, a planned convention center, political bribery and manoeuvering, a missing local activist, and a World War II vet with PTSD in a nursing home, who may have seen the killer.

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) by Anne Tyler. A book spanning generations of the lives of Abby and Red Whitshank. Set in Baltimore, of course. Lovely, as always.


Bellows Falls (1997) by Archer Mayor, #8 in the Joe Gunther series.  Set in Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and Burlington, with police forces from each town involved, the plot revolves around a controlling man who has created a network of drug sellers in various Vermont towns; he comes to the attention of the police here after he accuses a Bellows Falls policeman of having an affair with his wife, and then that policeman is found to have cocaine in his urine and in his house. One online reviewer of another book in the series describes it as “solid noir mystery” and “an offbeat New England tour guide, too;” next time I take the train through Bellows Falls, I will see it differently.

The Book Thief (2006) by Markus Zusak, for a bookgroup. I wasn’t excited to read it, knowing it was another book about World War II, and while it is set in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1943, it’s a smaller, more personal novel than that. The tone – seemingly simplistic, but also self-consciously cryptic, or so it felt — was off-putting at the start but I quickly came to appreciate the narrator’s voice. The writing is moving, sometimes amusing, and elegantly understated, laconic, not dramatic, and simply factual at times, which makes it deeply stark and spare. I like that the novel employs the opposite of foreshadowing (often annoying in novels): future events are stated directly, not hinted at in or insinuated in some shadowy way meant to make the reader anxious. The plot centers on Leisel, a foster child of almost 10 when the story starts., who comes to live in a town outside of Munich with foster parents who are large-hearted, “good in a crisis,” and very poor.  I don’t want to give away any more of the story. I liked it a lot.

The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening (2011), ed. by Thomas Christopher, with essays by Rick Darke, Eric Tonsmeier, Toby Hemenway, Doug Tallamy, Elaine Ingham, et al., on permaculture, natives vs. non-natives, managing soil health, waterwise gardens, green roofs, gardening for wildlife, meadow gardens, the Sustainable Sites Initiative, the sustainable edible garden, climate change gardening, and while system garden design. Uneven but useful. The chapters on soil (surprisingly), wildlife gardening, and the discussions among several essays on natives vs. exotics were most useful for me.

The Disposable Man (1998) by Archer Mayor, #9 in the Joe Gunther series. This started out as a police procedural, with the twist along the way that Gunther is being investigated for theft, but the second half was a Russian spy thriller. Set in Brattleboro, West Townshend, Middlebury, the Northern Kingdom, all in Vermont, and in Washington DC. I could have skipped it. I guess there really isn’t enough ordinary crime in Brattleboro — even imaginary crime — to inspire more than a few crime novels without having to resort to Chinese gangs and the Russian mafia.

Still Alice (2007) by Lisa Genova, about Alice Howland, PhD., a cognitive psychology and linguistics professor at Harvard, who, at age 50, starts noticing memory lapses (forgetting to do things and not realising she has forgotten, getting lost in a familiar place, etc.) and soon learns she has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Told from her increasingly confused point-of-view, with her husband and 3 grown kids as the other major characters. A quick read, a powerful story.

Breaking Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, starting a new series, I think, featuring charismatic dog search-and-rescue trainer and handler (and ex-Marine) Ryder Creed, who lives with his dogs in Pensacola FL; but FBI agent Maggie O’Dell — the protagonist of anotehr of Kava’s series — also has a big role in this book. Lots of extremely well-trained dogs of all breeds in this book, as well as traumatised military vets, and drug-trafficking, child-trafficking, and torture with fire ants, spiders, and scorpions.

Occam’s Razor (1999) by Archer Mayor, #10 in the Joe Gunther series. Set mostly in Brattleboro, though also in Montpelier, and in Portland, ME, with focus on political wrangling, hazardous material dumping, and the murder of a man killed by a train on railroad tracks and of a drug-using woman stabbed in her own home. Gail and Joe are working out their relationship, too.

The Attack (2005) by Yasmina Khadra (aka Mohammed Moulessehoul), originally in French. The novel takes on the themes of integration and assimilation, identity, terrorism, tolerance, sacrifice, healing and killing, happiness and suffering as it tries to come to terms with what creates a suicide bomber. Central is Dr. Amin Jaafari, a Muslim from a Bedouin tribe who has moved up in life to become a wealthy Israeli, a professional (a surgeon) living in Tel Aviv. The novel raises many questions about conflict, terrorism, and how we identify ourselves (and how others identify us) but for me it fails to really provide any complex understanding as to why Amin’s wife becomes a suicide bomber. That may be what’s intended; there are theories floated by many characters in the novel, but she doesn’t really match any of them, and Amin’s blindness as to who she truly was may represent our own in some way.


All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr. Novel, for a bookgroup. Set mostly in France (also Germany, Russia) from 1934-1944, during World War II, following two stories, that of a blind girl, Marie-Laure, very interested in natural history and raised by her puzzle-making father, who is evacuated to her eccentric great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo, a walled French city attacked by the Germans in August 1944; and Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy who lives with his sister in a small orphanage near Essen, Germany, until he is chosen to attend the National Political Institutes of Education, an elite Reich school, where he excels in electronics. Many themes and motifs, including  mazes, birds, bees, the natural world generally, entropy, locks and keys, blindness and seeing, value derived from nature (coal from dead plants, diamonds from carbon), the past in the present, etc. A fast, readable book, but felt to me simplistic in terms of good and bad, heroes and villains.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (2014) by Atul Gawande. Non-fiction. Gawande, a surgeon, writes about aging, independence, assisted living and nursing homes, dying, conversations to have about dying and medical care, and death, including his father’s recent death. It’s a topic that interests me and his writing is compelling, except for the middle section about nursing homes, the rise of assisted living, and the various forms assisted living can take, which was dry. He’s best when talking about how doctors and patients avoid important discussions of desires, fears, and how voicing desires and fears helps people (patients, families, doctors) make good choices from among confusing medical options, especially when all of the options carry major and perhaps unknown risks and downsides. The PBS Frontline show with Gawande on this topic is excellent.


The Paying Guests (2014) by Sarah Waters. Set in a genteel 1922 post-war suburb of London, Champion Hill, this novel centers on 26-year-old Francis Wray — whose voice and thoughts basically narrate the third-person story — and her mother, who own a house but have been left with little money to maintain it, and their paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber. Len works as a clerk in an insurance company and seems to leer at Francis a lot. His and Lilian’s marriage is tumultuous. An NPR review sets out the basic conflict: “Frances has it bad, and that’s not good. Normally she’s an intelligent, reliable, resourceful young woman, a companion to her widowed mother, keeper of the large house on Champion Hill in which the two of them rattle about, now that the men of the family have died. But then Frances falls in love, and the carefully wrought edifice of her life collapses in a heap of passion and catastrophe.” Very readable, but also quite predictable.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (2014) by Gabrielle Zevin. Funny, light novel about a curmudgeonly, widowed, young bookseller, who, through a series of events, has his life changed. Set on Alice Island, apparently off Massachusetts, the novel starts with a new publisher’s rep traveling  on a ferry to meet the bookseller, but soon we follow his life more than hers, until they come together again. I read this book in about 3 hours … quite light, yet surprisingly emotional at times.

Tucker Peak (2001) by Archer Mayor, in the Joe Gunther series. Southern Vermont ski resort has big problems, with protestors, drug dealers, embezzlers, etc.  I lost track of who the bad guys were, and why, part way through and never really got re-engaged.

I Remember You (2012) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (who writes a crime series featuring attorney Þóra Guðmundsdóttir ): Set in Iceland. Two plots alternate, chapter by relentless chapter, one involving three Rejkjavik twenty-somethings — a couple and their recently widowed female friend — who buy an abandoned house in the deserted and very remote fjord village of Hesteyri, reachable only by ferry in good weather, hoping to renovate it and use it as a B&B, and the other plot focusing on a psychologist who lives in the large fjord town of Isafjordur and whose 6-year-old son went missing two years previously.  The stories are complex and the reader glimpses how they might intertwine, but to tell anymore would be to give away too much. Ghost stories and plots with supernatural explanations don’t do much for me, though this one is well-written, certainly atmospheric, and held my interest most of the time. There are really no happy characters among the cast of dozens.


Bad Debts (1996/2013) by Peter Temple, the first in the Jack Irish series, set near Melbourne, Australia. Involves horse racing, gambling, government corruption, and basically men with guns and secrets to hide. I got lost with the large list of characters, the plot twists, and I had to look up some Australian terms and slang. The book was very put-downable – reading it over 2 weeks might be why I got so lost. I’ll try the next one and see if it’s more compelling.

Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng, a debut novel, set in the 1970s, about a family whose members struggle with secrets, silences and unspoken longings, regrets, betrayal, little cruelties, feeling different and outcast. The death of just-16-year-old daughter Lydia, who drowns in a nearby lake, is the focus of the plot which looks back to the parents’ first meeting as well as studying the contemporary events around her death.  Reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel, if her novels were set in a midwest college town and explored what being American and looking Chinese felt like. The book explores longing and loss in depth. 5th-grader Hannah — used to being ignored, noticer of everything — is my favourite character.


Of Love and Other Demons (1994) by Gabriel García Márquez, a short novel set in a South America seaport around 1750. Told from the point of view of others, the story is about 12-year-old Sierva Maria, “the only child of a decaying noble family,” raised mainly by the black slave women, who is bitten by a dog who has rabies. Although she never develops symptoms of rabies, she is outcast, feared, and treated as though possessed by a demon by the clergy and others. In essence a book about our terror and vicitimisation of “the other.”

A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch. Amateur detective and wealthy MP Charles Lenox, newly married to Lady Jane, takes on the murder of a friend’s footman when asked; but then the friend and his wife tell him in no uncertain terms to lay off the case. Set in Victorian London. Not terribly exciting but an OK read.

The Sea Garden: A Novel (2014) by Marcia Willett. About a young artist, Jess, who, through coincidence, comes to live with a family that she learns is related to her own family. Set in contemporary England on the Devon coast, the book uses flashbacks — including repetition of paragraphs two or three times when characters are remembering or thinking about what we’ve already been told — to tell a story about family, friends, betrayal and forgiveness. A gentle read, with lots of adultery. Too many characters for me to follow well but I liked the pace and slice of life feeling of the book.

The Sniper’s Wife (2002) by Archor Mayor, #13 in the Joe Gunther series. This one focuses on Vermont detective Willy Kunkle, whose ex-wife has died, and takes place almost solely in NYC, but ends at the defunct naval prison in Portsmouth, NH. We learn more about Kunkle’s Manhattan childhood, his family now, and his time with the NYPD and in Vietnam, as well as about neighborhoods in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side and Washington Heights. Joe and Sam come to town when Willy is arrested in a random bust of an illegal club. Plot pretty straighforward: Willy suspects Mary’s death wasn’t suicide or an accidental overdose, as it seems, and delves into the case with the help of the law and outside it.

The Gatekeeper (2003) by Archer Mayor, #14 in the Joe Gunther series. The  Vermont Bureau of Investigation is pulled into the case of the hanging of a drug addict and a young woman’s drug overdose in Rutland, VT, by the governor in an election year, expected to stop the flow of heroin into the state. Before Joe can really get going on the case, agent Sammie Martens goes undercover in Holyoke, MA hoping to gain info to make the VBI valuable to the locals and the state police. The plot focuses on Sammie organising a drug ring with criminals in Rutland, and to a lesser extent on agent Lester Spinney’s suspicions about his own teenaged son’s drug use. Joe doesn’t have much to do with the crime cases, but he and his off-putting girlfriend Gail are in another bad place together as she shuts him out after her niece is killed trying to rob a convenience store for drug money. Set in Holyoke, MA, and Brattleboro, Springfield, and Rutland, VT. The ending is a bit anticlimactic but in a realistic way, which is nice for a change.

Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (2013) by Daniel James Brown. The phrase “epic quest” really told me all I needed to know — that’s one of the types of stories I like least — but I read it because it was a bookgroup choice. It’s mostly well-written and well-structured, though repetitive, but the main problem for me is how predictable it is. Not just the history — what’s going on in Germany then, the Dust Bowl and Depression in the U.S., the perceptions of the elite East vs. the rugged West, how the ultimate boat race turns out — which of course we know now, but the predictability throughout of the boys’ characters and actions. They are not only portrayed as thoroughly “good” but the author can’t seem to think of enough synonyms for “good”: loyal, perseverant, committed, humble, honorable, graceful, civil, “good men, one and all.” It’s a pleasant, nostalgic, readable book, with a lot for the novice to learn about rowing. I felt like I’d read a light novel when it was over, though admittedly with some darkness lurking around the edges. The most interesting aspect for me are the details about the propaganda-driven framing and filming of the Olympics.

A Fall of Marigolds (2014) by Susan Meissner, a romantic novel set in New York City 1911, 2001, and 2011, interweaving the stories of two young women, the main one about nurse Clara Wood, who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company at the time of the fire in 1911, and the secondary one set in contemporary times, about Taryn, co-owner of a specialty fabric store, whose husband died in the North Tower in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Both stories are about Love, with a capital L, and how it motivates us; both stories, particularly Clara’s, quite romantic in the sense that she is all emotion and imagination for 99% of the story.  A light beach read, even though the plot is anchored by the twin tragedies.

Practical Permaculture for Home Landscapes, Your Community, and the Whole Earth (2015) by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein. A good review of what I’ve mostly read in other permaculture books. Lovely photos. Emphasis on designing a permaculture garden, your own or a client’s. The chapter on soil was better than average on the topic. Read and discussed over a few months with a group.

The Wild Wisdom of Weeds (2014) by Katrina Blair, read for permaculture bookgroup. Blair writes first about her background and how she lives in and views the natural world, then devotes a chapter to each of “13 Essential Plants for Human Survival,” which are amaranth, chickweed, clover, dandelion, dock, grass, knotweed (polygonum aviculare), lambsquarter, mallow, mustard, plantain, purslane, and thistle. Food, medicinal, and beauty recipes are included. “The Earth’s Principal Rivers and Their Tributaries” on page 12 was one of my favourite parts of the book. She speaks a lot about seeing problems as resources and about creating abundance, and about the life force and “wild intelligence” of wild plants becoming part of us when we ingest them. Equal parts woo-woo with practical, useful information.


The Corsican Caper (2014) by Peter Mayle, a novel set in Marseilles and Corsica, mainly. Pretty bad. The plot and drawing of characters is incredibly simplistic. For example, when Sam decides to stand in for someone whom a brutal, murderous Russian has contracted to kill, Sam’s wife says, Well, OK, but be careful, and another character, whom Sam has just met, suggests that her beloved dog be part of the entrapment. Both of these reactions seems beyond belief to me, but on the other hand, the reader feels absolutely no sense of tension at all, so why should the characters?  The plot is that a rich Russian man wants the home of billionaire Francis Reboul and will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Reboul’s friends plot (at many dinners, lunches, and other festive occasions) to outwit and entrap the Russian.  The only thing that kept me reading was the continuous descriptions of eating and drinking along the beautiful south of France. Mayle seems much better at non-fiction than fiction, based on having read this book and having seen his Year in Provenance.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (1994) by Laurie King, first in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I almost put the book down after reading the contrived preface and prelude but read on because someone had recommend these books to me. In the end, I liked it well enough. The writing is good. The novel is set during WWI (1915 to 1919 in this case) in England as well as briefly in the middle east, mainly Palestine/Israel, and it is made up of a sort of caper, then a serious kidnapping case, and then a case that brings mortal danger to Holmes and Russell; I would have preferred one mystery but I accept that the author wanted the reader to see Mary Russell’s evolution as a sleuth as well as the evolution of Russell and Holmes’ relationship through these cases. I haven’t read any of the original Conan Doyle stories about Holmes, so perhaps many allusions were lost on me.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995) by Laurie King, second in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I guess I liked this better than the first one but it was still very put-downable. Lots of romantic thoughts by Mary about Holmes, which come to fruition of a sort in the end. At the crux of the story is Margery Childe, a charismatic spiritual leader of The New Temple of God, a sort of mystic suffragette group, in Whitechapel, London, which Mary is introduced to through her college friend Veronica Beaconsfield; several of Childe’s followers have died recently, leaving large sums of money in their Wills to The Temple.

A Letter of Mary (1996) by Laurie King, third in the Russell/Holmes series. This one involves an acquaintance of theirs, an amateur archaeologist,  who gives them a box and a manuscript she’s brought from Jerusalem and is soon after run down on a London street. Russell and Holmes (now married) both go undercover to investigate separate areas of inquiry.

The Moor (1998) by Laurie King, fourth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Dartmoor in the southwest of England, where Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles was set.  The aged eccentric Rev. Baring-Gould has asked them to investigate an unexplained death on the moor and sightings of a ghost coach and dog. Again Russell and Holmes largely work independently on separate aspects of the investigation, with the bulk of the novel following Russell’s movements and thoughts.

That Distant Land (2004) by Wendell Berry, a book of 23 short stories about the people of Port William, KY, set from 1888 to 1986. Read for bookgroup. Excellent, lovely, moving, compassionate, funny stories about Tol and Minnie Proudfoot; Andy and Wheeler Catlett; Burley, Nathan, Hannah, and Thad Coulter; Elton Penn; Ben and Mat Feltner; Mart and Art Rowanberry; Danny Branch. Stories of hunting and tracking in the woods, tobacco harvesting, hog killing, whiskey drinking, the introduction of the Model A, dying and death, inheritance, going to the fair, selling livestock, parade floats, courting. Several predominant themes: mortality, getting lost and being found, memory, nostalgia for times past, forms of farming and technology, the farm vs. the city, small town life and community, what makes life worth living.

O Jerusalem (1999) by Laurie King, fifth in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in Palestine/Israel, including in Jericho, Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem, in 1919, as the British are starting to leave the area after the war. Holmes and Russell are disguised for 90% of the book as Bedouin men and are accompanied through the book by brothers Ali and Mahmoud Hazr. My least favourite, a bit of a slog through the Arabic speaking, the landscape descriptions, the tunnel description, the coffee prep ritual twice daily, etc.  Glad I read it, though, because the characters reappear in her next book, and also because it provides some detailed political history of this highly volatile part of the middle east.

Justice Hall (2002) by Laurie King, 6th in the Russell/Holmes series, set mostly at a British manor house, and briefly in Canada. Marsh Hughenfort (aka Mahmoud Hazr from the previous book), younger brother of the Duke of Beauville, has returned to England as dutiful heir after his brother’s death, along with his cousin Alistair (Ali Hazr), who seeks Holmes’ and Russell’s help to unearth another heir so Marsh can relinquish the heavy title and go back to Palestine. Much of the book concerns unraveling the mystery of what happened to young Gabriel Hughenfort, the late Duke’s only son, who was executed during the last days of the Great War.  I liked the setting, and descriptions of the over-the-top fancy dress party with ancient Egyptian theme, but the plot was weak and some of the characters (especially the women) felt caricaturish.

The Game (2004) by Laurie King, 7th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in British colonial India as Mycroft sends Holmes and Russell to look into the 3-year disappearance of Kimball O’Hara (“Kim” from the Rudyard Kipling novel). Again Russell has to disguise herself as a man, again she has to hunt animals (instead of bird hunting as in Justice Hall it’s wild boar hunting — or pig sticking — here), again she and Holmes are largely separated and doing independent investigations, again a very large house is as much character as it is setting. The book has several distinct settings of activity: a 2-week shipboard to start with, a road journey near Delhi on foot with magic show and costumes, a languid time spent in a huge home in Khanpur (in disguise and out of it), and time spent with British government operatives. The maharaja at the center of the plot is a cruel, manipulative, sociopath whose behaviour heightens the suspense.

The Sweet Dove Died (1978) by Barbara Pym: Read in a few hours, another wonderful novel of the subtlety of relationships and motivations by Pym. A middle-aged woman befriends a man of about her age and his nephew, preferring the attentions of the nephew, who lavishes her with attention until he first meets a girl his own age and then a boy of about his own age. Rivalry, envy, jealousy, narcissism (mirrors abound), selfishness, greed, fear of aging and appearing vulnerable, and other interesting emotions and behaviours fuel the superficially simple story.


Dear Life (2012) by Alice Munro, a collection of short stories plus a few snippets of memoir.  On the plus side, I like her unemphatic, sometimes plotless way of writing. I like the disorientation so many of her characters seem to feel. Some of her turns of phrase are genius. On the other hand, most of the stories in this collection feel like they were crafted for a creative writing class. Admittedly, they’re better than most of what you’d find in such a class, but there is a writerly feeling about them that gets in the way of the stories for me. They feel less like real life and more like a constructed ideal of stories about conflict, mistakes, regrets, vices, fatal flaws. Probably in a few years I will recall some snippets and wonder where I read them. “Gravel” and “In Sight of the Lake” were my two favourites.

The Locked Room (2005) by Laurie King, 8th in the Russell/Holmes series, this one set in prohibition-times San Francisco, as Russell (Holmes with her) spends a couple of weeks reacquainting herself with her old home in the city, her family’s lake house; meeting the son of her parents’ Chinese servants; remembering the 1906 earthquake and fires; trying to get to the bottom of three dreams that have troubled her recently; and in the course of investigations, enlisting the help of detective and writer Dashiell Hammett. If you have an interest in San Francisco in the early 1900s, you’ll find this book provides an intriguing combination of ambiance and facts.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884/1999 – Norton 3rd Critical Edition) by Mark Twain. For bookgroup. Funnier than I expected, quicker and easier to read than I expected with the regional language and dialect, but I still don’t understand how this is considered a major classic. It’s the story of a teenage boy, living in the rural mid-west/south (Missouri), who because of his age, upbringing, and circumstances is somewhat of an outsider to the culture, observing the culture through eyes that are at times naive but always sharp. Early on, Huck escapes his violent father by taking off on a raft down the Mississippi from Illinois through Kentucky and Arkansas. He’s accompanied by Jim, a runaway slave, and runs into some characters along the way, like the shysters “the Duke” and “the King,” and into the feuding Gragerfords and Shepherdsons, before eventually meeting up with Tom Sawyer again. The Mississippi River is also a character in the book.

The Language of Bees (2009) by Laurie King, 9th in the Russell/Holmes series. Set in England, in Sussex and London, and a little in Orkney, an island off Scotland near Scandinavia. Started off well, with much about bees and beekeeping that was interesting, but before too long, I lost interest in the plot. The crime story is centered on a religious cult figure and his book, Testimony, and one of his followers, Yolanda, a woman from Singapore who happens to be the wife of Holmes’ newly found (again) son, Damian Adler, a surrealist artist to whom drug addiction, violence, and mental health issues are no stranger. Holmes seemed completely out of character in this one, barely heard from and when he was, all mushy about his grown son and fondly reminiscent about Irene Adler, the boy’s mother. One long section of the book is taken up with Mary’s harrowing flight in a small plane from London to Orkney; of course, flight was a new thing, and not for the faint of heart (which great pains are taken to show that Mary is not) even without wind, rain, a hungover pilot, a time crunch, and lack of landing strips. The book doesn’t really end, just says “to be continued.” Unsure whether I will.


The God of the Hive (2010) ) by Laurie King, 10th in the Russell/Holmes series. I should have followed my instincts at the end of The Language of Bees. I tried to read this book, for six weeks, never choosing it over anything else to read, finally getting to about page 250 before giving up. I lost interest pretty early on, when a toddler becomes a central character and Mary suddenly devotes her life to protecting this child. That’s the last one in this series I’ll be reading.

Devil’s Bridge (2015) by Linda Fairstein, #17 in the Alexandra Cooper series, except Alex is only present in about half the book, before being kidnapped. NYPD detective, and now Alex’s lover, Mike Chapman narrates the rest of the book as he and fellow detective Mercer Wallace try to find her and figure out a motive for her disappearance, taking us to the Manhattan waterfront — including Liberty Island, and Fort Washington Park (with Jeffrey’s Hook lighthouse) at the George Washington Bridge in their search on land and sea. The switch in POV worked fine for me, though the reason for her kidnapping was slightly implausible to me.


The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah. (For a bookgroup.) Yet another novel set during WWII, this one centers on two estranged sisters, one single, willful, and living in Paris and the other settled with husband and daughter in the village of Carriveau. The best of this book is that it takes the reader almost day by day (or so it felt) through the daily grind and frequent horror of living in France from 1939 to the Nazi-occupation, starting in the summer of 1940, through the end of the war in 1945, and then 50 years into the future as one of the sisters, living in the U.S., is invited to a ceremony in France (present time occupies only a few brief chapters interspersed throughout the book). Women populate the book and the action; the men — other than a couple of Nazi officers, the sisters’ father in Paris, and a few French resisters — are absent, mostly off fighting, while the women are living on inadequate food, medicine, clothing, and heat rations; unwillingly billeting and feeding Nazis in their homes; burying friends and children; trying to find homes for orphaned Jewish children when their mothers are taken away; afraid to speak to or look at each other for fear of being turned in for some crime. The sense of how long it all dragged on, how hopeless it seemed when each month or so something more frightening, horrifying, disheartening, or debilitating happened, is driven home.  There is also quite a lot about running a Resistance escape route for downed Allied soldiers through the Pyrenees. Still, for some reason, I wasn’t really engaged in the story (I struggled to keep reading the book over three weeks) or the characters. I think it felt a bit predictable: good Nazi, bad Nazi; hiding places in barn and convent; simple comparison-contrast between the sisters’ personalities and actions, though of course both are depicted as heroines; melodrama rather than nuance at every turn. Even the sisters’ moral dilemmas and choices, and their feelings about their choices, which are played and replayed numerous times, feel hyped and fabricated. It’s mainly an adequately plotted linear story meant to demonstrate the strength of women in a crisis and to depict the hardship and terror of that time and place, diminished by a shallow romance and cliche characters, without the lyrical writing and complex themes of All the Light We Cannot See.

Thérèse Raquin (1867) by Émile Zola. A very dark psychological novel of utterly destructive violence, set in a dark, fetid corner of Paris. Thérèse Raquin is married to her cousin, the sickly, spoiled, self-absorbed Camille, by their selfish and possessive aunt, but even before this occurs, she has felt suffocated and repressed by cousin and aunt; the marriage brings things to a head, and when she feels her blood rising for Laurent, a thick-necked, lazy, calculating man, it’s not long before they are lovers. The book read like a morality play infested with an Edgar Allen Poe story of horror and cruel irony. As others have noted, the four temperaments hypothesis of the time is prominent: Thérèse is melancholic, Laurent is sanguine, Camille is phlegmatic, and Madame Raquin (the aunt) is choleric; motivation deriving from “blood” and “nerves” is repeatedly described. The central idea of the novel is that violence, once unleashed, destroys all.  Resentment (and its consequences) is another major theme, as well as imprisonment (claustrophobia, suffocation, paralysis), punishment (confession, guilt, revenge, hauntings), obsession. I grew weary of it about halfway through; the characters seemed unreal, simply stand-ins for psychological traits and reactions.


The Nature of the Beast (2015) by Louise Penny, 11th in the Inspector Gamache series, set in the village of Three Pines, Quebec, which can’t be found using a GPS. This book is based loosely on a true story, of Gerald Bull, a scientist and arms designer who created a massive missile launcher as part of the Babylon project. Gamache (now retired), Isabelle Lacoste, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir investigate after a young boy — who has found a huge gun in the woods and bursts into the bistro to tell everyone — is murdered. Elements of other stories are interwoven:  an American who fled to the town to escape serving in the Vietnam War, two strange Canadian intelligence service agents with secrets they won’t share, and, most interestingly to me, Gamache’s past service at the secret trial of a cruel killer — his role, as a citizen not associated with the case, to represent all Canadians and to hear, see, and absorb the horror of the crimes. The plot is complicated and though the ending made sense, it wasn’t very satisfying or elegant.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) by Naomi Klein, non-fiction, for a group. We read this over about 10 weeks and eventually decided it wasn’t worth spending 2 hours per week discussing. There is really nothing substantially new here. If you are already someone who is aware of climate change and environmental politics, you may not know all the names (of people, corporate and non-profit entities), numbers (lots of them!), or the complicated relationships among “green” groups, politicians, and fossil fuel companies, and the anecdotes may be unfamiliar, but you will already know the gist of the book, which is that we are no where near doing anything as a planet about climate change, and our destructive ideologies and practices concerning energy usage, materialism, endless growth, etc., are already ruining the planet. If you are not into this stuff, or are a climate change skeptic, you will likely be turned off by what she says and how she says it. Her main suggestion for change is for all of us to become active locally, globally, in politics, in organizations, in big ways, collectively (not by simply turning off lights at home or using transportation less), to change policies, politics, culture, particularly in western, capitalist countries that use the most fossil fuel resources and emit the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all in the name of progress, growth, jobs, military defense, and freedom. As I said, nothing new, and quite a slog through the weeds to get there.