Tag Archives: reading

Whodunit? Confessions in a Reading Journal

I’ll be honest. I love a good mystery. And lately, I’ve been on a huge (and long-lasting) whodunit kick. That’s part of the reason I haven’t written much lately: I find mysteries really hard to write about without giving too much away.

This particular kick all started with Death Comes to Pemberley, P. D. James’s recent release that imagines Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s life at Pemberley, if someone were to complete the pollution of Pemberley’s shades by committing murder therein. I figured that anyone who so expertly captured the tone of Jane Austen, as James does while recapping the whole of Pride and Prejudice in the prologue of Death Comes to Pemberley, was worth reading on her own account:

It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters…A family of five unmarried daughters is sure of attracting the sympathetic concern of all their neighbours, particularly where other diversions are few, and the situation of the Bennets was especially unfortunate.

In terms of Austen spin-offs, it was the best I’ve yet seen at recapturing Austen’s sardonic tone, and it convinced me to read more. For me, the mystery itself was somewhat forgettable, but, won by her writing from the first, I plunged onward, to Cover Her Face, the first in James’s series about Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh.

After Cover Her Face, I decided that I quite liked this aloof, intelligent poet-detective, so I read on through A Mind to Murder, Unnatural Causes, and Shroud for a Nightingale. (I’m kind of a stickler for reading books in order.) What I find so compelling about James’s novels is the strong, fine writing and the authentic characterizations. Although most of our time is spent with Dalgliesh, James adeptly moves from one character’s point of view to another’s, and each character’s reactions (as told or perceived) always feel real, and are often sympathetic in their own way. So far, I’ve also found her books to be richly atmospheric, with the place and circumstances of the murder contributing to a unique underlying sense of foreboding. The Black Tower, book number five, is waiting on my Kindle.

Somewhere in the midst of my P. D. James foray, I decided I could no longer put off reading Josephine Tey, who, like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, is considered a queen of the Golden Age of Mystery. I started with Brat Farrar. One of my favorite authors, Mary Stewart, wrote a novel called The Ivy Tree as “fan fiction” for Brat Farrar, so it was high time that I made Tey’s acquaintance. And I loved Brat Farrar. It’s the story of an imposter posing as the returned family heir, a boy who disappeared as a child and was presumed dead.

But Brat Farrar was so much more than that. Josephine Tey had a gift for storytelling, for drawing you along and making characters real and sympathetic. My favorite part of this book – though this could be considered a spoiler – was that Tey never tells us how the murder was done. It’s a singular triumph, because the story still manages to be fully satisfying. I’ll definitely read more of Josephine Tey.

Although I haven’t spoken of my love for Lord Peter Wimsey recently, you may safely assume it abides unabated, and that one weather eye is always open for a suitable costume monocle. And it was because someone told me that Ngaio Marsh’s gentleman detective, Roderick Alleyn, was rather like Lord Peter that I decided to meet him. So somewhere in the middle of my James spree, I read A Man Lay Dead, which was so enjoyable that it was immediately followed by Marsh’s third book, The Nursing Home Murder. (Marsh’s books are out of print, and not yet all available for Kindle, so I was limited to her first and third efforts; although as of this post’s publication date, Amazon has released 2, 4, 5, and 8 in a “collection” – go figure.) And though Lord Peter isn’t presently in any danger of displacement in my affection, I quite liked Roderick Alleyn, and Ngaio Marsh’s writing, such as:

“Sagacious woman, you have stolen my stock bit of thunder.”


“You can take that inordinately conceited look off your face and compose it into its customary mould of startled incredulity.”

Or even:

It would be tedious to attempt a phonetic reproduction of Mr. Sage’s utterances. Enough to say that they were genteel to a fantastic degree. “Aye thot Aye heard somewon teeking may neem in veen,” may give some idea of his rendering of the above sentence.

Hopefully, you get the (delightful) idea.

So that’s most of what I’ve been reading of late. Have you read any good mysteries lately?


Regency Slang is an Acquired Taste

image via Sourcebooks

I am highly suspicious of all works by authors described as “the next best thing to reading Jane Austen” (unless that author is Barbara Pym), so I was a reluctant latecomer to the novels of Georgette Heyer.

My first attempt at reading one of Georgette Heyer’s books was False Colours. I made it about fifty pages in before I gave up; the vapid mother, improbable identical twin plot, and ultimately the extensive use of Regency slang overcame my patience. For me, the language of Heyer will ever be an acquired taste, and I don’t recommend starting with one of her books that really indulges in it until you’ve acquired it. Eventually, you may even embrace it, and find yourself rejoicing at any opportunity to incorporate phrases like “There’s no need to fly up into the boughs!” into your everyday conversation. (So far, I’ve had only one opportunity, but I remain at the ready, should the occasion call.)

A few years after that first attempt, in a readers’ advisory class in library school, one of my classmates recommended The Grand Sophy to me. I pooh-poohed. I thought I knew better. But another classmate urged me very articulately to reconsider, saying that she didn’t know who was responsible for choosing the order or frequency with which Heyer novels are republished, but someone should really take that person in hand. That following summer, when the stress of my sister getting married and moving halfway across the country was rising, I gave The Grand Sophy a try. If ever there was a time for escapist Regency fiction, it was the summer of 2010.

I’ve written elsewhere about The Grand Sophy, Frederica, and Arabella. What I didn’t say there, though, was that I read The Grand Sophy in less than a week while on my sister’s bachelorette trip in San Francisco; I finished it on the flight home, and immediately upon finishing it, still on the plane, downloaded Frederica to my kindle.

Since reading those three, I’ve gone on to read many more, including: The Nonesuch, Lady of QualityThe Reluctant Widow, Talisman Ring, and, best of all, Venetia. Venetia is far and away my favorite Georgette Heyer novel. Featuring the two most well-read and well-spoken of Heyer’s characters, it’s the sparkliest of the sparkly banter – and happily, unlike some of Heyer’s novels, our hero and heroine get to spend a lot of time together.

I like all of Heyer’s older, “on the shelf” heroines, but Venetia is my favorite probably because I identify the most with her character. She’s a prettier, much more fun and witty version of myself, like how I imagine myself to be on my best days, if all my lines were previously scripted and I had met a worthy opponent. And speaking of worthy opponents: Lord Damerel is a shining example of that ever-so-attractive archetype, the rake seeking redemption (even if he isn’t quite aware of it yet).

But this post isn’t just about Venetia as a novel and how I reread my favorite parts at regular, probably embarrassingly frequent, intervals; it’s also about Venetia, the audiobook, read by Richard Armitage. It’s simply excellent, and worth checking out whether or not you’ve read the novel.

If ever they make a movie version of Venetia, which is a marvelously good idea, they really need to have Richard Armitage play Lord Damerel. I consider Mr. Armitage to be the nonpareil portrayer of conflicted emotions, smoldering glances, and eyes that are “smiling yet fierce” (see North and South); he really is the only choice. And obviously, I would play Venetia. I have no acting training, but I believe, in this case alone, the sheer force of my enthusiasm and familiarity with the story would carry the day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Middlemarch.

One of the many ways I reconciled myself to the idea of not majoring in English in college was my knowledge, even then, that I am perfectly terrible at completing required reading. A significant number of works considered classic I find myself unable to read, including (a moment of truth!) Dickens. How it came about, then, that I forced myself through all those accounting textbooks and read practically every single page of each assigned chapter remains a mystery to me.

I think what’s always hung me up about Dickens, and, frankly, George Eliot, is the sheer quantity of characters and tangential plotlines. I am a person who reads for character in that I like getting to know characters – but I want to relate to them in some way, to champion their causes, and to feel their joys and sorrows; at the very least I want to sympathize with them, even if I can’t fully relate. But particularly with Dickens, and to a certain extent with Eliot, there are so many characters, and sometimes so much time is spent on characters about whom I care less than little, that it makes for very hard going. My attention wanders. I stagger the truly dull points with other material: froth fiction, or magazines, or books where things happen (much more quickly), or books I know I’ll enjoy because I’ve read them before.

image via an anthropologie mailer

The first Valentine I received this year was from Anthropologie, encouraging me to treat myself for the holiday. It included the graphic off to the left.

I had a brief moment of panic where I thought about privacy on the internet: had Anthropologie gotten access to my GoodReads account, and seen the amount of time Middlemarch has been “in progress”? What information about us do the search engines we prefer really capture? What are the implications for me as a person and society as a whole? Reason returned when I realized, beyond the extreme unlikelihood that they would customize an ad for each customer, that if they had, they probably would have chosen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as it’s been “in progress” for (probably much more than) twice as long – yet I’m significantly more certain I’ll enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, if I could only just devote a lot more time to it.

But perhaps you have had the same question, reading this blog. Is she really reading Middlemarch? Yes. She is. Just very slowly. The speed of my progress is defeated by the depth of character details without any way to easily classify these characters as “good” or “bad”. (This is clearly not what impedes me with Dickens, as good-bad classification there is generally easy; it’s solely the quantity of tangents and characters that waylays me.) It may be a gaping weakness in my character and reading habits that I search for the characters I like best in stories. And where I’m struggling in Middlemarch is that there isn’t anyone I really like, except (so far) the Vicar, Camden Farebrother. But he’s only recently come on the scene, so it’s really too early to say.

Or maybe I just subconsciously wanted to go through an entire year of holidays with Middlemarch.

Books We Read in School

The subject of books we read in school came up at dinner with friends the other night. As is always expected when individuals of varying life experiences and approaches to life are assembled in one place for the purpose of eating, there were many differing opinions about many things, including reading.

There are actually just a few books that I read in school that I remember. Sadly, I remember considerably more about the “pleasure” reading to which I devoted so much more time. Yes, I went through a “sick books” phase. “Sick books” – in the event you never experienced one – are books in which one of the main characters takes ill (probably leukemia, a brain tumor, or a preexisting heart condition the character has had from birth which only serves to make the story that much more heartbreaking) and probably dies, most likely leaving behind his or her one and only true love. Happily, I did outgrow them.

Here are the assigned books that I actually remember reading (minus one which I omit because I have nothing either entertaining or remotely positive to say about it), and what I remember thinking about them at the time.

With a cover like this, can you blame me? Image via amazon.com

Hatchet, by Gary Paulson. It was about a boy who was stranded in the woods in the middle of nowhere after a plane crash. I remember long accounts of shelter-building and being very bored indeed.

White Fang, by Jack London. Seriously, the only thing I remember about this is descriptions of blood and violence. And it’s hazy enough that these may be just my lasting impressions rather than actual memories of scenes in the book.

Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. I remember sitting in the classroom during silent reading time and trying very hard not to cry, and not succeeding. If you can read this book without crying, you may be entirely heartless.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This is one of the few books assigned that I actually enjoyed, and it is perhaps one of the first books I read that, once I came to the end, I sat in awe for a few minutes to think about it. It’s still on my list of favorites.

Cosette, or the Little Matchgirl? You decide. Image via amazon.com

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo. My principal memory is of sitting in my parents’ living room on a Sunday afternoon and finishing the novel, and my parents finding me weeping, which they seemed to find hilarious. These same parents had a copy of this novel on audio cassette, and I can remember how it almost always went with us on road trips. For whatever reason, I had it confused for the longest time with the “little matchgirl” story, because the picture on the front was how I imagined the little matchgirl to look. So you might say I remember hearing this story long before I understood it.

The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. In his dedication to Good Poems, Garrison Keillor said, “To all the English teachers, especially the great ones”, and it is only because of one of those great English teachers that I will never forget this book, for more reasons than I probably have time to tell tonight. Thanks, Mr. Robertson.

Reading matters, period.

stack of books

Image credit: Sanja Gjenero, stock.xchng

I was poking around on The New Yorker last week with my brand-new, indulgent, digital subscription when a recent Book Bench post caught my eye: “Inside Amazon’s Best-Read Cities”, by Macy Halford. Her post is a response to a recent press release from Amazon.com regarding the “Most Well-Read Cities in America” based on per-capita book sales in cities of 100,000 people or more.

I can’t speak to how anyone else will react to Ms. Halford’s thoughts, but I confess to being by turns amused, irritated, and ultimately outraged. However, deep underneath her arguments are no doubt certain valid points about the conclusions Amazon reached:

The purchase of reading material does not in and of itself mean that a city’s population is well-read. Those books might have been purchased as gifts; or, perhaps those residents, like me, have an ever-growing stack of books they feel they should read because the Hipsters and the Bright Minds working at Any Independent Bookstore or places like The New Yorker are reading them and say that you, too, should be reading them, but which in fact end up gathering dust and are moved from one residence to the next with the best of intentions and a growing weight of guilt. Further, one can be well-read without purchasing books by using his or her local public library.

Of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Amazon concludes, “Not only do they like to read, but they like to know the facts,” citing the number of non-fiction titles purchased by residents of these cities. As the press release points out, the city is home to both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; but no indication is given regarding the percentage of those non-fiction titles which are textbooks, or whether textbooks were excluded and the numbers were based entirely on narrative non-fiction titles.

Other dodgy conclusions include the identification of Boulder, Colorado, as living up “to its reputation as a healthy city” because of the quantity of Cooking, Food, and Wine books purchased by its residents. Were they all health-food cookbooks, diet cookbooks? Without context, I would alternatively conclude this might be an indicator of a Foodie City.

These were just some of my initial reactions to Amazon’s press release, evidence of my deep-seated disdain of the use of statistics to draw conclusions without providing contextual details. But far greater is my irritation with the thoughts shared on the Book Bench blog:

“If you live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, etc., don’t let this list make you feel bad. Perhaps you have greater access to bookstores than people in other cities…” Amazon is a bookstore – to which everyone in the cities she lists might have access, through an Internet connection. Hasn’t one of the greatest (and sometimes worst) things about the Internet been access to information? Online bookstores free me from having to chance what may or, more often, may not be in stock on the shelves of my local bookstores. It seems to me she’s insinuating that residents of these cities simply wouldn’t do business with Amazon, for reasons undisclosed.

“As for other cities on the list, my interpretive powers fail me: yes, most of them house universities, but does that really explain why Miami, Orlando, and Hotlanta made the cut?” Why shouldn’t these cities have “made the cut”, exactly? I can’t help thinking that perhaps the bottom line here is that New York City does not appear on Amazon’s list.

“Maybe these places, which have warm climates and generally relaxed atmospheres, buy more enjoyable books – a few Sue Graftons to take to the beach, a couple barbecue cookbooks for the summer kitchen, stuff like that.” So they shouldn’t be considered “well-read” cities because, as she conjectures, the residents are buying enjoyable books?

book shopping

Image credit: Herman Brinkman, stock.xchng

I don’t understand where this idea of “good” comes from: “good” books. What makes a book fantastic for me might make it dull-as-tombs for someone else with different reading tastes. In The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows wrote, “Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.” I believe that every book has its reader, and every reader has his or her book. What I do not believe – and cannot condone – is the denigration of another’s reading tastes that may differ from one’s own. If literacy statistics are to be believed – that as many as 50 percent of American adults are unable to read at an eighth grade level – I’m just happy to see that there is still interest in books, and that people are still reading.

So, read – read what you like, and don’t apologize for it. Just read.