Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: Two Stories by Marcia Muller


I began reading the stories in Mistletoe Mysteries in 2014, and this week I finally finished the book. The last story was "Silent Night" by Marcia Muller. I have not read much by this author. I read the first book in her Sharon McCone series (which consists of 35 books, published between 1977 and 2021), and now I have read some of her short stories. 

"Silent Night" features Sharon McCone. Sharon's nephew has run away from home at 14, and has been missing for 5 days; his family lives in Pacific Palisades, California. On Christmas Eve, Sharon learns that he has been spotted in San Francisco, where Sharon lives.  Of course, she starts looking for him immediately, first checking out homeless encampments near where he was last seen. This is a sentimental Christmas story, but not overly so. 

This week, I also decided to read more stories from A Moment on the Edge, edited by Elizabeth George. Coincidentally the next unread story in the book was also by Marcia Muller, "Wild Mustard." This was also an early Sharon McCone story, first published in 1984 in The Eyes Have It

In "Wild Mustard," Sharon becomes interested in an old Japanese woman who she notices digging for plants on a slope near the Sutro Baths ruins in San Francisco. Sharon visits a restaurant in that area every Sunday with a friend, and they usually see the old woman collecting more plants. One day she decides to ask the woman what she is doing; she explains that is picking wild mustard, which she tells Sharon is very good for her. It is clear she has little money and uses the plants that grow on the slope to supplement her diet. One Sunday, months later, Sharon notices that the old woman is not on the slope digging away as usual and follows up. It is a sad story, not really a crime story, but very readable. 

Reading both of these stories has encouraged me to read some more books from the Sharon McCone series by Muller.

The first post I wrote about A Moment on the Edge is here, and has more details on that anthology.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Smoke Without Fire: E.X. Ferrars


When I saw this book by E.X. Ferrars  at the book store, and saw the lovely Christmas cover, I wanted to read it right away. But it was #6 in the Andrew Basnett series and I had not read any of the other books in the series. Luckily I ran into a great review of this book at Kate's blog, crossexaminingcrime. She assured me that it would be OK to read this series out of order, so I did and it was.

Andrew Basnett is a retired botanist, widowed, in his mid-seventies. He is visiting friends for the Christmas holidays. Colin Cahill and Andrew had been on staff at the same college in London for many years. Cahill and his wife had moved to Berkshire; their son lives with them, working in a nearby town. The family and Andrew have been invited to Sir Lucas Deardon's home for Christmas dinner. Unfortunately Sir Lucas returns to Berkshire from London a day early, and is blown up by a bomb in the lane by his home.

The first question is whether Sir Lucas was the intended victim, as he wasn't expected home at that time. If not, who was the bomb intended for? The lane that leads to Sir Lucas home would only be used to reach one other home, the Cahills. Could the Cahill's son, Jonathan, be the intended victim? The police inquire into the various relationships between the Cahills and Sir Lucas's relations, some living with him and others living in London. 

Andrew seems to me to be an accidental sleuth. He is not really intending to find the murderer, but he can't ignore the situation. He can't help being curious, and people like to talk to him.

There is a lot of talk in this mystery. Andrew talking to the family he is staying with. Andrew talking to various members of Sir Lucas's family. So if you don't like talky mysteries, this may not appeal. Fortunately I enjoy Ferrars' writing and this mystery was very appealing to me. 

Based on the books I have read so far by this author, her books are more about the people than the crimes. The crime exists but it seems to me to provide a framework for Ferrars to delve into the psychology and relationships among the characters. 

E.X. Ferrars was born Morna Doris MacTaggart. In the UK her books were issued under the name "Elizabeth Ferrars." She was a very prolific writer. I would guess that she published at least 60 books between 1940 and 1995. I have read three of her standalone books, and I liked all of them.


Publisher:   Felony & Mayhem, 2022 (orig. pub. 1990)
Length:      182 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Andrew Basnett #6
Setting:      UK
Genre:        Mystery, set at Christmas
Source:      I purchased my copy.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Not a Creature Was Stirring: Jane Haddam

Not a Creature Was Stirring is the first book in the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam. The series has 30 books, the last one published after Haddam's death. The first ten books in the series were set around holidays, and the books were sort of cozy. Later books were darker and more focused on issues. I have read the first 24 books in the series.

The story in this book is set at Christmas, and has a Christmas theme throughout. I have read this book three times, and it is my favorite book in the Gregor Demarkian series. Demarkian is a retired FBI agent, with a good reputation. 

The story begins a few days before Christmas when Demarkian is invited to dinner on Christmas Eve by Robert Hannaford, the immensely rich head of a large family in Philadelphia. Demarkian does not know Hannaford, nor does he know the reason for the invitation. When he arrives for dinner, Hannaford is dead in his study. Demarkian is eventually invited to consult with the police to investigate the crime.

The characters in this book are interesting and complex. Demarkian is a widower and recovering from his wife's death. Although he is retired, he is now finding that he misses the work. Robert Hannaford did not like any of his six children, but was devoted to his wife, who is very ill. When he dies, it is pretty clear that at least one of his children killed him. 

It had been long enough since the last time I read this book that I had forgotten who killed Robert Hannaford. I did know that one of the children continues throughout the series, but I still was wondering what the solution was up until the very end. 

This book was published as a paperback original in mass market format in December 1990. It has a very nice two page spread of a floor plan for the main level and the 2nd floor of Engine House, the Hannaford Estate. I love additions like that in mysteries.


Publisher:  Bantam, 1990. 
Length:     287 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Gregor Demarkian, #1
Setting:     Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copy.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: More from Mistletoe Mysteries


I purchased this book in 2014 after reading a post at GeorgeKelley.org. I read a few stories at that time, then just two years ago I featured the book on my blog, having read 6 more stories in the book. 

Today I feature three more stories from this book. I still haven't read all the stories in this book, but I hope to finish the last three by the end of 2022.

"Dutch Uncle" by Aaron Elkins

Per Charlotte MacLeod's introduction, this was the first short story Aaron Elkins wrote. At the time he had published a few mystery novels, but no short stories. [He has now published 18 novels in the Gideon Oliver series, two other shorter series, and four standalone novels.]

This story is about a lawyer who is hired by a client to help him purchase a piece of art for his wife's Christmas present -- at the last minute. It takes place on Christmas Eve in the late afternoon and that is the last thing he wants to be doing on Christmas Eve.  On top of that the client is extremely obnoxious. The two men find only one art gallery open at that time. With great difficulty they decide upon a painting to purchase, and return home on the ferry. There are two or three (maybe even four) twists before the end of the story and I liked them all.

"The Man Who Loved Christmas" by Henry Slesar

A police office in a small suburb of Dayton is called into work on Christmas morning. He is unhappy about this because his wife is very pregnant with their first child and could have the baby at any time. The case is the disappearance of a man whose wife reported him missing; he wasn't in bed when she woke up and she could not locate him anywhere. The missing man has two children and Christmas is very important to him, so the wife insists he has not just abandoned his family. 

This is another story with unexpected twists, but the results are more serious in this one.

"The Touch of Kolyada" by Edward D. Hoch

This is a Simon Ark story by Hoch, written especially for this anthology. Simon Ark is a mysterious man who claims to be 2000 years old, a Coptic priest hunting down evil. His tales are told by a friend who has known him for many years. His friend doesn't really believe his claims but he does notice that he hasn't aged in the time he has known him. I haven't read any Simon Ark stories yet but I do have a fairly recent collection of those stories from Crippen & Landru on my shelves. 

In this story, Simon Ark encounters a figure from Russian folklore, the elf maiden Kolyada, who distributes gifts to children at Christmas, similar to Santa Claus in western countries. It is an entertaining story, not very complex, and I like the way the narrator tells the story.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Reading in November 2022


I read six books in November, all fiction. Two of the books were originally published in the early 1950s, two in 2018 and two in 2022, so I am still reading more recently published books than older books. I very seldom read a book in the same year it is published. I was very happy with all six books.


Some Tame Gazelle (1950) by Barbara Pym

This is the first book I have read by Barbara Pym. At first I was a little underwhelmed because it was so quiet and a bit repetitive. But it grew on me and I began to enjoy the characters. I will be reading another book by Pym. If anyone has any favorites, I would love suggestions.

Crime Fiction

Nine Perfect Strangers (2018) by Liane Moriarty

I don't know if this really fits the crime fiction category, but it does involve a crime and it reads at times like a thriller.  It was my first read of the month and it was a 5 star read for me. My review here

The Bullet That Missed (2022) by Richard Osman

This is the third book in The Thursday Murder Club series. I liked it just as well as the second book, The Man Who Died Twice, which I reviewed here. I love the main characters, and there are a number of secondary characters who are also well defined. I like the way those people continue in following books. The story is told mostly in present tense, third person, from various viewpoints.

A Pocket Full of Rye (1953 by Agatha Christie

This is a Miss Marple mystery (#6 out of 12 novels) that I had not heard much about so I was surprised to like it quite so much as I did. It was a while since I had read one of the Miss Marple books, and I especially noticed the usual behaviors that Miss Marple exhibits: the knitting, the chats with various suspects or witnesses, and the comparisons to people in St. Mary Mead. It has a family full of (mostly) nasty people and I felt sorry for everyone related to them. And the edition I read was this one with the lovely new cover with bright colors, flowers and a tea cup.

The Maid (2022) by Nita Prose

Molly Gray is a maid in a large hotel, and she loves her job. She doesn't really fit in with the people she works with although she tries hard. She lives alone since her grandmother died and struggles with social skills. I enjoyed the book very much. Nita Prose is a Canadian author and this was her debut novel. My review here.

Safe Houses (2018) by Dan Fesperman

I love espionage fiction so this book was a comfort read for me. The story is told in two time lines, one set in Berlin, 1979, and other in 2014, in Maryland, USA. I especially enjoyed the parts set in 1979 because that was a very big year in my life, and I was close to the age of the female protagonist at that time. It is the first of a trilogy about Claire Saylor, who doesn't even show up until later in the book. I loved it. 

Currently reading

I have read three Christmas mystery novels in December and I like that the Christmas setting plays a big part in all of them. Also some Christmas short stories. Now I am reading O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker.

Since September, we have been walking in various parks and gardens around Santa Barbara a few days a week. The photos this month are from the Rose Garden across from the Santa Barbara Mission. The top photo is of the entrance to the garden area. My husband took the photos at the top and bottom of this post. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Classics Club Spin #32: Tracy's List


The latest Classics Club Spin has been announced. To join in, I choose twenty books from my classics list. There are not many changes from the last list.

On Sunday 11th December, 2022, the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The goal is to read whatever book falls under that number on my Spin List by Sunday the 29th January, 2023.

So, here is my list of 20 books for the spin...

  1. Show Boat (1926) by Edna Ferber [299 pages]
  2. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
  3. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain
  4. My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather
  5. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Roald Dahl
  6. The Sign of Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  [160 pages]
  7. The Wind in the Willows (1908) by Kenneth Grahame 
  8. The Quiet American (1958) by Graham Greene   [180 pages]
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith
  10. Goodbye to Berlin (1939) by Christopher Isherwood
  11. We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962) by Shirley Jackson
  12. A Wrinkle in Time (1962) by Madeleine L'Engle
  13. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers
  14. Cannery Row (1945) by John Steinbeck 
  15. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  16. Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker    [420 pages]
  17. The 13 Clocks (1950) by James Thurber
  18. The Warden (1855) by Anthony Trollope
  19. The Optimist's Daughter (1972) by Eudora Welty   [180 pages]
  20. Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe   [209 pages]

I have a few favorites on this list but really, any book here will be fine.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: American Christmas Stories


Last year I purchased an anthology of Christmas short stories from The Library of America Collection, titled American Christmas Stories, edited by Connie Willis. There are 59 short stories which have been selected from a variety of genres. The stories were published between 1872 and 2004.

I wanted to sample stories from a variety of time periods, so I started with the first four stories in the book, published between 1872 and 1883.

  • Bret Harte, "How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar"
  • Louisa May Alcott, "Kate’s Choice"
  • Mark Twain, "A Letter from Santa Claus"
  • J. B. Moore Bristor, "Found After Thirty-Five Years—Lucy Marshall’s Letter"

Alcott's "Kate's Choice" is about a 15-year-old girl who has been orphaned. Her father wanted her to live with one of her uncles after his death; all of them have a family with children near her age. She has never met any of these families because she lived in England and they were in the US. Kate is allowed to choose which family because her father was rich and she has lots of money. However, Kate wants to meet her grandmother before making a decision. The story is very readable and I enjoyed it, but it is sentimental and everyone was too perfect. 

The story  by J. B. Moore Bristor, "Found After Thirty-Five Years—Lucy Marshall’s Letter", was very interesting. It is described as a true story. It is about a black man who was a slave and separated from his mother when he was a child. Many years later, he had tried to find out if she was alive, with no results. A white woman volunteers to help him find out about his mother or any additional family. She writes some letters to ministers of churches in the area where he lived with his mother.

The next set of stories I read were published from 1903 to 1909: 

  • O. Henry, "A Chaparral Christmas Gift"
  • Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "According to Solomon"
  • Edward Lucas White, "The Picture Puzzle"

My favorite in this set was "The Picture Puzzle", which was a somewhat fantastical story of a couple whose very young daughter is kidnapped. When she is not returned, they end up consoling themselves by working on picture puzzles together.

This story was first published in Lukundoo and other Stories by Edward Lucas White in 1927. It was most recently published in a Dover edition of The Stuff of Dreams: The Weird Stories of Edward Lucas White. "The Picture Puzzle" and other stories in that book are discussed at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Then I wanted to read some stories from the 1980's. Both of these are very good.

Cynthia Felice's "Track of a Legend" is a science fiction story about two kids looking forward to their Christmas presents. They also share a belief in Bigfoot and believe he lives nearby. 

Ed McBain's "And All Through the House" is an 87th Precinct story. As it opens, Steve Carella is on his own in the squad room a little before midnight on Christmas Eve. Soon various detectives come in with people they have arrested for minor crimes, including a very pregnant woman and her husband who had been arresting for living in an abandoned building. 

I still have many more stories from this book to read. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Maid: Nita Prose


Excerpts from the dust jacket of my copy:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. 


But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. 


Molly Gray tells the story from her point of view. We can tell from her narration that she doesn't see life like the average person. She loves her work. Because she lacks in social skills and misinterprets some actions of those she works with, she is sometimes shunned or ridiculed. Others see her basic kindness and like working with her. And some people she knows use her. It took a while for me to pick up on these things, because Molly is pretty optimistic about life and sees the best in most people. She knows that not everyone accepts her as she is, but she has learned to live with it.

It gradually becomes apparent that many things Molly has done to "help" people have gotten her involved in some illegal activities, which complicates the situation when Charles Black is killed and Molly seems to be involved. She had become friends with his much younger wife, and often spent time talking to her, which also implicates her.

My Thoughts

I liked the setting in a hotel, and I had been wanting to read more books with protagonists that did not fit in, like Convenience Store Woman and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. All three books are very different, and the protagonists are too, and I liked all three of them.

Another fun element of the novel was that Molly and her grandmother watched Columbo (TV series with Peter Falk) together and had watched the episodes over and over. Thus Molly compares this case and what is happening to her with various Columbo episodes. That resonated for me because I am a big fan of that show too.

The book was very suspenseful, even though the plot is basically uncomplicated. I liked the ending; I found it satisfying. However there are a lot of readers who have had the opposite reaction, so I hesitate to recommend it.

Nita Prose is a Canadian author. Although the setting of this book is not clear, I am assuming it is set in a large hotel in a large city in Canada. 

Please see Constance's review of The Maid at Staircase Wit.


Publisher:  Ballantine Books, 2022.
Length:     304 pages
Format:     Hardcover
Setting:     Canada
Genre:      Mystery
Source:    I purchased this book.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Nine Perfect Strangers: Liane Moriarty


Nine Perfect Strangers was the first book I read in November. I was very surprised at how much I liked it. I am still confused as to how to categorize it. I had initially assumed it was a mystery, and there definitely is a mystery, but not in the same way as most crime fiction I read. At Goodreads it has been classified as a suspense thriller or as contemporary fiction or even as chick lit (which I don't see at all). 

In this book nine people visit a very expensive health spa for a 10-day stay. Many of them seem to just be looking for rest and relaxation from their normal lives, or a chance to lose some pounds and eat better, but the reality is that their problems are much deeper. They have been warned that the 10 days will be free from electronic devices of any kind and alcohol and drugs of any kind. But still they go into the spa taking their hidden caches of sugar and alcohol and are reluctant to let go of their phones and laptops. 

The characters are revealed gradually. They are not in reality nine "perfect" strangers because two of the clients are a married couple and there is also a family of three with a 20-year-old daughter. My interpretation was that the "stranger" part was true because even within these family relationships they were withholding the truth about themselves (which is pretty normal), or refusing to see the truth of their relationships. It was a very interesting group.

I like the way the characters were presented and their issues gradually revealed. I could not tell what was going on for at least 3/4 of the book, yet was entranced with the story, not exasperated. Frances, a middle aged woman who was once a very successful author of romance novels, is given the most attention. She has recently had a new book rejected by her publisher and also been the victim of a very demoralizing scam. There is also a lot of focus on the young couple, Ben and Jessica, and the family group, Napoleon and Heather and their daughter, Zoe. 

And then there is Masha, the owner of the spa. She is actually on the weird end of the scale and it is difficult to know what her agenda is. Over time, the reader gets to know more about her background, too.

I found most of the characters interesting and none of them were extremely irritating or unlikeable. Some of the characters seem to be very superficial and then their strengths and gifts are exposed later. My expectations of the characters were challenged along the way. 

It is obvious that my focus was on the characters and that drove my enjoyment of the story. I kept expecting something "thrilling" to happen, and the story builds up to that event very slowly. The story was mostly light, not overly serious, and was told with humor.

Liane Moriarty is an Australian author, and her books are very popular. The setting is in Australia, but almost all of the story is set in the spa in a remote part of the country, so I did not get a real sense of Australia from reading the book.

I have read no other books by this author but I would not mind trying others she wrote, except Big Little Lies, which might be too dark for me.

I recently watched the first episode of the adaptation of this book, with Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy. Even though I can see that some of the story, and the characters, have changed, I plan to watch more episodes.


Publisher:  Flatiron Books, 2018.
Length:      450 pages
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      Australia
Genre:        Thriller
Source:      I purchased my copy in 1922.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: "I Was Too Ignorant" by Rosamond Oppersdorff

This story is quite short, only 10 pages long, but to me it felt much longer.

It is about a woman who is working in a military hospital on a base in Brittany during World War II. She has no nursing training at all. She is stuck at the camp because her husband was there and now she cannot leave. Wanting to help, she volunteers to work in the hospital, doing whatever is needed. The hospital wing she is assigned to has 250 beds, cared for by four nurses, plus her, doing the best they can. 

The action in this story takes place between the Battle of Flanders and the Battle of France. Following the Battle of Flanders the hospital is filled with very badly wounded soldiers. 

The woman narrates the story, relating the jobs she is given to do, her fear of doing the wrong thing, the condition of the men who have been hospitalized. 

The story is very moving and very sad. 

"I Was Too Ignorant" was published in Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War, edited by Anne Boston. 

The book has an excellent introduction, explaining how the stories were chosen. The authors are all women and the stories took place between 1939 and 1949; all but one story was written at that time. The stories are mostly home front stories (per the introduction). The collection was first put together and published in 1988; the introduction was written by the editor for this new printing.

From the "Notes on the Authors" in Wave Me Goodbye:

Rosamond Oppersdorf, American by birth, lived most of her life in Paris until the outbreak of the war. Her husband was Polish, and after leaving France in 1940 she worked in a Polish Military hospital in Scotland. "I Was Too Ignorant" was published in New Writing and Daylight, edited by John Lehmann, in 1942.

I have read only two additional stories in this book. Both are brief but very good. "When the Waters Came" by Rosamond Lehmann is about 6 pages long, takes place during the "phoney war," and isn't really much about the war at all. "Gas Masks" by Jan Struther is only 3 pages long, and is a Mrs. Miniver story.

I saw a review of this book recently at Katrina's Pining for the West blog, and bought a copy shortly after that. Check out her review.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl


This short story review is adapted from one of my previous posts. I found it in a collection of mystery stories with the theme of food and eating. At the time, I had no idea how well known it is, although I had heard of the title (and the author, of course). 

"Lamb to the Slaughter"

Mary Maloney waits eagerly for her husband, a policeman, to come home from work; it is their regular night to go out for dinner. She is six months pregnant, and is portrayed as a loving wife. When her husband arrives, he is short with her, and decides to break some bad news to her; that he will be leaving her but she will be taken care of. She finds it difficult to believe or to react to; on automatic, she goes into the kitchen to prepare supper.

This story was chilling and dark but not depressing. It was a great read and it was not what I expected, even knowing a bit about it going in.

I found "Lamb to the Slaughter" in Murder on the Menu, but it has been reprinted in many collections. It is available online here or here.

While looking into the story I saw some comparisons to another story by this author, "The Landlady," which won the 1960 Edgar for Best Short Story. I read it and it is just as chilling as "Lamb to the Slaughter." In 1954, Dahl won the Best Short Story Edgar for "Someone Like You."

This story was adapted for television more than once. This post at The mOvie blog talks about the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode (starring Barbara Bel Geddes) and includes screenshots.

Also see Prashant's review at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema.

Monday, November 14, 2022

What I Read in October 2022


I had another good month of reading in October. Half of the eight books I read were crime fiction; the rest were other types of fiction and one mystery reference book. 

Although the majority of the books I read in October were published after 1999, I did read a classic novel published in 1811, a vintage mystery from 1938, and a children's book from the 1960s. 

Mystery Reference

Talking about Detective Fiction (2009) by P. D. James

This is a relatively short book about British detective fiction written by P. D. James at the request of the Bodleian Library. My review here.

Fiction, Classic

Sense and Sensibility (1811) by Jane Austen

This was the last full-length novel that I had left to read by this author. I am a big Jane Austen fan but this one appealed to me less than the others. See my review.

Fiction, Short Stories

The Souvenir Museum (2021) by Elizabeth McCracken

I had very mixed reactions to the stories in this book. Some were fantastic, some were blah. But I would definitely try more stories by McCracken. My thoughts here.

Fantasy, Children's

The Ghost of Opalina (1967) by Peggy Bacon

This was a book I read for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event, recommended by Constance at Staircase Wit. It is a children's fantasy, made up of a series of linked stories that Opalina, the ghost cat, tells to the children of the house that she has lived in for all of her nine lives. It was great fun to read. My review here.

Crime Fiction

The Man Who Died Twice (2021) by Richard Osman

This book is the second in the Thursday Murder Club series by Richard Osman. In that series, the sleuths are four men and women in their late seventies who live at an upscale retirement complex. I have now read all three books in the series and I loved them all. See my review.

The Listening House (1938) by Mabel Seeley

I picked this book to read in October for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event because the description sounded like it would be sufficiently suspenseful and scary for Halloween, and still within the limits I will read. I am partial to a boarding house setting, and I loved such things as the list of characters at the beginning of the book and the detailed plans of the house, including the basement and the first and second floor. This book exceeded my expectations. See my full review.

State of the Onion (2008) by Julie Hyzy

This is the first book in a cozy mystery series about White House Assistant Chef Olivia Paras. She gets involved with some intrigue related to a possible threat on the President's life. When she isn't busy sleuthing, she is vying for the Executive Chef position, which will be available when her boss retires. Some recipes are included. I enjoyed the book and plan to continue reading the series. 

The Gray Man (2014) by Mark Greaney

This is the first book in a series. Court Gentry is an assassin, known as the "Gray Man," who works for a contractor who vets his assignments. That type of thriller is not my favorite but I have heard good comments on this series. The Gray Man is a fast-paced story. Like the last espionage series I started, I was initially put off by the first few chapters, but got involved in the story and could not stop reading. This is not strictly a spy thriller, but a lot of the characters were former CIA employees, so it felt like one. It left me wanting to know what happens next with Court Gentry, so I am sure I will try the next book in the series to see how it holds up.

Currently reading

I am now reading A Pocket Full of Rye in this lovely new edition. Although I read Why Didn't They Ask Evans? earlier this year, I haven't read a Poirot mystery for over a year and it has been since 2018 that I read a Miss Marple book. So I am glad to get back to that series.

The photos at the top and bottom of this post were from one of our walks around Santa Barbara and Goleta. They were taken while walking on the breakwater at the Santa Barbara Harbor. My husband took the photos. Click on the images for the best viewing quality.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Talking about Detective Fiction: P. D. James

P. D. James (1920-2014) is best known for her series of novels about Adam Dalgleish, initially a Detective Chief Inspector, later a Commander, in the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard in London. I have read all 14 novels in that series, and some of them twice. 

In 2006, the Bodleian Library requested that P.D. James write a book on British detective fiction in aid of the library. This book was the result of that endeavor. The book was only 198 pages long, thus there are many authors of detective fiction that are not included, but I found it an informative and enjoyable read.

Although the book centers on British novelists, James includes a chapter on the hard-boiled school of American detective fiction. The focus in that chapter is on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but she closes the chapter with her thoughts on Ross Macdonald and Sara Paretsky. 

This is followed by a chapter titled "Four Formidable Women," which compares and contrasts the works of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. I enjoyed her insights regarding those authors.

Another chapter I especially liked was "Telling the Story: Setting, Viewpoint, People." She talks about the technical aspects of writing, including references to the works of other authors and how she approaches writing mysteries.

I have only covered the high points from my perspective. There are chapters on other topics: Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton and Golden Age mysteries, for example.

Overall, I was very pleased with this book and sorry that I put off reading it for so long. 


Publisher: Vintage Books, 2011 (orig. pub. 2009)
Length: 198 pages
Format: Trade Paperback
Genre:  Nonfiction, Mystery Reference
Source: On my TBR since 2017.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: Dear Life by Alice Munro

The stories in this book are my first experience with reading Alice Munro. The first story I read in this collection was "Train." It was not the first story in the book, the title just caught my attention. It was the longest story in this collection, about 40 pages. 

Not quite sure why she chose that title. The story begins and ends on a train, but most of the story is in between the train rides. The story held my interest but when I got to the end, I was not sure what the point was. I ended up reading it two more times.

"Train" is the story of a man's life after his return to Canada following World War II, covering about the next 20 years of his life.  The next stop on the train is his home town but he obviously doesn't want to go there because he jumps off the train and walks the other direction towards a nearby town. He is offered a meal by a woman living alone on a farm that has seen better days. She doesn't even have a car but gets around with a horse and buggy. He ends up staying with her for several years and fixing up the place and taking odd jobs in town when available. Eventually he does move on to another area, lucks into a new job, and with each move we learn a little more about him. Some reviewers found this story to be sad but I did not have that reaction.

After reading "Train," I began reading from the beginning of the book. The next two stories I read, "To Reach Japan" and "Amundsen," also feature train journeys. I wonder if this is a common theme in Munro's stories. "Amundsen" was also set in a TB Sanatorium, which was very interesting. Most (all?) of the stories that I read so far are set in the 1950s.

Two stories ("Pride" and "Corrie") have characters with physical disabilities and the story illustrates ways they cope with the world. "Corrie," about a woman who is lame due to having polio, was very interesting, and was probably my second favorite in the book. I happened upon a very interesting post about the fact that this story has three different endings in various places they were published (first in the New Yorker, later in The PEN/O. Henry Awards anthology and then in Dear Life). The three different endings for "Corrie" are discussed at this post on the Reading the Short Story blog.

I have now read 8 stories out of the 14 in the book. Some of the stories were more appealing than others, but every one of them was a worthwhile read. My comments on the stories in the book are related to those 8 stories.

In general, the stories sometimes seemed fairly bland and flat on a first read, but as I got used to the stories, I acclimated to Munro's style. Some of them have ambiguous or disappointing endings, but I liked reading them anyway. They all have interesting, if very different, characters and the main characters are usually very well developed. The people are often misfits, not fitting into "normal" society. Often the stories are about relationships.

A small thing, but I like that Munro mentions the town of Kitchener in several stories. It made the setting of the stories in small-town Canada feel real to me.  I know nothing about Kitchener but it is the town that Margaret Millar was born and raised in. Her husband, Ken Millar (AKA Ross Macdonald) was also raised there although he was born in the US.

That is enough for now. The stories I read are:

  • "To Reach Japan"
  • "Amundsen"
  • "Leaving Maverley"
  • "Gravel"
  • "Haven"
  • "Pride"
  • "Corrie" 
  • "Train "

Friday, November 4, 2022

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Naked Chef to Sense and Sensibility

The Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavoriteandbest. The idea behind the meme is to start with a book and use common points between two books to end up with links to six books, forming a chain. The common points may be obvious, like a word in the title or a shared theme, or more personal. Every month Kate provides the title of a book as the starting point.

The starting book this month is a cookbook – The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver. This was the first cookbook by Jamie Oliver and I honestly don't remember why he (or his TV show) was called The Naked Chef. 

First Degree of Separation: 

My first link takes me from the Naked Chef to a White House Chef, in State of the Onion, a cozy mystery by Julie Hyzy. The main character is White House Assistant Chef Olivia Paras. She gets involved with some intrigue related to a possible threat on the President's life. When she isn't busy sleuthing, she is vying for the Executive Chef position, which will be available when her boss retires. Some recipes are included. After being on my TBR shelf for years, I finally read this book in October.

Second Degree of Separation: 

My second link is to The President Vanishes by Rex Stout, published in 1934. This is a mystery novel about the mysterious disappearance of the President of the United States, who was in the middle of a political crisis over his handling of the foreign situation in Europe. The disappearance seems to be a kidnapping, but no ransom is demanded. I read this years ago, and I did like it at that time. I am biased; I haven't read any of Rex Stout's mysteries that I did not like.


Third Degree of Separation:

In the third link I am sticking with presidents of the US, but this one is real. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is about US President Abraham Lincoln and the death of his young son, Willie. The book is a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, and full of supernatural elements. The story is set in 1862 in the first year of the Civil War in the US. President Lincoln's eleven-year-old son, Willie, has died and Lincoln visits his body at the crypt several times. I liked reading the book, but much of it mystified me.

Fourth Degree of Separation:

My fourth link is to another real United States President. In Jack 1939, a novel by Francine Mathews, John F. Kennedy is a spy. 

From the book's dust jacket: "It’s the spring of 1939, and the prospect of war in Europe looms large. The United States has no intelligence service. In Washington, D.C., President Franklin Roosevelt may run for an unprecedented third term and needs someone he can trust to find out what the Nazis are up to. His choice: John F. Kennedy. "

Fifth Degree of Separation:

Francine Mathews also writes as Stephanie Barron. Jane and The Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor is the first novel in the Jane Austen Mystery series. In that series, Jane Austen was an amateur sleuth. I read it around the time it was first published, 1996. I did read the second in the series and lately have been thinking about reading another in the series. Has anyone else read this series and do I need to read it in order?

Sixth Degree of Separation:

For my last link I move from a mystery series starring Jane Austen to one of Jane Austen's novels, Sense and Sensibility, another book I read in October of this year. This is the story of two sisters, once living in luxury, who now have very little prospects of marrying well. Elinor, the eldest, is sensible and concerned about propriety. Marianne, 16, is the opposite. This is not my favorite book by Jane Austen, but still I found it to be a very worthwhile read. My review is here.

My chain took me from a cook to books about presidents (fictional and nonfictional) and then to Jane Austen. Have you read any of these books, and what did you think of them?

Next month (December 3, 2022), the first book in the chain will be The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Man Who Died Twice: Richard Osman


This book is the second in a relatively recent mystery series by Richard Osman. The first book in the series was The Thursday Murder Club, and I loved it. In that book, a quartet of men and women in their seventies or eighties have formed a club, expressly for the purpose of reviewing and investigating cold cases, whose case files they inherited from a former member who had access to police files. Then they have the opportunity to investigate a current crime, when a part owner of their retirement complex is killed.

In this book, the four amateur sleuths are still working together and still reviewing cold cases. The four main characters are: Elizabeth, the leader, ex-MI5 operative; Joyce, a retired nurse; Ibrahim, a psychiatrist, mostly retired; and Ron, a former left-wing union leader. All of them are very clever and contribute in their own way. In the first story they worked with two police officers, DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna de Freitas, and in this book we learn even more about Chris and Donna's backgrounds too.  

Out of the blue they get pulled into a new case. Elizabeth gets a message from someone in her past, and that leads to a very unusual adventure for all of them. I liked that this one connects to Elizabeth's job in MI5 and borders on being an espionage story, but there are also brushes with drug dealers, mob bosses, etc.

My Thoughts:

It was a joy to get back to these characters again. The book was a page turner and yet I did not want it to end. All of the various story lines do get a bit complex, but this time I had an easier time following them. And with this series, I enjoy the writing and the characters so much that I just go with the flow. 

The story is told mostly in present tense, third person, from various viewpoints. I had no problem with that. Joyce's chapters are written as diary entries, which serve to follow up on various actions the group takes without dragging the scenes out. Her commentary is often wry and revealing. There is a lot of quiet humor throughout the book.

For me, the age of the main characters is very appealing. The issues of old age are front and center, from the aches and pains of aging to the death of spouses or friends or living with spouses with dementia. On the positive side, their age and appearance gives them an opportunity to blend in, be unobtrusive, and get things done when they are working on a case.

This was a fun and engaging read, and now I am eager to get to the third book, The Bullet That Missed.


Publisher:    Pamela Dorman Books, 2021
Length:        368 pages
Format:        Hardcover
Setting:        UK
Series:         Thursday Murder Club  #2
Genre:         Mystery
Source:        I purchased this book in 2022.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Short Story Wednesday: The Ghost of Opalina by Peggy Bacon

This was another book I read for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event. The Ghost of Opalina is a children's fantasy, made up of a series of linked stories that Opalina, the ghost cat, tells to the children of the house that she has lived in for all of her nine lives. None of these stories are scary, and Opalina never behaves maliciously. She does protect those she cares about.

The book begins with a family, Mr. and Mrs. Finley and their three children, moving to a house in the country with lots of land, gardens, barns and such. They arrive in the summer, and the children have all their days free to explore. Their parents have set up a play room for them in a section of the house that has no electricity. One evening they stay in the room until after dusk, and when it gets dark in the room they see a glowing form in an old stuffed chair in the room. This is Opalina, a beautiful white cat, who announces to them that she is a ghost and can only be seen at night. They beg her to tell them about the various families that have lived in the house since she was there.

The unique aspect of this children's book is that the stories give the reader a picture of the house and the way people lived over two centuries, from 1750 up to 1966, the year the Finley family moved in. The first story is First Life, 1750: "The Mice, the Mouser and the Mean Young Man." The last story is Ninth Life, 1966: "Trick or Treat." The book was published in 1967. Most of the stories are from 20 to 40 pages in length.

This was a fun and entertaining read, although certainly aimed at children. I see it as a perfect book for reading aloud to children of any age. I was particularly drawn to the book because it is illustrated by the author. And a book featuring a cat is always of interest. 

Many reviewers at Goodreads mention that they loved this book as a child and were thrilled to find an affordable copy. For many years this book was only available for high prices online.

I first heard of this book at Staircase Wit. Constance's post also has more information about the author and illustrator, Peggy Bacon.