Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Cold Comfort Farm: Stella Gibbons

I have heard so much about Cold Comfort Farm over the years. I had to try it, but I was hesitant. The book is described as a parody of rural novels written in the early 1900s. Not being familiar with those novels, I wasn't sure how much it would mean to me. The title of the book conjured up something quite different. So I was surprised to find that I loved it, from the first page.

The book opens after Flora Poste's parents have died:
The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.
Her father had always been spoken of as a wealthy man, but on his death his executors were disconcerted to find him a poor one. After death duties had been paid and the demands of creditors satisfied, his child was left with an income of one hundred pounds a year, and no property.
Thus, after writing to various relatives, Flora Poste decides to move in with her country relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm.

In various reviews and articles, Flora Poste has been compared to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse. That never occurred to me because the two stories are so different, but it is a valid comparison, because Flora wants to set everything right and fix everyone's lives. Or at least everyone living at Cold Comfort Farm. And at the Starkadder's farm, everyone does need at least a little help.

I was dubious of her attitude of taking over initially. Who was she to think she knew what was right for everyone? But as she worked her magic gradually with each person, and helped them find their way, I began to enjoy it.

There are so many interesting and entertaining characters that I cannot include them all. Flora is at the top of the list, of course. Then there is Judith Starkadder, the matriarch, who only cares for her son Seth. Seth, in turn, is handsome and sexy but all he is really interested in is the movies at the local theater. Amos, the father, preaches at the Church of the Quivering Brethren and hates being tied to the farm. Reuben, the other son, is the only one who really cares about the farm. None of them are happy. And that just scratches the surface.

This is not a book that is meant to be taken seriously, and I found it a lot of fun. But there are readers who don't find it funny or enjoyable, and I would hesitate to recommend to everyone. I do think it is a book worth trying, and I am sure I will be reading it again.

Some other posts to check out:


Publisher:  Penguin Books, 2006 (orig. pub. 1932). 
Length:     233 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Fiction
Source:    I purchased this book.
Introduction by Lynne Truss.
Cover by Roz Chast.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Snowblind: Ragnar Jonasson

Snowblind is the first book in the Dark Iceland series, written by Ragnar Jónasson. The setting is the northernmost town in Iceland, Siglufjörður, close to the Arctic Circle. I have read other mysteries set in Iceland but those have been set in or around Reykavik, and I like this different setting. The town is small and can only be accessed via a tunnel, thus it is often isolated when the weather is bad.

This is the summary on the back of my edition:
Where: An isolated fishing village in the fjords of northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors.
Who: Ari Thór is a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik.
What: A young woman is found lying half naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed, elderly writer falls to his death. Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.

As the novel opens, Ari Thór Arason is attending police college and lives with his girlfriend, Kristin, who is studying to be a doctor. He soon gets a call offering him a job in Siglufjörður, and he decides to take it without consulting Kristin. She is upset with him, and he leaves for his new job with a good bit of resentment between the two of them.

When Ari Thór arrives at his new job, he is disappointed to find the that the town is so quiet and crime free. As his new boss, Tomas, says, "nothing ever happens here." Ari Thór feels claustrophobic and threatened in his new environment and he is very much an outsider there.

Even when a well-known, elderly author dies by falling down the stairs at the local theater, and Ari Thór suspects that it may not be an accident, Tómas downplays the incident and doesn't want to stir up any trouble.

Then a young woman is found lying in the snow near to her home, bleeding and near death. Her husband is immediately suspected, but the police have to look into other possibilities, and as the investigation continues, many secrets are exposed.

My first reaction to the story was that the police were much less focused on the solution to the crime than I would expect, possibly due to not having had to deal with such a serious crime in the past. I also noticed that many of the characters were troubled about tragic events in their past. Ari Thor had lost both parents at a young age and felt that there is little justice in life. Several other characters had lost one of their parents at a young age or someone similarly close and had suffered trauma from those losses. This type of loss is not unusual, it just seemed very prominent in this small set of characters.

But as I got involved in the story, I found it to be a rewarding read. Many of the characters are experiencing change in their lives and adjusting. The crime highlights those situations. And the way the investigation plays out is realistic.

I also liked the way the story goes back and forth in time, letting the reader know that a serious crime has occurred, and going back in time to reveal more about the characters and explore events leading up to the crime. I thought that was handled very cleverly. I mention it specifically because some readers don't care for that style.

My only problem with this series is that it was published out of order in the US. Per the author's website:
Original publication order of the series in Iceland:
Fölsk nóta (2009)*
Snjóblinda (Snowblind) - 2010
Myrknætti (Blackout) - 2011
Rof (Rupture) - 2012
Andköf (Whiteout) - 2013
Náttblinda (Nightblind) - 2014
* Not set in Siglufjordur, but the first novel featuring Ari Thór Arason, as a young theology student looking for his missing father.

Some other reviews to check out...


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2017 (orig. pub. 2010)
Length:      302 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Series:       Dark Iceland Series #1
Setting:      Iceland
Genre:       Police procedural
Source:     I purchased this book.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

More Work for the Undertaker: Margery Allingham

I have talked here about how much I like Margery Allingham's Albert Campion series. Since I started blogging, I have reread and reviewed six books in the series, in order. Recently I finished reading More Work for the Undertaker.

This summary of the book is from the Margery Allingham Society website:
Apron Street is a quiet little thoroughfare in west London – and yet . . . Albert Campion is called in to investigate the death of Ruth Palinode, and he finds himself surrounded by as strange a family as he has ever encountered. Not that the other denizens of Apron Street are above suspicion. After all, the undertaker is Magersfontein Lugg’s brother-in-law. But who is writing anonymous letters? Who killed Ruth Palinode? And why are hardened criminals frightened of the very name of Apron Street? 
As the story begins, Campion is pondering whether to accept a government post that has been offered to him. He is reluctant but wants to do the right thing. Fortunately Stanislaus Oates, Chief of Scotland Yard, wants him to work on a case and he accepts that offer instead.

The Palinode family is at the center of the story. Except for one young relative, they are very old and were once very rich.  It appears that the elderly Palinodes are being killed off one by one. One brother and sister are dead; Ruth was poisoned, Edward probably died by natural causes. Three siblings remain: Evadne, Jessica, and Lawrence. They rent rooms in a boarding house that the family once owned and lived in. They are exceedingly eccentric, but that is nothing unusual for an Albert Campion story.

This is not close to my favorite in the series, but it does have plenty to offer. It falls into the category of a fantastical story, with so many weird characters that it is impossible to describe them all. And there is definitely a mystery and plenty of valid suspects. (Some of the stories have very little mystery, and some have much more adventure.)

I have noticed that many of the Albert Campion books have some element of romance. Sometimes it is a small subplot, sometimes it is a major part of the story. This one has just a hint of romance in it, but the young relative of the Palinodes does have her share of admirers.

Charlie Luke is introduced in this book, and he is a very interesting character.  He is a DDI (Divisional Detective Inspector) but welcomes Campion's help; he admits he cannot understand the Palinode family (what they say or what they do).

A description from the book:
The D.D.I. was a tough. Seated on the edge of the table, his hands in his pockets, his hat over this eyes, his muscles spoiling the shape of his civilian coat, he might well have been a gangster. There was a lot of him, but his compact and sturdy bones tended to disguise his height. He had a live dark face with a strong nose, narrow vivid eyes, and his smile, which was ready, had yet a certain ferocity. 
He got up at once, hand outstretched. 
“Good to see you, sir,” he said, and conveyed distinctly that he hoped to God he was.
Amanda is mostly missing from this book, but she does show up at the end, as she did in Pearls Before Swine (or Coroner's Pidgin in the UK).

To summarize, this book is well worth reading if you like Allingham's fantastical writing, but not my favorite of the books I have reread recently.


Publisher:  Ipso Books, 2016 (orig. publ. 1948).
Length:      255 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Albert Campion
Setting:      UK
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Classics Club Spin #21

One of the events offered by the Classics Club is The Classics Club Spin and this month is Spin #21.

Members who participate list twenty books from their classics list that they have not read. I enjoyed the last spin and I still need a push to get me reading from my list, so I am in for another one. I did read 3 books from my Spin #21 list after I posted so I am basically using the previous list and substituting a few new ones in.

So, here is my list of 20 books from my list. On September 23rd, a number will be announced and the goal is to read that book by October 31st. That seems doable.

  1. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe 
  2. Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte 
  3. The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgarov
  4. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) by Truman Capote
  6. And Then There Were None (1939) by Agatha Christie
  7. Tiger in the Smoke (1952) by Margery Allingham
  8. Our Man in Havana (1958) by Graham Greene
  9. The Talented Mr.Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
  10. In A Lonely Place (1947) by Dorothy B. Hughes
  11. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson 
  12. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  13. A Kiss Before Dying (1953) by Ira Levin
  14. Beast In View (1955) by Margaret Millar
  15. The Pursuit of Love (1945) by Nancy Mitford
  16. The Moviegoer (1961) by Walker Percy
  17. Much Ado About Nothing (1598) by William Shakespeare
  18. Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley 
  19. The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  20. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

Several of these books are from my list for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019. I am hoping that the number for one of those will be picked but any one of the books on the list will be a nice read.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Champagne for One: Rex Stout

In August, I reread one of my favorite books by Rex Stout, Champagne for One. It  is part of the Nero Wolfe series, of course,

An acquaintance of Archie's asks him to take his place at an annual dinner party and dance for unwed mothers, and one of the mothers, Faith Usher, ends up dead. Another unwed mother at the dance told Archie that Faith carried cyanide with her in her purse at all times, and had some at the party. So he keeps a close eye on her. When Faith does die of cyanide poisoning, Archie insists it was murder, not suicide. The high society woman who gave the dance, Mrs. Robilotti, is inconvenienced, and thus the police are irate.

This book has all the best features of the series. The interplay between Archie and Nero Wolfe. Inspector Cramer visiting the brownstone to berate Archie for sticking to his guns regarding the cause of death. And Orrie, Fred, and Saul helping with the detecting.

Wolfe's client is not Mrs. Robilotti, as you might think, but one of the guests, who actually was connected to the dead woman and does not want that information to come out.

I have very fond memories of this book. I can picture Archie driving Wolfe's car up the snow-covered drive to the home for unwed mothers, and encountering a large group of very young pregnant women. It is such a small scene in the book but it has stuck with me for years.

Not only is this one of my favorite books, but I also have two TV adaptations of the story so I watched both of them. The version from the A&E series starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin was the most faithful to Stout's story, and was a lot of fun. Some of the narration and dialog was taken directly from the book and that works well with Rex Stout's novels. I have watched all the episodes from that series multiple times.

The Italian adaptation starring Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin was also very good, although that one took a lot more liberties with the story. It was more serious, but had humorous elements also. The Italian Nero Wolfe series has eight feature length episodes and each is based on a book in the series. I have only watched this one and the adaptation of Fer-de-lance, but I enjoyed both of them and look forward to watching the others.


Publisher: Viking Press, 1958 (book club ed.)
Length:    184 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:     Mystery

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Murder with Pictures: George Harmon Coxe

This is the first book I have read by George Harmon Coxe. I was interested in his books because two of his series protagonists are photographers. He wrote the Kent Murdock series consisting of 23 books, and a shorter series starring "Flashgun" Casey, a crime photographer.

This is the brief review at Kirkus, from 1935:
A cameraman on a Boston paper acquires a persistent girl, plenty of excitement and action and a much-desired divorce, as a result of his work in the solution of a complicated crime. Top notcher.
Kent Murdock is a newspaper photographer, with a gift for sleuthing. Murder with Pictures was the first book in the series, published in 1935. As the story opens, Nate Girard has been acquitted of a murder charge. Many people, including the police, still think Girard was guilty of the crime. Kent Murdock gets some photos of Girard and his lawyer, Mark Redfield, leaving the courthouse. That evening, Murdock attends a party at Redfield's apartment, conveniently in the same building that Murdock lives in.

There are two women at the party that interest Murdock: his estranged wife, Hester, who refuses to give him a divorce and is seeing Nate Girard, and a beautiful but standoffish blonde in a blue dress.

A description of the blonde that has Murdock interested:
As he approached he saw that he had been right about her hair. Ash-blond, it escaped being straight by the merest trace of a natural wave. It was pulled back, hiding two-thirds of the ears, so that he was not sure whether it was long or just a long bob. The pale-blue dress looked soft and heavy and shiny.  There was a little jacket which reminded him of a vest without buttons.
Murdock tries to start up a conversation but is rebuffed. He leaves the party early and asks his estranged wife to go with him to his apartment to discuss a divorce.  That doesn't go well.

Shortly after that, the young woman in the blue dress runs into Murdock's apartment while he is taking a shower, and desperately jumps into the shower with him. Then a couple of policemen pursue her into the apartment, but Murdock does not let on that she is in there with him. So now we have a beautiful young woman in the shower with a nude man. He convinces the police that he knows nothing about the woman that they are pursuing, gets out of the shower and answers some questions, dresses, and leaves the apartment with the police.

What a great beginning to a story! Murdock gets involved with the investigation because he has connections with the police, and because he has a soft spot for the blonde, regardless of his first impression at the party.

In some ways I would compare this story to the Mike Shayne books with lots of action, good pacing, and lots of beautiful women. (Keeping in mind that I have only read two books by Brett Halliday.) The differences I see are that we get to know several of the key characters in this story much better and share their inner thoughts about the situation and their lives.

I have two more books in this series to read and one standalone. I will also be looking for The Jade Venus which deals with the effort to recover art treasures during World War II.

This book is covered in more detail at The Passing Tramp.


Publisher:   Harper & Row, 1981 (orig. publ. 1935)
Length:       269 pages
Format:       Paperback
Series:        Kent Murdock #1
Setting:       US
Genre:        Mystery
Source:       Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2015.