Best of 2018, Ten: Crime fiction, part three – the best of the rest

January 11, 2019 at 2:47 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

This is it – I promise!

What can I say, except that I pretty much read my way through last year, not doing much else, especially the latter half. And before I get started, I want to thank members of the Usual Suspects Mystery Discussion group for some of the best reading I had in this genre in 2018. If it’s marked with an asterisk, that means it was a Suspects selection.

Anyway, here goes:

Contemporary (with one or two exceptions)

*Farewell My Lovely (1940) by Raymond Chandler, and Only To Sleep (2018) by Lawrence Osborne. These two naturally go together, having as they do the same protagonist; namely, Philip Marlowe. Farewell My Lovely was a welcome reminder of the brilliance of Chandler; Only To Sleep was a cunning resurrection, as it were, of Philip Marlowe, affording him one last opportunity to engage in the world of crime solving. Osborne’s novel made quite a few ‘Best of 2018’ lists, which I was glad to see.

(My extreme enjoyment of Farewell My Lovely prompted me to read The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman.   Subtitled ‘Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved,’ this is the author’s effort to bring Chandler’s wife, Cissy Pascal, out of the shadows. A fascinating read, though it must  be said that with regard to her specific goal, Freeman is only partially successful. Cissy Pascal Chandler remains, for the most part, a mystery – perhaps, rightly so. Open and Shut and First Degree by David Rosenfelt. Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter mysteries benefit greatly from the presence of his excellent golden retriever, Tara. Also from the self-deprecating humor of Andy himself. A delight to read, especially when you need something that’s not too heavy. And First Degree is an excellent choice for those enamored of legal thrillers.

Tara gets up on the couch and assumes her favorite position, lying on her side with her head resting just above my knee. It virtually forces me to pet her every time I reach for my beer, which works for me as well as her. If there’s a better dog on this planet, if there’s a better living creature on this planet, then this is a great planet, and that must be one amazing living creature.

(I owe thanks to ‘Angie’s group’ for recommending this series.)

*Off the Grid by P.J. Tracy

*The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Bone on Bone by Julia Keller. Follow-up to the brilliant and deeply moving Fast Falls the Night.

*The Night Stalker by Robert Bryndza

*Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. This novel got me yearning for New Mexico all over again….

The front of her house faced east toward the Sandia Mountains which provided a backdrop for the reflection of the setting sun and the rising of the moon, but her backyard faced the long view across the city over the Rio Grande Bosque into the vastness of the West Mesa.

The weather usually came from the west and tonight thunderheads were building over Cabezon Peak. Claire couldn’t remember exactly when it had rained last, but it had been months. The ground, the people, the vegetation, even the air itself held its breath longing for rain. The prickly pear and ocotillo in the foothills were parched and layered with dust. She had the sensation she had every summer that she was waiting for something she believed would come but feared might not. The sky seemed promising tonight. The clouds were darkening and the wind was picking up.

Harbor Street and The Glass Room and by Ann Cleeves. Do I like this author? Gosh yes. And the tv series featuring Brenda Blethyn is terrific.

*Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker, in which I finally get around to reading the first entry in one of my favorite series. Walker hit the ground running as far as I”m concerned; this book was a delight.

November Road by Lou Berney. Brilliant!

The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan. An impressive debut, highly recommended by the most recent Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine.

Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott

Bury the Lead by Archer Mayor. Always a pleasure to revisit Joe Gunther, Sammy Martens, the ever irascible Willy Kunkel, Lester Spinney, Beverly Hillstrom, et. al. in Vermont, a venue vividly brought to life by this dependably excellent writer. Bury the Lead is the twenty-ninth book in the Joe Gunther series. I hope Archer Mayor throws himself a big party number thirty arrives!

South Atlantic Requiem by Edward Wilson

Broken Ground by Val McDermid. Absolutely loved this novel – perfection in a police procedural!

*An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Sleep No More by P.D. James. This is one of those times when I am grateful to be in a book group. I would never have thought to reread An Unsuitable Job for a Woman had it not turned up on the Usual Suspects schedule.

  I  read Unsuitable Job about ten years after its initial publication in 1977. At the time, I had been working at the library for a few short years and was first becoming acquainted with the works of Baroness James. I remember liking the novel a great deal, and especially liking its protagonist Cordelia Gray. Reading it again, as I did just a few months ago, I found it equal parts dated and relevant. But the writing – ah, the writing! James’s fluency, her wide ranging vocabulary, her shrewd insight into the human heart – these things can never be dated.

Sunday afternoon evensong was over and the congregation, who had listened in respectful silence to the singing of responses, psalms and anthem by one of the finest choirs in the world, rose and joined with joyous abandon in the final hymn. Cordelia rose and sang with them. She had seated herself at the end of the row close to the richly carved screen. From here she could see into the chancel. The robes of the choristers gleamed scarlet and white; the candles flickered in patterned rows and high circles of golden light; two tall and slender candles stood each side of the softly illuminated Rubens above t he high altar, seen dimly as a distant smudge of crimson, blue and gold. The blessing was pronounced, the final amen impeccably sung and the choir began to file decorously out of the chancel.

This was the first Cordelia Gray novel. It was followed by The Skull Beneath the Skin, which I’ve not read. Then, no more. There was a reason for the abrupt cessation of this series. James explains it in her own words in a Guardian article from 2011 (See paragraph 16).

As for the six stories that comprise Sleep No More, they were a welcome chance to revisit once again the work of P.D. James.

Snap by Belinda Bauer

Stay Hidden by Paul Doiron

Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This made numerous Best of 2018 lists; for me, though, it was not her best, though enjoyable nonetheless. It really is impossible for Laura Lippman to be boring!

Human Face by Aline Templeton. My first by this author, little known in this  country. I look forward to reading more.

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. The creator of Foyle’s War among his other achievements, Horowitz seem to excel at anything and everything he attempts in the fields of fiction and television.  The Sentence Is Death, a sequel to The Word Is Murder, is due out this June. Once again, Horowitz himself combines forces with the cunning Daniel Hawthorne – Yes!

Shadow Play by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I faithfully read each new book in this series and am always sorry when I reach the end.

The Knowledge by Martha Grimes

The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry. Books like this give thrillers a good name. Flawless structure, edge-of-the-seat suspense, intriguing characters, a careening plot that makes the reader hold on for dear life – what’s not to love?

The Temptation of Forgiveness by Donna Leon

The Throne of Caesar by Steven Saylor. What a pleasure it is to see a writer you’ve followed from his first book (Roman Blood, ) proceed from strength to strength in the way  that Steven Saylor has done with this series.

Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson. Marge and I have both been with this writer from the start of the Alan Banks series.

*Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. A gripping and powerful novel, with one of the best endings I’ve encountered in recent years (and that’s saying something – that’s where a lot of crime fiction falls down, in my view).

   The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly. This writer of police procedurals just gets better and better with each new book. Connelly is a superb storyteller. His plots have a propulsive drive, occasionally lightened by comic relief. Harry Bosch is kept grounded and humane by his fierce caring for daghter Maddie, now in college. I highly recommend the audio versions narrated by Titus Welliver, who portrays Bosch in the tv version, available via Amazon Streaming.

Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet. An oddly downbeat, extremely powerful procedural set in the east of France.

Money in the Morgue, a novel begun by Ngaio Marsh and finished by Stella Duffy. Truth to tell, I was not exactly blown away by this novel, though I’ve always held the work of Dame Ngaio in high esteem. My favorites by her are A Clutch of Constables, The Nursing Home Murder, and most especially Death in a White Tie, which features that rare commodity, a sympathetic victim, in addition to a sparkling depiction of the London ‘season’ and topped off by a compelling love story.

Classics – or, just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s great

In the course of 2018, I started quite a few classic crime novels only to abandon them part of the way through – a very small part, in some cases. The following, however, proved most enjoyable (and of course I loved Farewell My Lovely, see above.)

Fire in the Thatch by E.C.R. Lorac

The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons. Symons was still very much alive and writing when I went to work at the library in 1982. (He died in 1994 at the age of 82.) I remember reading and enjoying The Detling Murders, The Tigers of Subtopia, and The Blackheath Poisonings. These works were especially welcome, since at the time, I was just starting to learn about crime fiction.

The prolific Mr. Symons wrote not only mysteries but also criticism, other nonfiction, and poetry.

The Robthorne Mystery by John Rhode

Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley. I’d read this once before and not like it all that much. But this book makes so many all time best lists that I decided to give it another try. I liked it much better this time.

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle A most pleasant surprise. Much of the second half this short work takes place in the American West. The narrative was lively and engaging. I liked it a lot.








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Best of 2018, Nine: Crime fiction, part two

January 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Scotland, The British police procedural)

“After the demise of the UK’s queens of crime, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, only one author could take their place: the Scottish writer Val McDermid….”

The Guardian

I’m aware there are those who would dispute this assertion. But after reading Broken Ground, I’m on board with it. I absolutely loved this book.

I’d previously only read two novels by Val McDermid: A Place of Execution (2000) and The Grave Tattoo (2006). Those are both standalones. Broken Ground, on the other hand, is the fifth novel in the Karen Pirie series.

How I wish I’d begun at the beginning! Karen Pirie, beleaguered but undaunted, is a hero for our times – my times, anyway. She’s having to come to terms with the loss of her lover, also an officer in the Force. (In this sense, as in some others, she reminded me of Erika Foster in Robert Bryndza‘s excellent series.) She’s human but not superhuman. Not always likeable, but almost always admirable.

I love McDermid’s writing. It is always assured, sometimes even poetic, but it can veer abruptly toward hard hitting. For a novel in which action predominates, there is some striking description. Most likely McDermid can’t help including such passages when writing about her native Scotland, whether city or countryside. (If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why.)

In the course of an investigation, Karen finds herself on rural, alien ground, housed in an odd accommodation:

For a woman accustomed to  attacking insomnia by quartering the labyrinthine streets of Edinburgh with its wynds and closes, its pends and yards, its vennels and courts, where buildings crowded close in unexpected configurations, the empty acres of the Highlands offered limited possibilities.
The sky was clear and the light from the half-moon had no competition from the street lights so the pale glow it shed was more than enough to see by. She turned right out of the yurt and followed the track for ten minutes till it ended in a churned-up turning circle by what looked like like the remnants of a small stone bothy. Probably a shepherd’s hut, Karen told herself, based on what she knew was the most rudimentary guess work. The wind had stilled and the sea shimmered in the moonlight, tiny rufflets of waves making the surface shiver. She stood for awhile, absorbing the calm of the night, letting it soothe her restlessness.

I feel deeply grateful that there are still people who can write like this. I’m equally grateful that police procedurals of this caliber are still being written.

While researching Val McDermid, I came upon a gracious memorial she composed on the occasion of the passing of  Colin Dexter, creator of the inimitable Inspector Morse.

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Best of 2018, Eight: Crime fiction, part one – and one other important item

January 5, 2019 at 9:48 pm (Best of 2018, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

Before I do a deep dive into this one, I want to mention with praise and gratitude Tom Nolan’s list of best crime fiction of 2018. Why do I like this list so much? Because I’ve already read and enjoyed four out of ten of the titles he selected. They are:  

Here’s a link to the article. Tom Nolan writes for the Wall Street Journal, which tends to keep its content behind a pay wall. That content can, however, be accessed via the local library’s database HCLS Now! Research. Other library systems probably have a similar service.

Speaking of which, I’d like to commend the Howard County Library System for its generous gesture of suspending fees and fines during the current government shutdown. This has been done in recognition of the large number of federal workers living in this area. Several other measures have been taken to ease the impact of the shutdown. This action has been initiated by our new County Executive Calvin Ball (whom I encountered this morning at the League of Women Voters annual Legislative Luncheon).

Well done, Sir.

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Best of 2018, Seven: Nonfiction, part five: an unintended omission

January 2, 2019 at 1:20 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, True crime)

  In my recent posts on favorite nonfiction of 2018, I inadvertently omitted The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman. The book is subtitled,  the kidnapping of Sally Horner and the novel that scandalized the world. In it, Weinman tells the story of Sally Horner, an eleven-year-old girl from Camden, New Jersey, whose fateful encounter in 1948 with a man calling himself Frank La Salle resulted in a bizarre kidnapping and ensuing captivity that lasted for two years. During this time, Sally and La Salle made their way across the country to California, all the while assuming the roles of daughter and father respectively.

The strange odyssey of Sally Horner and Frank La Salle ended in 1950. The story received a fair amount of media attention. People were understandably intrigued by it. One of those who certainly knew about it was a somewhat eccentric Russian expatriate and butterfly collector. Oh and brilliant novelist. His name was Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov’s succès de scandale, Lolita, appeared in 1955. In her book, Sarah Weinman raises a provocative question:; namely. to what extent was Lolita inspired by the true life misadventure of Sally Horner and her sinister captor?

Vladimir Nabokov’s otherwise scrupulous archive of Lolita-related clippings failed to include anything about Sally Horner because if it had, then the dots would connect with more force, which would upset the carefully constructed myth of Nabokov, the sui generis artist, whose imagination and gifts were far superior to others’. It’s as if he didn’t trust Lolita to stand on its own against the real story of Sally Horner. As a result, Sally’s plight was sanded over, all but forgotten.

But with this provocative and beautifully written book, Sarah Weinman has shone a bright on that story and given it new life.


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Best of 2018, Six: Nonfiction, part four – the best of the rest

January 1, 2019 at 11:30 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books, France, True crime)

For This Reader, it was a great year for nonfiction.

In history:


To Catch a King: Charles II’s Great Escape, by Charles Spencer, Ninth Earl Spencer (brother to the late Princess Diana)

A History of France by John Julius Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a terrific – and prolific – historian whom we lost in June of this year.

The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport. A commenter on this blog post said: “Sounds like a fine book about an endlessly fascinating topic.” I certainly find it so. Endlessly fascinating and endlessly tragic.

In current affairs:


      Nomadland: Surviving American the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard. This small book consists of the text of two lectures delivered by Mary Beard, a renowned Cambridge classicist, courtesy of  The London Review of Books.

Beard’s book also contains a priceless picture of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel in matching power suits!

   Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America, by Beth Macy

In a variety of other areas, hard to pin down:

   The White Darkness by David Grann. The author of Killers of the Flower Moon delivers yet another powerful narrative.

   Victorians Undone: Tales of the Flesh in the Age of Decorum, by Kathryn Hughes

   Ghosts of the Tsunami  by Richard Lloyd Parry. This is a devastating story, told with great sensitivity. Parry is an excellent writer. For an exceptional work of true crime, try People Who Eat Darkness.

In nature:

The Meaning of Birds, by Simon Barnes. I finished it – Yay! Also downloaded it from Amazon and so will have it forever. Mr. Barnes, you have opened a world to me, for which I am deeply grateful.

I can’t resist sharing two more videos of avian nature:


(With thanks to Sir David Attenborough)

In Art and Architecture:

How Do We Look: the body, the divine, and the question of civilisation, by Mary Beard. This is a companion volume to the BBC’s Civilisations: From the Ancient to the Modern. (The three DVD’s that comprise this series are owned by the local library.)

True Crime / International Intrigue:

Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, by Gilbert King

Blood & Ivy: the 1849 murder that scandalized Harvard, by  Paul Collins

    Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective, by  Margalit Fox.  Fox comes up with an especially well expressed locution when she compares crime writing to doctoring. Both, she says, are rooted in “the art of diagnosis,” an art “…which hinges on the identification, discrimination, and interpretation of barely discernible clues in order to reconstruct an unseen past….”

The Spy and the Traitor: the greatest espionage story of the Cold War, by Ben Macintyre

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: one woman’s obsessive search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara. Inevitably, the impact of this powerful narrative is augmented by the fact of the untimely passing of its author.  Michelle McNamara did not live to complete this labor. Two researchers, crime writer Paul Haynes and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, performed that task, and did an admirable job. And McNamara’s husband, actor/comedian Patton Oswalt, also deserves credit for assigning the task the highest possible priority. He could have arranged no better memorial for his wife.

An Accident? – or Something Else?

   The Ghosts of Gombe: A True Story of Love and Death in an African Wilderness, by Dale Peterson. For those of us who have long admired the work of Jane Goodall, this book provides  a fascinating look at how the research camp she established in Tanzania, East Africa, functioned on a day to day basis in the 1960s. At the same time, Peterson relates the story of a researcher who goes missing. In July of 1969, as part of her research project, Ruth Davis follows a chimpanzee into the forest. She does not return to camp. An investigation follows, with the outcome everyone dreads.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of the Body at the Belvedere, by Mikita Brottman

And of course, there was  this rather specialized publication…handmade by two doting grandparents, with the help of Google Photos:

Some highlights:

Dad and Welles enjoying some quality time


Mom, Welles, and Etta making art at the Art Institute

I asked Etta strike a pose appropriately “Gothic.” As you can see, she obliged!

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Best of 2018, Five: Nonfiction, part three – In Byron’s Wake, by Miranda Seymour

December 29, 2018 at 1:52 pm (Best of 2018, Book review, books)

  George Gordon, Lord Byron, was indisputably a great poet.

I remember some years ago visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, Oregon. Engraved on a wall, I encountered a quotation from Childe Harold, Canto IV (This might not be an exact line-by-line recollection):

THERE is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean,—roll!

Oh, how civilized! thought I. It’s a wonderful place, that aquarium. And the restaurant boasted the most delicious clam chowder imaginable.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand…. As I said, Byron was a great poet. As a husband and father? Not so great. In fact, downright awful. No sooner had Annabella Milbanke married him than she knew she’d made a terrible mistake. The Wall Street Journal review of In Byron’s Wake is entitled “Lout and Ladies.” From that review, written by Abigail Deutsch:

During the couple’s first (and only) year of marriage, Byron took to treating his wife – now pregnant – with such fury that a maid worried “he was likely to put her to Death at any moment if he could do it privately.”

Fearing for her safety and that of her month old baby, Annabella sought refuge in the house of her parents. Neither she nor her infant daughter ever saw Byron again.

Fortunately, Annabella was a strong woman. She went on to amass considerable achievements in the fields of education reform and philanthropy. And Ada, her daughter, grew up to be not just  beautiful but possessed of singular and powerful gifts.

Annabella kept a sharp eye on her daughter’s education. When Ada was not quite out of her teens, she had the good fortune to acquire as a mentor the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville.  Soon after making the acquaintance of this distinguished scholar, an even more fateful meeting took place:

The following month, Ada – for once, without her mother – attended a party held at the London home of one of Mary Somerville’s closest friends. His name was Charles Babbage.

The rest, as they say, is history, though where Ada is concerned, a sadly abbreviated history.

In Byron’s Wake is the story of fascinating people living in turbulent times. Beautifully written and magnificently constructed, it is a triumph of the art of the biographer/historian.

Miranda Seymour

Dramatis personae:

George Gordon, Lord Byron 1788-1824


Mary Somerville 1780-1872


Charles Babbage 1791-1871

Annabella Milbanke Byron 1792-1860


Ada Byron Lovelace 1815-1852

The library does not yet own this marvelous book, but I do. It is available for borrowing, from me.

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Best of 2018, Four: Nonfiction, part two

December 27, 2018 at 2:03 pm (Art, Best of 2018, Book review, books, Poetry)

So I’m getting ready to divide my 2018 nonfiction reading into neat categories, and I run into trouble right away. Some of these books are hard to pigeonhole: they’re sort-of biographies, sort-of true crime – was there actually a crime? – and, well, you get the idea.

  The only more or less conventional biography I read this year was Gainsborough: A Portrait, by James Hamilton. As is the case with the most engaging biographies, the life of this distinguished  artist was set vividly within the context of his times.

Almost exactly ten years later, a well-dressed, brisk and persistent gentleman called on a friend of his in London. There was nobody at home, just the servant. On the table was a small landscape painting which caught the man’s attention. He picked it up, looked at it closely, turned it over. ‘Ruisdael improved,’ he thought to himself. ‘Warmer colouring, as truly drawn and painted as Ruisdael, but more spirited.’ It was quite clear from the back of the canvas that this was a new, modern picture, not Dutch seventeenth century. The following conversation was published in 1772:

‘James, where did your master get this picture?’

‘At the auctioneers Langford’s, sir, I have just brought it home.’

‘Do you know whose it is?’ ‘My master’s, sir.’

‘Fool! I mean the painter.’ There was a knock at the door. James let his master in.

‘Who painted that picture?’ demanded the visitor. ‘Who do you think?’ replied his friend. ‘Don’t know, tell me instantly!’ ‘Come, come – you are a judge of pictures, and a bit of a painter yourself. It’s a gem, isn’t it?’

The visitor was even more intrigued.

‘You will like it so much more when I tell you it is painted by an artist who is unknown, unfollowed, and unencouraged.’

‘What’s his name?’



Mary Little, later Lady Carr


Portrait of the Composer Carl Friedrich Abel with his Viola da Gamba (c. 1765)


Road from Market

Oh, those trees!


Three fascinating women figure in this narrative: Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Emily’s brother Austin, and Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel and her husband David Todd.

After Emily begins with Emily Dickinson’s funeral.

“And in the spring, also rare Emily Dickinson died & went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in. The sweet spring days have something in all their tender beauty when she was carried through the daisies and buttercups across the summer fields to be in her flowered couch,” Mabel later reflected in her journal. “It was a very great sorrow to Austin, but I have lived through greater with him, when little Gib [Austin’s son] died. He and I are so one that we comfort each other for everything, perfectly.”

There follows a furious nonstop battle over who owns the rights to her works. The story of the love affair of her brother and Mabel Loomis Todd is unexpected and remarkable. The fallout from it is significant, even profound. If you’re wondering whether Emily knew, she did – and did and said nothing, apparently.

But over and above the events of the narrative hovers the restless spirit of  that reclusive, brilliant poet:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

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Best of 2018, Two: Literary Fiction

December 23, 2018 at 11:29 pm (Best of 2018)

This is the area in which I read the least this year. I had trouble finding novels that appealed to me; I started quite a few more than I finished. I repeatedly encountered awkward writing, structural oddities, plotting peculiarities, and other off putting elements. I readily concede that the problem may lie more with me than with the books in question. Nevertheless, this is what I experienced.

There were, thank goodness, a few notable exceptions.

I’m no more immune to the artless charms of Anne Tyler than are her many other admirers. I know of no other writer currently at work who can write so convincingly about seemingly ‘ordinary’ people, including and especially children. She makes you care deeply about  their hurts, their small portions of happiness, their ultimate fate. So it is with Willa and company in Clock Dance..

At first, I had my doubts about this book. If it had not been a book club selection, I might not have stayed with it. But I did, and I’m glad. The novel opens with a rather unworldly college freshman, the oddly named Greer Kadetsky, going to a fraternity party and getting what we used to call “felt up” by an overweening male student. I assumed that the fallout from this iincident would be the focus of the novel, but it proves to be more of a springboard.

My problem with the book was that it had multiple foci; too many characters whose back stories were  minutely and laboriously explored. I sort of wanted to push them out of the way and get back to Greer and her coming of age tale. But gradually, as feminist themes became more pronounced, I was increasingly drawn into the narrative.

Early on in the novel, Greer is befriended by movement icon Faith Frank, a character that seems, at least in part, to be modeled on Gloria Steinem. The twists and turns of that relationship reflect different aspects of feminism: where it has been, where it is headed. Their conversations are very interesting. Additionally, Greer has a boyfriend, Cory Pinto, with whom she’s been in love since high school. Inevitably, their relationship is headed for some trying times. The other main character is Greer’s best friend Zee Eisenstat. Their friendship is tested to the limits by a betrayal that seemed to me rather arbitrary and deeply troubling.

To live in a world of female power—mutual power—felt like a desirable dream to Zee. Having power meant that the world was like a pasture with the gate left open, and that there was nothing stopping you, and you could run and run.

So yes, ultimately there was enough in The Female Persuasion to  hold me. I’ll be attending a discussion on it next month; I’m looking forward to hearing the reactions of other readers.

  As best as I can determine, sensation fiction is a cross between horror literature and crime fiction, exclusively beholden to neither. It reached the height of its popularity in Britain in the 1860s and 1870s. Two of the best known practitioners of the craft were Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Several titles by Dickens could be said to fall into this category, namely Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. There’s even a  Thomas Hardy novel, Desperate Remedies, that is often mentioned in this context.

The chief characteristics of sensation fiction are enumerated by Michael Grost on his essential site A Guide To Classic Mystery and Detection:

  • secrets from the past, often involving people’s identities
  • written records of key moments of people’s lives: wedding certificates, gravestones, parish registers, inscriptions in books
  • well to do women with secrets
  • criticism of socially approved roles for men and women, and ideas of femininity
  • victimization of socially naive young people, by older, more experienced criminals
  • criminal conspiracies, often involving major life transitions: marriage, death and inheritance
  • marriage as a sinister event, leading one to being fleeced of money, then killed
  • crimes which the reader sees unfold from beginning to end; rather than being solved after the fact, detective story style
  • characters who serve as doubles of each other
  • dreams
  • mind controlling drugs
  • the use of mirrors and paintings to suggest hidden truths, especially about the villains
  • satire of the religiously active

Further information on this topic can be found on The Victorian Web, another extremely useful site.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s best known work is Lady Audley’s Secret (1863). I was motivated to read it after encountering it in Kate Summerscale’s riveting account of the Road Hill House murder, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I was amazed at the sheer readability of this novel.  Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

Even more contemporaneous with the Road Hill House were the so-called novels of sensation, the most notable of which was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.  According to Henry James, works of this type dealt with “‘those most mysterious of mysteries,the mysteries that are at our own doors…the terrors of the cheerful country house, or  the busy London lodgings.’”  Summerscale elaborates:  “Their secrets were exotic, but their settings immediate – they took place in England, now, a land of telegrams, trains, policemen. The characters in these novels were at the mercy of their feelings, which pressed out, unmediated, onto their flesh: emotions compelled them to blanch, flush, darken, tremble, start, convulse, their eyes to burn and flash and dim.”  The worry at the time was that readers were experiencing the same scary subcutaneous reactions!

(Of course, authors of these works were employing every trick they knew to evoke that very response.)

Several months ago, Ann R of the Usual Suspects gave me a copy of Wyllard’s Weird, a later novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Once again I was enchanted by this author’s almost hypnotic prose style – graceful yet commanding. As with Lady Audley’s Secret, the storytelling was first rate. The novel opens with the description of a journey by railway:

There are some travellers who think when they cross the Tamar, over that fairy bridge of Brunel’s, hung aloft between the blue of the river and  the blue of the sky, that they have left England behind them on the eastern shore – that they have entered a new country, almost a new world.

The Royal Albert Bridge over the River Tamar, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened in 1859

The idyllic description continues, but not for long. On the very next page, a sudden and shocking event occurs. A young woman falls out of one of train’s carriages. She plummets to the earth far below and is killed instantly. Upon subsequent investigation, it turns out that no one knows who she is or why she  fell. Was it an accident, a suicide, or something more sinister? From the seed of this mystery a fascinating narrative grows.

I’m no end grateful to Ann for this marvelous novel. Now I need to go back and reread Lady Audley’s Secret.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, by William Powell Frith, 1865

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Best of 2018, One: Nail biting, pulse pounding suspense….

December 14, 2018 at 9:31 pm (Best of 2018)

That’s what the blurb writers promise. And yet sometimes I find myself in a yawn induced torpor, instead.

But that was definitely not the case with these two novels…

These two nonfiction titles were likewise compelling:

The White Darkness I’ve written about. It haunts me still, especially now that winter has come.

The Spy and the Traitor was a riveting read. In it, Ben Macintyre tells the story of Oleg Gordievsky, who became a KGB officer in 1963. His extraordinary abilities quickly propelled him to the top ranks of the organization. Yet as he skillfully performed in his capacity as an operative, he became increasingly revolted by the cruelty and hypocrisy of the agency in which he was serving.

To anyone who cared to look closely (and few Russians did), the contrast between the myth and reality of the KGB was self-evident. The Center [headquarters] was a spotlessly clean, brightly lit, amoral bureaucracy, a place at once ruthless, prissy, and puritanical, where international crimes were conceived with punctilious attention to detail. From its earliest days, Soviet intelligence operated without ethical restraint. In addition to collecting and analyzing intelligence, the KGB organized political warfare, media manipulation, disinformation, forgery, intimidation, kidnapping, and murder. The Thirteenth Department, or “The Directorate for Special Tasks,” specialized in sabotage and assassination.

And so he decides to offer his services to Britain’s MI6. And the story of what happens after that is truly heart stopping.

The latter part of the book consists of the story of Gordievsky’s exfiltration from the Soviet Union. A team of MI6 agents and workers at the British Embassy are assigned to manage this feat. Getting an exposed KGB double agent out of Russia had never before been successfully attempted. And this one was a known by his pay masters to be a traitor. How had he become known? Through the treacherous offices of one of America’s most notorious informers: Aldrich Ames.

The exfiltration team journeyed north to Finland in a desperate attempt to free Gordievsky once and for all from the clutches of the KGB and thus save his life. I did not know if they would ultimately succeed or not. All manner of subterfuge was employed. KGB operatives were in hot pursuit. My heart was literally pounding as I read.

And then suddenly, in the midst of this well nigh unendurable suspense, Viscount Roy Ascot, one of the team members, was driving toward the dawning day when he came upon a sight of startling beauty. He describes it thus:

“A thick mist had risen from the lakes and rivers, extending into long belts besides the  hills and through the trees and villages. The land slowly coalesced into substantial forms out of these foaming banks of violet and rose. Three very bright planets shone out in perfect symmetry, one to the left, one to the right, and one straight ahead. We passed solitary figures already scything hay, picking herbs, or taking cows to pasture along the slopes and gullies of common land. It was a stunning sight, an idyllic moment. It was difficult to believe that any harm could come out of a day of such beginnings.”

How very British, to respond to unexpected beauty with such a lyrical passage of prose, even in the midst of terrible tension and danger.

This is the second book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre. The first was A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.  He is my kind of writer, for sure – one terrific storyteller.


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