Once I stole a book…

It’s Throwback Thursday, when I rave about a book I read years ago.



The Know World

by Edward P. Jones

Once dear readers, I accidentally stole a book.  Stuck in an airport in 2004, I was of course browsing in the book store, magazine in one hand, this hefty paperback in the other.  I panicked when my long delayed flight was suddenly announced and quickly paid the cashier for the magazine, both of us oblivious to the book under my arm.  As I galloped to the gate, I mindlessly tossed the book in my bag.  Once I got on the plane, and looked at my receipt I realized the error of my ways.  I tempered my guilt by recounting the money I’d spent at this book chain (they have since gone out of business, probably due to thievery like mine). 

Turns out this lucre kept me fascinated for the entire cross country flight.  I barely looked up when the food was served. (Just imagine dear readers, once even coach passengers got served a meal on cross country plane trips.)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel centers on a family of free blacks who run a plantation in pre-Civil War Virginia.  The Southern slave culture was so deeply embedded, that it was not considered odd (or even ironic) when freed blacks became slave holders themselves;  a little know part of American history.

Henry Townsend is a young black man living in Virginia 20 years before the Civil War — a free son of parents who were freed slaves. His father, a skilled woodworker, holds strong convictions regarding the evils of slavery.  But Henry grows up to idolize a white plantation owner and the most powerful slave-owner in the county. Much to his father’s horror, Henry purchases his own plantation and keeps black slaves.  When Henry dies unexpectedly, his widow Caldonia struggles to hang on to his legacy, but things start to unravel as the plantation slaves start to break the bonds of their servitude.

These slaves (like some others of the time) were able to buy their freedom by working in off-the-plantation enterprises such as builders, artisans, and agronomists which allowed them to earn cash. They could then pay for their own freedom as well as the price demanded for their wives and children (at full market value no less) .

The Known World is unique and some thought it a difficult read.  The novel is not chronological, but follows thematic arcs, often going back and forth in time and recounting different versions of the story line.   I didn’t find it confusing — I enjoyed being told a riveting story from several different points of view.  Mr. Jones has provided a handy list of the numerous characters in the back of the book, but I never needed it. Somehow each of the many characters are richly rendered and fleshed out.  Each character had a fine-tuned personality and it was easy to keep them separate, as I got to know each so well.

 “The Known World” is an apt title, as it represents the limiting life of a few plantations which comprised the entire world for the slaves. One master may sell a slave to a nearby neighbor; another one is freed and moves in close proximity to his former master, so that their universe rarely grew larger. Even traveling on an errand from one neighbor to another, or from the plantation to town, required the written permission of the owner. 

I can understand why Mr. Jones won the Pulitzer for this novel.  His ear for dialog, eye for detail and command of the language was a joy to this reader, against the bleak backdrop of slavery and the grim ways in which power/greed so easily corrupt.

I highly recommend The Known World, filled with rich stories and a sense of place so real, so honest – you’ll find it difficult to believe you’re reading fiction.

A copy of this novel was unknowingly provided by a large anonymous book chain, which has since gone out of business.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I was allowed to go to my neighborhood library on my own ~~ an often needed escape from my younger siblings.  I adored the Aspen Hill Library and would wander the shelves, library card itching in my pocket.

I often visited the popular YA (young adult) shelves, but never really understood the appeal coming from home with Little Women, Black Beauty and Little House on the Prairie at my disposal.  I tried and dismissed Judy Blume, V. C. Andrews, and the insipid Beverly Cleary series (see I was a critic even back then).

But there was one YA book I checked out over and over again.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle opens with the classic line…

It was a dark and stormy night…

Published in 1962, this Newbery Medal classic is part science fiction, part time travel tale and I was mesmerized.  I could easily relate to Meg who doesn’t fit in at school and going through an awkward stage with unruly hair and braces.

Meg’s father has disappeared during a scientific trip and she, her little brother, and family friend Calvin are whisked away to find him.  Three strange women with mysterious talents help them follow their quest – Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit. And the reader is off on an adventure like no other.

Back in the 60’s, as I read this book over and over again, the appeal was not only the riveting story, but the intelligent way it spoke to young readers — with quotes from Latin, complicated mathematical and scientific theories — but also the respect and self-confidence it gave girls (and boys).  Meg is shown how to be herself and reassured that it is a good thing to be different from anyone else.  She is called upon to be brave beyond her wildest dreams, survive different species, experience new cultures, and use her brain to overcome obstacles.  In other words — everything I wanted to be and do.

Ms. L’Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time in the shadow of the cold war and upon re-reading this wonderful story, I now see the obvious references that mirror the 1960’s fear of communism — over my head at age 10.

A Wrinkle in Time has been made into a Disney film which opens today.  It stars Reese Witherspoon, Oprah Winfrey and other big names.  It might actually be good, and now that I’ve just re-read the book, I can give myself permission to go see it.

If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time lately, I suggest you re-read it.

If you’re like me you’ll not only enjoy the adventure once again — but have a new admiration for how it influenced young readers to be bold, fearless, but mostly to have confidence in always being themselves.

Film Trailer HERE

The British Library Crime Series

Is it possible to have a crush on a publisher?

My heart beats faster, my fingers fondle their book covers, and my wallet giddily opens its arms — all for The British Library Crime Series by Poisoned Pen Press.

Just look at these beauties, I mean really, what mystery reader could resist?

I first became aware of this series with my first purchase of THIS long lost favorite mystery.  Since then I have cultivated a insatiable craving   finely-tuned taste for this Poisoned Pen Press imprint.

In 1997, husband and wife founders, Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters, who are also the owners of the legendary Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona, saw an opportunity to re-publish the wonderful British mysteries novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s.  They tapped into every bibliophile’s secret desire –out of print titles, long lost authors, and beautiful covers to lovingly add to a bookcase:

“We knew that mystery readers wanted complete collections, so we thought we could make a business out of that.”

I’ve read several of these and, while some are better than others, all are well-plotted mysteries graced with some classic crime writing and completely interesting settings – in short they are pure fun escape reading.

There are locked room mysteries (Miraculous Mysteries), murders in Europe (Continental Crimes), small village settings (Death of a Busybody), and dead bodies in crumbling manors (Seven Dead).

In short, there’s a British mystery for you in The British Library Crime Series.  You got to love any publisher/bookseller who states this as their mission statement:

We are a community Bound By Mystery.

and who gathers praise such as this:

Hurrah to British Library Crime Classics for rediscovering some of the forgotten gems of the Golden Age of British crime writing.(Globe and Mail)

Might I suggest you support this fine enterprise by buying the books direct from their website ~  just click this logo.


Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for allowing me advanced copies of many of these titles via NetGalley.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

What, you say? Not another time travel novel here at Book Barmy?

Maybe or maybe not – stick with me here, this one is different.

In How to Stop Time, Mr. Haig has conjured up a unique spin on the typical time travel novel — namely a tale centered around the ability (or curse) to live a very, very long time.

Tom Hazard, (full name Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard) was born in 1599 and suffers from a rare genetic condition that makes him age very slowly.  He has been alive for the last 400 or more years.  The book opens with this wonderful first line:

I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe.

Over the centuries, Tom has lived many lives and because of his longevity, many of those lives were filled with love, but also heartbreak and loss.

On the positive side Tom got to work at the Globe Theatre with William Shakespeare, rubbed elbows with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and sailed with Captain Cook, all while avoiding anyone who grows suspicious of his glacial aging process.

Tom is recruited into the Albatross Society which pledges to protect people with his disease.  The only stipulation is that he has to change lives every eight years and he is given this warning:

 “The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,” he said… “There are other rules too, but that is the main one. No falling in love. No staying in love. No daydreaming of love. If you stick to this you will just about be okay”.

In an effort to make up for the no love rule, Tom is reassured:

“You are, of course, allowed to love food and music and champagne and rare sunny afternoons in October. You can love the sight of waterfalls and the smell of old books, but the love of people is off limits.”

But all Tom wants is to live a normal life and find his long lost daughter who also suffers from the same genetic condition.  When the book opens, Tom has settled into teaching at a London high school, and of course he chooses to teach history, because:

It [history] isn’t something you need to bring alive, because it already is alive. Everything we say, do and see is only because of what has gone before.

He adopts a dog and finds himself attracted to the French teacher Camille, but he must resist because of the society rules.  Soon it is time to take on another persona, and move on to yet another life and another adventure.

That’s all the plot I’ll give away from this engrossing tale.

Mr. Haig transports the reader back and forth in history. But, he doesn’t beautify — instead he unveils the filthy, muddy, smelly reality of earlier times.  We see Shakespeare writing his beautiful works against the backdrop of crime, bigotry and disease.  Tom plays the lute in the marketplace right beside animal filth.  Everyone drinks ale, because the water might kill you.

For me the most interesting part of How to Stop Time, was the irrationality of the human experience. People throughout history have always hurt others, made stupid mistakes, been egocentric, and continue to do so — over and over and over again. And important note, we haven’t become wiser over time:

The lesson is that ignorance and superstition are things that can rise up, inside almost anyone, at any moment. And what starts as a doubt in a mind can swiftly become an act in the world.

Which brings one to ponder long after the last page.  How would you live — how would you act —  and mostly how would you feel —  knowing you could live almost forever?

How to Stop Time is handsomely written and filled with the bittersweet truth of the human experience — our capacity to endure pain, inflict hurt, but also our ability to love beyond any limits, even those of time.  All while carelessly bumbling through our ever-so-short lifespans.


A digital review copy was provided by Viking via Net Galley.  

Mrs. Malory (or is it Mallory?) by Hazel Holt

Once upon a time, there was a bookstore dedicated solely to mysteries ~~ called the San Francisco Mystery Bookstore.  

It was a dusty old place, with a chain-smoking, sometimes surly owner who would only glance up from her own reading to give a visiting dog a treat or if you asked a question. Once engaged, she could deftly suggest your next perfect mystery read based on your interests and tastes.  (Good bookstore people share this  skill.)

The bus at our corner would take me directly to the shop, where I would browse away many a foggy afternoon. It had mismatched shelving, small nooks with chairs, a creaky wooden floor, with the books arranged in the owner’s unique method.   There were separate sections for historical mysteries, true crime, British crime, and even mysteries set in San Francisco.  In short, it was a local treasure and one of my favorite places.   Sadly this small, independent bookseller closed their doors in 2011, a victim of skyrocketing rent and the demise of small independent bookstores.  (I guess my purchases weren’t enough to carry this little store, despite Husband’s theories to the contrary.)

It was at this quaint bookshop that I was steered towards the Mrs. Malory series after confessing my love for Agatha Raisin.

Hazel Holt wrote an entire series featuring Sheila Malory, a middle-aged widow, Siamese cat owner, tireless volunteer, and snoop in the sleepy English village of Taviscombe –a modern-day Miss Marple.

This is a veddy veddy British series, filled with English villagers, non-stop teas, old country estates, horses, and gentle humor.  The rich descriptions transport the reader right into the middle of these delightful scenes.  At first, these short little mysteries may seem obvious, but stay on your toes readers, as Ms. Holt cleverly deals out potential culprits, plots that twist around, and the murderer is often a surprise.

The first in the series is Mrs. Malory Investigates and my early 1989 St. Martin’s Press edition has the Malory misspelled as “Mallory” throughout the text.   The later edition, published under the title of Gone Away has this content error corrected.


The second in the series The Cruellest Month is set at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, where Ms. Holt (no slouch) once taught.

Turns out the author was quite the intellectual and a good friend of Barbara Pym.  Ms. Holt even wrote her biography and completed one of Pym’s unfinished novels.  These British authors seemed to run around in the same small circles sharing tea and scones, and probably stealing each other’s plot ideas.

Sadly Ms. Holt died in 2015, so the complete series ends after 21 mysteries.   I recommend you seek out these little gems –you’ll find yourself happily whiling away an evening, turning the pages.

Click HERE  to find your own little local independent bookstore to try and keep in business.


Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Sometimes a book cries out, nay screams, to be read.  Thus was the case with Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

Early in 2017, the publishers sent me a digital advanced reading copy, then one of my Book Barmy followers wrote me urging me to read it, also Powell’s Bookstore named it one of the best books of 2017, and finally — surprise! A brand new hardback copy arrived from my friend Peter as a New Year’s gift.  And here dear readers — here is the clincher:

I really do think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s beautifully written . . .  witty, pithy, upliftingly sad in a weird way.  Lillian is someone you want to take to lunch and drink lots of manhattans.  

(the note from Peter, my smart, literate friend and Book Barmy follower.)


So I sat myself down, pushed all my other books aside and opened up Lillian Boxfish. And Peter was right, because by page 15, Lillian had become one of my favorite characters… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start again shall we?

It’s New Year’s Eve 1984 and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk — a long walk. But first, she applies Helena Rubinstein’s Orange Fire lipstick (long ago discontinued-she stocked up), dons her beautiful, forty-year-old fur coat (still a classic) and a pulls on a pair of boots (sensible but stylish).  Lillian then takes to the streets of New York, she has planned a long walk, an adventure really, to mark the end of the year — Domenico’s for a do-over on a dinner that ended badly years ago.

She leaves her beloved Murray Hill apartment, where she has lived alone for most of her life,

Alone, but not lonely; in the state of being solitary but not the condition of wishing myself otherwise. Solitude enrobed me like a long, warm coat.

That is the crux of this character-driven novel.  Lillian walks (and walks, and walks) through New York City while reflecting on her life. The novel shifts seamlessly between past and present tense unified by Lillian’s witty voice.

Lillian recalls her days as an advertising copywriter and the inner-workings of Macy’s in the 1930’s. Fascinating, as she became one of the highest paid women in advertising.  She specialized in humorous jingles and dabbles with poetry on the side.  But, she couldn’t avoid the challenges of a career woman in a man’s world.

After falling in love and marrying her true love, Max, she becomes pregnant and Macy’s management, like all male-dominated corporations at the time, forces her to quit her career.  Lillian does her best to adapt to the stifling role of housewife and mother to their son Johnny, she has some of her poetry published, and does some freelance advertising work — but soon the marriage starts to crumble and so does Lillian.

All these bittersweet reminiscences take place while Lillian continues her walk in late night New York.  Her observations of New York City are a tribute to her love for the city throughout her life.  There is danger  in the air as she walks — this is just after the subway vigilante killings — and everyone she meets is concerned for her safety.  But our Lillian cares not.  She wants, no needs, to walk. She is strong and fit, still walking miles around the city most days. She especially needs to walk this last night of 1984 ~~she even has a name for it  ~~ Solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.

As we walk with Lillian we are part of her musings ~~

On the changes in advertising:

Given that the majority of communication to which we are subjected in a day consists of advertising, if nearly all of that advertising insists on regarding us as pampered children, what does that do to us?

And how fame has doomed true character:

People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

But Lillian is not a grumbler, she has core values worth emulating:

…my true religion is actually civility.  Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness’.  That’s part of it, yes, but I say ‘civility’ because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extend that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.

The author, Ms. Rooney has given us a great gift with Lillian Boxfish.  She has passion for life, despite the cruel blows life dealt her.

The point of living in this world is just to stay interested.

I bet you’re thinking  — please, not another grumpy, yet cute, curmudgeon who imparts wisdom and kindness.  Trust me, there is nothing cute about Lillian Boxfish. She is a sassy, independent woman who has paid her dues, can often get depressed, but overcomes her life disappointments with classy elegance and a superior wit.

And, like Peter, I would give anything to meet up with Lillian for drinks – preferably at Domenico’s .

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is exquisitely written and the author has a  superb vocabulary*.    This novel now has a permanent home on my bookshelf.  And it should be on yours too.

I plan to re-read it, if only to revel in how wonderful really good writing can be.


*Pro-tip: I switched to my Kindle copy just so I could easily look up some unknown vocabulary.  But I also referred back to my beautiful hardback edition which includes a map of her walk. Bonus!

Ms. Rooney based Lillian Boxfish on the life of Margaret Fishback, who was the highest paid female advertising copywriter, in the 1930’s.  And it turns out all of the jingles quoted in the novel were actual advertising copy written by Ms. Fishback.


A digital review copy was provided by St. Martins Press via Netgalley. (sorry for taking so long to review it.)

Thanks to Peter for the hardback edition.

Normal programming will now resume…

Book Barmy is back~~~~~

~~ after some necessary maintenance involving a hosting migration, upgraded PHP, coding issues, and all sorts of complicated stuff that even challenged my hosting service (big shout out to Daniel V at GoDaddy).

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t fun and I had a two week headache…




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But rest assured ~~~




I’m trying to re-establish  newsletter email notifications to all subscribers.  In the meantime, just check back here every so often.

In happier news, I have much reading to share ~~ your normal programming will now resume.