30 May 2018

Murder and Intrigue with Elephant

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
Vaseem Khan
Redhook Books, 2015
294 pages

The is the first book in a cozy mystery series set in modern India, "A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation". As the book opens, Inspector Ashwin Chopra from the Mumbai (née Bombay) police is starting what will become a very memorable day: a body is discovered, he retires early for health reasons, and he inherits a baby elephant from an uncle.


The mystery felt very much imbedded in India, not one that was simply dropped into an exotic local for effect. Mumbai and its people and culture are very much a part of the story being told. Values of honesty and virtue are discussed and the family is paramount in the characters' lives. Khan gives vivid details of the residents' daily lives, middle class and poor alike.

Inspector Chopra is a complex man, much given to musing about his actions, his family, his values, and what retirement means for him. To me he seems akin to Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec in the Louise Penny mystery series, another complex, thoughtful police inspector. They are the Good Guys, the honest, upright, caring individuals who feel compelled to fight the world's evil, although Gamache's books are grittier and not cozy mysteries. I just think the two men would hit it off rather well.

Then there are the elephants. Inspector Chopra spends time learning about his new charge and we learn about the care and feeding and emotional lives of elephants. Since I have always been very fond of elephants and elephant images, I knew this series would be just the thing for a summer read, very charming, and who can resist a baby elephant named Ganesha as a sidekick to a detective? Bonus: there are now 4 more books in this series!

Further Reading

Vaseem Kahn's website
The author has a newsletter, a glossary of Indian words, some baby elephant pictures, and general information about himself. You can also join The Reading Elephant Book Club with a quarterly newsletter.

29 May 2018

Is She an Excellent Woman?

Excellent Women
Barbara Pym
E. P. Dutton, 1978 (originally published 1952)
256 pages

This is Barbara Pym's best known novel, a lightly satiric, wry look at mid-twentieth century London, soon after World War II's end. Mildred is a very kind, unassuming spinster in her mid-thirties, living alone in London. This is her story, told from her point of view, almost as if written in her diary. Although she has no family left and never married, she says she enjoys her solitude and is happy with a part-time job with an impoverished gentlewomen’s group and her work in the church. In the book, women who do that sort volunteer work are condescendingly referred to as "excellent women" by other characters.


Mildred is quite perceptive about the people she finds around her: the pastor and his spinster sister, the members of her church, her new neighbors, her old school friend. She wonders how a group of anthropologists she meets can be so insightful about the primitive tribes they study and yet so obtuse about their own lives. She marvels that the unmarried pastor can be so smitten with an uncharitable, unacceptable woman. She examines her own thoughts and feelings closely, as well, with a self-deprecating humor.

However as a single woman without family ties, everyone she knows presumes she will help them, expecting her to automatically be there for their needs. And she invariably is, although she does allow herself a grumble here and there about it. Thus she finds herself doing things she doesn't really want to do at all.

It's a quiet book, no dramatic disasters befall Mildred, although the lives of her friends do seem to constantly be in turmoil and in need of her assistance. Overall I enjoyed this look at post-war London and it was very well-written. Mildred's observations are spot on. But I found her passivity in the face of others' demands upon her very sad. This counts as the 20th century classic books for the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge.

Further Reading

Reader's Guide by Penguin/Random House

28 May 2018

Gripping Space Opera Tale

Illuminae: The Illuminae Files_01
Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff
Borzoi Books, 2015
599 pages

WOW! That's how I felt as I finished "Illuminae" in one long burst. This is an amazing book on many levels. In the past I've read some classic sci fi novels: The Foundation Trilogy, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Dune, re-read the Foundation Trilogy when Asimov increased the count and I had to start over. But nothing recently, as I have been concentrating on reading the Classics (loose definition).

Two weeks ago during the Bout Of Books 22 Readathon, someone tweeted a picture of a gorgeous orange and yellow book cover without mentioning anything about the book. I could read the title, "Illuminae", so I went researching. Despite it being labelled YA Fiction, it sounded interesting, so I ordered it from the library. As a Senior Adult, I am a bit wary of books for young people; our interests could so easily be divergent.


Opening the book was the first pleasant surprise: such a wild looking set of pages! If there is such a thing as a dossier novel, this is it. The library checkout guy called it epistolary, but that doesn't cover the wide range of things included here: transcripts of emails, printouts of reports stamped "TOP SECRET", schematics, musings from the main character's diary, summaries of video tapes, and strange ASCII art.

As I began reading, I was immediately sucked into the story. It's a Space Opera complete with two teenage protagonists, Kady and Ezra, on a far away space colony in 2575, an invasion by the bad guys, desperate rescue attempts, a strange illness, and an Artificial Intelligence computer that has gone insane. Think Hal 9000 from "2001: A Space Odyssey" but with nuclear weapons. The action gets quite tense, and I will warn the faint of heart that there is a lot of blood and dead bodies towards the end.

Sample Page

I was thrilled to notice that lots of the leaders and strong characters are women, including the main teenage  heroine, Kady, who becomes a computer hacker to save the day. The characters seemed realistic to me, doing what I would expect people to do under the extreme circumstances they faced - so long as you accept the basic premise of space travel, worm holes, etc. Not everyone is a hero; many are just scared and ineffective. We only come to know a few characters very well - the two main teenagers and one slightly older guy who is a hacking mentor to Kady. And we get a portrait of an AI computer mind, too, as its musings and internal thoughts are printed out from the salvaged records.

It's a ripping good tale, made especially relevant now with all the news stories about AI in the workplace and self-driving cars. Bonus: there are two more books, each another 600+ pages long! Huzzah! Highly recommended.

25 May 2018

Mini Persephone Readathon

I enjoyed the Bout of Books Readathon last week, so when I saw that Jessie from the Dwell in Possibility blog was hosting a mini, weekend one, I said "Why not?"

Jessie's announcement:

The weekend-long Mini Persephone Readathon will run from Friday, June 1st to Sunday, June 3rd, 2018. This will be a laid back readathon; read as much or as little as you’d like. The goal is simply to enjoy reading and discussing all things Persephone Books. You can find additional info about the readathon on my Persephone Readathons Page.

I've picked "Diary of a Provincial Lady" by E. M. Delafield as my reading material for the weekend. I couldn't find the Persephone Books version, but my library has the original 1931 edition. The illustrations by Arthur Watts are supposed to be excellent.

I chose it because it's a comedy, a very British comedy. The Persephone description likens it to "Diary of a Nobody" by the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith (1892). I read that in January and thought it quite funny, so I guess I like British self-deprecating humor.

My backup, in case I don't get along with "Diary of a Provincial Lady" for some odd reason, or if I get done early, is "Fidelity: A Novel" by Susan Glaspell.

Come join the fun and read a good book with us!

23 May 2018

Missy's Revenge

The Ladies of Missalonghi
Colleen McCullough
Avon 1988 (originally published 1987)
189 pages

This novella is one of my Bout Of Books #22 Read-A-Thon books. I read, read, read last week and now I need to review, review, review! The story is about Missy, a 33-year-old spinster and poor relation of her tiny Australian town's ruling family, the Hurlingfords. Set just before World War I, the very conservative society severely oppresses the unmarried and widowed females of the clan, and outright cheats them, as well. During the book Missy breaks out of her submissive persona and finds happiness at last as she rebels against the Hurlingford elite.


There is much discussion of "genteel poverty" and about who has the power in the town, officially and unofficially. Missy is a very interesting person. She sees the hypocrisy and games the high society folks play. As the book goes on, she becomes a strong female character and I cheered her awakening.

This was McCulough's fifth novel, the blockbuster "Thorn Birds" was the second and most famous one. Be prepared for a lot of Aussie words - I had to look them up on Google since my dictionary didn't have them.

Cherif's Tale

Ronald Firbank
Sun & Moon Press, 1994 (originally published 1921)
49 pages

"Santal" is a very slim book, really a short story, easily read in one sitting. I'd call it a fairy tale set in North Africa, with religious overtones, very lyrical and poetic. But it is hard to describe it or even give you the flavor of it without giving away the whole story. I'll copy the text from the back cover, as it sums it up so well:

This novella by the British novelist Ronald Firbank begins in a mosque, and follows the young boy, Cherif, home through a fantasy vision of a North African community, with palm-laden streets and colorful bazaars.

But the young boy is disinterested in the outer beauty of the world, and instead seeks the spiritual adventure, exemplified by the mysterious Prophet living in the desert. From the busy house of women - mother, aunts, and sisters - Cherif escapes to undergo a long and arduous journey to find the Prophet, The All-Knowing One.

The fact that Firbank's unusual tale ends in the boy's failure and resignation towards death only reiterates the theme of this Firbankian work: the sensual and the spiritual are in eternal war, and a truce between the two is at best fleeting.


While not well-known today, Ronald Firbank was an influential British novelist in the early 1900s, and many more famous authors have sung his praises and been influenced by his novelistic style. This story is apparently not typical of his novels, which are described as "written in a witty, satiric style."

I am glad I read it, and I am still pondering what I think it means. Not something I can say about too many books. By the way, "santal" is French for "sandalwood."

21 May 2018

Bout of Books 22 Wrap Up


My first weeklong Read-A-Thon is finished. My goals were met and then some!

1. I read the 4 books I intended to read:
"Excellent Women", Barbara Pym
"Red Bang", Brandt Monroe
"The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra", Vassem Khan
"The Ladies of Missalonghi", Colleen McCullough
Then for extra credit I read a 5th, although it turned out to be a longish short story, really, but published as a standalone book:
"Santal", Ronald Firbank
And for good measure, I got through 10% of "Red Pottage", Mary Cholmondeley

2. I posted the answers to each day's challenge on my blog. Updates to book reading were posted to Twitter.

3. I also learned a lot about Twitter and attended my first two Twitter Chats! I had tweeted before but not chatted real time. What saved me was finding Twitter's Tweetdeck browser interface. Highly recommended for following a Twitter Chat!

4. I met a whole slew of avid readers, exchanging book titles, encouragements, and general laughter. What fun!

I am now looking forward to the next edition of Bout of Books - August 20th to August 26th!! Got it on my reminder app so I'll be prepared with a TBR pile. Join us!

20 May 2018

Reaching for More Glory

The Day 7 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Stretch Goal

It's the last day of the readathon, so today's challenge is to take a look at the goals you set for the week (if you have them) and decide a) how you can stretch yourself to complete them or b) how you can revise them so you can meet them. Because yes, you can revise your goals! If you didn't set goals for the week, set a small one for yourself today!

My original goals were a) to read 3 or 4 books and b) to stay away from places where I can spend lots of time finding new titles to add to the TBR (To Be Read) pile.

Now, at the beginning of Day 7, I have read:
  1.     "Excellent Women" by Barbara Pym
  2.     "Red Bang" by Brandt Monroe
  3.     "The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra" by Vassem Khan

and I am 1/3 through:

    "The Ladies of Missalonghi" by Colleen McCullough

Plus I do think I spent productive time reading books and not just reading more book reviews!

Revised goal: I might fit in another short novella, "Santal" by Ronald Firbank.

19 May 2018

No Cuddly Bears Here

The Red House Mystery
A. A. Milne
E.P. Dutton, 1922
229 pages

I don't think of myself as a mystery reader, and yet for the last month I've been speeding right down the Mystery Lane, er, bookshelf - a couple of Agatha Christies, a Margaret Armstrong, and now a surprising entry from Alan Alexander Milne. Yes, that's A. A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame, writing for adults in his only mystery novel.


Before Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, and the rest debuted in 1924, Milne had written stories for the British humor magazine, "Punch", several plays, and a few other novels. The title page of "The Red House Mystery" (1922) identifies him as the "Author of 'Mr. Pym Passes By,' 'The Dover Road,' etc.", which are both plays.

The book is dedicated to his father:

This is probably a cozy mystery, although the amateur detectives are men, and women dominate that genre these days. But it is set in a small English village, nothing very violent is described, and the amateur sleuths ferret out lots of gossip to help solve the crime and best the police at their game - all good cozy mystery attributes.

The plot is not overly complicated, but it is a devious and misleading one. Once again, I only half figured out who dunnit. Mostly I ruled out a lot of the suspects in my mind, but the ending was a surprise.

The main characters, Antony Gillingham, a gentleman of means, and his young friend, Bill Beverly, decide to play detectives and solve the murder of Bill's friend Mark Ablett. They approach this task in a rather light-hearted way at times, calling each other Holmes and Watson. The first Sherlock Holmes story was published by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, so this is not surprising in a 1922 novel. It also turns out that Milne knew Doyle. According to a story on the BBC website:
Peter Pan author JM Barrie, a cricketing fanatic, gathered the most famous writers of his day to play on his amateur team - the oddly-named Allahakbarries - between 1887 and 1913. The team members included Arthur Conan Doyle, PG Wodehouse, AA Milne and Jerome K Jerome.

The dawn of celebrity sports teams! I love finding out that famous authors were, in fact, friends long ago. And it makes me wonder if there are other references to each other's work to be found? Some sleuthing required...

Milne made his fame and fortune from the books of Pooh stories and poems. However, I wish he had penned a few more mysteries as I enjoyed this one. It's my pick for the Back to the Classics 2018 Challenge - A classic with a color in the title.

Miss Trumble, Spinster Sleuth

Murder in Stained Glass
Margaret Armstrong
Pepik Books, 2015 (originally published 1939)
184 pages

I came across this novel in the same way I think a lot of people do these days, in a list of free Kindle books on Amazon.com. As a lover of stained glass, the title caught my eye, and it had some decent reviews online, so I gave it a try. It's a nice cozy mystery with a bit of the Had I But Known school of writing.


Miss Trumble, a spinster in her late forties, leaves her comfortable Park Avenue apartment in New York City for Bassett's Bridge, a small New England town, to visit Charlotte, a woman she knew in boarding school. When a famous stained glass artist dies in the town, suspicion falls on several people, including the artist's son, Leo. Charlotte's niece, Phyllis, is in love with Leo, so Miss Trumble starts to investigate to clear his name. She ferrets out a lot of the town's gossip, learning many secrets that might or might not be important. There are various plot twists right up to the end, and I must admit I did not see the solution coming at all.

The setting for the story is early 20th century America, and the scenes in the Fashionable Society of New York City are quite interesting. Ms Armstrong would have been writing about a time in the recent past, maybe 10 years out, so we get a good glimpse of how people lived then, urban and rural.

I liked this story as it reminded me of the Agatha Christie books I've read, as well as some other cozies I like. Unfortunately Miss Trumble does not reappear to solve another crime. This was Margaret Armstrong's first novel, published when she was 72. Two more appeared in the following years, "The Man with No Face" (1940) and "The Blue Santo Murder Mystery" (1941). But, alas, no Miss Trumble.

Margaret Armstrong was a well-known book cover designer in the days when the image was imprinted directly onto the cover of a book, before dust jackets took over. Some examples are shown in the nice biography of her found on The Passing Tramp blog:

Bout Of Books Favs


The Day 6 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Share Your Favorite Bout of Books Moment

With the read-a-thon starting to wind down, we want to see some of your favorite moments. These could be from past Bout of Books or the present one. Did you connect with someone who would later become your BFF and partner in crime? Did a favorite author retweet you? Were you recommended a book that changed your life? TELL US ABOUT IT!

I have really been enjoying my first Bout Of Books! Reading is so solitary. It's nice to see a large group of readers chatting excitedly about books! And I now have new connections in both the Twittersphere and Blogosphere. But I must admit that my Favorite Moment came during the Twitter Chat on Monday when I finally figured out how to use TweetDeck so I could actually see all the tweets! Tah-dah!! Victory is mine!

I'm 60% through my third book, "The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra" by Vaseem Khan. It's a cozy mystery set in India, where the detective's sidekick is a baby elephant.

18 May 2018

Book Scavenger Hunt


The Day 5 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Space Scavenger Hunt

You all like a scavenger hunt, right? This one is space themed. Use the guidelines below. Participate as much as you can. This is a challenge, so you don't have to get them all to win. If you have fun, you win.

  • Mercury - Favourite short story/novella - "The Pearl", John Steinbeck
  • Venus - Favourite book with female protagonist - the Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley
  • Earth - Favourite book about nature/nature word in the title - "Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Saved the World", Mark Kurlansky
  • Mars - Favourite book with a red cover - "Illuminae", Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
  • Jupiter - Favourite tome over 500 pages - "Moby-Dick in Pictures", Matt Kish
  • Saturn - Favourite book with circle/ring on the cover/in the title - "Ring for Jeeves", P. G. Wodehouse
  • Uranus - Favourite book set in winter - "Bury Your Dead", Louise Penny
  • Neptune - Favourite book set at sea, on a boat, or under water - "Moby-Dick", Herman Melville
  • Pluto - Favourite books featuring a dog/with a dog on the cover - "44 Scotland Street", Alexander McCall Smith
  • Moon - Favourite book set anywhere other than Earth - "Foundation", Isaac Asimov
  • Sun - Favourite book set in summer - "Playing for Pizza", John Grisham
  • Space - Favourite book set in space - "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", Douglas Adams

Rather a diverse collection of titles, eh? Try one, you'll like it!

17 May 2018

If the Circus, Then the Museum


The Day 4 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Read Alikes
If you liked a particular book, then recommend a book(s) similar to the one you liked.

IF you liked "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern


THEN you should read "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" by Alice Hoffman


I loved "The Night Circus" a lot, and "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" is also very good. Both have heroines with strange fathers, and both girls are part of a show. "Circus" is more dreamlike and other-worldly, whereas "Museum" is more realistic (well, mostly).

16 May 2018

My Precious


The Day 3 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Show Me Your Precious

Everyone has a book that they love; now is your time to bring out your precious and shine. Share your favorite book (in whatever format you choose)! You know the one that has that beautifully illustrated map, or gorgeous writing, or whatever it is that draws you to it. Share with the world what makes that book your precious!
I love books in general, so "When I'm not near the book I love, I love the book I'm near." (sorry Frank!) Current love is "Moby-Dick in Pictures" by Matt Kish. Matt is an amazing artist who decided one day that he should "create one illustration for every single one of the 552 pages in the Signet Classic paperback edition." He began posting them to his blog and eventually the entire collection was published. The result is stunning!


I got a chance to meet Matt at a recent showing of a documentary film "Call Us Ishmael", an intimate look at the world’s obsession with Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” which many consider the great American novel. He's a very nice librarian who, of course, is widely read. So nice that he signed my copy of his book, well, drew a whale picture, actually!! So cool!

Find Out More

The film "Call Us Ishmael"

Matt's Moby-Dick Blog, starting on Day 1:

15 May 2018

Year of Me


The Day 2 challenge for Bout Of Books #22 is:

Year of You
Share a book that was published the year you were born.

On my list of books to check into I found the 1947 novel "One Fine Day" by Mollie Panter-Downes, a British writer who lived from 1906 to 1997. She wrote several novels, short story collections, and a biography, but is better known for her column for the New Yorker, describing London during and after WWII.

Here's the description of "One Fine Day" from the current publisher, Little Brown:
It is a summer's day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without 'those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings'. Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism.
First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, charting, too, a gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.

As an avowed Anglophile interested in the war years, I will be reading and reviewing this book in the not too distant future.

Today, Tuesday, is the Last Day to sign up for Bout Of Books 22. Join us!

12 May 2018

Bout of Books Read-a-thon

I’m joining #boutofbooks! This is the 22nd edition of the popular read-a-thon, and it sounds quite fun.


Here's the scoop on Bout of Books:

The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda Shofner and Kelly Rubidoux Apple. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01 am Monday, May 14th and runs through Sunday, May 20th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 22 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team

My personal goal is to sit myself down and read as many books as I can, start-to-finish, within the prescribed week. I do hope to keep myself from wandering around various book sites online and finding more books I want to read, which takes up actual reading time. It's sort of a good habit / bad habit thing with me. And since book choice is open, I can slot in books for a couple of my challenges. Win!

Here's what I am planning to read:
  •     "Red Bang", Brandt Monroe
  •     "The Ladies of Missalonghi", Colleen McCullough
  •     "Excellent Women", Barbara Pym
And maybe:
  •     "The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra", Vassem Khan

Wish me luck! Why not join us on this reading adventure!

11 May 2018

Herzoslovakian Feud Spills Blood

The Secret of Chimneys
Agatha Christie
Bantam Books, 1987 (first published 1925)
232 pages

I enjoyed Christie's "The Seven Dials Mystery" [my review is here] that I chanced upon at the library recently, and then realized it was listed as #2 in the Superintendent Battle series at Amazon.com. So back I went to retrieve book #1, "The Secret of Chimneys", and it's another nice mystery tale with many of the same lead characters.

The story takes place at Chimneys, the English country house setting of both books, but this time it's a weekend of political intrigue, with a house full of diplomats, aristocrats, and royalty, plus a few detective types, both professional and amateur. The plot involves the fictional Balkan country of Herzoslovakia, with its history of revolution, the murders of the King and Queen and of several recent Presidents. Prince Michael, the next in line, is maneuvering to get back the throne, financed by selling the rights to the newly discovered Herzoslovakian oil supplies. Several bodies are found in mysterious circumstances, a memoir by the late Herzoslovakian Prime Minister is threatening to start a European-wide war, a long-lost jewel is sought by a notorious jewel thief, and a bundle of blackmail letters are not what they seem. The requisite number of plot twists ensue and several characters are not who you were lead to believe they are. Quite satisfying and I never guessed the solution.


A lot seemed to happen in this book. People weren't just sitting around flirting or discussing the latest racing results to while away a weekend in the country. Important developments kept happening at a fast pace. There are quite a few characters, but most of them are talked about frequently and take part in the action, so it's not too hard to keep them straight, although now and then I did lose track of who Baron Lolopretjzyl was - and don't ask me how to pronounce that name!

Well, it's three down, two to go in the Inspector Battle 5-book series, although I'm not quite sure it really is a series. This 1987 copy of "The Secret of Chimneys" makes no mention of one, nor does the official Agatha Christie web site. Maybe the idea of calling them a series came from a publisher more recently. Both this book and "The Seven Dials Mystery" do feature a group of the same characters, so they are related in a way. Book #3 "Cards on the Table" is usually portrayed as a Hercule Poirot novel. It has four sleuths, including Poirot and Battle, trying to solve their dinner host's murder. I haven't yet read the other two, but for Book #4, "Murder Is Easy", Wikipedia says "Christie's recurring character, Superintendent Battle, has a cameo appearance at the end, but plays no part in either the solution of the mystery or the apprehension of the criminal." Battle does seem to be back in charge for Book #5, "Towards Zero".

Series or not, "The Secret of Chimneys" is fast-paced and entertaining!

05 May 2018

A Geeky Family's Drama

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy: A Novel in Clues
Nova Jacobs
Touchstone, 2018
352 pages

Isaac Severy, venerable patriarch of the brainy and eccentric Severy clan, has just died and the bereft family members are struggling to cope. His granddaughter Hazel receives a posthumous note from Isaac, who was a famous mathematician, setting her off on a search for an equation. Given only a few mysterious clues, she is asked to find the equation and deliver it to Isaac's friend for safe keeping. During the search she discovers that there are lots of secrets spread throughout the family.


This is an inventive mystery with surprising plot twists, and I liked it very much. However I do feel it is a bit too ambitious in some respects. There are so many characters that I had to stop and create a family tree on paper to keep all the relatives straight. Many of them appear multiple times and take up space, but are not part of the main plot. One or two sub-plots could be dispensed with, too. I just think it needed some editing, to give the main characters some breathing space and develop them more. I wanted to know Hazel better, as she seemed quite interesting.

This is an impressive debut novel and I really did enjoy it, so I feel bad criticizing it. It just took a lot for me to work through it. I'll be watching for Jacobs' next book, to see what sort of interesting new story she constructs!

Jan Morris' Conundrum

Conundrum: From James to Jan - An Extraordinary Personal Narrative of Transsexualism
Jan Morris
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974
174 pages

I love the travel writing of Jan Morris, and had long thought about reading this memoir. Since I am currently planning some travels of my own, I came across her name again and checked "Conundrum" out of the library.


Afterwards I felt like I had met her in a cozy tearoom and we had had a nice long chat over some delicious tea and scones. In this most personal of memoirs she tries to explain what may well be inexplicable, even to her, namely feelings about gender and sex. Most of the book is about her life before the sex reassignment surgery: her early life at school, in the British Army during WWII, and her years spent on the road as a travel author. She tries to convey what she felt as James Morris, what she felt during the 10-year transition from male to female, and what she is feeling now as Jan.

There is nothing lurid, no graphic details of the surgery. What would you expect of such a nice British lady? Instead there are ponderings about the topics of relationships, belonging, family, and gender and sex. She has a theory/idea of a scale and a pointer correlating gender and sex, though I'm not sure I understood that completely.

© David Hurn
Reading "Conundrum" now seemed very timely, despite the 44 years since it's publication. Issues about LGBT rights have been in the news from all over the world in recent years. Reading about transsexualism from the inside is a thought-provoking experience.

Further Reading

"Writer Jan Morris on reporting from Everest and changing sex"
Henry Mance, The Financial Times

"Love story: Jan Morris - Divorce, the death of a child and a sex change... but still together"
Andy McSmith, The Independent

03 May 2018

Alberto Manguel and Jorge Luis Borges

With Borges
Alberto Manguel
Telegram Books, 2006
77 pages

I first discovered Alberto Manguel's lovely writing when I read "A History of Reading", to be reviewed shortly. How I stumbled upon that book is a mystery, an Internet Mystery. One reads blogs, follows links to more blogs and review sites, and eventually some book's description grabs your full attention and you order it online. Well, that's how my reading life goes at any rate. Then having enjoyed the first Manguel book so much, I looked for more. The title "With Borges" caught my eye because I loved reading Jorge Luis Borges' works when I was in college, so I ordered that one, too.


Manguel was 16 and working in a bookshop in Buenos Aires when he first met the famous Argentine writer. The older man was blind by then, and he asked Manguel to read to him at his apartment. Manguel did so three or four times a week over a four-year period. And for the next 16 years, until Borges death in 1986, they were friends. While it is a very short book, it contains wonderful, insightful stories about Borges, his author-friends, and his thoughts on writing and writers.

A must read if you love Literature, Borges, or Manguel.

02 May 2018

Intro to Italian Lit

Italian Literature: A Very Short Introduction
Peter Hainsworth and David Robey
Oxford University Press, 2012
128 pages

I came across this slim volume while looking for books the old-fashioned way at the library: by perusing the shelves. Usually I discover an interesting book in one of the book-review blogs I frequent; then I jump over to my library's web site, put it on hold, and pick it up down the street at the local branch library. It's very efficient, but the thrill of serendipitous discovery is absent.

This time I was wandering in a newly re-organized library and found this little gem. With my background in microbiology and computer science, I can feel intimidated by literary references and literary criticism, although I am a fervid reader. So I was quite tickled to find such a succinct introduction. I haven't read much Italian literature, but I am currently working on Umberto Eco's "Baudolino" and have just ordered a copy of "The Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio.


Although there are only 128 pages, the type is rather small, as are all the margins, so the book punches above its weight, as they say. The publisher's summary is as follows:
In this Very Short Introduction, Peter Hainsworth and David Robey examine Italian literature from the Middle Ages to the present day, looking at themes and issues which have recurred throughout its history. The authors illuminate such topics as regional identities, political disunity, and the role of the national language and they cover a wide range of authors and works, including Dante, Petrarch, Manzoni, Montale, and Calvino. They explore some of the distinctive traditions of the literature, such as its concern with politics and its secular orientation in spite of the Catholic beliefs and practices of the Italian people, and they conclude by looking at recent developments in Italian literature, such as the influence of women's writing in Italian.

After the main text there is a section of Further Reading with books listed by various topics and a list of all the writers cited with their dates and types of writing. I'm far from being an expert now, but I have a feel for what's available in Italian literature. Once I've read a goodly number of Italian novels, I would like to re-read this book for more perspective on the topic.

Very Short Introductions

Oxford University Press has a huge series of these small volumes called Very Short Introductions, with over 300 books on every imaginable topic. This is how they describe the series:
Oxford's Very Short Introductions offers concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects--from Islam to Sociology, Politics to Classics, and Literary Theory to History. Not simply a textbook of definitions, each volume provides trenchant and provocative--yet always balanced and complete--discussions of the central issues in a given topic. Every Very Short Introduction gives a readable evolution of the subject in question, demonstrating how it has developed and influenced society.

I plan on reading some of their introductions to national literatures, literary genres, and individual authors.

Zany Christie or Mysterious Wodehouse?

The Seven Dials Mystery
Agatha Christie
William Morrow, 2012 (first published 1929)
284 pages

Agatha Christie, you ask? Sure, we all know Agatha from her stories about Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. Yes, we say, "The Seven Dials Mystery" should be an entertaining book. We begin to read... and then confusion ensues. Imagine a nice British country house party of the 20s or 30s, full of titled upper class folk, the idle rich, and their stalwart servants. Present are all the usual slightly nutty types a la P. G. Wodehouse, a stuffy Lord, a ditzy Lady, fun-loving, carefree young folk with money to burn, a supercilious gardener. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote surely must know Bertie Wooster!


It's Wodehouse in a lower key; no one is quite as smart as Jeeves, nor quite as fatuous as Wooster, and for silly names we have only a girl named Socks, the male secretary, Pongo, and the amateur detective, Lady Eileen Brent, known as Bundle. But then drop in a serious mystery complete with several bodies, a Russian countess, a furtive society, German agents, and a secret industrial process. The events happening at various grand estates verge right on the edge of being zany, but are held in check by the ever-present threat of more deaths occurring.

The mystery itself is perplexing and kept me guessing until the very end. All my suspects were innocent - of the crimes, if not of deceptions. Later I found out it is number two of five in the Superintendent Battle series. Oddly enough number three in that series, "Cards on the Table", is also number 13 in the Hercule Poirot series, which I have already read. I guess I need to hunt up numbers one, four, and five now to complete the set.

Don't get me wrong, I liked this book a lot, it just wasn't what I had expected from Agatha Christie! A quick, enjoyable read. And it's a classic crime story for the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge.