Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

I am joining the The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge!

I participated in 2013, 2014, and 2015, then Adam at Roof Beam Reader put the challenge on hiatus for two years while he was writing his doctoral dissertation. Now it is back.

The idea is:
1) Read 12 books that have been sitting on your TBR shelf for at least a year.
2) The books must be listed in advance and the post up by January 15, 2018. Two extra alternate titles are allowed in case you run into a title that you cannot read or finish for any reason.

I had sworn off challenges for 2018 because of doing so poorly at them in 2017, but the endless and growing TBR pile is my focus for this year. And I love to make lists.

So here is my list and we will see how well I do with it.

  • Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong [published 2000, on my shelf since 2012]
  • Black Orchid Blues by Persia Walker [published 2011, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Known Dead by Donald Harstadt [published 1999, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin [published 2010, acquired 2014]
  • Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis [published 1955, on my shelf since 2014]
  • The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall [published 1965, on my shelf since 2014]
  • Brewing up a Storm by Emma Lathen [published 1996, on my shelf for a long time.]
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester [published 1951, on my shelf since 2013]
  • Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg  [published 1976, on my shelf since 2013]
  • Starting Out in the Evening  by Brian Morton [published 1998, on my shelf since 2015]
  • Night Rounds by Helene Tursten [published 1999, on my shelf since 2013]
  • A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle [published 1887, on my shelf since 2010]


  • Perfect Gallows by Peter Dickinson [published 1988, on my shelf since 2012.]
  • Love and Rubles by Stuart Kaminsky [published 1996, on my shelf for a long time.]

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Fatal Winter: G. M. Malliet

I read Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet in mid-September. Probably wishful thinking... I was hoping for some fallish weather at the time. And this is what I had to say about that book in my August - September reading summary:
Max Tudor is the vicar of the very small village of Nether Monkslip, and the star of this amateur sleuth mystery. However, he was previously an agent for MI5, so he has a bit of experience. He gets called on to help in a behind-the-scenes role when a prominent member of the Women's Institute dies during the Harvest Fayre. A bit too cozy for me, but I plan on reading more in the series.
So that is what I did. I found a copy of A Fatal Winter, book 2 in the series, because it is a traditional Christmas mystery.

Lord Footrustle is extremely wealthy but also lonely. None of his relatives, except for his twin sister, Lady Baynard, have any love for him. He lives in Chedrow Castle with his sister and her adopted granddaughter. He invites his relatives and heirs to visit at Christmas, and they show up because they want to ensure their inheritance and possibly negotiate for more. All, and I do mean all, of the family members are unlikable. Very rich, very entitled, not in touch with the real world at all. That is the setup.

On December 13th, Lord Footrustle is found in his bedroom, having suffered a violent death, which is clearly murder. Shortly after that on the same morning, Lady Baynard is also discovered dead, in her garden hothouse, but she appears to have died of natural causes. The death of Lord Footrustle and his sister so close together leads to questions of who inherits what. The visitors to Chedrow Castle are about equally divided between Lord Footrustle's heirs and Lady Baynard's heirs.

DCI Cotton of Monkslip-super-Mare is in charge of the case. And he in turn calls in his friend, Father Max Tudor, ex-MI5 operative, to help with the case. The contrived reasons to explain why the vicar's presence is acceptable are somewhat unconvincing, but this is fiction, so that did not really bother me. I liked the detectives in this book very much: DCI Cotton, Sergeant Essex and Max. There were two other fun characters, the butler and his wife, the cook. They provided suspects not in the family and an outside view of the victims and family members.

There were some niggles but they did not spoil the book overall for me. Max is almost too perfect and too hunky. Much is made of every woman being attracted to him. His love interest, who does intrude into the plot somewhat, is also perfect. The first book in the series was set in the village of Nether Monkslip and some readers missed that aspect of the series in this book. Not me; I preferred the castle and the closed circle of suspects.

The author is from the US but has spent some time living in the UK. Although I did not notice anything myself, I am pretty sure there were some cases where incorrect words and terms are used.  The author also pulls in too many references to real events and people of the times for me; I find that distracting.

But all in all this was an engrossing read. I kept wondering who did it, and that was the kind of ride I was looking for. The resolution was well done and interesting. I felt like I should have seen it coming, but I did not. The story did not have a lot of depth but was entertaining. I enjoy reading this kind of book sometimes but I would not want a steady diet of it. I will be reading the third book, Pagan Spring, because I found a copy at the book sale this year.


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2013 (orig. pub. 2012)
Length:       364 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Max Tudor, #2
Setting:      England
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased this book.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Landed Gently: Alan Hunter

I read some of the George Gently books years ago, but all I remember is that the protagonist is a police inspector. Landed Gently is the fourth book in the series  and the only one that I have read recently. In this story, Chief Inspector Gently travels to Northshire to visit with Sir Daynes Broke, the Chief Constable, and enjoy some pike fishing over Christmas. Thus this book may not be entirely representative of the series.

Gently is visiting Sir Daynes for a vacation but of course he gets involved in a murder investigation. The second evening of his visit, Gently, Sir Daynes, and Lady Broke are invited to an informal party at Lord Somerhayes' home, Merely Hall. The next morning, one of Lord Somerhayes' guests is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Gently cannot officially investigate the crime, but as a guest of the Chief Constable, he tags along for a visit to the crime scene and takes part in some interviews with witnesses and suspects. Sir Daynes actually does not want to admit that it is a crime but Gently is sure that the death was not accidental.

This mystery novel had a large cast that confused me, with a lot of red herrings. But I found the hero, Inspector Gently, very charming and I liked that Gently is an outsider in this investigation. The author's writing pulled me into the story and I was very entertained. And it was set at Christmas.

The book is prefaced by an "EDUCATIONAL NOTE"
Those readers familiar with the glories of Holkham will be in no doubt as to the source of a number of architectural details distributed about this novel. Those who are not so familiar are recommended to close this book immediately and to hasten to repair an education so gravely defective. It should not be necessary to add, but I do so out of courtesy, that the characters in the book, unlike the architecture, are wholly fictitious, and have existed nowhere except in the mind of 
Sincerely yours, Alan Hunter
And this description of the start of Gently's trip. Sergeant Dutt takes Chief Inspector Gently to the station. He is initially reluctant to go away at Christmas, but it is hard to refuse the invitation of a Chief Constable...
In spite of himself, Gently couldn't help feeling a mild thrill of excitement as he and Dutt, laden with luggage and the precious pike-rod, plunged into the icy pandemonium of Liverpool Street Station. So many people going home – going home for Christmas! There were queues at every platform and every ticket window, surging crowds of people, burdened, like himself, with suitcases, parcels, Christmas trees, everything under the sun. How could one fail to catch the spirit?
Here is some information about Alan Hunter and this series from Unbound -- UEA Archives Blog:
Written between 1955-1999, Hunter completed 46 novels across 45 years with punning titles like Gently Does It, Gently by the Shore, Gently Down the Stream, Gently Continental, Gently with the Ladies and so on. The popular BBC One television series George Gently and later Inspector George Gently were loosely based on Hunter’s novels.
...  ...
From Diss to Dunwich, Bury St Edmunds to the Broads, Gently found himself in locations across East Anglia and sometimes in London, Scotland and even Wiltshire. This is in contrast to the televised series which places Gently in Northumberland and Durham.
See Katrina's review at Pining for the West.


Publisher: Dell, 1982 (first publ. 1957)
Length:    224 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     George Gently
Setting:    UK 
Genre:     Police procedural

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Reading in November 2017

In November I read nine books; only six of them were crime fiction. In the non-crime related group, we have:

The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber

This book is sort of a fairy tale, but not really. I don't think it was written for children specifically but I am sure that it has been read to many children. I am also sure I will be reading this again a couple of times before I try to write about it.

The best way to introduce this book is with a quote from the beginning paragraph:
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn't go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were as cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart.
I am grateful to Joan at Planet Joan for sending me her copy of this book after she read it.

Northanger Abbey (1818) by Jane Austen

This was my fifth book by Jane Austen this year, which I read as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

Doomsday Book (1992)  by Connie Willis

The first novel in the Oxford Time Travel series. I have been wanting to read this book for a while and was determined to read it before I get to Black Out and All Clear by the same author. Now that I have read this book, I will read To Say Nothing of the Dog before the other two books.

The events are set at Christmas; thus I read it in preparation for the Christmas season. I loved it.

And these are the crime fiction books I read in November, which spanned the years from 1944 to 2017.

A Patient Fury (2017) by Sarah Ward
This is the third DC Childs mystery, written by Sarah Ward.  The series is set in the Derbyshire Peak District where the author lives. I have been a fan of the series since it started and this book did not disappoint. One of my favorite reads this year. My thoughts are HERE.
Death Wears Pink Shoes (1952) by Robert James
This book is difficult to describe and I hope to do better in a later post. The events center around a motley group of tenants at No. 17 Crane Street in New York. The story and the way it is told reminds me of the Inspector Schmidt books by George Bagby. It was a very fun read.
Moira at Clothes in Books generously sent this book to me, since she knows my love for books with skeletons on the cover.
Banking on Death (1961) by Emma Lathen
This is the first in a series starring John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president of Sloan Guaranty Trust. I have been rereading books from this series of 24 books and have enjoyed each one. This one is covered in my most recent post.
Feast of Murder (1992) by Jane Haddam
The cover of this book says this is a Gregor Demarkian Holiday Mystery. The story is set around Thanksgiving and involves a holiday cruise on a replica of the Mayflower. Later the series (now 29 books long) moves away from the holiday themes and takes on darker topics. I enjoyed this book, another reread. My thoughts on this book and the series are HERE.

The Clock Strikes Twelve (1944) by Patricia Wentworth
The 7th book in the Miss Maud Silver series. James Paradine, the patriarch of the Paradine family, announces at a family dinner on New Year's Eve that he knows that one of his guests has betrayed the interests of the family. He also states that he will wait in his office until midnight to meet with the guilty person and discuss terms for handling the betrayal. Of course, by 12 o'clock he is dead. Just about everyone in the family is considered a suspect, some more than others, and one of the heirs brings in Miss Silver to clear things up.
This was the first Miss Silver book I had read in years and I think it was a very good book to get back into the series with. I found it very entertaining.

These Bones Were Made for Dancin' (1995) by Annette Meyers
This was the second book by Annette Meyers I read this year, and I like this one much more than the first one. Previously I read The Big Killing, the 1st book in the Smith and Wetzon series  This month I skipped ahead to the 6th book in the series. Leslie Smith and Xenia Wetzon are headhunters on Wall Street. Smith was a dancer on Broadway many years back, and she and a friend are producing a revival of a show for charity. The skeleton of a woman is discovered in the basement of a brownstone, and it may be the remains of one of the dancers from the original show.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Banking on Death: Emma Lathen

Why did I reread this book? Because the John Putnam Thatcher series by Emma Lathen is one of my favorite series of mystery novels. And why now? Because the story is set around Christmas. Very little of the story relates to Christmas, but I did enjoy all the references to Christmas, some of which I will share here.

John Putnam Thatcher, senior vice president and director of the trust department of Sloan Guaranty Trust, is the protagonist of this series totaling 24 books. Most of the books are focused on one type of business that is using the services of the Sloan, and the story shares many facts about the running of the specific types of businesses. But in this first book, the focus is on the business of the Sloan, the third largest bank in the world. And the issue that starts the story is a query into the status of a small trust that the Sloan has been managing for close to thirty years.

The Sloan has been approached because a trust will soon be dispersed due to the expected death of the last living child of the man who set up the trust. The grandchildren who will benefit from the trust are trying to locate one of the heirs, who has not been heard of for many years. When the lost heir, Robert Schneider, is located, he has been dead for two weeks. There are many suspects, some in the business that the heir worked for, others among the family members who will get his portion of the trust. Why does the Sloan get involved? Because Robert Schneider has children and the institution has a responsibility to protect the rights of all the potential beneficiaries. And because Thatcher enjoys a puzzle and can't let it go.

The story starts a few weeks before Christmas but really gets moving on Christmas eve, at a lunch with Tom Robichaux, where Thatcher makes the connection between two firms that produce industrial textiles, one of which employs the missing heir.
Neither sentiment nor business prompted Thatcher and Robichaux to eat a protracted lunch at the Harvard Club each December twenty-fourth. They were merely avoiding the dislocations that the preparation of inevitable Christmas festivities at their respective institutions entailed. And, if possible, parts of the festivities themselves; Robichaux because he preferred to conduct a strenuous social life in more appropriate surroundings, Thatcher because he found office parties embarrassing and somehow pathetic.
Later there is a brief description of the Christmas holiday that each continuing character at the Sloan experienced. My favorite is Miss Corsa's holiday.
For example, Rose Theresa Corsa was forced to sandwich into thirty hours an incredible number of activities. She participated in an office party, every detail of which had to be recounted to two younger sisters; she attended midnight Mass; she rendered prodigious culinary assistance to her mother; she sat down with a large group of relatives to a high holiday feast which stubbornly combined all the elements of classical Neapolitan cookery with those of a traditional American Christmas Day dinner; and she reviewed the day's events with her closest friend, Maria Angelus. The result of this hilarious round of activity was that she failed to prepare her wardrobe for the following day and arrived at her office one hour late for the first time in four years.
I don't usually care for mystery plots featuring amateur sleuths, and finally I have discovered why this series works for me. In Whodunit?: A Who's Who in Crime & Mystery Writing by Rosemary Herbert, John Putnam Thatcher is described as a prime example of the surrogate detective.
The term “surrogate detective” is applied to characters who solve crimes yet who are neither amateur nor professional detectives. Like the accidental sleuth, the surrogate sleuth may simply have stumbled upon the crime scene, but whereas the accidental sleuth acts out of pluckiness or sometimes self-defense in order to prove who committed the crime, the surrogate sleuth feels compelled to act by applying expertise that he or she brings to the situation.
Thatcher fits this definition by virtue of his financial expertise, and he can often connect motives and behavior to business practices. Other examples are sleuths with a related knowledge of science, and journalists who can gain access to characters.

Emma Lathen's novels are often described as "dated" and this one is especially so, since it was published in 1961. When Thatcher wants to find out information about a death in another city, he sends someone on his staff to the Library to borrow all the papers for that city over the requested time frame. Certainly the world is much different now. Instead of typewriters we have computers and the internet makes information much more readily available. Secretaries have now been replaced by Administrative Assistants, acknowledging the importance of the service they provide. I would not say I want to go back to these times at all. But I like to read books, and especially mystery novels, written in earlier times. Offices, living conditions, and attitudes of the 60s, 70s and 80s are interesting. The John Putnam Thatcher series span several decades, starting in 1961 and ending in 1997, showing a progression.

I loved this book. It had been years since I had read it, and I was surprised that this first book in the series was so good. Like the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe series, all the main characters are well-defined from the beginning of the series. This book had all of the wonderful qualities that I remember, and introduces many continuing characters (Tom Robichaux, Charlie Trinkham, Ken Nicolls, Miss Corsa).  Although it is Thatcher that holds the story together in each book, the viewpoint moves from character to character, giving the reader a broad picture of the plot. Even minor characters are vividly described. To top it off, this book had a very satisfactory ending.


Publisher:   Pocket Books, 1975 (orig. pub. 1961)
Length:      193 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       John Putnam Thatcher, #1
Setting:      New York
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Winter Ground: Catriona McPherson

When a circus comes to spend the winter at the neighboring estate to Gilverton, Dandy Gilver is asked to investigate some worrisome pranks and practical jokes. Then one of the pranks results in a death, and the question becomes, was it an accident or not?

This is the fourth book in the Dandy Gilver Mystery Series, set in 1920s Scotland after WWI. The series features Dandy, wife of Hugh Gilver, owner of the Gilverton estate, and mother of two sons. She is also a private detective, working with her friend Alec Osborne. The series is cozy, with little violence, quirky characters, and a lot of subtle humor.

I had a mixed reaction to the first book of the series, After the Armistice Ball. The story was interesting and nicely paced, but some aspects bothered me. My comments on that book are here. I became much fonder of Dandy in this book than I had been in Book 1. Dandy and her friend Alec are still investigating crimes. Dandy takes it very seriously but her husband, Hugh, is not resigned to the idea. Dandy's two sons are home from school for the holidays and thrilled to visit the circus folk and watch them prepare for a special performance.

It was fun to read about a circus operating in the time frame of this story. The circus people were very interesting and provided a contrast to Dandy's upper-class life. The depiction of Scotland in 1925 is very interesting, the characters are well-done, and the events take place around Christmas and the New Year.

I enjoyed Dandy's thoughts while on a walk in November with her dog, Bunty:
I trudged on, inwardly counting my blessings as Nanny Palmer's early training had left me all but unable not to do. Peace was still on the list even seven years after the armistice that put it  there but it was beginning to lose its place to the everyday: stout shoes, warm clothes, a solid roof awaiting my return, hot coffee – chocolate even, if I asked for it – and health and strength and… I willed my thoughts towards less depressingly wholesome blessings… a new sable-tipped evening wrap, Christmas coming but no family visits coming with it and, next week, Rudolf Valentino at the Cinerama.
Christmas, which comes very near the end, does not play a big part in the plot, but I enjoyed the chapter that included the family's observance of Christmas and the family squablles.

While preparing this post, I reread the last 30-40 pages of the book and I liked the ending just as well the second time. McPherson does a very good job of pulling together a lot of threads in the book and left me with a good feeling about the future of the series.

See also:
Katrina's review at Pining for the West. Katrina lives in Scotland.
The review at the Historical Novel Society.
A review at The Bookbag.


Publisher:   Hodder, 2009 (orig. pub. 2008) 
Length:       294 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Dandy Gilver Mystery #4
Setting:      Perthshire, Scotland, 1925
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Feast of Murder: Jane Haddam

Description from the back of the book:
Wall Street wizard Jonathan Edgewick Baird has some very good reasons for hauling friends, family and flunkies out for a Thanksgiving week cruise on his lovingly crafted duplicate of the good ship Mayflower, not the least of which are the fortuitous death of an embarrassing business associate and his own recent release from prison for insider trading. But why did Baird invite former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian, a noted murder specialist, along for the ride?
I had a sudden impulse to reread this book set at Thanksgiving, so this is my offering for Thanksgiving Day. The story doesn't have a lot of Thanksgiving spirit, but we get a good amount of background on the Mayflower and the conditions that its passengers had to endure in the trip to a new world.

Gregor Demarkian is a ex-FBI agent, a widower who has retired and is living in a community of Armenian-Americans in Philadelphia. After retirement, Gregor has been called in to consult with police departments, so he has a reputation in this new role. This year he and his friend Bennis Hannaford are heading to a Thanksgiving on a replica of the Mayflower, to avoid the traditional Thanksgiving in the neighborhood. Not because they don't enjoy being with their friends but because their friends are trying to nudge them into matrimony, and neither of them are ready to even think about that. Gregor is 56, Bennis is 20 years younger and an author of fantasy fiction.

However, if they had known how uncomfortable the Mayflower cruise would be, both in dealing with a second death, and the privations of living on a ship with few amenities, they might have stayed at home.

Each Gregor Demarkian book starts out with several brief chapters featuring the characters that the reader will be following in the story. In this book the particular set of characters are all rich and all connected with the company owned by Jon Baird. And almost all of them are unlikable. As the story opens, Baird is still in prison and looking forward to  getting out and getting on with the merger of his company with Europabanc. This prologue is unusual in that the section title is "The Death of Donald MacAdam." Often the death comes later in the book, after a good bit of set up.

I have read 24 of the 29 books in the Gregor Demarkian series. That pretty much indicates that I find Jane Haddam an author worth reading. The first book in the series, Not a Creature Was Stirring, is one of my favorite mystery novels. That one I highly recommend. The Gregor Demarkian books follow a format, but the series changes as it goes along. The earlier books were lighter, cozyish, and holiday-themed (to a certain extent) and the later books, maybe starting with Skeleton Key (#16), are darker, more serious, and less cozy. Also the later ones usually center on some social issue, although personally that doesn't pull me out of the plot. The books have well-defined characters and the stories have good pacing. The point of view switches from character to character, although not in a disorienting way, keeping the reader guessing.


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1992 
Length:       306 pages
Format:      Paperback Original
Series:       Gregor Demarkian, #6
Setting:      Begins and ends in Pennsylvania
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey was the first book written by Jane Austen, but it was not published until after her death, along with Persuasion. This book was a total unknown to me. Of Jane Austen's six novels, I knew Pride and Prejudice very well, and had some familiarity with Emma and Sense and Sensibility. I had seen the film adaptation of Mansfield Park but just barely remembered it. I had no experience with Northanger Abbey or Persuasion. I am now aware that this novel is a parody of Gothic romance novels, but to be honest, I am not familiar enough with that genre to have noticed while reading the book.

The story is basically this:

Catherine Morland is one of ten children in a middle class family; her father is a country clergyman. A wealthy couple living nearby invite her to join them on a trip to Bath during the winter ball season. She meets a young woman who befriends her, Isabella Thorpe. Isabella's brother, John, a friend of Catherine's elder brother, becomes interested in Catherine. She, in turn, falls for Henry Tilney, and develops a friendship with his sister, Eleanor. Things become complicated when John Thorpe begins to force himself on Catherine and tries to thwart her friendship with the Tilneys. Then Catherine is invited to visit for several weeks with the Tilneys at Northanger Abbey, which she imagines as a dark and frightening but exciting place to live.

My thoughts on this book:

I enjoyed Catherine's character as a naive young woman with little experience. I did not find her laughable as some readers do. Not many teenagers today would be quite as naive as she is, but I certainly was very inexperienced at her age, very concerned about what people thought of me, and just as much interested in attracting a boyfriend. I was impressionable and emotional at that age.

Another interesting character is General Tilney, James and Eleanor's father. He is overbearing and controlling with his children, yet befriends Catherine and invites her to their home. And then there is the contrast of Catherine's two new friends, Isabella and Eleanor, one self-serving, one genuinely a friend.

I have said it in other reviews, but I love that Jane Austen was writing from her experience as a woman in the late 1700s into the early 1800s, and that she was putting the focus on issues that affected her, but most important, that the themes she discussed then are still relevant. Sure, both women and men have a very different life now and many more options, but love and marriage and finances (or the lack of those things) still affects a person's life and happiness.

This book features reading and books a lot, and I enjoyed that. The heroine reads Gothic novels, and various books are discussed by the characters throughout the book. Catherine's reading choices have influenced her outlook on the world, and she believes (or wants to believe?) that life is much like a Gothic novel.

So far, Pride and Prejudice tops my list of novels by Jane Austen. Emma and Mansfield Park are running neck and neck right behind P&P. I haven't decided where Northanger Abbey fits. It is shorter and thus moves much faster than the longer novels by Austen. It is divided into two halves: the trip to Bath and learning to navigate the social scene there, followed by Catherine's visit to Northanger Abbey, each half interesting in its own way. Overall, I like the characters in this book better than those in Emma and Mansfield Park. They act more like normal people, and even the self-centered and manipulative characters are more interesting.

I would like to recommend the edition of Northanger Abbey that I read. It includes Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition, which I may never read, but are nice to have. It was the few pages of Explanatory Notes at the end that I especially appreciated. I don't find reading Austen difficult, but there were many terms that I would not have understood fully without the notes.

I read Northanger Abbey this month as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books. I read Pride and Prejudice in August, Mansfield Park in September and Emma in October. I will be reading Persuasion in December. 


Publisher:   Oxford University Press, 1990 (Northanger Abbey orig. pub. 1818)
Length:      205 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Literary fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy at this year's Planned Parenthood book sale.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Murder on the Blackboard: Stuart Palmer

Hildegarde Withers, a third-grade teacher in New York City, finds the dead body of an attractive young music teacher, Anise Halloran, in the Teacher's Cloakroom. Miss Withers calls in her friend Inspector Piper, but by the time he arrives, the body has disappeared. And then, when he goes looking for the body, he gets cracked on the head and ends up recuperating in the hospital.

This is the third book in Stuart Palmer's series featuring Hildegarde Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper. Quite by accident they worked together to solve a murder in their first case, The Penguin Pool Murder. And this time, the crime takes place in the school where Miss Withers teaches.

Although Inspector Piper does not feature as prominently in this mystery, here is the introduction we get to that character before he is bashed over the head and banished to a hospital bed:
Let me explain to those of my readers who are having their first introduction to Oscar Piper, Inspector of Detectives, that he is a leanish, grayish man of somewhat indeterminate age, with a pugnacious lower lip and a pair of very chilly bluegray eyes. A badly-lighted cigar usually hangs from one corner of his mouth, and his speech, perhaps because he has risen from the ranks and is proud of it, smacks a little of Broadway, West Broadway. 
Even with Inspector Piper incapacitated, Miss Withers wastes no time in investigating the mystery. As the author tells us:
She had little respect for the intelligence of the police when Oscar Piper was in charge of a case, and none at all now that he lay on the operating table in the emergency ward at Bellevue.
Although Miss Withers initially gets involved in crime investigation accidentally, by this point she has a reputation for being helpful to the police. In fact, the principal of her school asks her to act on behalf of the school in her investigation, at least initially.

These were my favorite aspects of this story:

  • The Hildegarde Withers stories are humorous, but they are not written exclusively for laughs. There is a serious story and Miss Withers is serious about her investigation.
  • I enjoyed the depiction of life in the 1930s. The book was published in 1932 and Prohibition ended in 1933, and bootleg liquor figures into the story. Also, the workings of a big city elementary school at that time was interesting.
  • Miss Withers is bossy, opinionated, and not afraid to speak her mind. She is a prime example of the spinster sleuth, although she isn't really that old (in her forties).

We also watched the film adaptation of this book starring Edna May Oliver and James Gleason. They are both perfect in their roles as Withers and Piper. Although the story in the film is very close to the plot of the book, Piper's role does change. In the movie, one of Piper's subordinates is the one knocked on the head and injured severely so Miss Withers and Inspector Piper do work together more than in the book. Miss Withers does take the initiative to go off on her own a bit. As usual, I prefer the book, but the movie is a lot of fun too.

There were six films based on Hildegarde Withers novels, and Edna May Oliver starred in the first three. Later she was replaced by Helen Broderick and Zazu Pitts.

See Also...

This post is submitted for Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog


Publisher:   Bantam Books, 1988 (orig. pub. 1932)
Length:      185 pages
Format:      Paperback
Series:       A Hildegarde Withers Mystery #3
Setting:      New York City
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Patient Fury: Sarah Ward

Detective Inspector Francis Sadler gets a call to come to the site of a burning house, which indicates that there is a suspicious death related to the fire. He calls Detective Constable Connie Childs, recently back from extended sick leave, to join him. Later it is determined that there are three dead bodies, a father, mother, and young son; the evidence indicates that the mother killed her husband and son, and then herself.

This is the third DC Childs mystery, written by Sarah Ward.  The series is set in the Derbyshire Peak District where the author lives. I have been a fan of the series since it started and this book did not disappoint.

Connie has a history of disagreeing with the general consensus of how a crime investigation should be handled, and she doesn't mind striking out on her own to investigate. This has put her at odds with her boss and coworkers before (and, as a reader, irritates me a bit).

In this case, Connie really breaks with the group. She doesn't follow orders, she doesn't follow up on leads she has been assigned, and she does investigate areas that she has been told are off limits. It was hard to understand why she went to these lengths, but also hard to understand why others in the group were not interested in following up all avenues. This book explores the psychological burdens that police officers of all ranks bear and how it affects their work.

Other members of the police and support staff are present again in this book: Superintendent Llewellyn, pathologist Bill Shields and his assistant Scott. Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer has a lesser role in this book, and DS Carole Mathews is added to the team.

Sarah Ward's books all concentrate to some extent on families and their bonds and relationships. This book delves into the secrets and pains of Julia and George Winson, the adult children of the man who was murdered in the fire. Complicating the situation is a past incident in their family; their mother disappeared 40 years earlier. There are brief flashbacks to events in the family's past throughout the book.

The characterization is superb and the story is riveting; I stayed up way later than I should have to finish the book. The book was a bit darker than I expected, and I was very unprepared for the ending. Yet I think this could be the best book in the series so far.

Can this be read as a standalone? I would say yes. Having read the previous books, In Bitter Chill and A Deadly Thaw, I was familiar with the continuing characters up to a point, but having to wait a year to read the next book, a lot has been forgotten. The author provides enough background to keep the reader informed without reading the earlier books and there is definitely nothing spoiled in previous books if you read this one first. However, this is a great series to read in order to see the development and the motivations of the characters.


Publisher:   Faber & Faber, 2017
Length:       392 pages
Series:        DC Childs #3
Format:       Hardcover
Setting:       Derbyshire, UK
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Brothers Keepers: Donald E. Westlake

I loved this book, and I only hope I can convey exactly why I enjoyed it so much. At this point in the year, I can say for sure it is one of my favorite books of the year. Although it's author, Donald E. Westlake, is primarily known for his crime fiction, this is not a crime story. It is somewhat of a caper novel, and there is some detecting, so I did not really notice the absence of a real crime as I was reading it.

Brother Benedict is a member of the Crispinite order, numbering only 16 monks, which has occupied a building in midtown Manhattan, built by the original monks on leased land.  Brother Benedict discovers in the newspaper that the building that they are housed in will be demolished along with the rest of the block they live on. This order has a prohibition against travel unless absolutely necessary; thus the brothers are disturbed that they will have to leave the home they love. They believe that they have a legal right to stay, based on their lease, but the lease is missing. This is highly suspicious. They search for ways to prevent the demolition of the block, but they are thwarted everywhere they turn. In the midst of the effort to keep their home, Brother Benedict visits the landlord, traveling all the way to Puerto Rico, and falls in love with his daughter.

Even though this story is about a fictional order, I enjoyed reading about the details of life in the Crispinite order and the quirky members of the order. Brother Benedict treasures his life in the order and knows he is blessed to have found the perfect fit for him. And then he falls in love with a rich, self-centered divorcee who also falls for him, and Westlake makes this believable.

This is a charming, light, comic novel with a happy ending, even though it seems that there is no way it could end well.

This story is covered in depth at Clerical Detectives.


Publisher:  Mysterious Press, 1993. Orig. pub. 1975.
Length:      261 pages
Format:     Paperback
Setting:     New York, Puerto Rico
Genre:      Comic caper
Source:     I purchased my copy. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Reading Summary for October 2017

It felt like I read fewer books in October, but it wasn't that bad, it just took me 18 days to finish two of the books, Emma and Strangers on a Train. Whiteout was also read during that time but it doesn't really count because even at 128 pages, a graphic novel doesn't take that long to read.

My project through December of this year is to read one book a month by Jane Austen, as a part of the Jane Austen Read All A-Long at James Reads Books.  In August I read Pride and Prejudice (a re-read)  and in September I read Mansfield Park. October's Austen book was Emma, and as I said, it took me a while. I did enjoy the book but it was slow going. My thoughts on the book are HERE.

I did not realize until I had listed all the books I read this month that four of my five crime fiction books were written prior to 1960. That surprised me because lately I have been reading a higher percentage of contemporary novels.

And these are the five crime fiction books I read in October:

Whiteout (1991), a graphic novel written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Steve Lieber
This is a mystery / thriller set in Antarctica featuring Carrie Stetko, U.S. Marshal. The story has been adapted into a movie of the same title, which I have yet to see.
Strangers on a Train (1950) by Patricia Highsmith
This is a fairly well-known novel, and also has a movie adaptation, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The basic story is that two men meet on a train, and one of them suggests a murder pact. If they each murder a person that the other wants to get rid of, then they can get away with the perfect crime. A very good novel, but a disturbing read. Peggy at Peggy's Porch very kindly sent me this book, which I have been planning to read for years. 

Murder on the Blackboard (1932) by Stuart Palmer
Another book that has been adapted into a film. Oh no, a trend. It was not exactly deliberate, but I have had the Hildegarde Withers Mystery Collection from Warner Archives for quite a while, and wanted to read the book first.
Hildegarde Withers, a third-grade teacher in New York City, finds the dead body of an attractive young music teacher, Anise Halloran, in the cloakroom. Miss Withers calls in her friend Inspector Piper, but by the time he arrives, the body has disappeared. This is a complex mystery with a large cast, which also was a lot of fun to read.

Landed Gently (1957) by Alan Hunter
Another mystery novel with a large cast that confused me, and a lot of red herrings. But that was OK, because I found the hero, Inspector Gently, very charming and I liked that there were multiple investigators. Gently is visiting with the Chief Constable, Sir Daynes Broke, to get a chance at some pike fishing over Christmas, when a visitor at nearby Merely Hall is murdered. Being a guest of the Chief Constable, Gently cannot officially investigate the crime.

Envious Casca (1941) by Georgette Heyer
A country house mystery, with a corpse in a locked room, and a smallish set of residents and guests who are almost all suspects. I read a few of Georgette Heyer's mystery novels decades ago, and liked them well enough, but I was very surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. In a month of very good reading, this was easily my favorite read. Another one set at Christmas.

Friday, November 3, 2017

My Husband's Book Sale Purchases

Continuing on with our purchases at the annual book sale...

My husband found more books at the book sale this year, and was happier with the selection overall. His focus is primarily history, nonfiction, and photo books, although he always helps me look for mysteries and has several mystery series he always looks for. These are a few of his picks. 

Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief by Tom Zoellner

From the book review in the New York Times:
Zoellner sets off on a series of railway adventures — across America, India, Spain, Russia, Britain, China and the Peruvian Andes — that provide him with ample opportunities to contemplate the railways’ influence on everything from pop culture to dietary habits to national identity.

The Late Great Creature by Brock Brower

From The Overlook Press:
Brock Brower's National Book Award-nominated novel traces the making of a horror movie in Hollywood. Simon Moro, a 68-year-old star, is making his last picture, a low-budget remake of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. Moro, infuriated by the bland horror movies of his day, sees his own career — even as it ends — as an ongoing effort to wallop the public with an overwhelming moral shock. ... Brock Brower has taken the horror film in all its gory glory to create a book that recycles pop material into literature, creating a Dickensian tale of America.
The author lived in Carpinteria, California (very near to Santa Barbara) when this book, originally published in 1971, was reissued by The Overlook Press in 2011. See this article at The Santa Barbara Independent for more on the book and the author.

The Dead Fathers Club by Matt Haig

Summary from the Buffalo & Erie County Library:
Eleven-year-old Philip Noble has a big problem. It all begins when his dad appears as a ghost at his own funeral and introduces Philip to the Dead Fathers Club. Philip learns the truth about ghosts: the only people who end up as ghosts have been murdered. So begins Philip's quest to avenge his dad.

The Buckingham Palace Connection by Ted Willis

From the dust jacket:
An exciting and wonderfully imaginative story of how George V., King of England, tries to save his cousin Tzar Nicholas II from the Reds during the Russian Revolution in 1918. James Tremayne is secretly commissioned to mount the rescue expedition. In Vladivostock, Tremayne joins forces with a White Russian general, Kasakov, and an American construction engineer, Jim Story, an expert on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

The Highly Effective Detective Duo by Richard Yancey

This is an omnibus containing The Highly Effective Detective and The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs.

This description of the first book in the series is from Cozies: 22 Core Titles at Library Journal:
Theodore “Teddy” Ruzak of Knoxville, TN, is the bumbling but determined detective in Yancey’s entertaining debut. Overweight and unschooled, Teddy quits his job as a night watchman to set up his own detective agency with a small inheritance. For his first case, Teddy is hired to track down a hit-and-run goose killer. Before long, however, the case turns decidedly homicidal. Endearing and colorful characters, suspenseful plots twists, and witty dialog make for a fun read.

Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad…) by Paul Buckley (ed.) and Chris Ware (Foreward)

On the occasion of Penguin’s 75th anniversary, Paul Buckley, the publisher’s US art director, chose 75 book covers that represent the best work produced by the company over the last decade. 

See this article at Creative Review which includes five extracts from the book.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Smallbone Deceased: Michael Gilbert

Just last week I posted my thoughts on the first book in the Inspector Hazelrigg series, Close Quarters. Smallbone Deceased, considered Micheal Gilbert's masterpiece by many, is the fourth book in that series.

In both books, Inspector Hazelrigg is the investigating officer in a murder case, and in both of them his role is not central. He is important in the story and to the solution of the crime, but there are other important characters in each book. And I like it that way.

In this book, Henry Bohun, new solicitor in the firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine, does a good bit of the investigating. He actually does it at the behest of Inspector Hazelrigg, who knows of his reputation from another policeman, Bobby Pollock, who was a major character in Close Quarters. Bohun is uniquely fitted to this assignment because he came into the firm after the murder had taken place.

So, a brief summary:
Shortly after Bohun joins the firm, a deed box containing important documents is opened, and inside the box there is a dead body, instead of the expected papers. The body is found to be Marcus Smallbone, who was a trustee, along with Abel Horniman, of the Ichabod Stokes Trust. Although Abel Horniman is also dead, he is the main suspect. Over the next two weeks, Hazelrigg, Detective Sergeant Plumptree, and Bohun track down the clues in the investigation.

For me, the main attraction of Michael Gilbert's books is his writing style, clever and witty. The legal office setting in this book appears to me to be very realistic and the detail of the office interactions are fascinating. Add to that the wonderful character of Henry Bohun and the other interesting and somewhat quirky employees at Horniman, Birley and Craine, and the story is just about perfect.

At the end there is a brief chapter (titled "The Bill of Costs is Presented") explaining how and why the culprit did it and why some of the other suspects did not. Usually I don't like those kinds of rehashing of previous facts and clues, but this one was not overly long and was quite entertaining.

Many readers think of this as Michael Gilbert's best novel, but I will have to read a few more of his books before I can see how this one ranks in comparison. I am already exceedingly fond of the Mr. Calder and Mr. Behren's books, but those are a series of short stories.

Other reviews can be viewed at Pretty Sinister Books, Reactions to Reading, Clothes in Books, Past Offences, and In so many WORDS.


Publisher:  Penguin, 1981 (orig. publ. 1950).
Length:      208 pages 
Format:      Paperback
Series:       Inspector Hazelrigg, #4
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.