Best reading in 2014

December 11, 2014 at 3:27 pm (Best of 2014, Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Please note: the following are my favorite reading experiences of the year and are not necessarily books published in 2014. Simenon’s Night at the Crossroads came out in 1931. They Were Counted, the first volume in the Transylvanian trilogy of Miklos Banffy, also appeared in the 1930’s, although it was not translated into English until the late 199o’s. Originally published in 1965, John Williams’s Stoner went largely unnoticed. And yet it has had its champions down through the years, and now, in our era, its greatnesss has finally been acknowledged.

Count Miklos Banffy de Losoncz of Hungary  1873-1950

Count Miklos Banffy de Losoncz of Hungary 1873-1950

John Williams  1922-1994

John Williams 1922-1994


I’d like to say thanks to the various book groups that I attend (often but not faithfully). Several of their discussion selections are on this list. I might not have  read these books otherwise.  (I’ve designated them with an asterisk.)

For a printable text only version of this list, click here.

This is a bifurcated list, as you can see. It just came together that way, as I was working on it.

Enjoyable and worthwhile:


Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade by Rachel Cohen

The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter

Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris by Steven Levingston

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Crime fiction

Three Can Keep a Secret  and Proof Positive by Archer Mayor

Dark Waters by Robin Blake. Although this second series entry did not have quite the same impact as A Dark Anatomy, I still enjoyed it. I look forward to number three, The Hidden Man, due out in March of the coming year.

No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell. A Wexford, and as excellent as its predecessors.

*China Trade by S.J. Rozan

*Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood. A pleasant surprise. I expected a negligible bit of frippery and got a great deal more. And these are the novels that have given rise to the delightful series, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

The Devil’s Cave and The Resistance Man by Martin Walker

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstol. This second installment in Sundstol’s Minnesota Trilogy was not what I expected. For one thing, it is probably the most static crime novel I’ve ever read. The writing is lush to the point of gorgeousness, but there are several very disturbing scenarios as well. And so I recommend this (deceptively short) book with a certain amount of caution, and I would definitely read Land of Dreams first. (See below)
The Ravens, the third and final novel in this trilogy,  is due out in April of next year. Vidar Sundstol writes these novels in Norwegian, his native tongue. He is most fortunate in his gifted translator, Tiina Nunnally.

By Its Cover by Donna Leon

Night at the Crossroads by Georges Simenon. Penguin is in the process of reissuing all the Maigret novels in new translations. The project began in January with Pietr the Latvian. Currently the schedule for publication runs through February of the coming year. So far I’ve read The Late Monsieur Gallet, The Yellow Dog, and Night at the Crossroads. The third was definitely the best. I believe that the writing and plotting gain strength as the series goes forward.

From the first, Simenon delighted in the study of the females of the species and their effect on their male counterparts:

For a woman can be lovely without being alluring, while other, less classically beautiful women unfailingly inspire desire or sentimental feelings
Else aroused both: she was at once woman and a child, creating her own aura of voluptuous attraction. And yet, whoever looked into her eyes was astonished to find her gaze as limpid as a little girl’s.

This from a man who, in his dotage, claimed to have slept with some ten thousand women! (See “Would You Believe It” by Mark Dawson in The Guardian.)


The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley

*The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin


Outstanding – Best of the best


A Mysterious Something in the Light: The Life of Raymond Chandler  by Tom Williams

 BloodRoyal  Blood Royal: A True Tale of Crime and Detection in Medieval Paris by Eric Jager. An absolutely riveting read.

Eric Jager, Professor of English at UCLA

Eric Jager, Professor of English at UCLA and author of The Last Duel and Blood Royal

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

*The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by  Charles Graeber

True Crime: An American Anthology, edited by Harold Schecter

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and  the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

 Rendezvous1  Rendez-Vous with Art by Philippe de Montebello and Martin Gayford. Many are the gifts bestowed on me by these two renowned and eloquent art historians. Here are but a few [click to enlarge]:


Duccio di Buoninsegna


Peter Paul Rubens


Jean Honore Fragonard

Pieter_Bruegel_The Procession to Calvary

Pieter Breughel


Frans Hals


Jacopo Tintoretto

 Crime fiction

Land of Dreams by Vidar Sunstol

*An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

Sandrine’s Case by Thomas H. Cook

Black Lies, Red Blood by Kjell Eriksson

After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey

The Late Scholar  by Jill Paton Walsh, based on characters created by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith. Mma Ramotswe yet again, displaying her unerring intuition and just as importantly, her signature warmth, kindness, and compassion.

512f-nFy3PL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_  A Famine of Horses by P.F. Chisholm. Written twenty years ago, this is the first in a series of mysteries featuring Sir Robert Carey and set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. I’ve been hearing about this book for years and always meant to give it a try when I was next in the mood for historical fiction. Lately I’ve been in that mood a lot. It was brought to my attention not long ago that A Famine of Horses was available for Kindle download at a most attractive price. (It still is.) I acted accordingly.

I was so completely enchanted by Patricia Finney’s gem of a novel that I segued immediately into its sequel, A Season of Knives. (This is something I almost never do.)

The Robert Carey novels are currently available from Poisoned Pen Press, which does so much good work on behalf of quality crime writing. In her entry in They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, Barbara Peters, venerable founder of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore and editor-in-chief of the eponymous publishing house, observes the following:

This series has everything one could want: carefully crafted, clever, challenging plots, a great setting in the border country between England and Scotland, and characters drawn from (Elizabethan) life or wholly from Finney’s imagination….
So well transported are we that any interruption becomes unwelcome and we must follow the twists and turns of the plots to the end.

In her introduction to A Plague of Angels (fourth in the series), Diana Gabaldon puts it this way:

…Chisholm’s Sir Robert Carey novels are the sort of books that cause one to rush out of the house and leave the supper burning for fear of finishing one after the bookstore has closed and the others are out of reach. And the main reason for this addictive readability is the way in which complete matter-of-factness meets historical picturesqueness, thus resulting in a thoroughly convincing illusion of reality.

Here’s an exchange between Carey and his chief Lieutenant Dodd, on the subject of Queen Elizabeth, whose court Carey has lately vacated for the post of Deputy Warden in the borderlands:

Dodd struggled for a moment, then gave in. “What’s she like, the Queen?”
Carey raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he said consideringly, “a scurvy Scotsman might say she is a wild old bat who knows more of governorship and statecraft than the Privy Councils of both realms put together, but I say she is like Aurora in her beauty, her hair puts the sun in splendour to shame, her face holds the heavens within its compass and her glance is like the falling dew.”
“You say that do you, sir?”
“Certainly I do, frequently, and she laughs at me, tells me that I am her Robin Redbreast and I’m a naughty boy and too plainspoken for the Court.”
“And then I kiss her hand and she bids me rise and tells me that my brother is being tedious again and my father should get up to Berwick and birch him well, and that poor fool of a boy Thomas Scrope apparently wants me for a deputy in the West March, which shows he has at least enough sense to cover his little fingernail, which surprised her, and what would I say to wasting my life on the windswept Borders chasing cattle-thieves.”
“What did you say, sir?” Dodd asked, fascinated.
Carey’s eyes danced. “I groaned , covered my face, fell to my knees and besought her not to send me so far from her glorious countenance, although if it were not for the sorrow of leaving her august presence, I would rejoice in wind, borders and cattle-thieves, and if she be so hard of heart as to drive me away from the fountain of her delight, then I shall go and serve her with all my heart and soul and try and keep Scrope out of trouble.
Despite himself, Dodd cracked a laugh. “Is that how they speak at the Court?”
“If they want to keep out of the Tower, they do. I’m good at it and she likes my looks, so we get on well enough. And here I am, thank God.”

I cannot tell a lie: I am seriously at risk of falling in love with the dashing, amorous yet always courtly Sir Robert Carey!

(where, among other worthies, two of my favorite authors once again outdo themselves)

They Were Counted by Miklos Banffy

Stoner by John Williams

American Romantic by Ward Just

*Sparta by Roxana Robinson

The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster

The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

*The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley

Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan

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The triumph of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum!

December 1, 2014 at 2:55 am (Art)

After a renovation that took an unprecedented (and apparently unanticipated) ten years to complete, the Rijksmuseum, one of the worlds greatest treasure houses of art, finally reopened in April of last year.  In this video, Queen Beatrix is seen taking part in the opening ceremony.  (This was her last official act before abdicating in favor of her son Willem-Alexander.)

And this flash mob is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched it over and over again since I first came upon it several days ago.

What a fabulous celebration of some of the world’s greatest art!

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