This year so far has been one in which it’s hard to take my eyes off the news–but it’s good to give my brain a rest from all the present mayhem by reading some fiction! I’m glad I got so many new books for Christmas and, just today, picked up a book I was inspired to request from the library last month (The Upstairs Room).
I’ll admit that I haven’t yet read two of the books I said I was going to read in 2020, and I started but didn’t finish another one. It just didn’t seem like the right time. I know where they are when I’m ready for them!
Meanwhile, here are the last few books I read in 2020 and the two in my new stash that I’ve finished already.
A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny
After years of reading about how mystery lovers enjoy the series featuring Chief Inspector Gamache and hoping a copy of the first book in that series would come my way, I saw this–one of the later books in the series–at a used-book sale where I could get one more book for free, so I decided to give it a try!
Indeed, not knowing the characters was a hurdle as I tried to get into this book. It begins with a scene in which several of them are just kind of hanging out and internally wrestling with issues left over from a previous book, and being unfamiliar with those issues, I wasn’t really inspired to care about them. Also, it’s hard to get to know people when the narrator calls each person sometimes by his first name, sometimes by his last name, sometimes by his police title–it took me a while to remember who was who, and I never stopped being irritated that a main character’s first name is Jean Guy, which probably sounds quite different (but obnoxious) if you pronounce it the French way but in my mind sounded like it meant, “that guy wearing jeans whose name we don’t know.”
Anyway! After about 60 pages, I started to enjoy this murder mystery involving artists, Alcoholics Anonymous, and the intersection between the two. Clara labored in obscurity for years but finally landed a show at a major Montreal museum, followed by a party at her home in the charming village of Three Pines–and then Lillian, the childhood friend who betrayed her but then was out of contact for many years, turns up murdered in her back yard. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir have to figure out what Lillian was doing there, who killed her, and why–and in the process, they uncover startling revelations about an important judge, Clara’s husband, Gamache’s daughter, and Beauvoir’s incomplete recovery from a past trauma.
Some of my favorite scenes involved Ruth, an aging alcoholic poet who is one of the colorful characters in Three Pines. She seems sharp-tongued and careless, but then she’ll say something wise and helpful. Here she is talking with Clara about the reviews of her show:
“[The Ottawa Star] called me an old and tired parrot mimicking actual artists,” said Clara.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Ruth. “Parrots don’t mimic. Mynah birds mimic. Parrots learn the words and say them in their own way.”
No More Dying Then by Ruth Rendell
Reading any other “police procedural” mystery reminds me of my favorite detective team, Reginald Wexford and Mike Burden, and I happened to have read this book last summer without retaining much memory of it, so I read it again! It started to come back to me within a few pages, but still I enjoyed the journey of solving this mystery again.
A five-year-old boy has disappeared from the playground near his home in Kingsmarkham, a small town still on edge about the unsolved disappearance of a twelve-year-old girl months earlier. Did the same person kidnap both John and Stella? Is Stella’s stepfather guilty or just incredibly annoying in his lazy egocentrism? Who was that limping man with small hands, seen hanging around the playground?
Many of the books in this series have a subplot involving Inspector Wexford’s family life, but in this one it’s Inspector Burden’s turn to have issues that get tangled into the case: His wife recently died of cancer, and her sister has been helping him manage the house and kids–but she’d like to get back to her own life, and she’s not helping at all with the major tension that’s taking over his mind, distorting his investigation of John’s mother into something wildly unprofessional. Burden behaves badly but solves the mystery!
After reading Small Animals [reviewed here], it was particularly startling to read Inspector Wexford’s feelings upon seeing parents afraid to leave their babies unattended in public:
Then he spotted a pram which its owner was parking outside the supermarket. He watched her lift out the baby and its older sister, take the one in her arms and propel the other, who could only just walk, ahead of her into the shop. That such care should have to be exercised in the town whose guardian he was brought him a deep depression.
This book was written in 1971. Fifty years later, can you imagine police thinking that it’s their job to keep your baby safe?!
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope meet as rookie cops in New York City and decide to move to the same suburb–but they end up being just neighbors, not friends, because Brian’s wife Anne doesn’t have friends and is actually insulted by the friendly overtures of Francis’s wife Lena. However, Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope love playing together. Toward the end of eighth grade, their feelings for each other become deeper and more exciting…triggering Anne to snap into a defensive outburst that changes both families’ lives.
After being separated through their high school years, Kate and Peter are glad to find each other again, but they can’t escape the shadows of their families. Mental illness, alcoholism, physical disability, and infidelity affect not only each family’s feelings about the other but also Kate’s and Peter’s ability to trust one another and recognize problems in their own home life.
I loved this book’s thorough, compassionate portrayal of characters who seem very real, whose inner logic explains all the drama.
A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle
The author of A Wrinkle in Time (a book that blew my mind) and many other science-fiction and realistic novels also published The Crosswicks Journals, four volumes of personal essays about her family’s life centered around their country home in Connecticut. This is the first book.
This was perfect to start my year because it’s about striving to find space for your thoughts and your writing when you’re a middle-aged mother with meals to make and chores to do! It’s also about many other things: village life and city life, the environment, spirituality, human identity in a world run by computers, the influence of teachers on students, the development of “self” and the role of self-consciousness, and the author’s idiosyncratic but very strong opinions about punctuation. Published just before I was born, it’s very relatable to me as a middle-aged mother now, but it also made me think fondly of my grandma and the way she really listened to what the wacky young people were saying but also was confident in giving her own opinion.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
This is sort of a mystery and sort of just a story of how people are when they live together in a neighborhood: Everyone knows a lot about everyone else, but nobody ever knows everything, and sometimes the deepest secrets never do come to light.
Grace and her friend Tilly are ten years old in 1976, one of the hottest summers ever experienced in their housing estate in a quiet part of England. The avenue is abuzz with worry about Mrs. Creasy, who simply vanished without even taking a pair of shoes. It seems the police can’t solve this mystery, so the girls are on it, alert for clues. The vicar said God is everywhere–so surely God must know where Mrs. Creasy is, so the girls try to track down God, asking all the neighbors.
Meanwhile, we get occasional glimpses into the adults’ private lives, but only in third person with many of the things they say and think left unexplained. All of them are trying not to think about–but unable to forget–the events of eight and a half years ago, when Grace was a toddler and Tilly hadn’t yet moved to the estate. The girls know nothing about the terrible events involving the residents of Number Eleven or why the adults are afraid Mrs. Creasy is going to get them all into trouble.
The many characters, each with their own problems and lovable quirks, snoop on each other and gossip about each other in between enjoying their sense of community (except Walter; nobody wants him around, but can the girls find out why not?) along the avenue, in the shop, over drinks at the Legion, and eventually over lemonade in a decrepit garage. Many strangely-named British sweets are consumed. Although bound together in a conspiracy of silence, each of the adults has something left to learn about what happened–and some of them learn it, while others don’t, but as the reader you get all the clues!
Here are the rest of the books I expect to read in 2021!
As I read them, I’ll come back and add links to my reviews.
- Glittering Images by Susan Howatch
- The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
- The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
- At Home by Bill Bryson (I read and reviewed this several years ago, but I asked for my own copy to read again!)
- I’m Fine and Neither Are You by Camille Pagan
- The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier
- Reputation by Sara Shepard
- The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
- Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther
- The Color of Water by James McBride
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