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Posts Tagged ‘Miss Marple’

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(This really means “week before vacation and vacation” reading, and/or “The Final Book Roundup of 2012.”)

The Secret Keeper, Kate Morton
As a teenager in 1961, Laurel Nicolson sees her mother kill a man. She doesn’t know who he was or why he came to their house – and the family never speaks of it again. Forty years later, as her mother begins to slip away, Laurel and her brother begin a feverish search for answers. This was my first Morton novel and I loved it – so evocative of both modern-day England and London during the Blitz. The sibling dynamics are perfectly drawn, and there were a couple of brilliant, dramatic twists. Utterly absorbing. (I received a galley from the publisher, but was not compensated for this review.)

All Shall Be Well, Deborah Crombie
I tore through this second book featuring the Scotland Yard team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. They investigate the death of Kincaid’s terminally ill neighbor Jasmine, from a lethal dose of morphine. She had considered (and mentioned) suicide, but the details add up to homicide instead. Better plotted, better written and more interesting than the first one, with more insights into Kincaid’s and Gemma’s lives. (I wonder – especially since the writer is a woman – why she calls him “Kincaid” and her “Gemma.” Perhaps it’s my feminist self being nitpicky?)

At Bertram’s Hotel, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple, staying at the posh, old-world titular London hotel, observes a number of strange events that add up to a murder case. As usual, she solves the crime with keen observation and unruffled calm. Dashing celebrities, foggy nights, fast cars and lots of secrets make this an entertaining mystery.

A Thousand Mornings, Mary Oliver
Oliver’s newest collection is full of lyrical observations, several elegies to a beloved dog, and the nature imagery for which she is known. I didn’t love it quite as much as Thirst, which blew me away, but it was still quite lovely.

The Game, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell travel to India, to search for an Irish spy who has disappeared – none other than the title character of Kipling’s Kim. They travel in the guise of gypsy musicians, stay at a maharaja’s palace, and encounter a dizzying array of characters, both friend and foe. This is a fabulous adventure story and a brilliant tribute to Holmes’ and Russell’s ability to think on their feet. One of my favorites in the series.

Locked Rooms, Laurie R. King
Fresh from their Indian adventure (above), Holmes and Russell land in San Francisco, so Russell can deal with matters relating to her family’s property there. But a series of disturbing dreams forces her to rethink her memories of childhood, and of the car wreck that killed her family. A dazzling portrait of San Francisco in the early 20th century, both before and after the 1906 earthquake. I loved the exploration of Russell’s character and her family history, and the Chinese bookseller, Mr. Long.

The Language of Bees, Laurie R. King
Arriving home at last, Holmes and Russell can’t rest for long: Holmes’ grown son Damian, whom he has met only once before, turns up on their doorstep asking for his father’s help. As they search for Damian’s missing wife and child, Russell doubts Damian’s innocence and worries over Holmes’ refusal to suspect his son. Not my favorite of the series – the plot involves a creepy cult, and the ending is literally “to be continued.” But I’ll still read The God of the Hive to find out what happens.

A Fatal Grace, Louise Penny
Chief Inspector Armand Gamache returns to the village of Three Pines (introduced in Still Life) to solve another murder, this one of a self-styled, self-centered design guru whom no one liked. Many characters from Still Life reappeared, but for some reason this story fell rather flat for me. Perhaps it was too similar to the first, or I was simply irritated at several plot threads left dangling. I do like Gamache, though: he’s a thoughtful, wise character.

What did you read over your vacation, if you had one?

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For a girl who grew up on Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and the Mandie books (anyone else remember those?), I came rather late to Agatha Christie. The inimitable Book Club Girl hosted a read-along last summer, and before long I was head over heels for Christie’s clever plotting and utterly English characters. I gushed this summer about Tommy and Tuppence, so I thought Miss Marple deserved her turn in the spotlight.

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My Miss Marple collection

I’ve read nine books featuring Miss Marple so far (there are 12 novels, plus several short story collections). I was a bit put off at first by the widely varied narration – some books are narrated in the first person by a minor character, some told in a third-person-omniscient style. So Miss Marple is sometimes the center of the story, and sometimes comes in from offstage (rather like an elderly deus ex machina) to solve the mystery and save the day. She is a wonderful character, though: a “fussy, fluttery” old lady, with snow-white hair and old-fashioned clothes and usually a knitting project in her hands, but with a keen mind and a sober sense of the evils people are capable of committing. Although she has lived her whole life in the village of St Mary Mead, she has a rather low (or unflinchingly realistic) opinion of human nature, and a seemingly endless insight into the motives of criminals (and victims).

Because Miss Marple is not always the center of the narrative, and because her primary role is always to solve the mystery, we don’t always get a sense of her as a character: her background, her internal journey, her emotions. However, we do know a few things about her: she enjoys surprising the police (and everyone else) with her quick mind; she is kindhearted and compassionate, especially to misguided young women; and her years as an observer of village life have made her wise.

I loved The Murder at the Vicarage, which marks Miss Marple’s first appearance and is also the first Christie I’d ever read; the plotting was brilliant and so was Miss Marple. I also loved A Pocket Full of Rye, in which she is the first to grasp that a pattern of killings is following (in a deadly way) the old “Sing a song of sixpence” nursery rhyme. My favorite Miss Marple book, though, is probably Nemesis (in which an acquaintance of Miss Marple’s asks her to solve a mystery after his death, but leaves very few clues as to what it is). The story follows Miss Marple’s thoughts quite closely, since she must solve the case largely by reflection and rumination (there are few obvious clues until later in the book). As usual, she pulls off a brilliant solution, to the astonishment of many.

Have you read any of the Miss Marple books? What do you think of them? (And what are your opinions on the various TV adaptations? I haven’t watched any of them yet.)

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The White Robin, Miss Read
Another sweet Fairacre story (one of the shorter ones), involving a rare white robin who quickly becomes the darling of the village. I love Miss Read’s attention to the details of country life, and her incisive observations on human nature. It’s always comforting to spend a few hours in Fairacre.

Nemesis, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple receives an odd summons from a recently deceased friend: he wants her to solve a crime, but gives her almost no details. She is intrigued, and of course manages to solve the case with her usual insight and aplomb. One of my favorite Miss Marple stories, because it focused much more on her as a central character than some of the others do. Fascinating and fun.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Bob Spitz
A magnificent, detailed biography of Julia, from her childhood in California through her wanderings in Europe, up to her years in Cambridge. I’ve read My Life in France, her memoir, and also her correspondence with Avis DeVoto, but this book gave me an even more extensive look at the woman who changed the face of food in America. Julia was no saint, but she was warmhearted, generous, passionate and fascinating. Spitz confesses to having a crush on his subject, and by the end, I did too. Fabulous.

The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple is called in by a friend to help solve the title crime (whose body? What was she doing there? Who killed her?). In the process, she discovers a nest of family secrets and various other tidbits. Not as much fun as Nemesis (see above), but still entertaining.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Laurie R. King
Sherlock Holmes, ostensibly retired (and tending bees), takes on an unlikely apprentice: headstrong, orphaned teenager Mary Russell. They drive each other crazy sometimes but work astonishingly well together, and have solved a few cases when they realize someone is out to murder both of them. The witty banter, the rich descriptions, the twisty plot and the cast of fascinating characters all thrilled me – I loved it. This is the first in a series and I’ll be checking out the others for sure.

The Convivial Codfish, Charlotte MacLeod
This fifth book in the Sarah Kelling series focused mostly on her art detective husband, Max, who is called in to track down a killer after Sarah’s uncle is injured and a few of his friends are poisoned. Amusing at times, though the plot dragged. Not the best in the series, but still fun.

A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse
A beautiful heiress and a penniless book lover join forces to create a Paris bookshop called The Good Novel, whose stock is chosen by themselves and a secret committee of authors. Despite accusations of literary snobbery, sales are strong and all seems well until several committee members are attacked and nearly killed. I loved the idea of this book – a paean to great literature and its power to alter our lives, and it’s fun to think about which novels I’d choose for such a bookstore. But the plot was confusing, the mystery unsatisfying and the ending rather abrupt. Lovely concept, so-so execution.

What are you reading lately?

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I tend to go through phases in my reading (though I do read a variety of genres in any given month). My Agatha Christie kick is going strong, thanks in part to the read-along. And I cannot get enough of the Moffats and their antics. But there’s more:

The Thirteen Problems, Agatha Christie
I enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring Miss Marple and her friends – I was amazed again and again at Christie’s skill in rendering plot twists and key details. I’m not a very good amateur sleuth (I never could solve the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries as a kid) – so Miss Marple astonished me (and everyone else) every time.

Sisterhood Everlasting, Ann Brashares
I love the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books. LOVE them. So I was both excited and worried about this new chapter in the girls’ lives, right before they all turn 30. And it was more painful and tragic than I ever expected…but it wasn’t all heartbreak. Some wonderful moments of light and joy, too. Not my favorite of the series, but I enjoyed spending some more time with Bee, Carmen, Lena and Tibby (and all the people they love).

A Murder is Announced, Agatha Christie
Miss Marple does it again – playing the sweet-old-spinster shtick to the hilt, while calmly digging up everyone’s secrets right under their very noses. She even confounds the Scotland Yard folks, which makes me love her even more.

Cooking with My Sisters, Adriana Trigiani
A delicious memoir-cookbook, complete with family snapshots and interjections from each sister, as well as lots of yummy-looking recipes. I checked it out from the library, but I may end up buying it – the recipes are that good. (It doesn’t hurt that we love Italian food at our house.)

The Moffats, Eleanor Estes
It’s been ages since I read this book – a fun tale of four siblings in Cranbury, Connecticut in the 1940s. (Similar to the Melendy Quartet, but with a slightly different flavor.) Jane, the third Moffat, narrates most of the fun, and there’s something in every chapter to make me smile.

The Middle Moffat, Eleanor Estes
Jane decides to style herself as the mysterious middle Moffat – and oh, the fun she has being in the middle! Just as charming as The Moffats. Jane is funny, sweet and utterly original – I especially love her friendship with Mr. Buckle, the oldest inhabitant of Cranbury.

Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, Alisa Harris
I’m reviewing this for Shelf Awareness, so more to come – but I will say what I said on Twitter: this is a thoughtful, well-written and witty look at one girl’s journey from uber-conservative homeschooler to a moderate with lots of questions.

The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, Kathleen Flinn
Review in the Shelf to come – but I loved this tale of a Cordon Bleu grad and her class of nine volunteers, gaining confidence by practicing knife skills, making their own vinaigrette and learning how to roast a chicken. A down-to-earth foodie memoir, with delicious-looking recipes.

Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, Claire Dederer
After reading Lindsey’s gorgeous review, I picked this book up at the library. It’s a hilarious, often sad, poignant exploration of yoga as it relates to life – growing up, becoming a mother, learning how to argue with your spouse, learning to deal with quirky relatives, and coming to terms with the sadness of an unstable childhood. Really well done. (As an ambivalent sometime yogi, I could relate to Dederer’s mixed feelings about the practice.)

Rufus M., Eleanor Estes
The third book about the Moffats – more and more fun, with a dose of wartime travails (chilblains, too little coal, not enough money). The Moffats’ hardships never dampen their spirits for long, though. And the last chapter is purely beautiful.

Viola in the Spotlight, Adriana Trigiani
I find Trigiani’s books compulsively readable, and this second installment in the Viola series was no exception. Viola, teenage filmmaker, has grown up a bit since her first adventure (Viola in Reel Life), and she’s back in Brooklyn, learning to juggle two part-time jobs, figuring out how to be there for her friends and navigating life with a guy BFF who may feel something more. Good stuff.

Don’t Sing at the Table: Life Lessons from My Grandmothers, Adriana Trigiani
Because I’ve read all of Trigiani’s novels and Cooking with My Sisters (see above), I knew the basic outlines of Trigiani’s family history. But oh, there were so many delicious details about Viola and Lucy, the grandmothers, and so many great lessons, from fashion tips to relationship advice to smart business sense. They were two powerhouse women, and their granddaughter writes about them with such love.

Time for the perennial question: What are you reading these days?

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Un Amico Italiano: Eat, Pray, Love in Rome, Luca Spaghetti
Like millions of other women (and some men), I loved Eat, Pray, Love – and this was a fun take on the Italy/”eat” part of the story. Luca Spaghetti (that’s really his name!) seems like a nice guy – kind, funny, devoted to food, friends and soccer. And he loves American music – especially James Taylor! A lighthearted, funny tour of Rome from a native Roman, and a fun chance to see Elizabeth Gilbert through someone else’s eyes.

Betsy-Tacy and Betsy-Tacy and Tib, Maud Hart Lovelace
I’ve read both these books a dozen times – but hadn’t picked them back up in years. They were my bedtime reading for a few nights (I can’t handle anything too intense before bed), and they’re just as charming as I remembered. I love the stories of their exploits – making Everything Pudding, cutting off each other’s hair, dyeing sand and Easter eggs, and teasing their bossy big sisters. So fun.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein
Annie mentioned this book the other week, and I found a copy at the Brattle and thoroughly enjoyed Enzo’s story. He’s an unusually wise dog with a wry sense of humor and a fierce love for his master, Denny, and Denny’s wife and daughter. I learned a lot about racecar driving – which I’d never been interested in before – and there are some lovely meditations on life sprinkled in. The plot is heartbreaking, but beautifully told – and it ends bittersweetly, but with so much hope.

Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze, Elizabeth Enright
Such a fun conclusion to the Melendy Quartet – a scavenger hunt that lasts all year! I loved watching Randy and Oliver hunt for the next clue, and discover new places and treasures in the process. Fun family moments, as always, abound – the Christmas chapter was particularly lovely.

Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Maud Hart Lovelace
I love this third installment of the adventures of Betsy, Tacy and Tib – from falling in love with the King of Spain to Cat Duets and Baby Dances. But my favorite part is when the girls go to Little Syria, and discover a whole world of kind, good-hearted people who are proud to be new Americans.

Murder at the Vicarage, Agatha Christie
In preparation for the AC read-along hosted by Book Club Girl and friends, I thought I’d check out the first Miss Marple mystery (though it’s not on the discussion list). I read it in one day – couldn’t go to sleep without finding out who really killed Colonel Protheroe! Charming setting, delightful characters and a wonderfully twisty plot. I can’t wait to dig into more Miss Marple books!

Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
A fun summer story of two cousins who discover an old abandoned group of houses in a swamp – and a couple of charming old folks who still live there. Not quite as well-drawn or as much fun as the Melendys, but still super fun. The kind of summer adventures kids dream of. (Though I think she could have named the main characters better. Portia and Julian? Really?)

Once Was Lost, Sara Zarr
I’d been hearing about Zarr’s work for a while, and was blown away by this sensitively told story of a struggling pastor’s daughter, who has to deal with an alcoholic mother, a missing girl in her town and an unavailable dad. Sam’s (the narrator’s) voice is so real and honest, and the other characters are also well drawn. I’m not a pastor’s kid, but I am a lifelong church kid – and I remember well how it feels when the answers you’ve always been so sure of start to crumble beneath your feet.

The Coffins of Little Hope, Timothy Schaffert
I read this one on the plane to Nashville. Such a fascinating story of a girl who disappears – or really of her mother and the people in their small Midwestern town, since we never meet the girl. The narrator, Essie, is the town obituary writer and a keen, incisive, often witty observer. Her family members have a few issues of their own, and the writing is beautiful. Totally entertaining and thought-provoking.

The Violets of March, Sarah Jio
Set on lovely Bainbridge Island, this book has a double plotline – a blocked writer with a failed marriage trying to get her life back, and the story of a woman whose 1943 diary holds all kinds of secrets. Interesting, though not quite what I wanted it to be. I’m not sure what was missing – the story is certainly compelling. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

The 4:50 from Paddington, Agatha Christie
Another Miss Marple adventure for this summer’s read-along – so fascinating. It’s always the last person you suspect, of course. Elegantly plotted and well written, and fabulously entertaining. I’m getting hooked on AC!

A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L’Engle
Maybe my favorite of the Austin books so far. Vicky must face death for the first time in her life, along with all the usual complications of adolescence. In this fourth book, she’s finally starting to come into her own, as a writer and a woman. L’Engle writes so beautifully and sensitively – her books have so many levels. I loved this one.

Alice Bliss, Laura Harrington
Oh. My. Goodness. I loved this book. Love love loved it. The prose is gorgeous (but beautifully understated); the complicated bonds between the characters are so well drawn. I wanted to walk right through the pages and get to know Alice and her family even better. And I cried at the ending, riding the T on the way home. (Yes, this happens to me occasionally. Yes, I’m sure people think I’m nuts.) One of the best books I’ve read this year.

Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr
After reading Zarr’s latest (see above) I wanted to read her other books. This one, her debut, follows a girl whose life is marked by a mistake she made at 13 – and explores what happens when people insist on labeling you for so long you start to believe them. And what happens when you decide to fight that label – even a little bit.

Sweethearts, Sara Zarr
A sad, beautifully told story of a girl who lost her only friend, reinvented herself, and is totally shocked when he shows back up, eight years later. I wish it had ended differently, but the ending, like the story, is complicated. Lots of layers, like all of Zarr’s writing. (I think she gets better with each book…Once Was Lost is my favorite of her works.)

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