May Reading

This morning I felt a bit of Weltschmerz. Memento mori and all that … what’s the point of reading or anything really when it all ends in death? I think I was feeling gloomy because Partner isn’t here, but sometimes I just have these sad feelings. However, they went away when I got up, showered and had breakfast and especially during my lovely walk with Curious Dog. CD is the best and the sun was shining, the birds twittering, the flowers in the fields, the crisp morning air… It made me feel thankful and glad to be alive. The point of life is loving-kindness (I think).

Anyway, here’s the list of books I read in May. Most of them I’ve already posted about (a rather astonishing feat of efficiency that I hope to be able to keep up – sometimes I wait so long to post my reviews that I start forgetting the details).

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Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I’ve managed to catch up. It’s very good, although also very strange. Eventually, I’ll write about the reading experience. I’m glad my friend and I chose this classic to read.

Poetry:

  • Mary Oliver, Dog Songs.
    A lovely little illustrated volume of poetry celebrating the author’s dogs. This one I haven’t managed to post about yet, but it’s on my to-do list. If you like poetry and dogs, it’s for you!
  • Tim Kendall (ed.), Poetry of the First World War.
    A very good selection, with some biographical information about each poet and a good introduction. Due to the subject matter, the poems can be very brutal. They really show up the horrors of war, but also the fleeting joy that is sometimes found in unlikely places. I’m glad I read it.
  • Heinrich Detering (ed.), Reclams Buch der deutschen Gedichte.
    A big two-volume anthology of German poetry from the Middle ages to modern times. I’ve only read a bit of the first volume and find it very interesting.

Short Stories:

Robert L. Mack, Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.
Not really short stories, more like folk or fairy tales, but they are good. I’m a little more than half-way through.

Non-Fiction:

  • Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography.
    See my review.
  • C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism.
    See my review.
  • John Bayley, Elegy for Iris.
    See my review.

These three books were all very good in their own way.

Novels:

  • Sally Wright:
    • Watches of the Night.
    • Code of Silence.
    • Breeding Ground.
      See my review. I liked these crime novels. They were a good read and I went on a small binge.
  • Laurie King, The Game.
    See my review. I’ve now reread the first seven novels of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Soon I’ll get to ones that I haven’t read yet (but the next couple or so will still be rereads). Also a very good series.
  • Ellery Queen, The Glass Village.
    See my review – an unexpected good read.
  • Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen.
    Read last weekend, the review is still pending. I enjoyed it a lot.

May was a great reading month. I read a lot, probably due to the couple of long weekends we had, with the public holiday before Whitsun and then Whitsun (or Pentecost) itself. Lots of time for reading and the weather was pretty bad, too. It was nice to hunker down cozily with a hot cup of tea or cocoa laced with rum and read crime and other books. Probably won’t get round to so many books in June, but it’s early yet.

Keep safe, world.

Sally Wright’s Ben Reese and Jo Grant Series

In February I started a new crime series, the Ben Reese mystery series by Sally Wright. I think I found it via one of the BookTube channels I follow. I was intrigued because the main character, Ben Reese, works as an archivist at a small University in Ohio. I like reading crime novels in a university setting (my favourite series featuring a literature prof, is by Amanda Cross).

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The series is mostly set in the 1960s but some of the crimes reach back to WWII, where our archivist hero was an accomplished scout behind enemy lines (a somewhat reluctant killer in the line of duty). They also touch on questions of Christianity (but quite low-key, not in-your-face), ethics and conservative values. I don’t consider myself a Christian, although I grew up going to Christian schools (both Protestant and Catholic ones, though that was due to coincidence, as those schools were convenient). I still like reading about different religious experiences (also non-Christian ones) and how people strive to live an ethical life, so I quite like this flavour of the novels. Apparently, the author, Sally Wright, was influenced by C.S. Lewis, whose works I also like. I’ve read quite a few of his books, including his (as I remember) quite strange science fiction, an autobiography, and, of course, the Narnia books. He also appeals to me, because he was a member of the Inklings, the group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien. I am a great fan of The Lord of the Rings. I don’t consider myself as being conservative, either in life or in politics, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate some of the values of conservatives. Some values are just universal.

Anyway, I very much enjoyed the Ben Reese series, and would recommend them as good reads. They usually have a slow build, with Reese trying to solve a murder by investigating the victims’ background and their relationship with the people in their lives. Near the end, Reese usually has to rely on his skills gained as a scout during WWII to save his own and other’s lives. Things become quite action-packed which serves a fascinating contrast to his archivist personality (not a job one usually associates with soldier skills). There’s also often a bit of academic politics in the novels, struggles for power and influence at Reese’s university. Owing to his job, Reese also travels a lot to research the provenance of documents, paintings, jewelry and other historical objects given to his university by alumni or other patrons. He rides and owns a horse and saves a dog in one of the novels. He’s a widower who lost his wife and their baby son in childbirth. He still mourns them but in the course of the series starts a new relationship (especially in the later books). He’s a well-rounded fascinating character and the supporting cast of characters are also complex and believable. These are the novels, in order:

Publish and Perish

The first book is the only one were the murder is set completely within the academic milieu. The roots reach back to WWII and the murder hinges on a case of plagiarism and a failure of communication. There’s a bit of academic backstabbing, both figurative and literal.

Pride and Predator

Set in Scotland, where Reese is appraising the historical artifacts that his friend Lord Alexander Chisholm, the Earl of Balnagard, has inherited. Another friend of the Earl’s, a minister, dies suddenly of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. The earl and Reese suspect foul play and so the investigation starts.

Pursuit and Persuasion

A professor of literature at Aberdeen University, Georgina Fletcher, suspects that someone wants her dead. She asks her heir (to whom she writes a letter before her death), who happens to be Reese’s apprentice, to hire a detective to uncover her murderer. Again set in Scotland, with some of the characters introduced in the previous novel. Suspects proliferate and Reese is soon in deadly danger.

Out of the Ruins

Set on the Cumberland Island in Georgia, U.S., where Reese is helping a distant relative and looking into the suspicious death of family matriarch. It’s all about who will inherit the land and what should be done with it. Quite different from the settings in the other novels but just as compelling.

Watches of the Night

This one I read last Friday. It’s partly set in Reese’s home, partly in Scotland, where Reese’s potential girlfriend (Kate Lindsay) lives with the father of her husband, killed in WWII (he was one of Reese’s best friends). The climax takes place in a ruined villa in Italy. The roots of this case go back to Reese’s experiences in the war, where he witnessed a murderous act (although hard to prove) by an officer who later faked his death. In this novel, the reader knows more than the protagonist, since we are told how the officer faked his death and who witnessed it. When Reese and Kate start looking into the death of her husband and why she was sent a grisly keepsake years after the war, ties to the officer appear and witnesses turn up dead. The finale is thrilling and there a new start for Reese and Kate (not only on the relationship front, also with Reese’s job which is endangered through enemies he’s made at his university).

Code of Silence

Read last Saturday. This one is a prequel to the series that returns to the time when Reese lost his wife. A recent widower, he is drawn to solve a murder that took place just after WWII during the beginnings of the Cold War. A young woman working with an intelligence agency on Russian codes learn something that causes her to be murdered. Years later an acquaintance of Reese’s also dies under suspicious circumstances. Reese is drawn into finding the murderer, a traitor who spied for the Russians for money. This was the novel I liked least, because all the stuff about Russians and spies in America and McCarthyism was just a bit tedious. But it was nevertheless a good read and I won’t leave it out when I reread the series in future, which I am sure to do, because it’s a good, relaxing, not too demanding series, perfect for rainy or gloomy day (or any old day, really).

When I finished the series on Saturday, I was slightly cast down, because I would have liked to have read more about Reese and Kate and their potential new lives as indicated at the end of book 5. I hoped to find that the author had written another novel or was planning to publish another in the near future. Sadly, I found that the author had died in 2018, so no more Ben Reese mysteries. I did find, however, that she’d written another series, made up of 3 books, the last of which was apparently published posthumously. These are the Jo Grant series:

  • Breeding Ground
  • Behind the Bonehouse
  • The Outsiding

I read the first one on Sunday (as you can see, I was on a binge).

Breeding Ground

The novel has an interesting structure. It starts with short statement by one of the main characters, Jo Grant Munro, giving her reasons for writing the book:

I’ve written the record of what happened – the account, of sorts, that follows. But I didn’t want to say “I” all the time, and explain how I talked to this one, and talked to another, and pieced it all together after the fact. I decided to write it down as though it were a novel, in the order it all happened, and write it from the outside, so I’m being sandwiched in just like any other character.

Sally Wright, Breeding Ground. 2013, Kindle, p. 7

The frame reminds me of the one used in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes novels. In this novel, the frame is set in 1995 while the main part is set in 1962.

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The main part starts off with Jo grieving for her brother Tom who died in a motorcycle accident. She is trying to extricate herself from the family horse breeding business. She had been nursing her mother for two years and wants to return to her own job, which is architecture. Jo wants to travel in Europe to get inspiration and training for her work. She must give up her plans because her uncle, who was to manage the family business, has an accident that leaves him unable to do much work for the next few month.

An old friend of her brother’s turns up, very ill, mumbling about not wanting to involve her in any danger. Another friend of the brothers turns up as a potential love interest. The reader gets to know neighbours and friends, all with their own troubles.

The novel gets quite a slow start, with many meandering plotlines. Somewhere at around the two third mark, even I, who like slow novels, started getting a bit antsy: where was the mystery? What did I care about all these people? But then there’s a murder and all the backstories started making sense. The novel had actually done what the pretend author had said at the beginning. Things happened in order and only with the murder did the strings begin to untangle themselves. As usual with Wright’s books, the last part of the novel has action and suspense.

At the end, we get another note from Jo in the first person. She clears up a few minor details and remarks that she has other books in mind to tell what happened to some of the characters of the novel – if she has time. She’s been diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. This is quite strange, as I found out that this had also been the case with Sally Wright, the real author. She had lived with cancer for 7 years, despite having been given just a 6 months life expectancy at her diagnosis. She has fictionalized her own experience.

Despite the many and meandering plot lines, I enjoyed the novel and I am intrigued enough to read the other two. I like the setting, the horse business (I used to read a lot of horse stories as a teenager and always imagined I’d start riding and get a horse myself, which hasn’t happened yet). It’s like a horse story with crime elements for grownups. It also has a cozier vibe than the Ben Reese novels, which I like (though it did get quite violent at the end). The Christian elements, while still subtle, are slightly more prevalent. As they are still nuanced and not preachy, I don’t mind that either. So, I’m looking forward to the last two novels although I may put in a little rest from my binge first.

I found Amazon quite frustrating to search for all of Sally Wright’s novels. Somehow, I only found the Jo Grant novels via Google. During the search I found this interesting website: http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/. It contains lots of information about crime series and authors. A treasure trove! I will revisit it when I need another author to sate my appetite for that type of reading material.

Keep safe, world.

March Reading

Considering that I’ve been and still am very busy at work and sometimes felt too tired to read, I did manage to read quite a bit in March. Here’s the list:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I didn’t manage to read any of this in March – probably what made me feel that I’m in a slump. I was too tired to immerse myself into this complicated Japanese society. I’m falling behind, my reading buddy is at least 200 pages further along. I need to catch up, so we can continue discussing it. I haven’t read a single page in April yet, either…

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    Finished! A very good anthology.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    Also finished – I love Emily Dickinson’s poems (even if I don’t always understand them). This was only a selection. One of these days I will get her entire collected poems.

Short Stories:

  • J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories.
    Old-fashioned ghost and horror stories. Some of the stories were more like novellas. I enjoyed them, but I prefer the short stories by M. R. James, which are in the same vein and which I read last year. I’m never going to feel the same way about green tea again – apparently it can make you susceptible to harassment by supernatural creepy monkeys who are terrible for your life expectancy. 😉
  • Robert L. Mack, Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.
    This Oxford Worlds Classic paperback has been on my shelves for years and I’ve only ever browsed in it a little. I’m reading it all through this time. Not really short stories, more like folk or fairy tales, but they are good. Sinbad the sailor sure wasn’t scrupulous about killing other people to further his own survival on his adventures!

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Non-Fiction:

  • Samuel Johnson and David Womersley (ed), Selected Writings.
    Essays and letters and other miscellaneous stuff. Very interesting. I got to the half-way mark in March, about 600 pages.
  • May Sarton, The Fur Person.
    Absolutely delightful story of a cat’s life, written from the point of view of the cat and with a few fabulous “cat song” poems in it. I stumbled across it, because I was looking for another poet to read after Emily Dickinson, and Sarton is a poet that I was considering (actually, I’m reading Adrienne Rich at the moment, but Sarton is an option for another day). Very short and quick read, but lovely.
  • Peter Martin, A Dog Called Perth: The Voyage of a Beagle.
    Another interesting story of a pet’s life. This time a dog. Also shortish and a quick read. The dog had a very eventful life, and I loved her, but her owner was a sometimes arrogant person who did quite a few idiotic things with poor Perth that I wouldn’t do with mine. It was pure luck that things turned out fine. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it a lot.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem.
    Installment 5 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Another reread, and very enjoyable. Russell and Holmes doing undercover spy stuff in Palestine during WWI.
  • Sally Wright, Pursuit and Persuasion and Out of the Ruins.
    Books 3 and 4 in the Ben Reese crime series I stared in February. Anti-stress (for me) crime novel. Kind of dark academia in that the protagonist works as an archivist for a university. I’m still planning to write a more detailed review of the series. There’s only one more book to go.

Two pet stories and three crime novels. A fun reading month!

Keep safe, world.

February Reading

Considering that February was a short month and I wasn’t on vacation as I was in January, I managed to read quite a lot:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I managed to read the first 100 pages that I should have read in January. It’s fascinating, but also very strange – a completely unfamiliar world for a European reader, like me, without much knowledge of Japanese culture and history.

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    I’m almost done with this great selection. Pondering on what poetry to read next.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    I’m reading this one when I’m in Bavaria, as the Irish Poetry book is too huge and heavy to lug around. Dickinson is one of my favourite poets; I really need to get her collected works one of these days.

Short Stories:

Rudyard Kipling, The Man Who Would Be King: Selected Stories of Rudyard Kipling.
Most of these stories just blew me away, they were so good. I was skeptical when I started as I expected stuff about “the white-man’s burden” and other imperialist rubbish, but these stories are not only set in India (and those that are, aren’t about those ideas). There are some powerful stories with fantastic elements, some stories set during WWI, lots of stories set in England. Some of them are almost gothic. The more of them I read, the better they got. My prejudices where just that, prejudices. Kipling was given the Nobel Prize in Literature and I guess these stories illustrate why. I think I’ll write about a few of them in more detail in a later post. A strong recommendation!

Non-Fiction:
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books.
A short book about the meaning of reading in the author’s life. Thought-provoking and interesting for fellow life-long readers.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, A Letter of Mary and The Moor.
    Installments 3 and 4 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Rereads, both of them, very enjoyable. The Moor is set in Dartmoor and one of my favourites in the series (of the books that I’ve read so far).
  • Sally Wright, Publish and Perish and Pride and Predator.
    Around the middle of February, I had to spend a whole half-day doing a meaningless but necessary task for work and on the side I was listening to BookTube channels. I came across this series, which is a crime series set at a University (at least the first one) and I couldn’t resist, as I love mystery novels of that sort. There are 5 books in the series, and I plan to read them all. It was reward for my horrid workday – I shouldn’t have started another series. But no regrets!
  • Jane Harper, The Dry.
    This was a book club read. A crime set in a small town in the Australian outback, where flora, fauna and people suffer from a years’ long drought. It was full of suspense, but also just slightly predictable – even I got an inkling as to the motive, and I’m usually not very perspicacious when reading crime novels. The book contained two crimes, one set in the protagonist’s past and never solved, one set in the present of the novel. Not bad.
  • Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader.
    A lovely short novel about what happens when the Queen (Elisabeth II) turns into a serious reader. Cozy and funny and heartwarming.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
    A brilliant novel. A reread, as I last read it while still at University. I started in January, but read most of it in February. I really should read more by Stegner; I love his style in this novel.

Graphic Novel:

Marguerite Abouet, Aya: Life in Yop City.

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I wasn’t meaning to read a graphic novel, but this turned out to be the February selection of the Goodreads “Read Around the World” group. It is about the life of a group of teenage girls a suburb of the city of Abijan in the 1970. Abijan is the largest city of the Ivory Coast (the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire). Some of their experiences are incredibly like teenage experiences in Europe and America. I say “incredible”, because we stupidly always seem to see the African experience as somehow different, usually negatively different. This is, of course, a stupid view and this graphic novel helps to break it up. These universal teenage concerns about school, family, relationships, careers take place in the specific cultural space of Yop City (the suburb) at a certain point in time (the 1970s) and so the details of their lives are different to, say, my teenage experience. I found these cultural specifics engaging and enjoyable. I now feel the need to read the sequel of this graphic novel, as the first part ends rather abruptly, leaving stories unfinished.

In sum it was a good reading month. As for reading from my TBR, I had had Angle of Repose on Kindle since December 2018, so I guess that counts. On the other hand, all the other novels (except for the Laurie R. King ones) and the non-fiction book were new, so I’m not making much inroads on my collection of unread books.

As in January, I’m planning to write more detailed reports on some of the books I read (hopefully in the next few days).

Keep safe, world.