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…

 

 

 

Apologies to my Book Barmy newsletter subscribers.  I know some of you are still not receiving email notifications.

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.

 

 

 

One special person…

“I love being married.  It’s so great to find that one special person you want to annoy for the rest of your life” 

Rita Rudner

 

 

Happy Anniversary to my one special person…

Peter Mayle 1939-2018

Sadly, Peter Mayle, best known for  A Year in Provence, his 1989 best seller about relocating to Provence, died recently at a hospital near his home there. He was 78.

Mr. Mayle and his wife, Jennie, moved to Provence in 1987, with Mr. Mayle intending to write a novel.  But with renovations to the 18th-century stone farmhouse they had bought in full swing, he kept getting distracted.  Instead he turned his daily journal of the exploits of the local builders, French lawyers, truffle hunters, local boar hunters and the marvelous food into A Year In Provence.  The book became an instant bestseller and was such a phenom, that fans searched out his home.

There was soon a surge in British folks relocating to villages in France and buying and renovating old French houses.

The Telegraph attributed this to Mr. Mayle:

“[He] somehow tapped deep into a slumbering, latent, hitherto unknown British desire for sunshine and fine wine, for peeling shutters and croissants, for distressed armoires and saucisson and the good life in the French countryside.”

Husband and I did a home exchange with such a British couple.  They admitted they had fallen under Mr. Mayle’s spell.  Their house was wonderful, but fairly remote, located in French farm country.  The couple worked for years on the renovations, learned fluent french, but later sold up and moved to Australia– they’d lived their dream.

We got to stay in this — their lovely ‘mazet’.

But I digress..

 

Mr. Mayle went on to write many other books and, while many criticized his writing and his stereotypical casting of French locals, I found many of his books a treat.  They reflect his his love of fine food, wine, culture and a little bit (okay a great deal of) of tongue-in-cheek fun with the locals.

My favorites were his later issues, in which his beloved Southern France became the setting for many a crazy caper. Recommended: Hotel Pastis.

Now, for those of you stuck in frigid climes, I suggest you make yourself a nice café au lait and escape to sunny, lavender-filled Provence with Mr. Mayle  It’s fairly easy to find his books at the library or a used book store.  A list of his publications can be found HERE.

Meanwhile, still shaken from now cancelled Tsunami warnings*, I may grab one of his books and escape myself — I have this one on my shelves, as yet unread… 

*We live just up the hill from the Pacific Ocean.  Warning sirens are installed down on the beach, but they never went off.  So actually not as scary as the morning news made it sound.