I haven’t published anything here for a while because I started reading Demon Copperhead, the new book from fave author Barbara Kingsolver, and it has been taking forever. I am enjoying the voice of the protagonist and the high quality of her descriptive writing and somewhat quirky scene-setting, but the combination of the length of the book and the depressing quality of the narrative finally got to me at about 83 percent, and I set it aside to take a quick refreshment break.
I re-read two books by Jenny Colgan—Meet Me at the Cupcake Café, and The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris—for their winning combination of positivity, romance, and recipes, and enjoyed them both. My plan was to go back to Kingsolver today, but instead I found myself picking up Dying Fall, the latest Bill Slider mystery by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, which has been in my pile for months. I will get back to Demon Copperhead at some point, but the mood isn’t yet right.
Meanwhile, Netflix made me happy this weekend, having come out with season one of Lockwood & Co., adapted, partially written, and directed by Joe Cornish, and based on the young adult paranormal mystery series by author Jonathan Stroud. This has been a favorite series of mine since I read book #1 with my middle school book club and eagerly perused all the rest as they emerged from his brain onto the page (there are five books and a short story in it).
The series is set in a parallel world where Britain has been ruled for 50 years by “the Problem”—evil ghosts that roam freely, but can only be dealt with by children and teenagers young enough to be in touch with their perceptive gifts. Adults can be harmed by them but can’t see or even sense them, while the youth still see, hear, and sense their presence and fight them by discovering their “source” (the place or object to which they are attached) and either securing or destroying it.
The mythology seems to have evolved at least partially from faerie, vampire, and werewolf lore: The main weapons are iron chains, silver containers, running water, salt bombs, lavender, and longswords! The ghost-hunting teens are most of them employees operating under the supervision of corporate, adult-run agencies, but Lockwood & Co. is independent of adult supervision. It’s a startup existing on the fringes, run by two teenage boys—Anthony Lockwood, the putative boss and mastermind, skilled sword fighter and ingenious planner, and George Karim, the brainy researcher who provides background for their cases from the city’s archives. The two have advertised for and just recently acquired a girl colleague, Lucy Carlyle, who is new to London and technically unlicensed, but more psychically gifted than anyone they have ever met. This renegade trio is determined not just to operate on their own but to outdo the agency blokes in all their endeavors, so they take risks no adult at the corporations (or at DEPRAC, the Department of Psychical Research and Control) would sanction, in order to gain both notoriety and clients.
Cornish and his colleagues have nicely captured both the flavor of the overwrought atmosphere of beleaguered London and the perilous camaraderie of the principal characters—Lockwood, George, and Lucy—in their series. Season one covers the events from books #1 (The Screaming Staircase) and #2 (The Whispering Skull), so one assumes there will be at least one and perhaps two more seasons, if viewers make it popular enough for renewal. I certainly hope they do! But in case that doesn’t happen (or even if it does), the books are out there, and well worth your attention (and I don’t just mean middle-schoolers!).
For my first two reads of 2023, I chose mysteries set in the Shetlands, by new-to-me author Ann Cleeves. I got Raven Black as a Kindle deal, and then followed up with White Nights. There are six more books in the series. I think I had heard her name before, but had never come across her books, although they are apparently popular—this series, and also her Vera Stanhope books, were both made into TV shows, possibly still accessible via Netflix or other networks (Shetland aired first in 2012, and the Vera Stanhope TV show, with three seasons, is older than that). She started writing a new series, Two Rivers, in 2019.
The primary appeal of these novels is location. The Shetland archipelago lies between Orkney, the Faroe Islands, and Norway, and is the northernmost part of the United Kingdom; there are 16 inhabited islands. They used to be owned by Norway, and there is a heavy Norse influence on the population’s culture, including fire festivals and music. They are also known for both the Shetland sheep dog and the Shetland pony, and many of the islands are seabird refuges.
Cleeves has done an excellent job of giving her books a dual atmosphere: There is the free, wild aspect of being so close to nature, buffeted by the elements, with ocean on all sides; and then there is the somewhat claustrophobic experience of living on an island with a small, fixed population where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. All of this plays perfectly into the mysteries she creates—murders and missing persons investigated by a local police officer with assistance from a supervisor transplanted from the mainland.
Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez, descended from a shipwrecked member of the Spanish Armada, is the laconic native son who is responsible for law and order in his small island community. In complete contrast, the impatient, forceful, and fidgety DI Roy Taylor has been sent from Inverness to coordinate when a murder takes place, bringing most of the forensic people along with him by boat or by air. Although the two initially struggle a bit for dominance, since one has both the authority and the overwhelming personality while the other knows the community intimately, they eventually figure out a way to work side by side to discover why and how murder has invaded the Shetlands.
These are not slick, fast-paced mysteries; they are slow-moving, with lots of intricate low-key exploration of the island personalities, and the solutions to the crimes evolve with each revelation rather than yielding an explosive disclosure. They are, to an extent, police procedurals, although the team is small and most of the focus comes from DI Perez. But if you enjoy arriving at a conclusion simultaneously with your “host detective,” you will like these very well. There are also some romantic elements for various characters, Jimmy among them, and lots of beautiful descriptions of the environs. I found them quietly enjoyable and will at some point continue the series.
I live in a pretty small house, and I have a LOT of stuff, including books. I have always hung onto most of my books, but as I am looking to clear out some space, I’m drastically revising what I keep and what I release.
One bookcase in my studio, which has writing and art books, both how-to and inspirational, plus the books I use to research and teach my UCLA courses. I also have an entire packed shelf of Dover clip-art books from back in the day when you needed to paste down some vector art (or a photostat of same) in order to insert art into your newsletter, flyer, or whatever. Those could go, although I’d probably sit down and scan art from a large number of them, to save on my computer for future projects. Four shelves.
One bookcase in my living room, containing all my gardening and home arts books—architecture, building techniques (such as straw bale construction), interior design, quilting, and some art books that are also garden-related. Four shelves.
One china cabinet/hutch in my bedroom, that contains all my Young Adult Fiction books in the top half. Three shelves.
Three floor-to-almost-ceiling bookshelves, also in the bedroom, that contain all my other books, separated out into science fiction/fantasy, regular fiction, and nonfiction. Six shelves per bookcase = 18 shelves.
And then there are the piles of books—on the kitchen table, the dining room table, two side tables in the living room, the floor of the studio…
I keep accumulating them, but haven’t significantly cleared them out for several decades. Every once in a while I will put together about a box worth of those I didn’t enjoy or simply decided not to read, and give them to the library or to Vietnam Veterans to sell. But since I accumulate at almost the same speed, it hasn’t helped much.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been either checking out or buying many e-books to read on my Kindle, so that has saved some shelf space. But it’s finally time to confront the overflow, eliminate the extraneous, and reorganize the rest tidily on (hopefully fewer) shelves.
My new deciding factor for whether to keep a book is going to be whether I realistically and sincerely believe that I will ever read it again. I have books that I have read multiple times and anticipate going back to a few more; I have books that I have read once and might enjoy reading again; and then there are the books I know I will never revisit.
It’s difficult, sometimes, because of things like sets. I have a complete set of similarly bound books by Elizabeth Goudge that I remember being so thrilled to discover at The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles about three decades ago; but although they look pretty on the shelf, I expect I may reread one at most—I have outgrown my regard for them. So should I let the entire set go? I’m thinking yes, but it gives me a pang. I also have a few gifts from people looking to appeal to my hobby, but…my mom, for instance, never understood the difference between a reader and a collector, so she would go find me some beautiful old first edition of, say, the poems of Longfellow that I admire esthetically for its beautiful cover and ancient pages but will never read. And then there are a few beloved children’s books from my youth that I remember fondly but will probably never read again, and since I don’t have children with whom to share them…what to do?
When I embraced science fiction in my 20s, I collected every single title of such authors as Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, and Isaac Asimov, and it’s difficult (and nostalgic) to pick and choose the ones I really like vs. the ones I have just kept because it’s nice to feel like you have the entire oeuvre. But again, if I examine them in terms of what may be a re-read, then I can let go of most.
My hope is that when I box up everything I no longer need and the dust clears, I can actually get rid of one of the three big bookcases in the bedroom, to give me a little more room for other pursuits, like setting up my free-standing painter’s easel in the empty space.
One problem I foresee: When I really examine what’s on the shelves, there are also a number of missing volumes I’d selfishly love to fill in, especially in my young adult fiction collection. Since I worked in a library in the YA section for 11 years, I would mostly check out the books I wanted to read, with the result that I have numerous series for which I only own, say, #1 and #3 out of four books, or the first book but not its sequel. So—do I get rid of all, and simply pick them up from the library should I get the yen to read them? or do I fill in the set? Filling in could have a large impact!
This does seem like a proper task to ponder, initiate, and accomplish at the beginning of a new year. I’ll let you know how it goes…and if you have advice or a fresh perspective for me, feel free to comment!
I finished my Goodreads Challenge a week early this year—115 books—and they sent me my stats, so I thought I’d share them, and look back on the things I read this year to see what stood out, what disappointed, and what was engaging but not overly compelling.
First of all, out of those 115 books, the shortest was 78 pages (an “in-between” novella inserted into a series by the author), and the longest was 848 pages. My total number of pages for the year was 37,627—but since I read another book after the challenge was over, I can up that to 38,001 just in time for the new year.
My “most shelved” book (meaning the one more people on Goodreads read than any other on my list) was It Ends With Us, by Colleen Hoover, which was emphatically not a favorite, but got the need to read at least one of her books (to see what the fuss is about) right out of my system. I have actually read two of them (Verity was the other), and that was enough. I am not her people, nor is she mine.
The “least shelved” (meaning, I guess, that no one on Goodreads knows who this author is, at least in this context) was The Affairs of Ashmore Castle, by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, an author I know primarily for her mystery series featuring British detective Bill Slider (which I love). She is quite well known in her own country for writing a long saga, The Morland Dynasty, which family is established in book #1 during the Wars of the Roses and continues, as far as I can tell—barring any new books—to #35, which takes place between the World Wars in 1931. The Ashmore books are a new series for her.
My average rating over 115 books was 3.8, which seems generous in retrospect, considering that not many of those books were huge stand-outs for me; but I do tend to be kind with ratings except in the few instances when I am not! On Goodreads, the highest rated book that I read was Godsgrave, by Jay Kristoff, which somewhat surprises me; it’s a walloping good tale to which I personally gave five stars, but it’s both an oddball variant of fantasy and also incredibly violent and bloody, so it doesn’t seem like it would escape those to become highest rated. Kristoff’s fans are legion, however, so perhaps that’s the answer.
I only re-read 11 books this year, which is low for me, but belonging to the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group has influenced me in the direction of reading more new books and revisiting fewer nostalgia reads. As usual, about a third of my re-reads were by the inimitable Georgette Heyer.
So, let’s get into some specifics. FIVE-STAR STAND-ALONE BOOKS, in no particular order, were:
AKATA WITCH and its sequel, AKATA WARRIOR, by Nnedi Okorafor
MARY JANE, by Jessica Anya Blau (a coming-of-age charmer set in the years of my youth)
WE BEGIN AT THE END, by Chris Whitaker (tragically compelling)
THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES, by Alix E. Harrow
THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, also by Alix E. Harrow
BOOK LOVERS, by Emily Henry (turning a trope on its head)
LITTLE SECRETS, by Jennifer Hillier (best suspense/thriller I’ve read in a while!)
JAR OF HEARTS, also by Jennifer Hillier
HOLDING SMOKE, by Elle Cosimano (a re-read of a YA fave)
BIG LIES IN A SMALL TOWN, by Diane Chamberlain
FIVE-STARS that were PART OF A SERIES included:
NEVERNIGHT, by Jay Kristoff (first in an intense science fiction trilogy)
DRAGON AND THIEF, by Timothy Zahn (first in a delightful space opera YA series)
FINLAY DONOVAN IS KILLING IT, by Elle Cosimano (#1 of a trilogy about an author who is mistaken for a contract killer, 3rd book to come out January 31st)
The INTERDEPENDENCY trilogy, by John Scalzi (science fiction that is both thoughtful and humorous)
OTHER BOOKS I particularly enjoyed, even though they had lower ratings, for various reasons:
The ASHMORE CASTLE series (I read the first two books, which is all there are for now), by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
The CHESAPEAKE BAY SAGA (four books), by Nora Roberts
STATION ELEVEN, by Emily St. John Mandel (love a good dystopian)
MOXIE, by Jennifer Mathieu (YA girl empowerment)
Dervla McTiernan’s stand-alone, THE MURDER RULE
THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK, by Jennifer Hillier
and my last book of the year, RAVEN BLACK, by Ann Cleves, first in her Shetland Island series.
And those are the highlights of my year in reading! I have written/published reviews of all of the books I mentioned here, so if anything piques your interest, go to the search box (“Search this site” at the top right under my logo and description), put in a title or an author, and find out why I called out these favorites.
I just finished Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier, and it definitely lives up to that quote I used two books back about Hillier imagining the worst and then writing about it. Lest you should be taking the title seriously, based on that information, let me reassure you that there is not a jar filled with literal hearts—they are the cinnamon red-hot variety. But if you are a person, like the main character Georgina (nicknamed Geo), who associates tastes or smells with particular events from life and is thus permanently put off from ever enjoying them again, you will probably not be eating red-hot cinnamon candies any time soon. I will say up front that this book is not for the sensitive or squeamish. It is gritty, explicit, and dark. I have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to reading this kind of story and still found it challenging. So now that I have given you the “trigger warning”…
Jar of Hearts is ultimately about three friends: Angela Wong, the popular girl—cheerleader, guy magnet, gorgeous and charismatic; Geo Shaw, the otherwise engaging one whose light is slightly dimmed by keeping company with her best friend, Angela; and Kaiser Brody, who follows in Geo’s wake like a smitten puppy dog. This is who they were in high school; but when this story begins, Angela is 14 years dead, Geo is the star witness (and accused accessory), and Kaiser is the arresting officer of Calvin James, serial killer, Geo’s former boyfriend and the one being tried for Angela’s murder.
This is a book about friendship, obsession, jealousy, and death—but all the assumptions are out the window from the first page. No one is innocent among the interconnected friends and lovers whose actions doom one another to various fates, and although at least two of them would like events from the past to remain buried forever, the others will actively or passively guarantee that’s not going to happen.
The story’s pacing is designed to keep you looking for answers throughout its five parts, with clearly defined jumps from past to present and back again, and new elements to the story that have you second-guessing absolutely everything you know about everyone involved. It explores the question of nature vs. nurture, and highlights the theory of the deficiency of the underdeveloped teenage brain and the psychology behind ideas about compartmentalization and deflection. It is chilling, involving, and more than a little messed up. In other words, Jennifer Hillier delivers again.
Having read others of Sally Hepworth’s books, I have now figured out that they are relationship fiction masquerading as mystery/thriller. That doesn’t make them bad; let’s face it, dysfunctional family drama is always engaging (particularly if it reminds you of your own!). But to market them as thrillers is a little over the top, regardless of the shocking ending on this one.
Stephen Aston is a prominent doctor in his 60s, with a wife (Pamela) who is suffering from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, and has within the past year been moved into a care facility. Early in that same year, Stephen and Pamela had hired Heather (an interior designer) to re-imagine their home, but in light of the fact that Pam will now never enjoy it, the plans were changed midstream, and Heather has instead fitted the house out to Stephen’s specifications. In the process of working together, the two fell into a relationship (are they in love? hm), and have decided to marry—once Stephen divorces his wife.
The book opens on the events of that wedding, which promise some major drama—but we quickly cut away to flash back to the recent past.
The main opening scene is a luncheon at which Stephen announces his intentions to his two daughters, Tully and Rachel, who are both of them older than his new fiancée. Needless to say, neither is thrilled by the prospect of having a stepmother their own age, not to mention having this happen while their mom is still alive. At first, the story is focused on the daughters’ speculations about why this woman even wants to marry their dad, who is 30 years older than she is—his money? his social position? but then things take a turn as we learn about the personal issues Tully and Rachel are already dealing with in their own lives, and the picture expands to include all that extra angst.
Some characters were carefully developed—I thought the daughters and their issues were both unique and fascinating—while the author’s revelations about other people were more circumspect, which worked in some instances and not at all in others. (Fiona! don’t be a stranger!) The secrets were interesting, the hints of bigger doings along the way kept me reading, and the reveals and the ending…well, you’ll have to decide for yourself.
But…to call this a thriller seems a little over the top.
I have so far read five books by Sally Hepworth, and my reactions have been mixed. I loved one (The Good Sister), disliked one (The Mother-in-Law), and was a fan (with some reserves) of the other three (this being one). But just to be clear, regardless of how breathless you become at the revelation of the secrets, my contention is that these are relationship fiction, not thrillers or suspense; they just don’t meet the criteria. So read and enjoy them for what they are (except for The Mother-in-Law, which I thought was fairly dreadful, although I am in the minority), but don’t expect them to be more.
I’m not usually an avid reader of thrillers, but after my extremely positive reaction to Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets, I wanted to see if she (and I) could repeat the experience, so I checked out Things We Do In the Dark. And although I didn’t love it quite as much (I liked the set-up and characters in Little Secrets better), it turned out to be a similarly riveting read with some fascinating characters, unexpected twists, and a great ending.
Things look bad for Paris Peralta. She’s been married to a wealthy, successful man more than 30 years her senior for just a few short years, and now he’s dead and she’s been accused of his murder. But as horrifying as this is to Paris (especially since she didn’t do it), it’s not the worst eventuality she is anticipating as a result of all the publicity surrounding Jimmy’s death. Paris has a past full of secrets she doesn’t want exposed, and there is one specific person who knows who she was and what she did. Paris thought she was safe from Ruby Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for committing a murder of her own, 25 years ago, but now Ruby is unexpectedly out of prison early and is all too ready to exploit her knowledge about Paris’s past to get what she wants. And she may not be the only person from back then who is a threat to Paris—having your picture on the cover of every magazine in town when you’re trying to maintain a low profile can be hazardous!
The minute I finished this, I went to the online library to put a hold on the e-book for Hillier’s Jar of Hearts. She has a new fan.