Well, as it turned out 2022 began as 2021 had ended — all work and no play, albeit with the addition of a hospital detour to boot. (Nothing serious, just way more painful and, all told, protracted, than it had any right to be.) So I’m back to posting one summary post for the first quarter of the year with star ratings and two-sentence blurbs and, subsequently, individual posts backdated to the time I’ve actually finished the books so as to make them count as part of my reading challenges. (Consider this your posting wave warning: As you know, even though I will be backdating the individual posts to the times when I actually finished the books in question, WP insists on sending “new post” alerts as of the publication date, NOT the date for which the posts are actually set.)
If there’s been one common theme in my 2022 reading so far — particularly in January and February –, it’s that I’ve been going back to books I first acquired in the early 2000s without ever getting around to reading them (e.g., Michael McGarrity’s Kevin Kerney and Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco series — and once more I could kick myself for not having started to read these long ago), as well as (re)visiting the Silver Age and present-day mystery series written by women and featuring female protagonists (Marcia Muller / Sharon McCone; Dana Stabenow / Kate Shugak; Denise Hamilton / Eve Diamond; Sue Grafton / Kinsey Millhone, Sara Paretsky / V.I. Warshawski, etc; and there will probably also be more from Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid & Jemma James, J.A. Jance’s Joanna Brady, and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series over the course of the year, too). I’m not going to turn these into yet another reading project, but I can see them providing a certain amount of intelligent, well-written and socially / politically astute “comfort reading” relief in between some of my more challlenging reads. Or at least, that’s how they’ve been working for me so far this year.
Links to the individual backdated “outtake” posts (and the occasional longer review) to be added to the below summaries once those posts have been published.
AUTHORS IN RESIDENCE
Project master update page: HERE.
January & February 2022
- James Baldwin: Giovanni’s Room (also read for diversity project)
- Vita Sackville-West: All Passion Spent (in progress by end of February)
- Vita Sackville-West
- Knole and Sissinghurst
- Books all read also for Diversity Project and as March entries for Author Birthdays
Our Q1 / 2022 Authors in Residence oddly complement each other; coming from totally different, even opposing origins, but both going against the prevailing currents of their time. What a great start into this year’s incarnation of the (M)DWS authors-in-residence project.
(DEAD) AUTHOR BIRTHDAYS
Project master update page: HERE.
- Zora Neale Hurston: Dust Tracks on a Road (also read for diversity project) — Review HERE.
- Margaret Millar: An Air That Kills – and how fortunate that a book by her was also chosen as our Appointment with Agatha April read.
- Vita Sackville-West (see Authors in Residence)
AROUND THE WORLD
Project master update page: HERE.
- Donna Leon: The Jewels of Paradise (Italy) – enticing premise and setting, but slightly underwhelming solution.
- Barbara Nadel: Land of the Blind (Turkey) – Interesting concept for a series, albeit obviously written with a Western audience in mind. This book is relatively far on in the series, set against the Gezi Park riots, when things seriously started to go downhill towards autocracy in Turkey. Now I want to find out where Nadel decided to take the series and how she has, so far, chosen to resolve what must be an increasingly agonizing conflict for the protagonist (working as a policeman in a de-facto dictatorship while his own attitude to life, society and his fellow men is, not only for Turkey, an extremely liberal and broad-minded one).
- Maurice Leblanc: Arsène Lupin: Gentleman cambrioleur (enjoyable, but Leblanc should have stuck to his original concept) / Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès (it’s easy to see why ACD was not amused) / Arsène Lupin (novelization by Leblanc’s English translator Edgar Jepson based on the original play by Leblanc) (all 3: France)
- Maj Sjöwall, Per Wahlöö: Roseanna (Sweden) – the mother of all Scandi-noir series (Martin Beck); another series I wish I had started to read much earlier.
- William Kamkwamba, Bryan Mealer: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Malawi) – what a story. THIS is why spreading literacy (in this instance: technical / engineering literacy) is so important, and nowhere more so than in the developing world.
- Adrienne Mayor: The Poison King (Turkey) – shout-out to Elentarri, who nominated this for the Crowdsourced list back in 2019. Enjoyable and informative at the same time, even if I could have done without Mayor’s attempts at shoehorning flat-out historical fiction into an otherwise straightforward biography under the guise of “speculation, extrapolating from known sources”. (Yeah, right. Because I’m sure those sources also tell us exactly what Mithradates and his retinue saw, smelled, heard, thought and did at any given moment during the times of his life that we don’t even know the first thing about to begin with …) Fortunately she essentially kept it to two, albeit rather lengthy passages; otherwise my rating of the book would have dropped not by one but by several notches.
- Agatha Christie: Come, Tell Me How You Live (Syria) – Christie as she already emerged in The Grand Tour, only a more mature version. Post-ISIS-and-war-destruction of Raqqa, Palmira, Aleppo, and that entire general area, for all of Chrstie’s light touch an occasionally anger-inducing reading experience, but it’s still great to have her first-hand perspective on those years … and on Max. It’s also easy to see how that experience framed and inspired some of her novels, chiefly of course Murder in Mesopotamia.
- Nancy Spain: Death Goes on Skis (Switzerland): I think I’ve reached saturation point, more or less, with regard to British mysteries set in Alpine skiing environments. They all seem to have more or less the same structure: people meet on the train to the Continent / the train from Calais to their Alpine skiing destination, they arrive at said destination — in this instance a fictional one, though clearly modelled on Switzerland –, murder happens, someone from the skiing party plays detective (with or without involvement of the local police), and skiing plays some role or other in the solution of the mystery. That said, I did think the plotting in both Patricia Moyes’s Dead Men Don’t Ski and Carol Carnac (Edith Caroline Rivett / E.C.R. Lorac)’s Crossed Skis is stronger than in this book, and I could seriously have done without its ending — it feels like an unnecessarily violent, completely superflouous appendix and is and in no way in keeping with the book’s otherwise deliberately light, satirical tone.
- Lindsey Davis: The Silver Pigs (Italy / Ancient Rome): This truly seems to be the year when I’m finally starting all the series that feel like they’ve been on my TBR for centuries. This is another one, and again I’m wondering why I’m only getting here now.
- Margaret Millar: Ask for Me Tomorrow (Mexico): The first of Millar’s Tom Aragon novels: not quite as tightly plotted as An Air That Kills, but I’m still glad I finally started reading her books (too) this year.
- Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man (India) — also read for Diversity Project: I didn’t quite buy into the hype generated by this book, and despite the indeed very nicely-executed Raj setting I’m feeling largely justified. The basic mystery is derivative; the “who” in “whodunnit” stares you in the face practically from the word “go,” and the red herrings and detours have similarly been done a million times before; in light of all of which I could easily have done with roughly 150 pages less. (Especially in the second half of the book, I kept thinking “move it already” …)
A continuation from last year’s Diversity Bingo, using roughly the same categories (but this time counting every book I’m reading, not merely the first one for a given category).
- Attica Locke: Bluebird, Bluebird (black author & protagonist; topic racism) – huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader for the recommendation. One of THE stand-out books of my reading during the first 2 months of the year; it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let you go until you’re done.
- Marcia Muller: Edwin of the Iron Shoes (part Native American protagonist)
- Dana Stabenow: A Cold Day for Murder (Aleut protagonist)
- Denise Hamilton (ed.), Various Authors: Los Angeles Noir (multi-ethnic protagonists)
- Isabel Wilkerson: Caste (black author; topic racism) – another huge shout-out to Moonlight Reader. Everybody should read this book. Racism distilled to its ugly, entirely systematic and finely-honed core.
- Kate Ellis: The Armada Boy (black protagonist): I enjoyed book 1 of the series (The Merchant’s House), which I read for last year’s Halloween Bingo, and having a detective with a degree in archeology as his personal background certainly makes for a novel way of bringing together past and present in a contemporary mystery. However, this book suffers from all the kinks of sequelitis (trying to replicate what book 1 did and largely failing in the attempt); also, I can see the “archeology” thing paling if it’s to be the series’s only signature theme. I’m probably going to give book 3 a try — though not in the immediate future — and then determine whether I’m going to continue reading the series or call it quits on that basis.
- Marcia Muller: Ask the Cards a Question (part Native American protagonist): Also a case of sophomore woes. But I have every hope for book 3 of this series to be better again.
APPOINTMENT WITH AGATHA
Project master update page: HERE
Books by Agatha Christie
- Three-Act Tragedy — Review HERE.
- The ABC Murders — One of my all-time top-however-many favorite books by Christie. She was one of the first Golden Age authors to tackle the topic of a serial killer, and she did it vastly better and more successfully than the rest of the lot, with the possible exception of Roy Horniman’s Israel Rank (the basis for the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Dennis Price and Alec Guinness), which however is a horse of a totally different color. Christie eschews every single feature of what has long since become serial killer tropedom, while giving us a terriffic puzzle to solve, a murderer with a perfectly plausible motive — and showing an understanding of post-war PTSD far exceeding that of most of her contemporaries (with the notable exception of her fellow Detection Club founding member Dorothy L. Sayers).
- Phoebe Atwood Taylor: The Cape Cod Mystery — Review HERE.
- Chester Himes: The Real Cool Killers – substituted for A Rage in Harlem, which I already read last year and didn’t feel like rereading. And a fortunate substitution it was, as I liked The Real Cool Killers quite a bit better (though I also seem to be one of the few people who defy the love / hate dichotomy that seems to be at work re: A Rage in Harlem).
- Raymond Chandler: The Little Sister — Chandler was probably a giant a$$hole in real life, and you don’t read his novels for their feminist or even just gender-neutral contents. But he nailed Los Angeles in a way that still makes the outlines of “his” city recognizable under the gloss and glamor of today’s metropolis (and in a city that considers anything older than 10 years practically ancient history, that is quite an achievement), his way with words is absolutely unequalled, his impact on the noir subgenre can still be felt decades after his death … and c’me on, Marlowe is Bogart (or vice versa). — This is an angrier book than some of the earlier Marlowe novels, which very much put me off initially, but I have to hand it to Chandler for openly addressing police brutality in the book’s final part, and unlike 99% of noir fiction, for doing so in a manner that doesn’t play it down or makes it sound perfectly natural and acceptable, but in a way that highlights that even the cops themselves know a line has been crossed (or, well, at least some of them know).
Project master update page: HERE.
- Anthony Berkeley: Murder in the Basement — Review HERE.
- J. Jefferson Farjeon: The Z Murders – seriously, Mr. Farjeon??
- Edmund Crispin: Love Lies Bleeding and Buried for Pleasure – neither quite up to the standard set by other books in the series.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, Jill Paton Walsh: Thrones, Dominations – I’m a bit in two minds about this, but the bones of Sayers’s text are clearly enough visible underneath Paton Walsh’s filler to just about still make it count as “Golden Age”, even if completed and published decades later. I’d have loved to see where Sayers herself had been planning to ultimately take this.
- Agatha Christie: A Deadly Affair — Shout-out to WhiskeyintheJar for getting here first! So, HarperCollins’s latest ploy in cashing in on Christie’s undying fame seems to be to repackage her short stories roughly along seasonal lines: to date, we’ve had summer / vacations, Halloween / supernatural, Christmas / winter … and now Valentine’s Day / love and romance as a subtext. And of course I’ve bought and read them all, however familiar I may already be with the individual stories thus repackaged. I mean, it’s Agatha Christie, right? ‘Nuff said?
- Vera Caspary: Laura — Oh, wow. It’s easy to see how this book (and its movie adaptation) won everlasting fame. I started off on the right track in terms of the solution to the murder, but Caspary still almost managed to bamboozle me halfway through … and characterization, setting and all the rest is absolutely first rate.
- Margot Bennett: The Man Who Didn’t Fly — My first book by Bennett, and if this is as typical of her writing as BLCC series editor Martin Edwards wants us to believe, it may well remain the only one. I’m not necessarily a fan of inverse mysteries anyway (Columbo and his ilk excepted), even less so of books that can’t make up their minds whether they do or don’t want to be inverse mysteries to begin with; and a wetter towel than this book’s purported “heroine” surely must be hard to find both in- and outside of Golden Age mystery fiction. (Also: the police reduced to identifying the passengers of a crashed plane on the basis of their anecdotal description and pre-flight conversation as partially witnessed by a none-too-observant bartender … seriously?!) — That said, the underlying idea is a good one; it would just seem to have required a more skillful writer to execute it.
BUDDY READ BOOKS
I wasn’t around for the discussions, but I still read the books …
- Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men – Hogfather meets H.C. Andersen’s Snow Queen. Also, Tiffany is to a certain extent a rewrite of Esk from Equal Rites. Hogfather says the same things as this book better and way more pithily, but this one is still amusing, and the Nac Mac Feegles are a hoot, of course. Surprisingly, I’m not disturbed by Tiffany’s frequently thinking and acting older than she actually is … I’m putting it down to her being a witch.
- Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky – still enjoyable, though a little less so than book 1 of the subseries. (I hope this doesn’t signal a trend.) Once again, the Nac Mac Feegles come to the rescue, in more senses than one.
- Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith — Tiffany Aching book 3; I liked it better than book 2 (A Hat Full of Sky) but not quite as much as the first book of the subseries (The Wee Free Men). Somehow it still feels like Pratchett said most of what he wanted to say in terms of “witch in training meets European folk / fairy tales and mythology” in book 1, though — well, with the obvious exception of that quote about losing your personality if you lose your memories, which ripped right through me and made me swallow hard, knowing that it must have come straight from Pratchett’s heart. That said, at least we get more of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg here … a Discworld Witches book somehow isn’t a Witches book without them, no matter whether they’re supposed to be the protagonists or not. (Especially so, of course, Granny.)
- Reginald Hill: A Clubbable Woman – the grossest, most odiously misogynistic example of 1970s crime fiction I’ve come across in a long time. Hard to believe this was the first building block of an extremely long-running and successful mystery series … of which, based on this particular reading experience, I don’t intend to read even one further book.
- Priscilla Royal: Tyrant of the Mind – Royal’s books are perfect feel-good candy for the lover of historical mysteries; this one is no exception (even if I could see the solution coming before the first murder had even been committed).
- Candace Robb: The Lady Chapel – ditto (see Royal, above). Also, this is one of the strongest installments in the Owen Archer series I’ve come across so far (I’m not reading these in publication order).
- Michael McGarrity: Tularosa – see introductory comments at the beginning of this post. Why, oh why am I only starting this series now?!
- Amanda Quick: The Girl Who Knew Too Much – meh. Given the book’s premise and setting, decidedly underwhelming.
- Helena Marchmont: Bunburry 1-3: Murder at the Mousetrap / A Murderous Ride / A Taste of Murder – now, this is what a cozy series is supposed to read like. And they’re even short enough so you can squeeze them in for a quickie whenever nothing else will answer. I’m definitely going to read more of these, too.
- Neil Richards, Matthew Costello: Cherringham 1-3: Murder on Thames / Mystery at the Manor / Murder by Moonlight – again, ditto (see above, Bunburry). No wonder these sold like hotcakes when they were first published; Richards and Costello really hit on a winning formula.
- Denise Hamilton: Savage Garden
- Sue Grafton: A Is for Alibi
- Sara Paretsky: Killing Orders — Paretsky takes on Opus Dei (under a fictitious name, of course) and she does it in her accustomed style and much more successfully than Dan Brown does in The Da Vinci Code. I’ve read several of the later installments of the V.I. Warshawski series, but I’m glad I decided, a few years ago, to go back to the series’s early novels and read them in order. This is one series that hit the ground running and only kept getting better.
- Michael Jecks: The Butcher of St. Peter’s — Another series I’m not reading in order, and I can’t say I regret it. Like in most of the series — particularly so its later books, of which this is one — Jecks does an absolutely knock-out job recreating the topography, visuals, smells and sounds of medieval Exeter, and giving us a story populated by characters who step right out of the book and before your eyes if you let them, without in the process coming across as anything other than what they are; namely, denizens of the early 14th century. All you really need to know, though, is that this, too, is a serial killer novel … and I don’t particularly like serial killer novels. So, chalk one up to Jecks for making me give a second book of that nature almost as high a rating as the Appointment with Agatha reread of Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders earlier this month.
- Helena Marchmont: Bunburry 4-6: Death of a Ladies’ Man / Drop Dead, Gorgeous / Murder in High Places — I’m really taking to this series, in this second triple of novellas even more so than in the first three. I hope books 7-9 won’t be the last they’re (re)publishing as a three-book bundle … (so far, alas, that seems to be the case).
- Neil Richards, Matthew Costello: Cherringham 4-6: Thick as Thieves / Last Train to London / The Curse of Mabb’s Farm — See, essentially, comments on Bunburry, though in this instance I liked the first three novellas a bit better than this second trio. There’s a feeling of slick routine that is beginning to settle in which is completely absent (so far) from the Bunburry books, however similar their setting and atmosphere may be on the face of it. But so far, I’m still very much enjoying the ride nevertheless (even if Cherringham book 5 in particular, Last Train to London, stretches credibility more than just a little, especially so the ending).
- Neil Richards, Matthew Costello: Mydworth Mysteries 1-3: A Short in the Dark / A Little Night Murder / London Calling! — On the basis of book 1 (A Shot in the Dark), which I read late last year, I was prepared to like this series even better than Bunburry and Cherringham. However, Costello and Richards almost lost me completely in Mydworth book 2 (A Little Night Murder) and had some uphill struggle to regain my interest in book 3 (London Calling!) (they succeeded, but only just and not entirely). What despite some overly cutesy bits looked like a largely successful transposition of the Cherringham concept to the Interwar / Golden Age period of 100 years ago in book 1 came across as devoid of any understanding and sense of the period in book 2, and still with more than a little to be desired along those same lines in book 3. I’m going to need some convincing to continue this particular series; it’s decidedly third fiddle to both Bunburry and Cherringham at this point and may end up nothing more than “filler” for the dire moments when I’ve run out of fresh installments from the other two series.
|Total number of books finished:||62|
Average rating: 3.7
- Mystery / Thriller: 39
- Golden Age Mysteries: 16
- Classic Noir: 4
- Cozy Mysteries: 4
- General / Contemp.: 15
- Historical Fiction: 7
- All 7: Historical Mysteries
- Fantasy: 3
- All 3: YA / Humor.
- Classics: 8
- Nonfiction: 5
- (Auto)Biographies: 4
- Politics: 1
Gender / Ethnicity
Around the World
Average time of books on TBR: 3.3 years
(Note: Rereads (RR) not included in average.)