Friday Book Whimsy: Top Five of 2020

Like many others, I did a lot of reading in 2020. I would find my interests going back and forth. Sometimes I would feel like a murder mystery. Sometimes a ghost story appealed to me. I read many good books and a couple of duds. After careful thought, here is a list of my five favorite books of this past year.

The Thursday Murder Club This quirky novel by Richard Osman is the story of a group of senior citizens living in a retirement community who help the police solve a murder. Wonderful characters that I hope return as a series.

Blacktop Wasteland S.A. Cosby’s book, touted as a thriller, is so much more. Beauregard Montage is a black man who is trying to make it outside of his former criminal career. The book is a great example of the problem poor people, and especially poor Black people, often face under difficult circumstances.

One for the Blackbird, One for the Crow I think Olivia Hawker’s book about two women in the mid-1880s in rural Wyoming was my very favorite of the year. I loved the rural setting and reading about how these two women managed to keep their families safe and fed during difficult times. More than that, however, it was about forging friendships and letting go of anger.

Daisy Jones & the Six This novel, written by Taylor Jenkins Reid, reads like an oral biography. The format is so unique and so realistic that I found myself googling to determine if the band actually existed. It didn’t, though I’m sure it models other bands that were popular in the 1970s. I was worried that the format might throw me, but I ended up loving the book very much.

The Book of Longings Sue Kidd Monk writes a novel about the human life of Jesus and those who loved him. The emphasis, however, is not on Jesus, but on his wife Ana. Obviously the author takes great liberty in telling this story, but she tells the story very well. I was left with a much clearer appreciation of the difficult role of women in ancient times. Well written and very interesting.

I’m looking forward to some good offerings in 2021.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Christmas Train

I know, I know. Christmas is over. Even being generous of spirit, it’s about the 24th Day of Christmas and my true love isn’t giving me anything. Wait until next year. Still, I feel the Christmas spirit in my heart, and my heart led me to read one last Christmas novel. My heart along with the library, which finally offered me the book I had on hold all season long. Despite it being mid-January, I couldn’t possibly have enjoyed The Christmas Train, by prolific writer David Baldacci, any more than I did.

Burnt-out journalist Tom Langdon wants to get from his home in Washington, D.C., to his girlfriend in Los Angeles for Christmas. Circumstances prevent him from flying. He decides to take Amtrak instead, and to document his experiences in train travel at Christmas. In the way that Christmas novels go, he runs into an old girlfriend — his one true love who unexpectedly walked out on him years before — on the train. Sparks fly initially, but eventually they are forced to be congenial and work together — both on a professional project and then to save their lives and the lives of all of their fellow train travelers who encounter a fierce snowstorm in southern Colorado. The book has the essential happy ending.

My husband and I have ridden a number of trains in our lives, most of which were in Europe. Still, we have ridden on Amtrak’s California Zephyr on a couple of occasions, and we both loved the experience. While The Christmas Train doesn’t take place on the California Zephyr, it does take place on two of Amtrak’s real trains — the Capitol Limited from D.C. to Chicago, and Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Southwest Chief takes a route that parallels a driving route I have taken many times, and I have seen the train very often.

Despite the number of books and series Baldacci has written, and despite the fact that I’m an avid mystery reader, I haven’t read a single book by this author. The book, however, was recommended to me by my sister, who knew I liked both Christmas novels and train rides. Imagine my joy to discover a book that met both criteria.

The author provides a wonderful description of train travel, at least train travel back in 2002 when the book was written. He offers a almost-believable cast of characters. And if the are too good to be true, the reader must remember that this is a Christmas novel. The more cheerful it is, the more we like it. Baldacci is a fine story teller.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you have an interest in trains. Or Christmas!

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Christmas Resolution

The books, take place in Victorian England. While apparently including characters that are in the author’s other book series, they are completely stand alone novels. While reference was made to characters that I assume devoted readers would be familiar with, I found it in no way confusing to the book or difficult to follow.

In 2003, author Anne Perry wrote a Christmas novel called A Christmas Journey. Her readers loved the novel, and she has written a Christmas novel a year ever since. Despite the number of Christmas books she has subsequently written, I have read nary a one. Until this year. My sister, who owns and has read every single one of the Perry Christmas books, gave me her latest, A Christmas Resolution, as a gift in the spirit of Christmas. I enjoyed the book so much that I will be reading her earlier books well into 2021.

Though past the normal age of marrying in Victorian England, Celia has found great happiness through marriage to John Hooper, a police officer. She learns that her dear friend Clementine has agreed to marry Seth Marlow, a member of Celia’s church, but a pretty despicable character. His wife committed suicide and his daughter ran away and has become a prostitute in London. Clementine feels sorry for him, but Celia knows he is a very bad man.

Seth comes to Celia and accuses her of sending a letter to him that threatens to tell secrets he doesn’t want told. To save her good name, Celia decides to try and find the real letter writer, as well as the truth about what happened to his wife. Her husband agrees to help.

A Christmas Resolution, while frankly not very Christmasy, was a fun and interesting book to read. I enjoyed the author’s writing, and liked the characters I was supposed to like and disliked those I was supposed to dislike. She presents a strong and realistic picture of Victorian England, and the roles of men and women.

I recommend the book as a merry Christmas read.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Shepherds Abiding

Shepherds Abiding

My favorite Christmas book – one I read every year – is Shepherds Abiding, a Mitford novel by Jan Karon.

The theme is familiar – what is really important about Christmas? Our favorite priest, Father Tim, brings about Christmas joy to all of those he meets throughout the season in the delightful town of Mitford. As for himself, he – who always considers himself a man of thought and not a man who works with his hands, takes on the challenge of bringing back to life a terribly neglected and badly damaged Nativity set to give to his wife for Christmas. There is a delightful “Gift of the Magi” twist to the story that I won’t give away. Shepherds Abiding gives dedicated readers a deeper look at some of the Mitford family. It also gives the reader a sense of what Christmas is like in a small town.

I read this novel every Christmas as part of my effort to remember what the holiday season is really all about.

Friday Book Whimsy: Troubled Blood

Cormoran Strike is one of my favorite fictional detectives, because he seems very genuine and realistic. Strike is the protagonist in Richard Galbraith’s gritty London mystery series. Galbraith, of course, is a pen name for renown author J.K. Rowlings of Harry Potter fame. The Strike series, of which Troubled Blood is number five, is a very different sort of book, featuring no wizards or fantasy. Instead, Strike approaches his life with a grim determination, and his life isn’t always easy.

He is the illegitimate son of a famous rock star who paid no attention to Strike until he became a minor celebrity for his detective work. He served in the military in the Middle East, and lost part of a leg in the process. He faces the pain involved in his prothesis every day.

In Troubled Blood, Strike is visiting his dying aunt in Cornwall when he is approached by a young woman who asks him to find her mother. Strike is intrigued when he learns that the mother — Margot Bamborough — has been missing for 40 years, and was thought to have been murdered by a serial killer. It is Strike’s first cold case, and he and his assistant Robin tackle it head on.

It isn’t easy, because the police detective who first had the case had literally lost his mind while trying to find Bamborough. The files make little sense. But using Sherlock Holmsian skills by both Cormoran and Robin, they come closer than anyone ever has.

The author presents Robin as a true partner to Cormoran, matching him in prowness and intuition. There is a lingering love interest in one another that is intriguing rather than distracting. It will be fun to see how Galbraith carries this forward.

I enjoyed this book so very much. It’s lengthy and meaty and fairly disturbing. But it was one of my favorite detective stories this year.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Thursday Murder Club

For many years, my mother-in-law lived in a retirement community. She immediately made four friends, who became like family to her. The five of them did everything together. They ate together, they attended classes together, they took the bus to movies and the library, all together. They were buddies.

At one point, I got what I thought was a brilliant idea. I should write a mystery novel featuring characters based on these five women. There would be a murder of someone connected to the community, and someone of whom they were very fond would be accused of the murder. These five women would get together and solve the mystery of the real killer.

Needless to say, I never quite got around to writing that novel, but author British author Richard Osman did. His characters are, of course, somewhat different, but the notion is the same. My bad, because it worked extremely well.

The Thursday Murder Club features four elderly residents — Ibraiham, Ron, Elizabeth, and Joyce. The four become friends when they form a ad hoc organization they call The Thursday Murder Club. They meet weekly to discuss cases that the police have never solved, and are surprisingly adept.

And then, someone connected to their retirement community is murdered. Finally they have a current and active case on which to work. The four are each extremely smart in their own way. One has tech experience. One has police experience. Having met one of the police officers involved in the case when she made a safety presentation to the retirement community, they convince her to share information.

And then another community-connected individual is murdered, and these four are ON IT. In between wine parties and romantic liaisons, these four solve the murder mystery.

The Thursday Murder Club is cleverly written. Best of all, there are very few elderly stereotypes. In fact, there are few stereotypes at all, except perhaps for some of the bad guys. But the detectives are all active and funny and astute, each in their own way. And the lead detective — a middle aged man — is paunchy and balding and wholly unlike most featured detectives, at least in American fiction.

Suffice it to say, this was a wonderful book to read at a time when things are so serious. And DANG, why did I let Osman beat me to the punch (and do a much better job). Thankfully, it looks to be a series.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Blacktop Wasteland

I waited a long time on the library ebook hold to finally get Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby. I’m not even sure why I put it on hold. It must have come up in one of the reading blogs that I get each day. But then I noticed it was one of Goodreads’ finalists for best mystery/thriller book of the year and I became more interested.

Book reviewers call this book a thriller. I wouldn’t, however, want to put off people who aren’t into books that keep you up at night. Unless you want to be kept up at night reading this book. Because Blacktop Wasteland is so much more than an exciting thriller. It is the story of being Black and poor in the southern United States, and how difficult it is to reach the American Dream that we all hope for.

Beauregard Montage is known throughout the southeastern United States as the best getaway driver around. He knows everything about cars, and can drive like an Indie car driver, cleverly escaping cops.

But now he is married and has children and obligations. He wants to play it straight. He owns a car repair shop that is barely scraping by, and he is unable to keep up with his financial needs. His mother is in a nursing home. He has a family to feed. He wants to send his daughter to college and get her away from the abject poverty and racism they face each day in the small Mississippi town in which they live.

He gives in to the temptation offered by someone still in “the life.” He agrees to be the wheelman for one last robbery — that of a jewelry store getting a shipment of priceless diamonds.

Unfortunately, there are things that Beauregard doesn’t know about this store and this diamond shipment. The result is a complicated mess that changes his life altogether and makes him realize just how hard it is to go straight.

Blacktop Wasteland is dark and gritty. But Cosby’s story made me want to pick up the book to read even in the middle of the night. In the midst of what is happening today in the United States, it hits very close to home.

Blacktop Wasteland might end up being my favorite book of 2020.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Boy From the Woods

Harlan Coben is one of my favorite authors. I particularly like his Myron Bolitar books, as it intrigued me to have the protagonist be a sports agent. I enjoy mystery books where the main character(s) is/are not typical detectives.

The protagonists in The Boy From the Woods are certainly not typical mystery-solvers. Wilde was found some 30 years ago in the woods, where he had lived for an unknown period of time. He was just a child, and had no memory of his past. Now an adult, he is most comfortable in his home in the woods where he lives by himself. He still has no memory of his past.

Still, he is friendly with the foster family who cared for him, and is friends with criminal attorney/television star Hester Crimstein, who is the mother of his best friend, who died in a car accident. It is Hester who draws Wilde into helping find a missing girl.

Naomi Pine was seriously bullied at school, and so it isn’t a great surprise when she goes missing. At first it is assumed she ran away from home, but soon people learn about her miserable school days and questions begin to arise.

Hester and Wilde work together to find this girl, and another boy who soon goes missing as well. They make a terrific team, and I liked both characters very much.

The novel ends with a lot of unanswered questions, which seems to scream to this reader that a series is in the works. I hope so, because I enjoyed this book, and want the answers to a lot of questions.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: IQ

IQ, a novel by author Joe Ide, is not a new book. In fact, its copyright is 2016, and it’s the first in a series of five books. Still, it was new to me. It was suggested in a column on Crime Reads, a book feed that I get daily. The protagonist intrigued me, and I grabbed the book from the library.

Isaiah Quintabe is a young Black man who has lived in his poor Los Angeles neighborhood his whole life. His neighborhood is poor and crime-filled. However, IQ is doing fine until his brother — who has taken care of him for much of his life — is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Isaiah is not your run-of-the-mill teen as he possesses the IQ of a genious.

Nevertheless, after his brother is killed, IQ quits high school and lives off of low-paying jobs. He is barely making ends meet, and is forced to take in a boarder — another Black man from the ‘hood, who convinces Isaiah that he can make a living by using his intellect to commit the perfect crimes.

Eventually, IQ starts using his Sherlock Holmsian intelligence to give back to the community by solving crimes. He doesn’t make much money; in fact, he is often paid with casseroles or used tires.

Isaiah is hired by a famous rapper whose life is being threatened. This is the case of IQ’s life. Will he be able to determine who is threatening the famous singer?

Isaiah is a flawed character, but one with a good heart. As the book progresses and readers see how he can see and understand things they don’t, he becomes endearing.

I will admit that after somewhat of a dry spell when it came to books, this one grabbed my attention from the first word. I couldn’t put the book down, and read it in a couple of days,

I can’t wait to read the next four novels.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Bright Young Dead

Bright Young Dead, a novel by Jessica Fellowes, is the second book in the author’s Mitford series. This series features fictitious Louisa Cannon, who works as the nanny for the real-life Mitford family. The Mitfords are a well-known wealthy family of England. The six Mitford daughters, all reaching their formative years in the 1930s, were infamous for their somewhat scandalous behavior, and for epitomizing the early 20th Century.

In this particular novel, Nancy Mitford has a party with about a dozen of her friends, one of whom is pushed off the ledge of the nearby church’s bell tower. Immediately suspected is one of the party attendee’s maids, who accompanied her to the party as a chaperone, and who had an affair with the dead man.

Louisa, along with her friend Guy, a London police officer, set out to find the truth about Adrian Curtis’ murder. Along the way, we meet Alice Diamond and the Forty Thieves, a real-life gang of thieves in the 1930s. The gang was infamous for their thieving ways, but also for consisting of all women.

Given the lively story line, I expected the book to be much more engaging than I found it to be. I love to learn about history through novels, but this story moved very slowly. It was interesting enough to make me finish the book, but up until the final few chapters, it was oh so slow, despite the unique (and true) characters.

I read the first book in the series, The Mitford Murders, and enjoyed that book much more. I will give the next book in the series a try, and see if I just wasn’t in the right mood for this book.

Here is a link to the book.