Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS (1935) by John Buchan

Sorry guys, I can't be reasonable about these books - when it comes to John Buchan, you could say that I'm close to becoming unhinged (but in a good way). Can't help it. I haven't read all he's written, but the books I have read I've loved and taken to my heart, they are books I will continue to reread as long as I live. You see, I love well-written (if improbable) adventures of long ago  - stories that recall a different world where codes of honor and good manners mattered. A world where people still dressed for dinner and occasionally read poetry. (It also doesn't hurt that I've been an anglophile since my teens.)

Before I forget, here's my review, from last year of HUNTINGTOWER just in case you missed it. It's the first book in the Duncan McCunn trilogy.

The three books (HUNTINGTOWER, CASTLE GAY and THE HOUSE OF THE FOUR WINDS) should be read in order so that the recurrence of certain characters (and their personalities and quirks) will have that much more meaning. But it's not the end of the world if you don't. Stay flexible - that's my motto. Though THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS is actually the sequel to CASTLE GAY.

Most of you are probably familiar with John Buchan from having seen Hitchcock's early classic THE 39 STEPS based on the first Richard Hannay book. Though the film script made many changes from the novel (there is no woman romantic interest in the book, for example) it has its own delightfully shadowy allure even to this day. The book is rather different, but it also has its own allure. I've read it twice and will read it again along with GREENMANTLE and MR. STANDFAST. Terrific stuff.

These are the sorts of books you either have an inclination for or you don't. The kinds of books I loved as a kid (books I could disappear into) and still love as an old lady. They are definitely of their time, but I don't find that a hindrance at all. If you enjoyed THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL by Bareness Orczy and THE PRISONER OF ZENDA by Anthony Hope and/or the books of Rafael Sabatini, for instance, then you will probably enjoy John Buchan's stories.

The McCunn books were a late find for me (I had only been familiar with Buchan's Richard Hannay books the last couple of years). And now I am incorrigible about recommending them to anyone who likes a good rip-roaring yarn full of adventure and derring-do, books where the good guys win and the bad guys don't. My kind of books. I mean, sometimes you do need a break from the grimness of everyday life.

Duncan McCunn is a retired grocer (with a romantic heart) and the endearing Scottish hero of HUNTINGTOWER, the first book in this trilogy. He jumps into the fray once again, years later when adventure comes calling in the very enjoyable CASTLE GAY, the second in the trilogy. But to my mind, THE HOUSE OF FOUR WINDS stands up even better to HUNTINGTOWER (which I consider to be 'brilliant') and makes for a perfect third installment.

It's years since Duncan McCunn and the Gorbal Diehards (Glaswegian slum boys without whom a princess would not have been saved and a dangerous villain routed) had an unexpectedly splendid adventure in the Scottish Highlands. After which, impressed by their devotion and intelligence, McCunn had taken two of the boys, Wee Jaikie and Dougal(Chief of the Diehards) into his home and raised them as surrogate sons. They are now young men off to make their way in the world.

All are traveling over the summer holidays to Europe from Scotland. Each on his own, but they will meet up at various places on the Continent which of course, accommodates the adventure nicely. Several characters from the second book, CASTLE GAY, will also be along to help as well as a menacing leftover bad guy in need of a strong rebuke.

Duncan McCunn who is feeling elderly aches and pains will be traveling for his health, Jaikie is on a walking tour and Dougal is on assignment for his newspaper.

It is 1935 and two pugnacious factions are gearing up to overthrow the corrupt rulers of the tiny country of Evallonia. The monarchists form one group and 'Juventus', a well-regulated rebellious youth movement (sort of like the brown shirts in Germany, but nicer) form the other. They see the monarchy in the person of Prince John (the rightful King of Evallonia) as nothing more than a puppet leader and not to be trusted. Needless to say, there are some very nasty villains trying to make sure that neither of these groups succeeds in their aims, setting them against each other and generally stirring the pot.

To prevent a blood bath and place good Prince John on the throne will take all the amateur skill and ingenuity first evinced in HUNTINGTOWER by McCunn and his 'diehards' not to mention the skill and heroics of friends met along the way - the novel is told from several points of view and doesn't suffer in the least from this since John Buchan handles it all skillfully. The last third of the novel is as exciting as just about anything I can remember reading. (Which isn't saying a lot because my memory is not what it once was, but you get my drift.) The beginning is rather slowish and a bit meandering, but stay with it. I did. It soon picks up speed and you'll be off on a grand adventure. Hold on to your hats - because there will even be a Prince in disguise!

Needless to say, there are plot machinations galore and a bit of a love story (involving darling Jaikie whom we've come to have great affection for over the last three books) as all the links are finally woven together in an expert way - though I might add that the story-line does require that you pay attention. It's all in the mind-set, you know. If you're in tune, you'll love all this as much as I did. If you're not, you won't.

What can I say? I'm not sensible about any of this.

And since it is Friday, we usually check the FFB links at Patricia Abbott's blog, but this week Todd Mason is doing hosting duties later on today at Sweet Freedom.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Salon: The Art of Richard Adams, Contemporary Painter (not the writer, Richard Adams)

'Above the Estuary' Richard Adams - via

'The Farmer's Bride' - via

The Red Millvia

'The Village Wakes' - via



'The Kitchen Garden' - via

'The Bridge' - via

The Lost Villagevia

'A Winter Afternoon' - via

'Skeletons of Summer' - via 

Contemporary painter Richard Adams (not to be confused with the author of WATERSHIP DOWN) is, to my mind, a British national treasure. (Well, and so is Richard Adams, the author, but today it's all about paintings.)

I stumbled across Adams zany world online and fell instantly in love. His paintings and illustrations depict a kind of fantasy pre-1960's England - halcyon days of idyllic rural countrysides beloved in books and art. Years faithfully written about by authors such as Angela Thirkell, D.E. Stevenson and E.F. Benson and SO brilliantly captured in vintage mystery novels too. 

English villages, as we know, were also the special domain of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Michael Innes and their finely tuned ilk. Murder never seemed as foul when taking place among the cabbage roses and topiaries.

Certainly these settings were NOT the innocent byways and highways perceived by less perceptive outsiders, much to our delight, there were always nefarious secrets hidden in the hedgerows - anyone who's read a vintage cozy mystery knows that. 

And certainly anyone who knows ANYTHING about the sinister and oh-so-satirical rural ambience of Stella Gibbons' COLD COMFORT FARM (and if you don't - what are you waiting for?) will recognize the deceptively cozy atmosphere of Adams' work.

That's what I love most about it. Here's all this charmingly innocent rustic detail sparked occasionally by a disconcerting hint of abandon. (This IS England, after all.) But the implied sex in the haystacks is, in itself, of the Cold Comfort Farm type - outrageous yet somehow, not especially shocking. "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."

Adams works, I believe, in pastels which are notoriously difficult to master. But oh are they fun to mess around with. I have a box, untouched, un-used, of oil pastels which I've held onto for years thinking that at some point I'd give 'em a try - but oh, my friends. just TOO intimidating. 

Still, I enjoy the results when they are this obviously brilliant and engaging.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: SAID WITH FLOWERS (1943) by Anne Nash

My blogging friend and fellow vintage book zealot, John Norris, wrote about Anne Nash's SAID WITH FLOWERS just a little while ago (May 27th, to be exact - here's the link) So why am I daring to write about it just these few weeks later? Well, because, his [John's] are recommendations I always pay attention to and I found the book easily online and ordered it immediately. (Not always the case with the rarities that John likes to tease us with.) And I thought it might be fun to compare each other's reviews while still fresh in mind - well, at least in my mind. And I was warned that other Anne Nash books are almost impossible to find so this is probably it.

John is the expert when it comes to flushing out details about author's lives and publisher's imprints and the like, it all seems to come naturally and easily to him. I, on the other hand, have a much harder row to hoe. So for those details, see John.

I really enjoyed this book. (Well, I kind of knew I would.) In fact, I gave it four stars - must remember to add this to my Christmas murder cozy list too since it fits that category so very nicely. I also like that this is the sort of vintage book which quaintly names the characters up front. I wish mysteries still did that.

Though this was Anne Nash's debut, I liked the author's comfortable ease with this tale of two women who own a flower shop out California way and how they become intimately involved in the horrendous murder of a friend. Well, not in the actual murder itself, but practically right on the scene and the first to see the body. Yes, as John points out in his review, there's a touch of the 'had I but known' school of mystery writing, ala Mignon Eberhart or, for that matter, Mary Roberts Rinehart. But only a touch or two.

Doris Trent (called Dodo) and Nell Witter are two nice women of a certain age who live together (but are not a lesbian couple far as I can tell - at least the author doesn't make much of their cozy living arrangement) and together run a shop which is called, very aptly, The Flower Shop. (Or maybe I missed the actual name somewhere along the line.) At any rate, it is just a couple of weeks before Christmas and business is booming. Who knew that florists did this much frenzied business? It seems that plant and flower buying patrons throng the small shop all hours of the day and night. Never a dull moment for Dodo and Nell.

But misfortune has dealt them a blow; their regular jack of all trades and delivery man, Patrick, suffers a broken leg while on the job (slipped on some leaves in the backroom - is there a lawsuit in the offing?) and is suddenly not available to carry out his Christmas duties. Well, as luck would have it, in steps a charming young man named Barney Miller who is not the star of a cop comedy series from back in the day, but a stranger new in town and providentially on the outlook for a job. It also happens that he knows a thing or two about plants and flowers so almost immediately he becomes the answer to a flower shop proprietor's prayer.

However, it's not all roses and baby's breath, these are dark times. It just so happens that a serial killer called Karp the Killer (yeah, I had to laugh) is on the loose and wreaking havoc around the country. This guy travels. And he leaves a calling card of a fish (not a real fish, a drawing of one) at each of his murders - hence, the moniker given him by the press.

Is Barney aka Karp the Killer? Lots of hinting going on as Dodo (especially) begins to suspect that there is more to their savior than meets the eye. Especially when Rosalind Vance, a close friend, is found murdered in the alley behind the shop - a pruning knife stuck in her chest and a calling card nearby.

The cops and the press converge on the small coastal town on the hunt for news and clues about Karp whose wretched excesses have captured the imagination of the entire country.

Into the mix comes a solo (and rather accommodating) cop named Mark Tudor along with his canine partner, the highly trained German Shepherd, Svea. In the long run, it is Svea who will save the day, but I'm not telling you anything you won't have suspected almost immediately.

But was Rosalind Vance - a woman older than Karp's regular targets - an actual victim of the serial killer? More and more it begins to look like a copy cat affair as Tudor starts hunting closer to home for a killer. Dodo and Nell think otherwise but it turns out that Rosalind Vance's home life was not as benign as might have first appeared. Unbeknownst to the town and to close friends who took her to be a happily married lady blessed with a devoted husband and beautiful (but spoiled) daughter Sheila, there was a cauldron of frayed emotions bubbling beneath the calm surface. The things we don't know about our neighbors private lives would fill a book. And here it does.

Adding to the confusion, it seems that charming Barney has been sneaking off to meet a woman in between making his nightly flower deliveries. This guy is a fast operator.

And again I ask, who knew that flowers and plants were so high up on the Christmas 'must have' list? Why, the shop even makes Christmas day deliveries! Well, this was 1943, things were different then. Women wore corsages.

Yes, there are lots of anachronisms running rampant throughout the story - but that never bothers me if I'm engaged - and some of them I find rather endearing. SAID WITH FLOWERS engaged me even as it seemed set in a different world, in a different century (well, that is true enough) and filled with the sorts of people that populated B-movies (and later, early television) of the time.

Though in the end, the real reason for Barney's appearance in town and on the spot seems loosely conceived to me, I still enjoyed the book and recommend it highly to those of you who like this sort of thing. Plus, don't forget, there's a dog.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to look in on author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My Favorite New Show (Well, actually, the only new show I've watched in ages...) GRACE AND FRANKIE (A Netflix original) starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

Those who know me well enough know that I am not in tune with the latest gizmos and gadgets primarily because I generally don't like even the idea of the latest gizmos and gadgets. Or, for that matter, the latest 'anything'. I think most of the details of so-called modern life are just plain silly.

And don't get me started on what passes for entertainment these days.

At any rate, I lately didn't have to bother much about that since I haven't had a TV or the services of cable in several years. But the funny thing that happened is/was that I didn't miss any of it. People missed it for me, but I didn't. I had my computer (a desk top PC) because - call me crazy - I just don't like watching ANYTHING on a screen smaller than your basic desk top. But as time went by I realized I didn't like to sit at my desk and watch movies. I would get impatient and fast forward or just stop the movie and go watch a baseball game. Very little held my interest online except for, maybe, baseball and occasionally, football.

But shows and movies - not so much.

My brother would say that the monitor is the same as having a TV.
'No it isn't' I'd say.
'Yes it is,' he'd say.
Well, I'm sorry, but it kind of is and it kind of isn't.
 'Make believe,' he'd say as a parting shot.

Anyway, this is my long-winded way of getting to the point of this post.

I've signed up again (for the second or maybe, third time) with Netflix since 'streaming' seems to me to be not as 'silly' as some other things I could mention. Plus I guess I got tired of everyone else raving about shows that I never got to see or films I never got to watch. (The films are still an on-going project. Don't know if I'll EVER get used to watching them online. It is possible that at my age, I just don't have the patience to sit still for two hours and watch anything, but we'll see.)

But turns out I do enjoy watching (some) shows. And I suppose I have a lot of catching up to do if I want to be 'part of the conversation' as Frankie says, on my new favorite show, GRACE AND FRANKIE.

Yes, I'm hooked on GRACE AND FRANKIE after watching about five episodes or so.

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen (whom I adore), and Sam Waterston. I mean, what's not to like?

In case you're not familiar with the basic plot, here it is:

Robert Hanson (Martin Sheen) and Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda) live in San Diego. They have been married for forty years.

Hanson's law partner is Sol Bergstein (Sam Waterston), he and his wife Frankie Bergstein also live in San Diego and have also been married for forty years.

They are all more or less in their 70's. Anyway, one night while the four are at dinner, Robert Hanson informs his wife that he is leaving her to be with Sol whom he wants to marry. Sol informs Frankie that he is leaving her to be with Robert whom he also wants to marry. "We can do that now."

This comes out of the blue for the women, not to mention their grown children who have their own (and less fascinating) problems to deal with. At any rate, it all sounds preposterous, but Sheen and Waterston make it work - their scenes together have warmth and affection reined in a bit by healthy doses of guilt.

I very much like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin (both are producers of the show) in these 'odd couple' roles. Tomlin plays Frankie as an eccentric ex-hippie mom with two adopted sons (one black, one white) very believably. She is funny but also poignant and goofy and strangely likable. Jane Fonda plays Grace as a bitter, brittle, fashionable and rather typical (I think) California type. (She hasn't had ice cream in fifteen years.) She is less likable, but grows on you as the show progresses. Dealing with their new lives and slowly becoming friends, Grace and Frankie come to realize that in society's eyes, they've become extraneous. They are 'invisible women'.

As happens so often when marriages break up, Grace has lately been dumped by her supposed 'best friend' of many years - at a funeral, no less. She and Frankie need each other and luckily, they have an ocean beach house (which belongs to both couples) to share. (Hey, none of this would be fun if they were poor.)

Events happen at a rather rapid pace since this is a television show and things have to be kept moving I suppose, but so far I've enjoyed what I've watched (and it's possible that the act of streaming unintentionally increases the apparent pace of what happens in the shows).

I like the addition of Craig T. Nelson lately to the cast and am hoping that Ernie Hudson has not been written off.

Yeah, it's gimmicky, but you know Martin Sheen can make just about anything work. He is one of the last of the old time actors working today who has undeniable 'presence' (not to mention acting brilliance) and that counts for a lot.

So yes I guess I'm hooked on GRACE AND FRANKIE. At least, for now.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: DEATH BY A HONEYBEE by Abigail Keam

Surprise! This is not a vintage read, but one I sort of stumbled across on my booky perambulations online. In fact, I read it on my Kindle so I must have downloaded it when it was nicely (and cheaply) priced - that's when I'll take a chance on a book by an author I've never heard of before. I mean, who can resist just paying a buck or two?

I liked this debut mystery a lot and went on to read the next two in the series. (In my view, the first and second books are the best so far). And yes, it does sound like a cozy, but I'd call it more of a cozy on steroids.

Josiah Reynolds is the heroine of the piece - yes, she is a she named Josiah (not quite clear but I think it's mentioned that this is some sort of family name, but I found it confusing at first) and she is a crusty Southern lady of about fifty. The book's action takes place in and around the colorful horse haven of Lexington, Kentucky. Part of the charm of these books is the local color,  not to mention the various eccentrics who populate this unique area of the country. The author gets the ambience just right, I think. (Or at least as we imagine Lexington, Kentucky might be.)

A beekeeper struggling to make ends meet, Josiah sells honey at the local Farmer's Market, though she is by no means, indigent. She lives in an architecturally historic house filled with art which she refuses to sell and thus, it's hard not to feel that she's just a bit too stubborn for her own good. 'The Butterfly' is the remarkable creation of her ex-husband, an architect who left Josiah for a younger woman and has since died - the husband, not the girlfriend. In the meantime, said girlfriend has reaped all the financial benefits, but Josiah - at least - got to keep the house and the art. And to keep on keeping it, she needs to make a living.

Josiah is the type of person who doesn't sit still when she's threatened, she is feisty and sarcastic and faces the world with a pugnacious attitude which serves her well in this first mystery of the series. When a man with whom she has been feuding is found dead among Josiah's beehives, she naturally enough becomes the obvious suspect in the murder.

The author gives us the usual supply of colorful friends and enemies who pop in and out as Josiah sets out to find a killer. There's also an added bit of mystery attached to a grown daughter who seems to be some sort of kick-ass mucky-muck in a stealthy armed forces group. She shows up now and then to do for her mother, when she's not traveling the world trouble-spot to trouble-spot.

I know this set-up sounds a bit cozy and I also know that for some of you that is the kiss of death, but honestly, this didn't read much like one (not that there's anything wrong with that). Josiah doesn't seem to me, to be the everyday run-of-the-mill cozy heroine, she is irascible and confrontational and the book ends in a doozy of a cliff-hanger. Plus there is the added attraction (at least for me) of lots of interesting lore about bees, creatures which I have always found fascinating.

Since this is Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: FOUR STRANGE WOMEN (1940) by E. R. Punshon

A rather strange book aptly titled, I think. Not in the same class as Christie or the other fine writers of the Golden Age, but still a book that intrigues. It is a dark tale in which terrible crimes occur but perhaps it is the theatrical improbability of it all that appealed to me. I can't quite say why I liked it so much, but I did. The whole idea of an unknown femme fatale driving men to their doom inspires a kind of macabre fun.

British author E.R. Punshon wrote quite a few Bobby Owen mysteries and this the fourteenth in the series. Several of the books are currently available as ebooks over at Amazon and that's where I happened onto them. Though I must say that nowhere in this book does the character of Bobby Owen come alive as a 'real' person or for that matter, an especially clever one. But for whatever reason, that didn't stop me being intrigued by this morbid tale of murder which begins cozily enough.

'The fortunate conclusion of a recent semi-private investigation on which he [Bobby Owen]had been engaged had put money in his pocket, won him influential friends, and gained him the promise of an appointment as inspector in the Wychshire country force with special duties as private secretary to the elderly Colonel Glynne, and with the additional prospect, therefore, of some day succeeding him as chief constable.'

So here we are immediately lulled into believing that a cozy set of circumstances will be coming right up. But we would be wrong. Little does the complacent Bobby Owen know as he strolls along on his way home from an evening out with his fiancee Olive, that that very night he will be drawn into a shocking and most mysterious case.

'...he opened his sitting-room. One of the ugliest men he had ever seen was there and got up as he entered. A low forehead; a long, crooked nose; a mouth framing teeth too widely separated and irregular in shape, and stretching, it seemed, almost from ear to ear; ears themselves enormous and standing out nearly at right angles; eyes small and hidden, indeterminate in colour, the left eye with a cast in it; all combined with a squat, ungainly figure and sprawling hands and feet to produce an effect so remarkable that Bobby found himself reflecting that fingerprints would hardly be required for identification if the Records Department at the Yard knew anything of him.'

Unlikely as it may seem, the unattractive late night caller is Lord Darmoor, a man concerned with the mysterious deaths of two acquaintances and the likely possibility that a third friend might be in danger.

FOUR STRANGE WOMEN (love that title) is, in essence, a serial killer book written at a time when such a thing didn't even have a name. It is also a book in which the serial killer is a woman, another odd thing for its time. (Though I'll bet that in reality such a thing was not unknown.) Look, I'm not revealing any real secrets, it's obvious to any mystery reader almost from the very beginning that this book is all about 'cherchez la femme.'

Punshon is not, it seems to me, a natural writer so his work can get a little clumsy, but not to the point of making you want to put it down (at least it didn't with me) because he has a good story to tell. Here's a case where cleverness of plot plus mood equals a good read even if the writing is not brilliant.

Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen is called into a very odd case when an unlikely couple come to his lodgings and spin him a most peculiar tale. Two men (one with a title) have already died under suspicious circumstances and a third is likely in danger. The circumstances leading up to the deaths are similar though the police regard most of it as coincidence. However, once Owen begins nosing around, it becomes obvious that something foul is amiss. And when a third nasty death does occur, Owen is convinced that there's a fourth coming up unless the police can get to the bottom of the mystery and quickly.

As I indicated, this story features a most unlikely set of circumstances which include a remarkably heartless killer who is all things to all men in a very peculiar and hypnotic way. (Maybe you have to be a man to get it.) Again, suspension of disbelief is called for and even if you can't quite believe what's happening, there's something yet alluring about this dark tale of murderous greed and moral vacuousness (not to mention the foolhardiness of men) which kept me reading late into the night.

Dorothy L. Sayer was a fan of Punshon, I understand. Maybe I'll be one too.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in and see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom. Todd is doing hosting duties this week for Patti Abbott.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY (1949) by Michael Innes

Michael Innes, as many of us may know, was capable of turning on his scholarly brilliance and eluding his readers, occasionally leaving them in the dust. But I'm happy to state that THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY is prime evidence of Innes' inexhaustible wit, erudition and yes, approachable brilliance. I'm currently in the middle of a re-read and enjoying it as much as I did the first time around.

Yes, I am an unabashed Michael Innes fan and though I promised last year not to go overboard with reviews of his books, I didn't promise never to write one again. So here we are.

I might have featured THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY on the Tuesday Night Bloggers' Murder and Travel meme hosted by The Passing Tramp, but I didn't learn about the subject matter until this week, so I missed out contributing. But along the lines of better late than never, I'm writing up this book for FFB.

"What past can be yours, O journeying boy,
Towards a world unknown,
who calmly, as if incurious quite
On all at stake, can undertake
This plunge alone?"
Thomas Hardy

THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY features one of Innes' most ingenious spins on mystery, adventure, thrills, chills and spills and an unlikely pair of heroes. With Innes you never know what to expect and this particular story is one of his most intriguing and one in which you must pay close attention to the early details OR you risk getting lost along the way. Just when you think it's one thing, it turns out that it's quite another. Fair warning.

The book also features two protagonists which take a while to warm up to and that's fine with me, because in the end you do warm up to them and realize, looking back, why they had to be as they are.

The plot:

Humphrey Paxton is the troubled teen-age son of British physicist Sir Bernard Paxton, father and son live in quiet splendor in a beautifully refined mansion in one of London's enclaves for the wealthy. The school term has ended and the solemn scientist is interviewing tutors who will accompany Humphrey to relatives in Ireland, there to spend the summer in rural pursuits. Pursuits which will, hopefully, help Humphrey get over whatever is bothering him. The boy is prone to lying, grandiosity, odd fits and spurts and tales of spies and blackmail. Typical bad boy stunts? Sir Paxton, though a brilliant atomic scientist, is confused and anxious when it comes to his son's behavior. Hence his search for a proper companion to help set his boy straight.

The tutor who eventually accompanies Humphrey to Ireland is a certain Mr. Richard Thewless who is, too, confused, especially once the pair boards the train on the first leg of the trip.

Why didn't Sir Bernard accompany Humphrey to the train station as he originally meant to do? Why did Humphrey insist on Mr. Thewless's proving his identification with an ingenious ploy? Why is Humphrey at first hyper and then regressively passive? Who is that bearded man with the new fishing gear stowed in his luggage? Who is the chatty old lady across the way reading a spy novel? Why does Humphrey disappear from the compartment mid-trip? And after an alarmed Mr. Thewless searches for him, encountering a slew of odd travelers, why does a disheveled Humphrey suddenly reappear with no creditable explanation?

(This part of the novel appears to be an homage to Hitchcock's 1938 film, THE LADY VANISHES -based on the 1936 novel, THE WHEEL SPINS by Ethel Lina White - since Innes includes a mysteriously bandaged patient, a large coffin-like package lifted off the train to a waiting limo, and strange circus folk.)

Mr. Thewless, not ordinarily given to flights of any sort of fancy, nevertheless, allows himself to invent all sorts of scenarios which might explain Humphrey's behavior and his own reaction to said behavior as well as that of their fellow travelers.

On the verge of suspecting Humphrey of being an imposter, Thewless shakes off his mental agitations and before they board the night steamer to Belfast, he reaffirms his belief that Humphrey is just what he seems to be: a troubled boy venturing forth - tutor in tow - to spend time in the country with relatives.

Meanwhile, back in London: a man seen entering the Metrodome movie theater alongside a boy and perhaps a woman, has been found dead in his seat - shot during a showing of Plutonium Blonde, a lurid B-movie thriller which feeds on the fears of the public - remember it is l949. The incident naturally brings in Scotland Yard, this time in the person of Inspector Cadover. Questions immediately arise: why has every vestige of identification been cut from the dead man's clothing,? How was this accomplished in a crowded theater? For that matter - why didn't anyone hear the shot? Where is the boy? Was the woman involved in the killing?

One of several bits that I especially liked at the beginning of the story: chapter 3 cleverly consists of nothing but letters and notes between several characters - some of whom we have not yet met.

See why I told you to pay attention to details? Occasionally I find Michael Innes' set-ups to murder a bit long-winded, but here everything clicks just as it ought to. Innes is fashioning a finely woven tale and patience is most assuredly a virtue.

The story holds together, shifting back and forth between Ireland and London as Scotland Yard quietly goes about a murder investigation in a book which is a clever conceit - a combo of police procedural and hair-raising spy thriller as only Michael Innes could conceive of it. Will the cops finally put two and two together? Will Humphrey and Mr. Thewless be able to evade the evil that is gathering around them? The answer will come after a most exciting and unnerving chase along a dangerous stretch of Irish coast.

Needless to say, I recommend THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY very highly - it remains one of my favorite Innes books. It is a wonder to me, that it was never made into a film. Or if it was, I've never heard of it.

Since it's Friday, we would normally head on over to Patti Abbott's blog to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about. But this week it's Todd Mason doing hosting duties at his blog, Sweet Freedom. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Damsels in Distress: Mystery Bookcovers of A Certain Sort

Back in the day, many mystery covers were decorated with views of attractive women in various forms of acute (and occasionally not so acute) distress (okay, some of them looked as if all they were suffering from was a bad headache, but still...). Supposedly, women in peril artwork (still popular today, let's face it) serves to entice the book-buying public. Though I've often found this selling point a bit confusing since it's well known that women read and buy more mysteries and perils of pauline stories than men do. (At least I remember reading this somewhere.) And why would women be attracted to covers which showcase their fair sex in anguished scenarios? (Whether the cover has anything to do with the actual story within is a question for another day.)

One would think that a cowering dame on the cover would turn off the female purchaser. But apparently not.

Maybe back then men were, in general, the major book-buying target. Though that doesn't explain the many MANY gothic romance covers showing women running from houses in the dead of night SO popular in the 50's and 60's.

It's all a muddle to me and that is why I am not a publishing kingpin.

P.S. I've only read two of the books in this post, Agatha Christie's DESTINATION UNKNOWN (aka SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH) and Christianna Brand's DEATH OF JEZEBEL and yes, both were women in peril stories - though one more than the other. Both by the way, are highly recommended by me.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: GREY MASK (1928) by Patricia Wentworth - The first Miss Silver mystery.

(Incidentally - I have, since writing this review, learned that almost all of Patricia Wentworth's books are available for free reading in ebook form, at this link, The copyrights have mostly expired in Canada.)

The Miss Silver mysteries by the prolific author, Patricia Wentworth are, without doubt, a mixed bag. The series lasted for many years, beginning in 1928 and lasting through until the last Miss Silver published in 1961, the year of Miss Wentworth's death. I remember reading and enjoying quite a few of the books and then for whatever reason I got bogged down in a slew of bad ones and gave up on Wentworth. (Sometimes that happens over the span of a long series.)

But now, yearning lately for cozy vintage reads, I'm returning and attempting to navigate through the Miss Silvers as best I can since they are suddenly available on Kindle and in hard copy form from Abe Books and even occasionally over at Project Gutenberg Canada, where several of the copyrights have expired. AND I've just discovered that a bunch of 'em are available in ebook format from my local N.C. library. (More than was available in N.J. - go figure.)

Miss Silver is often compared to Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. But in my view the only thing the two women have in common is that they are, indeed, two women who solve mysteries. Oh, and they like to knit. But that's about it. In my view, Miss Marple never once worked for a living where Miss Silver is a retired school teacher turned private eye. Christie is the better writer and plotter and her Miss Marple is a more memorable character, though both made their debuts in print around the same time. (Miss Marple in 1927 in a short story, THE TUESDAY NIGHT CLUB and Miss Silver in 1928 in GREY MASK, today's book for review.)

Going in, I'll say that I enjoyed this thoroughly archaic but always entertaining first Miss Silver mystery. Yes, there are anachronisms galore, but for some reason they just add to the enjoyment. I mean, the head criminal honcho goes about in a grey mas (I'm spelling it in the Brit way) and nobody knows who he is. You gotta' love this sort of thing and I do - when it catches me up from the beginning and makes me smile in recognition, as if the writer and I were sharing a joke. Even if I know that's not possible since when this book was written, men in masks were not to be sneered at. But still, that's how I approach it.

Though in this book the detective and her detection remain mostly in the background (not something I usually like), it remains a particularly good debut mystery and has plenty of what I turn to vintage cozy mysteries for. The atmosphere makes up for a lot here. In execution, the writing style reminded me a bit of Philip MacDonald's early work.

However, as a character, Miss Silver is not an especially agreeable or personable one and rarely if ever, comes to resemble a real person. She remains, far as I'm concerned, a clever fairy godmother type with omniscient powers and a very irritating cough, who shows up intermittently in the plot and in the end comes forward wisely to solve the mystery. And yet, somehow, the author makes this work most of the time. Maud Silver's main talent as I see it, is that she is the sort of person to whom people can't help spilling their guts. Couple this with a knack for planning and thinking ahead and you have a fairly decent detective. Yet it does still seem a bit odd that people actually step forward to hire a little old lady (not that old in the beginning, I'm thinking) to solve a crime.

With Jane Marple, there was no hiring to be done except, perhaps, in NEMESIS - in which Miss Marple is 'hired' from beyond the grave by a dead multi-millionaire and his strange bequest.

But Maud Silver is different, she actually has a private detection business - once you overlook that incongruity, the rest of it either falls into place for you or it doesn't. Suspension of disbelief is the order of the day.

Okay, now on to GREY MASK, the plot:

Charles Moray is an embittered young man who returns to England four years after being jilted by Margaret Langton, a woman he still loves. He has come to claim an inheritance - the house he grew up in - and while staying at a London hotel, can't resist going (in the dead of night) to reconnoitre the old family home.

While lurking about the darkened estate, Moray overhears a conversation which makes him suspect that the house is being used for some sort of criminal activity. He manages to get a glimpse of several men, one of whom is wearing - you guessed it - a grey mask. Not only that, but just as Charles makes up his mind to go for the police, who should enter the room but his lost lady love Margaret Langton, there to deliver some papers. Charles now comes away from the place, confused, angry and determined to save the woman he loves even if she is involved in a criminal enterprise.

The bad guys are after the money a ditzy young heiress may be about to inherit if she can prove her bonafides, her name is Margot Standing, (I know, Margot, Margaret, and yet another Margaret in the background - confusing) whose father left no will. Well, Margot runs away from the sinister forces gathering around her and lo and behold winds up staying with Margaret Langton who may or may not turn her over to Grey Mask. In the meantime,  Margaret warns Charles to stay away and leave her to her cruel fate. But Charles is made of sterner stuff and he is determined to prove extenuating circumstances as he goes ahead and hires Miss Silver to find out the truth, break up a criminal gang and in the bargain, save Miss Langton from the hoosegow.

A terrific book if you can swallow the anachronisms and I did.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patti Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other Forgotten or Overlooked Books other bloggers are talking about today.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book - BEST FIRST IN A SERIES: CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK by Elizabeth Peters

CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK is the first episode (if you will) in the Amelia Peabody series of 19 books, begun back in 1975 and completed in 2010 with A RIVER IN THE SKY. (Author Elizabeth Peters - aka Barbara Mertz - passed away at the age of 85 in 2013)

The author had a PhD in Egyptology and traveled extensively, so she knew whereof she wrote when it came to the setting of her series: Egypt at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. The prolific Ms. Peters was a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and also the author of mysteries (many with gothic overtones) under the second pseudonym of Barbara Michaels.

In CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK we meet Peters' greatest creation, the unforgettable Victorian spinster/archaeologist Amelia Peabody. Well, she doesn't remain a spinster for long, but here in this first book, she is the quintessentially acerbic, strong-minded, opinionated (but essentially likable) blue stocking spinster beloved of certain readers. The story is told in the first person, so we are instantly propelled into Peabody's psyche when she makes it known she will not suffer fools lightly, she has 'purpose enough for two' and goes on immediately to prove it by using her inheritance (from an anthropologist father whom no one realized had a fortune to leave) to fulfill her dream of travel and adventure. All this independence is too much for her affronted brothers who immediately threaten to contest their father's will siting undue influence. Amelia's lawyer assures her the will is unbreakable and not to worry.

The transparent attempts of my kin, and of various unemployed gentlemen, to win my regard, aroused in me a grim amusement. I did not put them off; quite the contrary, I encouraged them to visit, and laughed up my sleeve at their clumsy efforts. Then it occurred to me that I was enjoying them too much. I was becoming cynical; and it was this character development that made me decide to leave England - not, as some malicious persons have intimated, a fear of being overborne. I had always wanted to travel. Now, I decided, I would see all the places Father had studied - the glory that was Greece and the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome; Babylon and hundred-gated Thebes.

Once I had made this decision, it did not take me long to prepare for the journey. I made my arrangements with Mr. Fletcher, and received from him a proposal of marriage which I refused with the same good humor that had characterized the offer. At least he was honest.

 "I thought it was worth a try," he remarked calmly.
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained," I agreed.
Mr. Fletcher studied me thoughtfully for a moment.
"Miss Amelia, may I ask - in my professional capacity now - whether you have any inclinations toward matrimony?"
"None. I disapprove of matrimony as a matter of principle." Mr. Fletcher's pepper-and-salt eyebrows lifted. I added, "For myself, that is. I suppose it is well enough for some women; what else can the poor things do? But why should any independent, intelligent female choose to subject herself to the whims and tyrannies of a husband? I assure you, I have yet to meet a man as sensible as myself."

So Peadbody takes the money and goes off to the Continent, ready for adventure and whatever comes her way.

In Rome, after having lost her insipid traveling companion to illness, she picks up Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young heiress down on her luck (in fact, when Amelia first sees her, Evelyn is in a dead faint, collapsed from hunger on a street near the Coliseum). Evelyn has been cut off from her family after committing the unspeakable sin of running off with a handsome (but oily) music teacher. Now abandoned and left to fend for herself, Evelyn quickly becomes Peabody's companion after confessing her misdeeds which (to Evelyn's consternation) are pooh-poohed by the liberal thinking Peabody who considers herself a 'modern woman'.

When the two arrive in Egypt, the fun begins.

Within the over-crowded recesses of the Cairo Museum, Amelia comes up against a will as strong as her own in the crazed, disheveled, unkempt, ill-mannered, wildly bearded archaeologist, Radcliffe Emerson. He and his mild-mannered brother Walter (who is instantly smitten by Evelyn Barton-Forbes) are looking through the displays, Emerson frothing at the mouth over the criminal ineptness of the museum's curators. A theme which will continue throughout all nineteen books since Emerson considers himself the greatest living archaeologist and the only one who cares enough to properly classify archaeological finds. He is known as 'the father of curses,' by the native Egyptians for his rather colorful vocabulary when provoked - which is often.

For me, Emerson is the linchpin of these novels, in fact (next to Austen's Mr. Darcy and Georgette Heyer's Freddy Standon and/or Mr. Beaumaris), Emerson is the only fictional man that I'd ever consider marrying). He is a larger than life individual, an amalgam of all those dashing, handsome, wild-spirited heroes prevalent in books of the era. Yes, I know he is over-the-top and in reality would be impossible to live with, but he so wonderfully crazed and outrageous, not to mention extraordinarily sexy in his archaeological outfit of ubiquitous white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his broad chest, sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned muscular arms, tight jodhpurs and, of course, leather boots. Is Amelia immune to all this male pulchritude? Read the book and see.

Once Peabody decides that Egyptology is her passion, there is no stopping her. And here in the first book, author Elizabeth Peters makes sure we get the full Egyptological effect: a howling mummy skulking about in the dead of night - an eerie creature who has the temerity to show up in Peabody's bedroom at Shepheard's Hotel (where everyone who is anyone stays while in Cairo). Some of us may roll our eyes, but let's face it, what is a tale of thrilling archaeological adventure without a mummy? Not to worry, all is revealed and explained in the very satisfying ending.

But before we get there, we have skulduggery of the vilest form aimed at the two Victorian gentlewomen. The mummy (in cahoots with a smarmy fortune hunter - hissss!!) shows up at the Emerson brothers' excavation site and causes all sorts of villainous complications.

In Emerson, Peabody has met her match (he shaves his unruly beard and she discovers - gasp! - that he has a sexy cleft in his chin) - so hard to resist. Her companion Evelyn Barton-Forbes finds true love in the person of Walter Emerson, the more sedate (and well-mannered) of the two brothers and in the end several nasty evil-doers are dealt with.

But it's the tone of the entire proceeding that I find so beguiling. Amelia's inchoate superiority (with cause), her intelligence, her competence, her essential kind-heartedness, her assumption that all will be as she wishes - makes her a definite force to be reckoned with.

This is a clever, amusing romp (did I just use the word 'romp'?) - in fact most of the books in the series are unabashed satires of the sort of thrillers popular at the end of the 19th century and the early 20th (H. Rider Haggard and his ilk), written in mock Victorian style. The author assumes you are on the same wave-length and have a little knowledge of the absurdity of Victorian society and mores, not to mention the wordy and occasionally overwrought writing style of the times (think Wilkie Collins too). I loved CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK when I first read it, and my ardor hasn't lessened in the many re-readings since.

As an aside: Over the life of these books, Peabody and cohorts will go on to rub elbows with actual historical figures, i.e. Howard Carter (who will later discover the Tomb of Tutankhamun), Monsieur Mospero (whom Emerson despises), director of the Cairo Museum, Flinders Petrie, famed achaeologist and others. For me this is part of the fun.

Now since it's Friday once again, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's website, Pattinase, to see what other books other bloggers are talking about today.

This is a very fun fan production I found on youtube. But oh how I wish someone would make an actual movie out this book!! In a couple more years Emma Watson would be perfect in the part of Amelia.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sunday Salon: A Chair is to Sit On

Louis Valtat - via

Andre Lhote - via

Edouard Vuillard - via

Wayne Thiebaud - Man Sitting in Chair - Back View - 1964

Hans Purrmann - via

Michael Steinagle - via

Henri Matisse - via

Thomas Austen Brown - Mademoiselle Plume Rouge 1896 - via

Kim English - Museum Guard - via

When I'm sitting I'm usually reading, but we've already done a reading theme salon (not that I wouldn't mind doing another one of these days). This time out though, I thought I'd do sitting and not reading as a theme.

You'd think someone sitting in a chair would be a static concept, but these paintings by various artists whose styles I love, are anything but.

I do love that bored museum guard by Kim English. Even in his boredom, there's something going on. The nude in the painting looks like she's ready to shake him up.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: MURDER AT ARROWAYS (1950) by Helen Reilly

I'm a sucker for books with titles beginning with "MURDER AT...." Especially when there's a house name attached. If I stumble across one, I'll usually give it a try. I did with this title last year but didn't think much of the whole thing. In fact I kind of remember just skimming through it. (This is not the edition I have though - I somehow got my hands on a gray hardcover minus dust jacket.)

But upon rereading (and not skimming) MURDER AT ARROWAYS over the past two days, I've changed my mind. Hence, my review. Surprisingly, this is not a bad little 'had I but known' type mystery (with gothic overtones) of the kind made so popular by Mary Roberts Rinehart. And like in Rinehart, there's a bit of a romance attached to the blood-letting. It is that of the leading lady improbably named Damian (which kind of confused me at first) and the 'leading man' and occasional suspect, Oliver Mont. Okay, when was the last time a hero was named Oliver? Well, yes, there's Oliver Twist. But really...From my view, these types of names are meant to show you that the sorts of people involved in our mystery are of a certain class (usually with money and property) so popular in books of the 1950's. For goodness' sake, there's even a guy named Hiram which, okay, sounds like a farm hand, but in this reference isn't. (Remember all the imposing sounding names used in Perry Mason books and further, in the television series?) Hey, growing up in the 50's, I knew a kid named Preston.

Something else: I understand (from reading Bev Hankin's review ) that MURDER AT ARROWAYS is part of a series by Helen Reilly featuring a detective named McKee, But since I didn't know that and since Inspector McKee hardly features in the story (never really making an impressionable dent), I don't see that it matters - I mean, not having read any of the others.

The Plot:

Damian Carey is a poor but honest young woman living in the city, trying to make ends meet while taking care of an invalid cousin named Jane. We learn early on that there is some mystery to her background since there is money somewhere but Damian's mother was stricken from the family tree for making an infelicitous marriage. You know how that goes. Well, the parents are deceased now so they don't enter into the present day story.

At any rate, upon the death of Maria Mont, Damian's wealthy grandmother, the dominant (and fear inducing) matriarch of the family, Damian learns she has been unexpectedly left the huge family white elephant, Arroways, a Connecticut estate of the kind nobody (well, except for the Monts) lives in anymore. Later in the story we also learn that Damian was bequeathed some valuable jewelry as well. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

From once upon a time when she was young and impressionable, Damian remembers and is still intrigued by Oliver, the Mont family scion who has broken away from the family fabric business and begun his own airline transport. She knows he is engaged to be married but she hasn't seen him in years so how can that matter now? (Never mind that he's tall and blond and devastatingly handsome.)

With her friend and hopeful suitor, Bill Heyward, in attendance, Damian sets out for Connecticut to see Arroways and try to figure out just how to deal with this unexpected windfall.

Unfortunately, Eleanor Mont (Oliver's mother) and various family members still live at Arroways and must now prepare to vacate the premises and give way to what they obviously consider to be a little upstart. Upon their arrival, Bill leaves Damian on the doorstep and goes off to visit his aunt who lives in the area and with whom he will be staying while he irons out some inventing business he's up to. In the meantime, the reception that Damian receives at Arroways is awkward but cordial - just. The large and gloomy house is heavy with Atmosphere. It doesn't take us (and Damian) long to realize that there is something very wrong at Arroways. Family Secrets!

And it's obviously not just concern about Damian's surprise bequest.

Upon Grandma Maria Mont's death AND the death just a few hours later of her adopted son Randall (Oliver's father) Eleanor Mont and her children inherited the family fortune and business which unfortunately also included Maria Mont's man-eating manager, informer and all around hench-woman, the glamorous Anne Giles who has a taste for jewels and blackmail, and of course, has eyes for Oliver.

When Giles is found murdered, there is no shortage of suspects for the local police and later Inspector McKee to investigate. Of course, it doesn't help that EVERYONE is lying and that Oliver's unsteady sister Jancy has a drinking problem (the first time Damian meets her, Jancy is literally falling down drunk) AND that she obviously hated Anne Giles. (Well, let's face it - who didn't?) Then too, Damian is on the spot when, from her bedroom window, she sees Oliver tucking someone into a car and driving away on the night of the murder. A secret she confusedly keeps back from the police.

And by the way, who is that lurking about the house? What are all those suspicious noises? Why is Eleanor Mont on the verge of collapse? Why does Damian continue to behave so illogically. Yes, she's fond of Oliver, but where is her sense of self-preservation? Won't SOMEONE PLEASE TELL THE COPS WHAT IS GOING ON? Nope. This is one of those infuriating tales where everyone has something to hide and the cops keep banging their heads against the wall.

When a second person is murdered and Oliver and Damian are on the scene, further attempts at obfuscation follow. Is a happy ending forever to elude these two?

Read the book and find out.

But remember that this kind of thing requires a certain sort of mood. It will have you rolling your eyes (yes, the heroine goes down into the dark cellar when fleeing from the murderer in an empty house - a situation, really, which could have easily been avoided) yet somehow, you want to keep reading and you do.

Helen Reilly was not what I'd call a great writer of mysteries (her plots can be dull and rather obvious) but a few are definitely worth looking for. This one for instance, which turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Forgotten Book: DEAD AS A DINOSAUR by Frances and Richard Lockridge

I'm jumping into the swim of things, reviewing a Mr. and Mrs. North book which I enjoyed reading while still in the midst of moving hearth and home to N.C., back in early March. DEAD AS A DINOSAUR was appealing and diverting and a pleasure to turn to at the end of a long and exhausting day. 

I would have loved it more if not for the silly behavior of Mrs. North near the end, but other than that, this is very enjoyable detective yarn which features a search for a killer in the eerie (and dark) recesses of a natural history museum ala NY's Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. A natural enough place for murder and mayhem.

The fictional museum in this instance is the Broadly Institute and this is how we get there in the end: A certain Dr. Orpheus Preson, mammologist and curator currently working on a sequel to his improbably best-selling, THE DAYS BEFORE MAN, has recently been plagued by practical jokes bordering on the bizarre. Ads are being placed in area newspapers requesting any number of odd persons to show up on Preson's doorstep, from tree surgeons to pony wranglers to masseurs to someone looking to board Dr. Preson's doberman bitch - a non-existent dog, needless to say. And worse, someone has broken into Preson's apartment and messed around with some dinosaur bones he's been attempting to categorize. Again needless to say, this constant harassment is interfering with manuscript chores so a very distracted Preson turns to his publisher, Jerry North, to hold his hand and keep him from nervous self-combustion.

Yes, Preson has notified the police, but other than changing his phone number there's not much else  they can advise the frazzled doctor to do. 

Of course there are workplace rivalries at the museum as in any environment where academic eccentrics gather and it is possible that one of the other curators has taken it upon himself to drive a co-worker batty, though truth to tell, Preson's family is just as eccentric as he is, if not more so.

But when the pranks take a deadly turn and the cops take an interest, it's up to Jerry and Pamela North alongside their good friend Captain Bill Weigand of NY's finest, to get to the bottom of the mystery. 

Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries are mostly light and diverting and probably an acquired taste. Not for those among us who prefer our stories dark and grim and gruesome, but for those of us who enjoy reading about NYC life back in the day - the glamorous 40's and 50's - coupled with a good whodunit, these are very nice books indeed and copies are easily available online.

P.S. I'm now in the middle of a re-reading binge, since while moving I re-discovered books I hadn't read in a while and all the jostling and heavy lifting re-ignited my interest - hey, that's what book collections are for. But I won't bore you with re-reviews, not to worry. However, I did, amidst the moving hither and yon, acquire a cache of vintage reads from Abe Books, which helped me immeasurably to relax at the end of seemingly never-ending days. (What is is about murder that is SO relaxing?) Thus, beginning here with DEAD AS A DINOSAUR, said cache is what I'll be talking about over the next few weeks. Probably. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Hi, Everyone!

Yvette is back.

Yeah, it's been a while. Lots of stuff going on in my real life, so please bear with me. And apologies for not turning up sooner. I know some of you guys were concerned.

Here's the break-down:

Rocky and I made the big move (end of February) from New Jersey to North Carolina (not the most socially insightful state as you may know from recent headlines, but hey, nothing's perfect) to be closer to my family (and I am - just 12 minutes away now). When you become a grandma, it's all about those little kiddies and being near them. Can't help it, that's just the way it is. Ask any grandma.

The move went fairly well with nary a glitch except that on The Big Day it was my daughter driving the moving truck instead of my son-in-law who was sick with the flu back in N.C. He had planned to fly up and drive the large rental truck down, but plans had to be changed at the last minute. I asked my daughter if she'd ever driven a big truck before and she said no, but she'd driven a big pick-up. Good enough. She was amazing. We made it down to N.C. with no problems - with an overnight stay in Virginia at a Wyndham motel where in the morn extra biscuits and bacon got us back on the road headed south.

We drove a total of about 10 or 11 hours all told, and were lucky that all the way down there was little traffic to hold us up. Yeah, my daughter, me and Rocky packed into the not-exactly-spacious front cab of a Budget 16 footer rental truck. Lots of laughs. Ha!

But let's back up a bit.

You know how this all came about if you've read my 'I'm Moving!' post so I'll try not to repeat myself. I began packing the very day (the very night) I got back up north to N.J. (from visiting my family over the holidays) on January 9th - give or take a few hours - and never stopped packing until the day we moved on February 26th. Yes, it's true. Don't ask me how I did it all by myself (with some lugging to the landfill help from my brother and later, my daughter) because I just do not know. I guess if you really want to do something, you'll do it, age and sore muscles be damned. Plus, when I was working, I was used to impossible deadlines.

But that's now become part of the continuing problem: I'm truly (and now have the time to be) exhausted and it's all - FINALLY - catching up with me. Oh yes, and in between, I had a bad chest cold. But the way I look at it, it could have been the flu, so I was lucky. I just kept telling myself, 'You can do it.' And I did.

I realize I'm sounding very self-congratulatory here, but dammit, I am proud of myself.

There's still unpacking to finish (it's going to take me at least another few weeks until I get everything put away or, at least, put somewhere). But as Joe Pike was once heard to say, "I didn't know it was a race." Nope, not a race. I'll just take my own sweet time and do things at my own sloth-like pace.

But there's still this:

No matter that I gave away TONS of stuff - half my library and most of my winter clothes - AND left behind furniture and other assorted knick-knacks, I still brought too much stuff! Somehow,
things I thought indispensable suddenly became dispensable once down in my humble little abode. Isn't that always the way?

And as for the blog:

Despite all the heavy lifting and packing and unpacking, I'm still managing to find time to read. No need to worry, Yvette will find the will to read in the middle of a hurricane. So there are plenty of good books waiting for us to chat about. And yes, I was gone from my blog a good long time, but part of the problem was that I couldn't seem to sign back on once my computer was set up. It took a while until my daughter found the problem. (In addition to being an ace truck driver, she's also a computer whiz as I may have mentioned over the years.)

Worst part of my problem: exhaustion. The sheer will to post had evaporated over these few weeks and I debated not coming back to blog-land at all. But then, I realized I'd miss you guys and what the heck, I'll just take my time coming back. Little by little. If I'm not around much at first, please know it's just that I'm so darned tired. While there's still one more box to unpack and belongings to sift through, I won't be the old Yvette for awhile.

My family is well, my grand-kids are superbly adorable and my brother and his wife are thinking of moving down here (from NJ) as well when my sister-in-law retires. It seems that everyone who comes down to this area falls in love with it. It's a special place. Most of the people here are from someplace else (I've already met a few New Jersey ex-pats) and they all tell the same story: came to visit, decided to stay.

Yeah, politically, N.C. is not the most enlightened of states, but then I wasn't happy with the governor of New Jersey anyway. And I lived for 25 years in a county with a Republican congressman and somehow, survived. So, we'll see.

P.S. Yes, believe it or not, Rocky has been very good - so far. He sends his greetings - NOT!

Check out the book listings on the left hand side of my blog and you'll see what I've been reading lately.

Yvette is back.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Book List: 2015

Enid Blyton

In the spirit of yearly holiday tradition, here is the list of books I loved most last year including my choices for Yvette's Book of the Year and the Runner-Up. Vintage is rampant you'll note, so obviously I'm not paying any attention to whether the books were published in 2015 - per usual. If I read it for the first time last year then that's new enough for me.


SECONDHAND SOULS (2015) by Christopher Moore 

Why? Because this book made me laugh so hard and was so damn preposterous yet still managed to hit the charm alarm every now and then even when it was being ribald and rude. Moore is a treasure and one of the very few authors of wicked imagination who knows how to fashion horror and delight into a palatable duo -  you laugh hard enough you don't have time to recoil. Of course it doesn't hurt that Moore is brilliant at what he does.

This is the sequel to the one of my all time favorites, A DIRTY JOB, but you don't really need to have read it, to get going with this one. Each book stands alone (though the main characters are shared). Yet SECONDHAND SOULS is, somehow, even more loony and memorable. There are scenes in this book that are impossible to forget - unfortunately. HA!!

Here's the Washington Post's review of SECONDHAND SOULS which has some nice detail and may convince you to give this book a try - if you dare.

Charlie tag line: NEED A CHEEZ!!!

5 Stars


HUNTINGTOWER (1922) by John Buchan 

A marvelous adventure in the Scottish Highlands on the trail of a princess in a tower (literally) with a band of ill-assorted heroes to the rescue.

This is a Buchan 'romance' in the great tradition of romantic adventures so favored by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Walter Scott though it takes place in the 'modern day' of 1922 or so. But it is also a tale with a dark undertow of unregenerate villainy, outreach of the revolutionary scourge rampant in Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

Our hero is Dickson McCunn, a nice, middle-aged Scottish grocer who has sold his very successful Glasgow emporium (and its two branch stores) to a big chain and is able thereon to lead a life of leisure - a life he finds less than satisfactory. So off he goes looking for adventure: a walking tour of the Scottish Highalnds, and before you can say, 'be careful what you wish for,' dazzling adventure is what he gets.

Just a lovely, lovely book for those of us who have never quite grown up or grown away from the satisfying delights of this sort of thing.

5 Stars

My Review

And now for the rest: 2015 was a wonderful reading year during which I managed to read 116 books. (Not counting those I began and didn't finish, of course.)

1) WARRANT FOR X (1938) by Philip MacDonald

The book on which the film, 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET starring Van Johnson was based. The book is a million times better, more thrilling, inventive and faster-paced. Written in the stylistically vivid prose of the Golden Era of detecting greats which I enjoy.

The story: An American playwright in London overhears a dastardly plot, he gets super-sleuth Anthony Gethryn involved and then watch out, even with the chanciest of clues, it's full speed ahead. A book to ingest in one exciting gigantic gulp. I loved it.

5 Stars

My Review

2) PRIVATE ENTERPRISE (1947) by Angela Thirkell

My very first Angela Thirkell book and then, of course, I went on a Thirkell reading binge. This author wrote (among other things) an endearing (occasionally bittersweet) series of books set in the fictional county of Barsetshire (a name out of Trollope), a place full of mostly upper class Brits, the sort I wistfully enjoy reading about. (Probably because I don't have to meet them in real life.) These are the sorts of people Austen wrote about, though Thirkell's sense of humor, I think, is more pronounced, easier to decipher, and she has a wicked sense of whimsy which Austen never had. But you have to be inclined to 'get' what Thirkell's doing or else the books will slip right by you. Nothing much happens except the minutiae of day to day village life before, during and after WWII. And (horror of horrors) we often get happy endings - but oh, the wonderful language and charm of a way of life long gone.

Thirkell is in the style of E.F. Benson,  D.E. Stevenson and a couple of others whose names escape me at the moment. But Benson is more caustic in his wit and on the reverse side, D.E. Stevenson is gentler.

5 Stars

3) AUGUST FOLLY (1936) by Angela Thirkell

Another in the this entertaining series set in Barsetshire. This one has a delightfully wordy and subtly snide beginning which made me instantly drop everything else and sit down to read. You may not have the same reaction and if so, pass Thirkell by. You either appreciate the quiet wit and rapier sharp understanding of a certain social milieu or you don't. But if you're an Anglophile, like me, you'll be in heaven.

If you do, you're in for a treat: here we have a yearly amateur theatrical (a Greek tragedy staged for the village's delight) with a cast of local 'volunteers'. Of course this event will spawn complications, amusement, angst, social observation, romance, witty exclamations and plenty of gin and tonic to soothe the overwrought.

Not to mention, a donkey named Modestine but mostly called Neddy.

5 Stars

My Review

4) BROKEN HOMES by Ben Aaronovich - a 'Rivers of London' suspense novel.

Who knew that 'urban fantasy' was a thing? But you know as well as I, that these days, everything must have a specific niche or else. Sigh. Oh well, if it bothers you, pretend otherwise.

I'm not the most enthusiastic fantasy reader, but these inventive books have won me over to the dark side. (Ha!) They feature a likable hero and his mysterious mentor and are full of pointed satirical humor and (be warned) crime of the gruesome kind but (like me) you can easily look away and move on to the next page. The stories take place in an alternate universe London (and its environs) where magic is real and Scotland Yard, grudgingly, must have a department (though small and disregarded) whose specialty is crime of the fantastical sort.

There is a Harry Potter-like notion to the series, but on the whole, Aaronivich's Britain is grittier and perhaps, in an odd way, realer. And sex happens.

Of the four novels I've read so far, BROKEN HOMES is my favorite, though I enjoyed and recommend all four.

My Review

5) THE CASE OF THE JOURNEYING BOY (1949) by Michael Innes

Not an Appleby book, but oh so wonderful in its own right. Young Humphrey Paxton, a plucky, precocious and suspicious boy (rightly as it turns out), is the son of an English scientist. So it stands to reason that he will be plunged into a cloak and dagger affair while on his way to Scotland with his disbelieving tutor. (Are there any other sorts of British youth in books from this era? No, thank goodness.)

Lots of razzmatazz and terrific hold on to your seat plot machinations by Innes at his best and most enthusiastic.

Nick Fuller's Review

6) OPERATION PAX (1939) by Michael Innes

An entry in the series in which a much younger Appleby doesn't appear until late and in which his sister plays a prominent part AND in which we spend much of the last third (or so) of the story in and around Oxford, best of all adventuring inside the fabled dark corridors (approached by a chancy secret entrance) of the famed Bodleian Library.

And since it's Innes, we must have a bit of absurdity woven into the plot. This time it's a secluded estate, a secret scientific laboratory masquerading as a rest home for people with various psychiatric problems, a place in which bad people are up to no good.. There is also a tame lion which strolls about the grounds.

Begins slowly, but picks up speed soon enough. I read this in two nights and would have stretched it into three, but I couldn't help wanting to know - sooner rather than later - what happened next.

7) CAREER OF EVIL by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling

Is there anything Rowling can't do? Well, obviously not. In her admittedly ghoulish series of crime novels which is only just three books along, she has created a fascinating hero and heroine (he more than she) and a world very different from that of Harry Potter. Though good vs. evil are still her main themes, her setting is contemporary London and her hero is Cormoran Strike, detective. He is a large, disheveled, psychically and physically wounded war vet with a knack for getting involved in difficult and occasionally gruesome murder cases. Her heroine is Robin Ellacott, a quirky young woman on the brink of marriage to the wrong man.

I am on pins and needles waiting for the fourth book.

 8) A FOOL FOR A CLIENT by Parnell Hall

A hilarious entry in the long-running and very entertaining Stanley Hastings series. I laughed so hard I almost fell off the bed - it doesn't get any  better than that.

Set in NYC, Stanley is a nebbish of a detective, a failed actor content to work for his ambulance chasing shark of a boss, lawyer Richard Rosenberg. I've read almost everything in this series and as with any long-running literary enterprise, there are the occasional one or two duds, but I'm happy to say that on the whole, life is better with Stanley than without. And in the first Stanley book, DETECTIVE, you get one of the more memorable opening paragraphs (or two) in the entire history of detective fiction. (Look for it and read it, you'll see.)

In A FOOL FOR A CLIENT, the brash Richard Rosenberg, Stanley's boss, becomes a murder suspect after his girlfriend is found murdered in her apartment. Rosenberg, here to fore, the scourge of the Manhattan courts (with plenty of enemies now laughing at his predicament) but a mighty fine lawyer of the take no prisoners variety, is determined to defend himself, hence the title of the book.

Stanley to the rescue.

9) THE ROSIE PROJECT by Graeme Simsion

Everyone was recommending this book and so of course, I decided not to read it. When push comes to shove I'm definitely not a 'go with the flow' reader. This book sounded too much like something contrived for a book club. You know what I mean.

Well, I was wrong.

A good friend recommended I get over myself and read it. So I did.

This story is simple enough, a young man with no idea he has Asperger's Syndrome - just thinks himself withdrawn from the minutiae of emotions - goes about acquiring a mate. But so charmingly written - it never hurts to have a likable and unsuspecting main character - plus no sentimentality and a minimum of 'cuteness'. I didn't expect to be drawn in, but I was.

Turns out THE ROSIE PROJECT is a delight. Sometimes the hype is deserved.


To my mind, this darkly emotional duo counts as one book divided into two parts. First, THE BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY which takes place in the eerily secluded monastery of Saint Gilbert (where no outsiders are ever permitted), a sanctuary only approachable by boat or plane. The setting is one of Louise Penny's most intriguing creations and the monks concerned in the murder of one of their own, are just as intriguing in their desperation to remain inviolate.

The heart-wrenching ending sets you up for the next book: HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN:

Chief Inspector Gamache is back in Quebec and near the end of his tether, seemingly the only honorable man left in the Quebec Surete.  Most of his agents have left the Homicide Division and daily he faces hostile replacements who have no respect for Gamache or his way of doing things. Forced into a corner, Gamache must make a final decision.

But when a murder case in the village of Three Pines once more draws him into the fray, the final decision may be taken out of Gamache's hands as his many enemies close in.

Two staggeringly good installments in a series which can often be termed brilliant. A series, by the way, which should probably be read in the order it was published. Though possibly you could begin somewhere in the middle and then play catch-up.

A prize-winning, beautifully written series which remains one of the very best.