Friday, April 20, 2018

The 1977 Club: Quartet in Autumn

My final book for The 1977 club hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblins was Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym.  This is the fourth title of Pym’s that I have read.  I didn’t quite love it as much as Excellent Women and Less than Angels, but I highly enjoyed it nonetheless and was really glad for the excuse to read another book by her.

Quartet in Autumn is about four work colleagues in their mid to early sixties in London in the mid 1970s.  All four are solitary but not necessarily lonely.  They are: Letty, who has plans to retire to the country with her widowed friend Marjorie; Marcia who lives alone in a rather neglected row house after the death of her mother and the cat Snowy many years earlier; Edwin, a widower whose chief hobby is attending Anglican services in various different London neighborhoods and Norman, a rather grumpy fellow who likes complaining to the local council about cars that have been parked too long on his street.

Of course I have quite a few more Pym titles to read, but in many ways this book was typical Pym with its sly humor and sharp if sometimes sad observations.  Is "Pymsian" a term like Dickensian?  These four co-workers only have the slimmest connection to each other, but because their lives and orbits are so narrow, when Marcia and Letty retire, this change affects them all in subtle ways none could have anticipated.  There is a very bittersweet tinge to this novel and yet, without giving anything away, then ending is, if not hopeful, at least open-ended.  



Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The 1977 Club: A Morbid Taste for Bones

I read a second book for The 1977 Club hosted by the bloggers Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish RamblingsA Morbid Taste for Bones is the first Brother Cadfael mystery by Edith Mary Pargeter writing under the pen name of Ellis Peters.  Ultimately Peters wrote 21 historical mysteries set in 12th century Britain featuring amateur sleuth and monk Cadfael.  As an introductory novel I thought this was pretty good.  At less than 200 pages, Peters deftly set up the world and characters, providing a solid base for the future books.    

Cadfael is a Benedictine monk at Shrewsbury Abbey who came to the brotherhood late in life, which of course serves him well as a detective because it enables him to have knowledge his brethren and/or hoi polloi lack! In his secular life he was a soldier and a sailor and spent many years fighting in the Holy Land where he developed an interest in herbs and medicinal plants. 

In this first novel, Cadfael journeys with his Prior and a handful of other monks to Gwytherin, Wales to obtain for the broader glory of Shrewsbury Abbey the remains of St. Winefred who is buried there. Prior Robert is an ambitious man and wants to put Shrewsbury on the map, so to speak, by obtaining a reliquary.    Their goal is thwarted, however, when  local landowner Rhisart objects to the Saint’s bones being moved.  When the landowner mysteriously turns up murdered the game is afoot!  Did one of the Benedictines murder him in order to get their relics at any cost or did Rhisart have a local enemy who decided to take advantage of the controversy and take out a rival?

I really enjoyed the historical background of the story, the peek it provided into Welsh customs of the day vis-a-vis those of the English and Cadfael as a character. It is possible that there were anachronistic aspects in the book, but I didn’t notice any that took me out of the story. The mystery itself was a little weak. But considering this book is the first of 21, I can easily forgive this. 

Some of the books were adapted for television starring Derek Jacobi in the 90’s. I’ve seen bits and pieces of these, but never a full episode, but I expect they are pretty good.  

Monday, April 16, 2018

THE 1977 CLUB: STARRING SALLY J. FREEDMAN AS HERSELF

Its that time of year again! Actually, this is only my second time participating in The 1977 Club which is put on by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings. The idea is simple, just read a book published in the club year (they move decades, next time it is back to the 1920s) and blog about it.

Soooo, there are a couple of books I have out from the library that I am still reading and may post about later, but I think I will be the only blogger who read Judy Blume for this event. ūüėä
In 1977 I turned 12 and my Aunt gave me a signed copy of this book. I began junior high that year and actually was a couple of years too old for this book. At 12 I was just starting to read "adult" books and I remember thinking this was too childish for me.   I believe am actually better able to appreciated it now upon re-reading. I think this book was possibly (given the level of history taught to me in elementary school) my first encounter with the Holocaust as well as with segregation in the U.S. South. The miniseries "Roots" was first broadcast in 1977 and in 1978 "The Holocaust" miniseries (with Meryl Streep and Tovah Feldshuh who I loved) came out. Yes, I learned a lot of history from television supplemented by books!

I mentioned these historical events because these are things that young Sally is also grappling with, but in real time, as a 10 year-old Jewish girl moving to Florida from New Jersey in the late 1940s. She doesn't really know what a concentration camp is or why there are separate drinking fountains at the drug store.  Blume really gets children and how they are aware of but don't fully understand the adult world. Sally thinks that Adolf Hitler might be hiding out in her Miami neighborhood.  She dreams of being a spy in Germany and killing Hitler and rescuing her cousin Lila who did not survive the war. She also dreams of being discovered by Hollywood and starring in movies with her idols Margaret O'Brian and/or Esther Williams. I remember having equally ludicrous (but very real to me) fantasies as a 10 year old.

Blume is also not shy about showing Sally in a negative but realistic light. Kids are mean sometimes. The author is also frank about how kids are curious about sex and romance...even though they don't really know exactly what it is they are questing after. I do remember appreciating that as a child, in particular in Are You There God, It's Me Margaret which I did read when I was maybe 10 or 11.   

I don't think I would recommend this book to an adult unless they were a die-hard Judy Blume fan, but I think it would probably still entertain a ten year-old reader and might encourage them to delve in to history. I had a lot of fun re-visiting it.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

MARCH MYSTERY MADNESS WRAP UP


I managed to read all of the books that I set out to read for March Mystery Madness.  I liked them all (some more than others), even the Elizabeth George title of which I was most wary.
 

  • In a Strange City by Laura Lippmann was your standard PI novel with a nice dollop of Baltimore/Edgar Allen Poe history tossed in. It is the sixth book in an ongoing series featuring Lippman's detective Tess Monaghan who,like Lippman, is a former journalist and B-more resident.
  • The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor is a debut novel that is heavily influenced by Stephen King IMO. So expect a bit of horror with the mystery and check out Lark's and Melody's excellent reviews as well if this sounds like a book you might like! 
  • The Broken Shore by Peter Temple was good in a hard-boiled kind of way. It takes place in the aughts in Australia but definitely has its roots in classic noir detective fiction. 
  • I listened to Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd written by Alan Bradley and narrated by Jane Entwistle. This is the first time I have tried any of the Flavia de Luce mysteries on audio and it really was a fun experience. I highly recommend the audio as performed by Ms. Entwistle if you are a fan of this series. 
  • The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sj√∂wall and Per Wahl√∂√∂ was pretty cool. I would definitely class it as a procedural and I enjoyed that nuts and bolts aspect of it. I think it has aged very well considering it was first published in the 1960s. 
  • Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George did disappoint me somewhat, but I think in large part because she has written characters to whom I have really become attached. So, you know, kudos for that Liz. I have decided I will continue with at least the next book since I already own it and we'll see: the jury is still out.

I had a lot of fun reading mostly mysteries in March and will try to do this again next year.  Of the above listed, my favorite was Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd.  I love this series. It can be a bit twee and a little manic at times, but so much fun for readers who love Flavia as a character. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

LES MIS√ČRABLES ONE-CHAPTER-A-DAY READ-ALONG : BOOK 1 FANTINE



On March 11, 2018 I officially finished the first section titled "Fantine" of Hugo's massive tome.  As a reminder, I am taking part in the Les Mis√©rables one-Chapter-a-Day Read-along hosted by Nick over at One Catholic Life.   I have to admit, I haven't always stuck to the one-chapter a day format: occasionally I read more than one chapter a day and on some days no chapter at all.  But I am pretty much pacing myself and so when I do read ahead or have to catch up, it is only two or three chapters at a time.  

And I admit, I really am enjoying this slow way of reading. I was a bit worried that I wouldn't remember earlier events, but I think I am actually remembering more than I usually would because of the slower pace. Go figure!


The story so far is pretty great. I had never read Hugo before but he certainly reminds me of Dickens in his use of the novel as a form of social criticism and an appeal to the reader for social justice and compassion. Also, characters like the terrible Mme and M. Th√©nardier are very "Dickensian"  in their depiction. I suspect, however, that using the novel as a form of social criticism was the thing to do in the mid-nineteenth century in Europe. I don't mean to suggest that Hugo was influenced by Dickens or vice-versa.

I am not going to give a plot summery here, but I had certain expectations entering into this book based on its reputation and bits and pieces that I have picked up without having ever read it or having seen a full adaptation of it. It has been interesting in reading first third of the story to see where my assumptions are wrong, such as the majority of the the story takes place (so far) outside of Paris, how Fantine and Jean Valjean meet, etc. 

Now I am knee deep in the next section, named after Fantine's daugther: "Cosette". Allons-y mes amis!

Monday, March 12, 2018

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2018: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

For the Back to Classics Challenge 2018 hosted by Karen at the blog Books and Chocolate  category  20th Century Classic” I chose Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.   My reason for this title over many others was due to the fact that it is short and it is included on the Modern Library’s list of the  best 100 novels of the 20th century that I have been working my way through since 1998.




Winesburg, Ohio  is a collection of  vignettes (they are not short stories in my opinion) about certain residents of a small Ohio town in the late 1800’s, just before economy and society  moves from farming to factories.    As indicated in the first section of the book, “The Book of the Grotesque” the characters portrayed are shown in a very exaggerated, distorted way which often focuses on the unpleasant; those aspects of a person that one usually keeps hidden.

I am certainly glad to be able to tick this book off my list, but I didn’t really like it.  As short as it was, I found it difficult to read about such unhappy people over and over.  Almost everyone is yearning to escape and connect. But even those who do escape ultimately end up back in Winesburg. There are few happy exceptions.   People determined to finally express themselves lack the courage when finally faced with the opportunity.

Anderson’s writing has many admirers, Hemingway and Faulkner among them as I discovered n the introduction by Irving Howe in the Dover Thrift edition that I read.   But I found the description of the characters’ unhappiness and their expression of despair to be pretty unvaried as the book wore on.

Friday, February 23, 2018

BACK TO THE CLASSICS 2018: The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey



My second completed book for the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate is The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey.  It fills the category of “Classic Crime Story”. The book was published in 1929 and was Tey’s first book as well as the first Inspector Grant Mystery.

The mystery/crime is established in the first chapter when a man who had been waiting in a crowded line of people, all pressing and pushing to get their SRO tickets for London’s hottest musical is found stabbed to death.  The other theatergoers of course saw nothing as they were paying more attention to  getting to the front of the line than they were about the people around them. The case is then handed over to Scotland Yard’s rising talent, Inspector Alan Grant.  The man had no identification on him so Inspector Grant has not only to find out who killed him but also who the victim was. 

I quite enjoyed the procedural aspects detection in this book: tracking down tie manufacturers, tracing bank notes and so on.  I equally liked the undercover aspects of the story as Grant sends his sergeants disguised as peddlers or down-on-their-luck soldiers to gather information from gossipy maids and he himself travels to the Scottish highlands posing as a casual angler, but of course he is casting for more than just fish!  I also think that Tey really does excel in her characterization. The supporting cast in this book is really well drawn, in particular Miss Diamont and Mrs. Everett in my opinion. I think either of them could have walked off the pages and on to their own novels!  I think it is a pity that Tey didn’t write many non-genre novels, though she died fairly young (in her early 50s), so who knows what she would have accomplished had she had more time?   

Where the book is weakest, is in its plotting.  And while, as I stated above, there is a lot of interesting detective work in following up clues,  Tey breaks one of the “rules” of detective fiction in allowing her main detective to be ruled by intuition over facts sometimes.  That said, I enjoyed some of the red herrings in the story anyway!


Just as a caveat, as is often with books of this era, there is a fair amount of casual sexism and racism contained within the pages.  Also,  The Man in the Queue  isn’t going to knock The Daughter of Time off its top spot as my favorite of Tey’s books, but I did find it a satisfying read.