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.