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Posts Tagged ‘mysteries’

Detective stories “dream of justice,” Peter Wimsey noted long ago. I love following strong, determined female sleuths as they hunt for clues, navigate their own lives, search for truth and peace. 

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I’ve read more than my share of mysteries this winter.

Part of this is due to the read-along of the Maisie Dobbs series, hosted by Book Club Girl, which convinced me to try out the series. I love reading about Maisie’s cases and her journey in post-World War I London – the books just keep getting better. But I’ve also picked up a few other mysteries at the library, and watched an episode or two of Castle, alongside our current obsession with Friday Night Lights.

I have a low threshold for gore, creepiness and violence in general, in movies or in books, so I don’t do crime shows like Law & Order or CSI. I don’t usually read or watch anything you’d consider a “thriller.” (This disappoints my husband; lots of my movie choices are too tame for him.) And I’m too much of a literary snob to read “cozy” mysteries often – though I did go through a Tea Shop Mysteries phase – because most of them aren’t that well-written.

However. Aside from my enjoyment of Maisie’s story – which is rich with history and fascinating characters, as well as mystery – I’ve relished a good mystery novel this winter. And I think it’s because of what happens, without fail, at the end of every mystery: the criminal is caught, the loose ends are tied up, and everything makes sense.

This is the kicker for me. I’ve been plagued, this winter, by disconnected clues, bits of life and periods of waiting that haven’t really connected to one another or made much sense. I’ve struggled to survive a harsh winter in this northern climate, to adjust to a new job and make new friends, to deal with bouts of homesickness, to tend my home and spend time with my husband, and read and knit and balance the checkbook. Very little of it has added up the way I expected it would. So I’ve been reaching for mysteries, following Maisie and other detectives through their sleuthing processes, because I know that by the end of the book, we’ll have some answers.

Of course, one of my favorite things about Maisie is that her story keeps going – it’s not all neatly tied up at the end of each book. Neither she nor her clients are ever quite the same after finishing up a case; they all go forward a little different. So it is, I suppose, with this difficult winter, this transition period into a new job. I’m not quite the same person who came to Boston in August, and I don’t have everything neatly tied up, nor do I expect to. But like Maisie or any other sleuth worth her salt, I’ll keep moving forward. As spring approaches, thank heaven, there’s a lot to look forward to.

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1. Nancy Drew. Because she is smart, resourceful, fearless and always impeccably put together. I devoured her adventures, in yellow-covered hardback with vintage cover illustrations, as a child.

2. Harriet Vane. She’s featured in several of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and honestly, I like her better than I like him – she has more spirit. Gaudy Night is my favorite (particularly as it’s set in Oxford!), but she also appears in Strong Poison, Have His Carcase and Busman’s Honeymoon.

3. Flavia de Luce, the young heroine of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag. She’s eleven years old, English, very clever, fascinated by poisons and really quite witty. Such fun. (I can’t wait for her third adventure, which comes out next year, I think.)

4. Trixie Belden. I read many of her stories when I was younger, and I loved reading about her group of friends (the Bobwhites) and the scrapes they got into.

5. Theodosia Browning. She’s the proprietor of a tea shop in Charleston, and a pretty good amateur sleuth. The Tea Shop mysteries aren’t great literature, but they’re fun, and I’m always surprised by the endings. (And they have good recipes.)

6. Precious Ramotswe, head of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in the series of the same name. She’s quite clever, too, and we share a fondness for strong cups of tea.

7. Lee McKinney, star of the Chocoholic Mysteries. These are a bit “fluffy,” but always fun, and I like Lee’s can-do spirit, and share her love for chocolate.

Any female detectives you’re fond of? I’m always looking for new books, of course…please share!

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I did a LOT of reading this month, even for me. In the midst of transition, change, chaos and HOT days, it’s nice to curl up with a book – or a dozen of them. Read on for my opinions on several new reads and a few beloved rereads:

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen
Confession: I picked up this book for the cover (so clever and cute) and didn’t regret it. I actually read this in one night – it was both entertaining and compelling. Janzen goes back home to her Mennonite parents after a divorce and a car wreck, and compares her (much more secular) life with the peculiarities of her upbringing. She has a great sense of humor and does poke a lot of fun at her heritage, but she still loves her parents and respects their faith, and admits she doesn’t have all the answers for life, either. A fun read.

Small Wonder: Essays, Barbara Kingsolver
I loved Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which is, as you may know, responsible for my current local-food kick and our CSA membership), so I was interested in this book of essays, written right after 9/11. Kingsolver touches on travel, politics, family life, food (of course) and even faith, in interesting ways. She occasionally veers toward the preachy, but mostly offers a new perspective on a world that, for her generation and mine, changed forever when those planes hit the towers.

The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
This was a brilliant read – so quick, clever and fun. A few gifted kids take on a madman and his plan to overthrow the world, with the help of a quirky old man and his cohorts. It does have echoes of Harry Potter, but there’s no “magic” here, just ingenuity and learning to work together (and Kate Wetherall’s bucket of useful tools). I read this in one day, too. Good fun for kids and adults alike.

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines
This was my book-club selection for this month, and I have to say, I kept comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird and finding it wanting. It’s a similar storyline – a black man unjustly accused of a crime in the South, in the 1940s – only this man is sentenced to death before the book opens. The narrator, Grant, is an unhappy teacher, and he tries to impart some dignity and wisdom to the sentenced man. The thing about this book is that it seemed so hopeless – none of the characters seemed happy or hopeful at all. Thought-provoking, but not a favorite.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
This month is the 50th anniversary of Mockingbird‘s publication, and I hadn’t read it since ninth grade, so I bought it to reread it. And oh my. It’s just as powerful, funny, heartbreaking and wonderful as ever. I do wish Harper Lee had written more books, but I’m eternally grateful that we have this story. Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill and Calpurnia stayed in my mind for days afterward. If you haven’t read it, go read it. Please. Right now.

New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver
I’ve been working on this one for months. I think I should love Oliver’s poetry more than I generally do – but some of her poems, like “The Summer’s Day” (my favorite), are truly breathtaking. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
I blazed through this in one sitting – must be the third or fourth time I’ve read it. It’s a perfect summer book, and also perfect for reading in the midst of transition. The characters are wonderful and the writing is delicious. Love, love, love.

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Ann Brashares
I stayed up past midnight rereading this one – my copy is falling apart, but I don’t even care. (I bought it in Hawaii and have read it on the beach, on car trips and in several different houses.) I think this is my favorite of the series, mostly due to Bridget’s adventures in Alabama with her grandmother. It’s rich and full and big and satisfying, both funny and heartbreaking. Wonderful.

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like Pollan’s slogan as a guideline to what and how to eat. Honestly, this book is complicated at first, and I’ve read enough food books and blogs to be a little bored by some of his arguments. I know industrial beef has all kinds of problems; I know to be wary of ingredients I can’t pronounce; I know Americans are chronic overeaters. But Pollan’s genius lies in his insistence that we’re all connected – that our health is inextricably tied to the health of the plants, animals, water, soil and world they come from. I finished the book with a new resolve to watch what I buy and cook. I’ll probably check out some of his other work.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, and hearing all the 50th-anniversary buzz, I wanted to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, so I borrowed this book from a friend. It’s a fascinating account of Lee’s childhood, young adulthood and early writing career. I loved finding out about her family, her college days, her relationship with Truman Capote and her time in New York. Lee refused to be interviewed by Shields, so instead he interviewed everyone he could find who knew her. It’s a thoughtful portrait, drawn by a loving hand.

Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
This is a sweet story – about a girl who literally dances to her own music (made by her ukulele). It ends sadly, but hopefully – I think Stargirl Caraway will find her free-spiritedness again, and I hope Leo, the narrator, begins to love uniqueness rather than fear it.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley
This second Flavia de Luce mystery (sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) made me laugh, shiver and shake my head at Flavia (top sleuth, age 11) and her exploits. She’s so clever, and scarily knowledgeable about poisons, but she’s not diabolical – just smart and a little neglected. Highly recommended if you like mysteries with a dash of fun, set in the English countryside.

Love, Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
I loved this sequel to Stargirl, possibly more than Stargirl itself. Stargirl makes lots of new friends in a small Pennsylvania town, and learns a lot about herself while she’s at it. I love the quirky supporting cast of characters, and I love the way she loves people, even when they hurt her.

The Knitting Circle, Ann Hood
I read Hood’s memoir, about losing her daughter and learning to knit, a while back, and I knew this book had a similar plotline. There are some great characters and lovely descriptions of yarn, and a thoughtful portrait of the grieving process, written by someone who knows. But it felt a little lacking somehow, overall, though I did enjoy it.

I’m turning to comforting rereads during our transition – The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets and the Harry Potter series, among others. And of course we’re boxing up lots of books right now. But never fear, I’ll have some August reads for you soon. What have you been reading this summer?

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