Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mystery Afoot: The Evil Shepherd and The Clue

A friend recently introduced me to Early Bird Books which sends e-book deals to my inbox. Every day there is a free book offered along with the ones for sale at reasonable prices ($.99 to $2.99). I like Free and since I signed up there has been a spate of older, much older, mysteries published by Mysterious Press. Mysterious Press was founded in 1975 by Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, purveyor of crime, espionage, thriller, and suspense novels.

As I like to read a quiet mystery, these selections have proven to be perfect for my bedtime reading.




The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim is the story of successful defense attorney, Francis Ledsam, who, in having just gotten his client set free of a murder charge, learns that the man really was guilty. Not only of murder but other crimes as well. And who is it that offers this piece of news? None other than the guilty man's wife. Realizing that his cleverness has let a despicable man go free, Ledsam vows not to take any other cases unless he is sure of the client's innocence. 

Things move on from there as Ledsam becomes involved with the wife and her father, Sir Timothy, who owns a mansion outside of London where all sorts of wild parties take place creating even wilder gossip about such parties. Sir Timothy is a very complicated fellow with a soft spot for animals even as he enjoys ruthless boxing matches. A very unusual character.

The Evil Shepherd was published in 1922 and is one of over 100 books written by Mr. Oppenheim. The characters are interesting and mostly wealthy and hold clever conversations about good and evil. I enjoyed the story, although I had no idea where it was headed, and was surprised at the ending. 



The Clue by Carolyn Wells was published in 1909. The crime involves the murder of wealthy heiress Madeleine Van Norman on the eve of her wedding. It is the book that introduced detective Fleming Stone who is "of a most attractive personality. He was nearly fifty years old, with graying hair and a kindly, responsive face." Since Mr. Stone doesn't actually arrive until the very end of the tale to solve the crime, most of the detective work is done by Rob Fessenden, lawyer and best man to the groom (and prominent suspect) Schuyler Carleton. Fessenden is helped in his sleuthing by Madeleine's friend the attractive and clever Kitty French. 

In addition to Mr. Carleton there are plenty of other suspects and although this locked-house mystery moves along at a leisurely pace, I enjoyed spending time with the house guests and watching a little romance bloom between Fessenden and French.

Ms. Wells wrote more than 150 books - mysteries as well as children's books and poetry. She was influenced by the mystery writer Anna Katherine Green (I wrote about her here) and after reading one of her puzzlers, decided to devote herself to mystery writing. 

Two others that I downloaded but have not yet read are The Singing Bone (1912) by R. Austin Freeman, a series of short stories or cases about what must have been the first CSI-style detective, Dr. Thorndyke, and Call Mr. Fortune (1920) by H.C. Bailey featuring medical detective Dr. Reggie Fortune, a character that has been compared to a darker Lord Peter Wimsey.

All these mysteries are available for free at various sites online. I am sure none of them will leave you breathless from excitement which makes them the perfect sleepy-time read.  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing, written by the Japanese home-organization consultant Marie Kondo, is my latest venture into finding the perfect way to get and stay organized.  


I love that what she calls tidying up is really tossing your stuff  in one fell swoop - in three to six months. Warrior style: Dramatic and quick. No ongoing battle with your clutter. She advises going through your stuff by category and in order - first clothing, then books, papers, komono or miscellaneous items, and finally sentimental items and photos. It is not so much deciding what to get rid of, but knowing what you want to keep. What brings you joy. By the time you have picked up and touched your every possession and kept only those that 'spark joy' you will have successfully cleared your home of items that have outlived their purpose and you will be living only with those items that you cherish.


Once tidied to the hilt, lessons follow on how to handle what is left: on folding your clothes, storing your handbags, streamlining your bath products, keeping kitchen counters clear, and designating a spot for every possession.


About books:

She advocates pulling them all from the shelves, table tops, chairs, bedsides and counters and piling them all in the floor. If you have a large library, you can sort them into categories if you like - pleasure, practical, pictorial. Once the books are all in one place, pick up each one individually. Wait for that "thrill of pleasure when you touch a book" and if it doesn't come, the book doesn't get to stay. 

As to books that are hanging about because you are going to read them again, she says that most likely you won't.  And the books you have bought and intend to read? Well, here is her take on those:


It is not uncommon for people to purchase a book and then buy another one not long after, before they have read the first one. Unread books accumulate. The problem with books that we intend to read sometime is that they are far harder to part with than ones we have already read. 


Ah! The blessing and the curse for book lovers.


Ms. Kondo also suggests we talk to our things. At the end of the day, we should thank our shoes for protecting and supporting our feet, our coat for keeping us warm, our purse for allowing us to carry our daily items. I am not sure I would go that far, but I can appreciate her point. 


The text is a translation so the writing seems a little choppy in places and quite often repetitious. And the word for letters and envelopes - stationEry - is consistently spelled stationAry. That irritated me.


I was also surprised at the author's claims that clients have thrown out in one day hundreds of books and 45 bags of stuff. I always think of Japanese living spaces as being crowded and compact and am amazed that there would be that much to throw away.


Tidying Up is a small book and quickly read and you might just glean a few tips for your own struggles with Stuff.  Just be sure to thank it for its enlightenment and give it away when you finish reading it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

In Which I Begin the New Year


I like to ease into my day with a cup of coffee and more than a few minutes of reading. I try to carefully chose these early morning books. This year I pulled off my shelf The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. I used this as a morning reading years ago, but since reading Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own (here) my interest in diaries and diarists has once again been piqued. The Assassin's Cloak gathers three or four entries from diaries corresponding to each day of the year.  I love reading these random entries from the past. This morning there was an entry from 1849, a couple from the 1930s and 1940s, and one from 1970. I never know who is going to show up. Samuel Pepys? May Sarton? James Boswell? Dorothy Wordsworth?

No mention of Elvis's 80th birthday today, though.


I also will be reading through a book I bought last April when I was in New Harmony, Indiana, entitled Daily Wisdom: 365 Buddhist Inspirations edited by Josh Bartok. Since I began the book in April last year I still have wisdom from the first months of the year to savor. 


Here is today's from Bhante Henepola Gunaratana:

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you.

For a little more early morning inspiration, I am reading a chapter-a-day in Creating a Charmed Life by Victoria Moran and 30 Days to a Simpler Life by Connie Cox and Cris Evatt. These each contain short essays and won't take all year to get through so I will come up with others to round out the year.


For my evening mystery, I stumbled on The Evil Shepherd by E. Phillips Oppenheim which was published in 1922 and was offered as a free e-book by Early Bird Books. It is really more of a thriller and is quite entertaining. Mr. Oppenheim was quite prolific and penned over one hundred novels and many short stories. 


And, because I am always on the lookout for tips on simplifying and systematizing, I picked up a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up written by the Japanese home-organization consultant Marie Kondo. She advocates discarding and organizing your entire home in one fell swoop - perhaps in three to six months - instead of tackling one room at a time or one drawer at a time which means you are constantly working against clutter. Do it once, do it right. But more on this book another day.


I am quite happy with my morning choices. Do you have any books in particular that you are starting your day with this year? If so, I would love to hear about them.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

By The Numbers and a Few Awards



This may be a boring way to begin the New Year, but I wanted to get the numbers down for the books I read in 2014.

Total books: 105

Fiction: 9
Mysteries: 42
Children/young adult: 4

Nonfiction: 16
Essays: 6
On art or writing: 8
On simplifying/home care/self care: 12
Humor: 4
Biography: 1
Memoir: 3

Author events/signings attended: 4

Of the 105 books read, 46 were read as e-books from my library. They account for almost all of the mysteries. Last year I read 99 books but for some reason didn't take the time to sort the titles. 

Although I posted (here) the books that guided me this past year, here are a few awards for 2014:


Favorite Book That Was a Reread:
A tie between 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and 
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Most Mysteries Read by One Author:
Seven by Peter Lovesey

Best Binge:
In just weeks I read seven books by Alain de Botton

Strangest Book:
A Rebours (Against Nature) by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Best Take on the British Upper Class:
Snobs by Julian Fellowes

Handsomest Authors I Met This Year:
The Minimalists
Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus
Everything That Remains

Number of Books I Said I Would Read That Are Still on the Shelf:
Countless


I look forward to finding out what I will read in 2015!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Oh, Christmas Tree



I posted this original poem last Christmas 
and yet, I am sharing it with you again. 
Hope your holidays have been twinkly and jingly.


That Christmas Thing

I've spent sober Christmases
and ones so drunk I danced with the tree.
I've spent joyous Christmases
and ones so sad I sobbed by the tree.

I've spent extravagant Christmases
and ones so poor I didn't even have a tree.
I've spent family-and-friend Christmases
and ones so alone I named the tree.

I've spent warm California by-the-pool Christmases
and ones so cold I plucked icicles from the tree.
I've spent hale and hearty Christmases
and ones so sick I threw up under the tree.

I've spent loud, rambunctious Christmases 
and ones so quiet I listened to the tree.
And, this Christmas, in her honor and with love,
I promise to plant a tree.

---Belle
December 1993

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In Which I Take a Look at the Books That Guided Me Through 2014



This is the time of year when book bloggers and magazines and newspapers are touting their Best Of lists. I, however, am going to take a different slant on my reading for the year 2014.  

Here you have Belle's Book Guide, a look at a few books that especially entertained and guided me through the year.

To begin with, for a total education I could have just read and re-read two books: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel which covers everything from literature to history to art, and, yes, a few travel destinations along the way, and The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel which offers shelves full of architecture, histories of private and public libraries and their patrons, lost books, burned books, and a community of international authors.


Here are other BOOKS that made up my reading list this year and what they brought to my life:

Beauty: The Southerner's Handbook celebrates the beauty of what makes Southerners Southern and gave me insights into my own below-the-Mason-Dixon line heritage. These were well-written essays collected by the editors of Garden and Gun magazine on everything from sweet tea and barbecue to the Great Southern Novel and the Art of Wearing Pearls.

Anytime I read one of Peter Mayle's novels set in France - this year it was Chasing Cezanne - I know I am in for a sensory extravaganza. He not only paints for me the landscape and architecture of the region but also the glories of food and drink and the pleasures of the table. Delicious.

Observation: Reading books such as Delight by J.B. Priestly and A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon remind me to slow down and take a good look at everyday pleasures and to be mindful of recording them in my own journal. Also, dipping into the wacky worlds of  Dave Barry (You Can Date When You're Forty) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods) and reading their close observations and experiments with life keep me from taking things too seriously.

In Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, I observed a writer at work and also felt as if I had spent time with and gotten to know a new friend. Her look at her own writing practice with its perils and pleasures is a must-read for anyone looking to jump start her creative life. 

Obfuscation: Of the over one hundred books I read this year more than 40 of them were mysteries/suspense/thriller novels. I do love a puzzle. These were books ranging from the old school Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library to the new school world of Tim Hallinan's witty burglar Junior Bender. It takes a clever author to hide clues in plain sight and yet keep me guessing.

Kindness: Unlike the murder and mayhem found in the books above, kindness and good spirits abound in The All-Girls' Filling Station Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg; the ever delightful 84,
Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff; and, my favorite of the year, The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink. In each of these books the kindnesses of strangers and the affection of the characters for each other (including dogs and blue jays) encourage one to just Be Kind.

Simplicity, Solitude, Silence: There are a dearth of books telling me how to pack more into and organize every nanosecond of my days. I, however, prefer to live a life with broad margins. I aim to leave time between activities - whether chores and errands or the more contemplative ones of painting and writing. Here are the books that inspired me this past year: Shelter for the Spirit by Victoria Moran; two by Elaine St. James, Simplify Your Life and Living the Simple Life; and the first two 'shells' (her chapters on solitude and simplicity) in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea.

For the complete list (to date) of my shelf full of books for 2014, browse here.

Now, what books guided you through the year?


Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman


Dorothy Gilman is the author of the Mrs. Pollifax series. Mrs. Pollifax is a spunky woman, who in her sixties, becomes a spy for the CIA. An avid traveler herself, Ms. Gilman sent her undaunted female agent all around the world: Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Switzerland.

Mrs. Pollifax's first adventure, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, was made into a film starring Rosiland Russell. After the first book, Ms. Gilman assigned her spy heroine thirteen more missions.

I recently came upon and read two of her stand-alone mysteries, The Clairvoyant Countess and A Nun in the Closet

In the first, psychic Madame Karitska teams up with Detective Luden in a large city (which I took to be New York) and solves not just one but a few baffling crimes and murders. This is more a series of short stories than a novel starring The Countess who uses her psychic abilities, powers of observation, and common sense to sort out the criminals and their wicked ways. Although Detective Luden is skeptical at first, he comes to appreciate Madame's gift and the two become friends. I liked the characters and Ms.Gilman uses the novel to explore the areas of predicting the future, mind reading, and communicating with the dead. Madame Karitska is on the level and this excursion into her world (written in 1975) was quite entertaining.



In A Nun in the Closet, also published in 1975, we have the story of a small convent that is willed a big old house and some property. Two of the nuns, the practical Sister John and the fey Sister Hyacinthe (who knows her herbs and weeds), take off in a borrowed van to inspect the convent's inheritance. What they find is more than they bargained for: a house that seems to be haunted; a suitcase full of money hidden in the garden well; a town run by a nasty sheriff; gangsters; a nearby camp of helpful hippies; and, a group of migrant workers. 

Not to mention the man with a gunshot wound holed up on the second floor of the house. Because he asks for sanctuary and they cannot refuse him, the two sisters decide he must become Sister Ursula and dress him in a habit to avoid detection. 

Quite out of the self-contained world at the convent. 

Ms. Gillman gets to show off her knowledge of medicinal herbs and other wild plants and really lets the Sisters have a great time and gives them a bit of a worldly education as well.

Both books are easy to read and filled with humor. Reading them has put me in the mood to make the acquaintance of Ms. Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax, spy.