February was a wonderful month to curl up with a book and I curled up with a few good ones! The seven books I read took me from the France of Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher to the village of Three Pines in Quebec; from the Illinois midwest to the cathedral town of Lafferton in the UK; the from wealthy homes of Paris to the farmland of Norfolk, and from war-torn London to England's Kent counry side. February's reads were well worth the time.
"Provence, 1970" by Luke Barr
If you have ever imagined what it might be like to celebrate the holidays in Provence with Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard and Richard Olney, among others, then you will find this book fascinating. Written by Fisher's great-nephew with extreme documentation from her private journals, as well as letters and papers from Child, Olney and more, "Provence, 1970" follows about two months in the lives of these renowned writers and cookbook authors/chefs as they converged in the south of France for the holiday.
It was a period that would mark great change in the careers of these Americans who brought the concepts of French cooking back home. Child, having just wrapped up "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" with Simone Beck (with who she was having numerous disagreements in style) was ready to launch out with more domestic and international cuisine. Beard was prepping his book on American food that ranged from the more elegant to Sloppy Joes. Olney, too, had a cookbook on high French cuisine with the focus on local ingredients. And for years, Fisher had written about her love affair with France. It was this journey that changed her focus.
Understandably, the heart of this book is Barr's great-aunt, Fisher. But through her eyes and journals he attends a family style Christmas Eve with the Childs, editor Judith Evans and her husband, Fisher and her hosts, Sybille Bedford and Eda Lord. Bedford, Lord and Fisher are also feted with an extravagant French meal by Olney and they all attend a gala French New Year's Eve hosted by Beck. Always a remarkable and observant writer, Fisher's notes on her friends alone make the book a gem.
"The Madness of Crowds" by Louise Penny
Canadian author Louise Penny has a problem. She cannot write fast enough to satisfy her readers' hunger for more stories from the Quebec village of Three Pines where Armand Gamache has moved with his wife, Reine-Marie. In "The Madness of Crowds" we find him celebrating the winter holidays in a the post-pandemic town when he is called upon to provide security for a Abigail Robinson, guest lecturer, whose rising popularity centers around a controversial topic.
Her thesis is that the world would be better economically and in terms of mental health without the aged and infirm or handicapped children. Her proposed state-enforced euthanasia is attracting a large number of both followers and detractors. When they descend on Three Pines and an assassination attempt is made, Gamache finds that his family holiday is disrupted by an investigation.
And, it is quite likely that one of the Three Pines natives may be the murderer.
As always, Penny's clearly defined characters help make her mysteries all the more enjoyable, and -- as always -- the mysteries are well conceived and clever. There is no shortage of suspects, there are red herrings and (also, as always) tricky personal relationships. Everyone, it seems, has a vested interest in Abigail Robinson's theory.
Oh, if they could all write so well as Louise Penny. And if only Three Pines were a real place! (Recommended to read this series in order to fully understand the characters and their personal dynamics, although the mystery itself is self-contained.)
"Lost" by Richard Lassin
Full disclosure: Author Richard Lassin is a friend of mine and more than once I've had the pleasure of proofreading his novels. I have read "Lost" before (2014) but he has since tightened it up and it is a stronger book than before.
Stuart O'Hare, Chief of Police in Lansing, Michigan, has traveled to DeKalb Illinois for a family wedding. Before he has even settled into his room at the hotel, he finds himself talking down a teen named Marcus who, distressed at the disappearance of his sister, is threatening to jump from the hotel's roof. After safely saving the boy, he meets Marcus' other sister and decides to look into what may have happened to the vanished sister, Leanne. He calls on two friends -- a lawyer and a retired U.S. Marshall -- to help him in his quest. Their investigation will lead them to a shocking plot at the highest levels of world power.
Meanwhile, at the wedding, he is surprised to encounter his ex-wife, Marilyn, with whom he is still in love. He soon learns that she has stage four breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, setting into motion a barrage of thoughts and feelings about the past.
"Lost" focuses almost equally on two plot threads -- O'Hare's relationship with Marilyn and his journey through grief, and the investigation. I will say right here that my taste in mystery leans more toward Midsomer Murders and less toward James Bond and I couldn't relate to all the more action-oriented scenes and dialogue in the book. It struck me as far fetched, until I happened to catch part of what Rick calls a "red neck romper stomper" movie on TV and thought, "Well, he might have it right."
What he did have very right from my perspective was the relationship between O'Hare, Marilyn, and their daughter, Roz and the deep journey of the soul as he grapples with loss. While it isn't all "my" kind of book, I confess, I was turning the pages on those action segments, even though I had a vague recollection of the end. I just had to find out if I was right and I was glad I did.
The Benefit of Hindsight by Susan Hill
Fans of Hill's Simon Serrailler series will find the character facing the emotional demons of his past cases in this second-to-most-recent book in the series. A burglary in the small cathedral town of Lafferton has police concerned. The town has been quiet in general and DI Serrailler, having just returned from holiday, decides to block out the media, hoping the culprits will try again and be caught. But when they do, the burglars leave in their wake the badly beaten body of the town's great philanthropist who has witnessed the murder of his wife.
As Serrailler and his team work on the case, the parallel plots focus on his non-work life. He is facing a series of panic attacks, presumably PTSD from an earlier case that caused him to lose his arm. His sister, Cat, a doctor now in private practice, has found a troubling case of her own. And then, there is an incident with the siblings' father, with whom relationships are challenged.
This might be one of my favorites in the series. The plots are solid, the professional and emotional dilemmas very real and, as always, the connection between the central characters powerful. This is a series I'd recommend starting from the beginning, although the mysteries themselves are self-contained. (Recommended to read in order.)
"Maigret Hesitates" by Georges Simenon
I love the Maigret mysteries. They're usually very interesting, fairly short, so a fast read, and puzzling enough that I don't figure things out before Inspector Maigret does.
"Maigret Hesitates" finds the inspector receiving an anonymous letter with the anonymous writer's concern that a murder may be committed. With little to go on, he tracks down the elegant paper on which the letter was written and finds that it came from the home of a wealthy lawyer, leading him to begin a quiet investigation. Which of the members of this dysfunctional household and work place could have written the letter? And would a murder take place? Or was it simply a hoax?
There are numerous possibilities: the shy, withdrawn lawyer, his cold wife; his son or daughter; the secretary; the two young men who work for him or perhaps the servants? When the murder itself does happen, one suspect is eliminated, but who committed the crime? (Reading in order doesn't seem to matter with the Simenon books.)
"Under Violent Skies" by Judi Daykin
The first book in this mystery series featuring DS Sara Hirst is set in Norfolk and finds Hirst on her first day of the job in the Norfolk police department. A transplant from London and part Jamaican, she finds her transition isn't an easy one, as regionalism and racism are both prevalent in the area. She also learns that her boss' first choice for the job is her new colleague, Elly, who had just recently passed her sergeant's exam.
But Sara has two reasons for wanting to work in Norfolk. It is a change of pace for her London life but more significantly, she hopes to find her birth father who once worked for the Norfolk police. She finds him earlier than she expected when she stumbles on him when tripping into a ditch as she and her colleagues investigate the death of a man found brutally murdered in the Norfolk countryside.
Concealing the relationship, of which she still is unsure, Sara's work world revolves around two cases -- the identity of the murdered man, and a series of thefts of farm equipment from the rural countryside. Seasonal workers and sex trafficking play into the plot. While it's not as "gripping" initially as the cover art teases (I took a break half through and read another book; I don't do that with "gripping,") it still delivered quite a punch in the end. I have two other Hirst books by Daykin in my bookstack. I will be reading them.
"The Consequences of Fear" by Jacqueline Winspear
If I was forced to cull my library and could only keep one or two full series of favorite books, one would be the Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny. The other would be the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. This edition finds our private investigator in the later months of 1941 London, doing work for the government as she helps evaluate candidates for overseas Resistance work while handling her own detective business.
Her own case is quite a different one. The "client" is a young boy who serves as a "runner" for the government, passing secret messages from one division to another in bomb-ridden London. On one evening, he witnesses a brutal murder that doesn't seem to be taken seriously. So, he asks Maisie, with whom he had a previous encounter, for help.
As Masie and her assistant Billy work the case, she discovers that the two issues -- the murder and her war work -- may be more closely aligned than expected.
Set against the backgrounds of war-torn London and Masie's country home in the more bucolic area of Kent where her father, stepmother and daughter live, "The Consequences of Fear" is a worthy entry into the Masie Dobbs chronicles. And, as always, Winspear leaves the reader anticipating what will happen in the next book. (Recommended to read in order)
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