It’s the first day of spring and I was hoping to celebrate with blue skies and plenty of sunshine! But we had to settle for gray and stormy here… at least the birds seem happy. But luckily I have a few books on hand that will help me feel like spring has sprung:
Betty Crocker’s Kitchen Gardens
“You could have a bench in a quiet corner and perhaps a sundial to count the sunny, happy hours or a birdbath to invite its useful visitors.” (page 12)
My efforts in the garden are usually limited to a few flowers, but last year I planted some vegetables… with mixed results. I’m still debating if I’ll give it another shot this year, but in the meantime I do enjoy looking through books like this one. The introduction says that “It is a book for the beginner who has never turned a spade or watched a seedling sprout. It is a book for the experienced gardener whose ‘green thumb’ is itching to try an exciting new project. It is for the lover of herbs who has no more space than a sunny windowsill… or a salad lover with only a small patch of ground beside the kitchen door. It is for everyone, caught up in this fast-paced world, who will take pleasure in growing something fresh and fragrant and flavorful to enjoy, just moments from picking, at the family table. Or, by preserving, to stretch out the golden summer throughout the year.”
There is an extra-special touch to this book as well… some beautiful illustrations by Tasha Tudor!
Betty Crocker’s Kitchen Gardens
Published by Universal Publishing and Distributing (1971)
Village Diary by Miss Read
“The return of the flowers and young greenery is a perennial miracle and wonder. The children have brought treasures from hedge, garden and spinney; and coltsfoot and crocus, violet and viburnum, primrose and pansy deck our classroom, all breathing out a faint but heady perfume of spring-time.” (page 76)
Really any book by Miss Read would have been good for this list, but Village Diary is my favorite so far. She brings out the joy and beauty of nature in her writing in a way that makes me want to learn more about the flowers and plants in my own surroundings.
“The enchanting follow-up to Village School, Miss Read’s beloved first novel, Village Diary once again transports us to the picturesque English village of Fairacre. Each chapter describes a month in the life of the village school’s headmistress, Miss Read. As the villagers prepare for their country pageant, Fairacre welcomes many newcomers, such as the headstrong Amy, Mr. Mawne (whom the villagers would like to see the reluctant Miss Read marry), and the earnest new infants’ teacher, Miss Jackson.”
Village Diary by Miss Read
Published by Houghton Mifflin (2007)
Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell
“It was their color that bowled him over. There never was such a blue and there never would be.” (page 16)
I seem to be gravitating more to slow, gentle reads lately and this is certainly one of them. There are quite a few wonderful moments (the part about the wild strawberries is one of my favorites) but I found it a bit sad in parts too. Time marches steadily through this book and the changes left in its wake are a little hard for Bert Pinnegar to adjust to.
“Old Herbaceous is a classic British novel of the garden, with a title character as outsized and unforgettable as P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal butler, Jeeves. Born at the dusk of the Victorian era, Bert Pinnegar, an awkward orphan child with one leg a tad longer than the other, rises from inauspicious schoolboy days spent picking wildflowers and dodging angry farmers to become the legendary head gardener “Old Herbaceous,” the most esteemed flower-show judge in the county and a famed horticultural wizard capable of producing dazzling April strawberries from the greenhouse and the exact morning glories his Lady spies on the French Riviera, “so blue, so blue it positively hurts.” Sprinkled with nuggets of gardening wisdom, Old Herbaceous is a witty comic portrait of the most archetypal—and crotchety—head gardener ever to plant a row of bulbs at a British country house.”
Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell
Published by Modern Library (2003)
Between The Woods And The Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
“Spring had begun as at a starter’s pistol. Bird song had broken out in a frenzy, a fever of building had set in, and, overnight, swallows and swifts were skimming everywhere.” (page 20)
This second book in his trilogy opens in Hungary at the beginning of spring. He can get a bit descriptive at times, going on for a few pages about whatever subject has captured his attention, but it’s one of things I love about his writing. And like Miss Read, he has a unique way about describing nature.
“When readers begin Patrick Leigh Fermor’s enthralling account of what has been called ‘the longest gap year in history’, they have little idea that even a third of his odyssey will prove so satisfying a read. But the delights of Between the Woods and the Water, the next third – picking up from the very spot on a bridge crossing the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary where the reader left him – prove more glorious still. It is a literary masterpiece and satisfying journey in its own right.”
Between The Woods And The Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Published by John Murray (2004)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
“Oh! the things which happened in that garden! If you have never had a garden you cannot understand, and if you have had a garden you will know that it would take a whole book to describe all that came to pass there.” (pages 234-235)
Of course, The Secret Garden had to have a place in this list. My copy, falling apart from years of use, features some more of Tasha Tudor’s illustrations.
“There are few books that have touched so deeply the generations of readers as has Frances Hodgson Burnett’s immortal classic. Its special magic is best explained by the book itself: ‘It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place anyone could imagine. The high walls which shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of roses which were so thick that they matted together… No wonder it’s still, Mary whispered, I am the first person who has spoken in here for ten years.”
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Published by Yearling
I was browsing through the book section of Amazon and I stumbled across The Little Village School by Gervase Phinn. Like so often is the case, it was the cover that caught my eye and from the description it sounded like something I would enjoy. But what really sealed the deal for me was several of the reviewers were comparing it to Miss Read’s books. I knew I had to give it a try! And I am certainly glad I did… I loved it and couldn’t wait to read the next book in the series, Trouble at the Little Village School:
“Elisabeth Devine certainly rocked the boat when she arrived in Barton-in-the-Dale to take over as head teacher of the little primary school. Now it’s a new term, and after winning over the wary locals, she can finally settle in to her role. Or so she thinks . . .
For the school is hit by a brand-new bombshell: it’s to be merged with its arch rival, and Elisabeth has to fight for the headship with Urebank’s ruthless and calculating headmaster. She has her work cut out for her.
But add in some gossip and a helping of scandal, not to mention various newcomers bringing good things and bad to Barton, and that’s not the only trouble that’s brewing in the village.”
I enjoyed this one every bit as much as the first and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series!
Trouble at the Little Village School by Gervase Phinn
Published by Hodder (2013)
We had quite the stormy start to the weekend and the wind howling outside provided the perfect backdrop to Miss Read’s The Fairacre Festival.
“The first day of October brings an unheralded and violent storm, which whips through Fairacre, blowing down trees and telephone poles — and, worst of all, damaging the roof of St. Patrick’s Church. The inhabitants of tiny Fairacre can’t imagine how they will be able to afford the repairs, until Mr. Willett suggests a fundraising festival. Preparations for a food sale, a concert, a school play, and a gigantic Christmas bazaar are soon made — but will they be enough? With her customary humor and grace, Miss Read recounts a story of catastrophe and courage.”
This is the 6th book, and shortest so far, in her Fairacre series. It didn’t take long to finish (the storm lasted longer than it did) but I really enjoyed it! Her writing style is so beautiful and descriptive that it is easy to picture the little village of Fairacre. I only discovered this series a couple of years ago and it didn’t take long for Miss Read to become my favorite author!
The Fairacre Festival by Miss Read
Published by Houghton Mifflin (2007), 103 pages
Like I’ve said many times before, I’m always on the lookout for another good mystery series to read. I know a lot of you are too, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones with you and hopefully a few of them will be a good match to what you’re looking for!
“It’s a great era to write about. So much crime. The last witch was burned in England in the early 18th century. Yet the beginnings of modern times are right there, too.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
I’ll start with one of the first mystery series I read from beginning to end: the Sir John Fielding mysteries by Bruce Alexander (the pseudonym of Bruce Cook). This is a historical mystery series set in the late 1700’s that features Sir John Fielding, the real-life, blind magistrate of Bow Street Court.
“I was just reading around in a book called A House in Bow Street, a history of the Bow Street Runners, by Anthony Babington, published in the UK, when I first met with Sir John Fielding, this great, great character, and wondered why nobody had done anything about him. This was about 1976 or 77. And nobody had!” – Bruce Alexander (1)
The books are narrated by Jeremy Proctor, a fictional character, who serves as Sir John’s assistant throughout the series. They are told as something of a memoir, as Jeremy is looking back at his adventures with Sir John Fielding after his mentor has died. In the first book, Blind Justice, he recounts his initial meeting with Sir John when he was brought before the Bow Street Court as an accused thief… wrongly accused of course. Sir John wasn’t fooled by the false accusation though and quickly worked out the truth of the matter. And because Jeremy was a newly-orphaned thirteen-year-old in London for the first time, he decided to temporarily make Jeremy a ward of the court. Jeremy’s father had been a printer and had trained Jeremy in the trade so Sir John decided that he should be apprenticed to a printer to finish his training. A meeting with Dr. Johnson to help set up the apprenticeship is interrupted though with news of the death of a prominent figure and their first case together is underway.
The use of a young, inexperienced side-kick is particularly well suited to historical detection; much historical information can be presented to the modern reader as the detective explains his reasoning to the perplexed assistant. Jeremy, a naive teenager from Leichfield, is somewhat of an outsider to everyday life in London, thus allowing the author to introduce the conventions of the age. (2)
As they wrapped up the murder investigation, where he proved that he could be quite useful, Jeremy hoped that Sir John would have changed his mind about the apprenticeship. But Sir John still feels that is the best decision and the second book in the series, Murder In Grub Street, opens with what is supposed to be Jeremy’s first day on the job. But fate, and murder, intervene once again.
As the series continues on with many more exciting mysteries to solve, Jeremy, now firmly established as a part of Sir John’s household, quickly begins to mature into a very capable assistant.
“And I would say I have an obligation, to the reader and to Jeremy himself, to bring him up through adolescence and so on. That’s why I spend so much time on his crushes. He becomes involved, mostly in his fantasy life, with a young prostitute. He’s an adolescent boy. He lived in one of the wildest, smallest parts of London. I’ve tried to make him develop normally, truthfully.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
The last book in the series, Rules Of Engagement, was left unfinished by Bruce Alexander at his death in 2003. His widow Judith Aller and John Shannon worked together to finish it and it was published in 2005.
I’ve read a lot of other series since I first discovered this one, but it still remains one of my favorites. One of the most important things about a book to me is that it has unique, memorable characters and this series certainly does. The fictional characters are well-thought-out and the addition of real-life people adds a lot to the stories. And while I haven’t read many books set in this time period, it seems to be pretty accurate to how life was then.
Historical accuracy in characterization is another important element in this series. Using a real historical personage as a detective is common in historical mysteries. Alexander is thoroughly versed in the minutiae of Sir John Fielding’s life and displays that knowledge for the benefit of the reader. (2)
“Well, I have said that he was a good man in a bad time, and he was that. He was knighted for his social plans and for his work with the Bow Street Runners and so on…
I couldn’t tell you what Sir John Fielding was really like; but I suppose I’ve been inspired somewhat by Samuel Johnson. He’s a little less haughty than Samuel Johnson, but I would say he’s just as given to controversy. And doesn’t duck a good controversy.” – Bruce Alexander (1)
If you’ve read The Sir John Fielding books I’d love to know what you thought about them. And if you’d like to check out another series that features the Bow Street Runners then pick up T.F. Banks Memoirs of A Bow Street Runner series that’s set in the early 1800’s. The Thief Taker was published in 2001 and The Emperor’s Assassin in 2003.
1. “Cook’s Tour Of The Past” an interview of Bruce Cook for January Magazine (1999) written by Tom Nolan
2. The Detective as Historian: History and Art in Historical Crime Fiction edited by Ray B. Browne and Lawrence A. Kreiser, Jr.
Bruce Alexander article written by Donna Bradshaw Smith. Published by University of Wisconsin Press (2013). Pages 176 & 178
The stack of books I have yet to read is taller than I am but that hasn’t dissuaded me from looking for others others to add to it. Especially when it comes to mysteries. I was browsing through some upcoming releases on Amazon the other day and this one caught my attention:
A mystery that involves books or the book industry is something I will definitely check out but I’ve not read too many that focus on a library. It sounds interesting! Here’s what it is about:
This first book in an irresistible new series introduces librarian and reluctant sleuth Raymond Ambler, a doggedly curious fellow who uncovers murderous secrets hidden behind the majestic marble façade of New York City’s landmark 42nd Street Library.
Murder at the 42nd Street Library follows Ambler and his partners in crime-solving as they track down a killer, shining a light on the dark deeds and secret relationships that are hidden deep inside the famous flagship building at the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
In their search for the reasons behind the murder, Ambler and his crew uncover sinister, and profoundly disturbing, relationships among the scholars studying in the iconic library. Included among the players are a celebrated mystery writer who has donated his papers to the library’s crime fiction collection; that writer’s long-missing daughter, a prominent New York society woman with a hidden past, and more than one of Ambler’s colleagues at the library. Shocking revelations lead inexorably to the traumatic events that follow―the reading room will never be the same. (Amazon)
Murder at the 42nd Street Library by Con Lehane will be released on April 26th.
Other Books By Con Lehane: Beware The Solitary Drinker, Death At The Old Hotel, What Goes Around Comes Around
Stop The Presses! is Robert Goldsborough’s latest addition to the Nero Wolfe series and I was eagerly counting the days till its release last week.
Here’s what it’s about:
Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are tasked with protecting the most hated columnist in New York City.
There are few people Nero Wolfe respects, and Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette is one of them. So when Cohen asks for a favor, the famously brilliant—and notoriously lazy—detective is inclined to listen. According to Cohen, someone wants to kill the Gazette’s gossip columnist, Cameron Clay. Death threats are a regular hazard for Clay, who’s hurled insults and accusations at every bold-faced name in the five boroughs. But the latest threats have carried a more sinister tone.
The columnist has narrowed his potential killers down to five people: an egomaniacal developer, a disgraced cop, a corrupt councilman, a sleazy lawyer, and his ex-wife. But when Clay turns up dead, the cops deem it a suicide. The bigwigs at the Gazette don’t agree, so they retain Wolfe and his indefatigable assistant, Archie Goodwin, to figure out which of the suspects had the mettle to pull the trigger.
I finished this in about three days and really enjoyed the trip back into Nero Wolfe’s world. But I’d have to say this is probably my least favorite of his Wolfe books. I had a hard time staying interested in the mystery and I think it was the middle part of the book that did it to me. It was pretty repetitive: Archie would find a way to get one of the suspects to come to the brownstone, Wolfe would question them (after they were supplied with their favorite drink), the suspect left and Archie asked Wolfe what he thought about them… the same thing happened with all five suspects. And I know in an investigation that’s probably how it would actually happen but a little bit of variety would have helped.
For some reason, Fritz and Lily both bothered me in this as well. They seemed a little off from the original books… but it could just be me remembering them wrong.
With that being said, I loved the ending! It was different and I really didn’t expect it. And as I was still smiling from the big reveal in the office, we got another great part with Inspector Cramer and Wolfe at the end. That may just be one of my favorite parts between the two of them from any of the books, Stout’s included. (It’s scenes like this that really make me miss the A&E Nero Wolfe TV series. They would have done a great job with it!)
I started re-reading the Nero Wolfe series last year but I only made it up to The Red Box. I’ll have to get back at it and hopefully we’ll have another book to look forward to from Robert Goldsborough. Despite the issues I had with parts of Stop The Presses! it’s far outweighed by how much I enjoy getting new cases for some of my favorite characters to solve.
If you’ve read Stop The Presses! or any other of Goldsborough’s Nero Wolfe books I’d love to know what you thought about them!
This Edition: Paperback published by Mysterious Press/Open Road Integrated Media (2016)
Other Nero Wolfe books by Robert Goldsborough: Murder In E Minor, Death On A Deadline, The Bloodied Ivy, The Last Coincidence, Fade To Black, Silver Spire, The Missing Chapter, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, Murder In The Ball Park, Archie In The Crosshairs