Category: Books

by Louise Penny


The Plot: 

Someone using a bow and arrow kills a beloved old lady in the woods. Was it an accident, or is someone in an arts-loving Canadian village responsible?


What I Liked:

Clues to the killer — and other village secrets — are hidden in a unique setting: the victim’s living-room walls. The walls are adorned with a giant mural depicting the residents of tiny Three Pines. Did the dead woman leave a clue to the identity of her eventual killer in her mural?

That’s a fun idea that I haven’t really seen done before. The detectives, the villagers, and readers alike are invited to ponder this maze-like puzzle.


What I Didn’t Care For:

The main characters are a collection of middle-class liberals who believe that, deep down, they are undiscovered great artists. They seem oblivious to the fact that history’s great artists were not often middle-class liberals.

Penny wants us to view lead detective Armand Gamache as an enigmatic, wise man of few words. I saw him as bland and forgettable. (Gamache is much like another low-key detective who leaves me cold, P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh.)

I prefer my protagonists to have a bit more color, a la Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by J.B. Priestley


In 1932, legendary Hollywood director James Whale gave us The Old Dark House, a real gem of a movie. Whale infused his film with his trademark wit, humor, and camp. Oh, and yes — at least by 1932 standards, it was quite scary.

Whale was also remarkably faithful to the plot of his movie’s source material, J.B. Priestley’s 1927 novel, Benighted.

The plot of both book and film: A group of five young travelers take refuge from a raging storm in an isolated mansion inhabited by members of the Femm family, a collection of oddballs ranging from the eccentric to the sociopathic.

Is Benighted as good as Whale’s movie? I’d say yes and no.

Priestley’s novel is more introspective, getting inside its characters’ heads and finding there: despair, disillusionment — but also glimmers of hope — in the mindsets of young people struggling with the aftermath of The Great War.

Priestley’s focus is on psychology. Whale dispenses with all the navel-gazing and instead highlights the Femms, whose members resemble a 1920s version of the clan of lunatics in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

I prefer Whale’s funhouse interpretation. But I also recommend the book.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Emily Guendelsberger


Guendelsberger follows in the footsteps of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who 22 years ago went undercover to document low-wage jobs for her book Nickel and Dimed. In 2019’s On the Clock, Guendelsberger becomes a (temporary) worker bee in an Amazon warehouse, at a call center, and in a San Francisco McDonald’s.

Most of her book depicts the misery and humiliation endured by people working such jobs — but then, we already knew about that (or should know about that).

The question is, why don’t corporations and governments do something to alleviate the pain of folks who can’t afford health insurance, can’t afford to move, and find themselves at the mercy of algorithms, invasive monitoring, and decision-makers so far removed from life at the bottom that, even if they wanted to improve conditions, might not know how?

If nothing else, those of us fortunate enough to be on the other side of the cash register (or the phone line), might think twice before blowing up at the human being stuck trying to help us.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Agatha Christie


A 1931 “standalone” Christie novel (no Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple) in which a séance at a mansion in Dartmoor reveals to the participants the murder of a prominent villager.

The story is notable not just for the missing Poirot and Marple, but also because it is a bit of an homage to Sherlock Holmes, in particular The Hound of the Baskervilles. The setting, plot elements, and at least two characters are clear references to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel.

Did I figure out whodunit? No, Agatha fooled me again. And yet the resolution of the mystery, although surprising, was not as ingenious nor as satisfying as in Christie’s best novels.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Leo Tolstoy


Prior to reading this novella, I’d read just two books by the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s gargantuan War and Peace was, in my humble opinion, much more entertaining in its “peace” parts than in its “war” parts. I remember thinking Anna Karenina was very, very good … but I recall absolutely nothing about the story. (In my defense, it has been many years since I read these books.)

I suspect that The Death of Ivan Ilyich, weighing in at less than 80 pages, will stick with me much longer than will the two Tolstoy magnum opuses.

The story is simple, yet concentrated and vivid. In it, a Russian judge develops an incurable illness and then slowly and oh-so painfully, expires. That’s it. Yet Tolstoy successfully puts the reader in bed with poor Ivan and forces us to endure all his pains, physical and psychological.

The big question that Tolstoy asks us to ponder is whether there is truth in Socrates’s dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Bel Kaufman


It isn’t often that I actively look forward to returning to a book I’m reading. Don’t get me wrong; I love books, but these days there are so many options competing for my leisure-time attention. Options like Netflix, music, regular TV, the Internet ….

But I went out of my way to read Up the Down Staircase, which, nearly 60 years after its publication, is still a joy.

Kaufman’s 1964 novel, chronicling four months of a rookie teacher’s life at a New York City high school, introduced a groundbreaking format. It’s largely a collection of fictional inter-office memos, student homework assignments, personal letters, and items from the class “suggestion box.” This collage of written memorabilia — loaded with rib-tickling malaprops from both kids and adults — paints an indelible picture of English teacher Sylvia Barrett’s introduction to Calvin Coolidge High School.

But the story is in no way all fun and games. Kaufman deftly juxtaposes humor with all the heartbreak and frustrations faced by idealistic teachers and underprivileged kids at the school.

A confession: Staircase is a font of deep nostalgia for Yours Truly. Back in the day, I was cast as one of Sylvia’s students in our high school’s stage production of the book.

I played, naturally, class comedian “Lou Martin.”

Ha ha!


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Oscar Wilde


Oscar Wilde’s first published story, The Canterville Ghost, tells the tale of an American family that, upon purchasing an ancient English estate, learns that the house also comes with a nettlesome ghost.

Much to its dismay and despite its best efforts, the ghost more than meets its match in the Otis family.  This is especially true of a pair of mischievous twin boys.

Unlike Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his plays, Canterville seems to be aimed primarily at children. The trademark Wilde wit is on display, but unlike his later works (yet in keeping with the titular spirit) the story doesn’t have much meat on its bones.


© 2010-2024 (text only)



by Frances Hodgson Burnett


Plot:  Ten-year-old orphan Mary moves from India to England, where she discovers the titular garden and some “magical” neighbors who greatly improve her outlook on life.

I’m not exactly in the target demo for this book, which is presumably children. But it’s easy to see why Burnett’s 1911 novel is considered a classic, with its vivid depiction of sour-faced Mary and the life lessons — the power of positive thinking; the healing effects of nature — that she and another child absorb at a mysterious mansion in Yorkshire.

Pros:  The fun is in witnessing the gradual transformations of grumpy Mary and an even haughtier boy from spoiled brats to good kids. The Yorkshire dialect is quite amusing, as are the cantankerous dispositions of certain locals.

Cons:  I could do with less of Burnett’s horticultural infatuation, which reminded me of the endless descriptions of masts and decks penned by Herman Melville in Moby Dick (of all books). I get that some authors love to wax rhapsodic about chrysanthemums and poppies and vines but … good grief, enough is enough.


© 2010-2024 (text only)


by Merryn Allingham


The Bookshop Murder finds amateur sleuth Flora Steele investigating a mysterious death in 1950s Sussex. She also finds romance with a reclusive, handsome writer in their picturesque small town.

This is the kind of book that doesn’t just employ cliches — thematically and literally — but seems to embrace them. The best word to describe the tone is mild. It is mildly intriguing, mildly dramatic. It’s basically Nancy Drew for adults who never outgrew Nancy Drew.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Hardy Boys. But as an adult, I prefer a bit less innocence (or “coziness”) — and heaps more spice.


© 2010-2024 (text only)



by Anthony Gilbert


If you’ve never heard of Anthony Gilbert, don’t feel bad; neither had I. Gilbert was just one of scores of writers contributing to the “golden age of detective fiction” a century ago. I am of course familiar with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers and Mary Roberts Rinehart and a handful of other members of the murder-mystery movement, but like so many writers of that era, Anthony Gilbert has faded into obscurity.

The Tragedy at Freyne is typical of its genre. A celebrated artist apparently commits suicide at his secluded British estate, and there are murder suspects galore. If you read old mysteries, you can predict most of what follows.

Gilbert’s story does have someone filling the usual protagonist role, a la Poirot or Sherlock Holmes, but he’s not particularly memorable. Where Gilbert shines is in the portrayal of female characters — particularly women with dark secrets.

That shouldn’t be too surprising. “Anthony Gilbert” was, in fact, a pen name used by Lucy Beatrice Malleson, a prolific English writer responsible for more than 60 crime novels.


© 2010-2024 (text only)