A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie

It’s a well known Book Barmy fact that Deborah Crombie writes one of my favorite mystery series.  My gushing affection for her novels is documented in past posts HERE.

This rainy morning with a nice cup of tea, I finished the latest, just released series installment — A Bitter Feast.

As the book opens, Ms. Crombie takes the London-based police team of Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James on an idyllic escape to the English Cotswolds.  With their children and fellow police detective, Doug, all are invited to spend a restful weekend in the village of Lower Slaughter. 

A village called Slaughter? Well played Ms. Crombie — what could possibly go wrong?   Actually it’s a double entendre — Slaughter comes from the Old English word ‘slothre’ meaning muddy place.  Just part of the wonderfully sly writing style Ms. Crombie brings to all her books.

A Bitter Feast starts off slowly with all the elements of a cozy mystery –  a picturesque village, a warm English pub, and the lovely manor house to which Melody has invited her fellow police crowd to stay for the weekend.  The manor house has a spectacular garden, the pub boasts a wonderful chef, and there’s a sense of tranquility around Duncan and Gemma’s getaway to the Cotswolds.

But, as to be expected when there’s an assembly of police officers — their restful holiday soon goes awry with car wrecks, murders, poisonings, and illicit village affairs.

But, here’s what separates A Bitter Feast (and all Ms. Crombie’s novels) from traditional cozy mysteries — her sly (there’s that word again) introduction of simple details that become vital later in the story.  Only later does the reader realize that clues were being scattered while the characters stroll in the garden or enjoying a delicious meal. 

As always, Ms. Crombie’s characters are well-developed, as they have been over the course of the series. All my favorite characters are here, I know them well.  But interestingly, Ms. Crombie puts both Duncan and Gemma somewhat in the background (after all they’re on holiday remember?) and lets others to take the lead in the investigations of the crimes befalling Lower Slaughter.  Melody’s upper class background comes into full spotlight as we are introduced to her titled parents and manor house.  Especially interesting was to see Duncan’s 15 year old Kit acting well beyond his years and stepping into adulthood.

After the somewhat bleak tone of her previous novel, A Bitter Feast has a more cheerful atmosphere — the murders and poisonings notwithstanding.  No seriously, it was lovely to join everyone at cozy pub in the evenings, to partake in a charity luncheon on the magnificent grounds of the manor house, and to look on as children played with dogs on the lawns.

But don’t be seduced by the lovely setting with its quaint cottages and gardens.  There is always a overshadowing — a quaint and cheerful cottage during the daylight becomes creepy and sinister at night. A meticulously maintained showstopper garden could be the source for a poisonous substance.  Nothing is as is a idyllic as it seems.

The food — oh did I mention the food?  The food dishes are described in luscious detail and the inside of the house restaurant scenes are fascinating.  Ms. Crombie has long said she chose England as her setting, so she could go every year to do research for her series.  In A Bitter Feast, she obviously took much pleasure in exploring food and the restaurant scene.  The descriptions of how a Michelin star restaurant menu is created, one painstaking dish at a time, is some of her best writing ever.

So entranced by the setting, I Googled Lower Slaughter and here’s a video of its beauty HERE.

A Bitter Feast is a purely wonderful, chunky book and well worth buying in hardcover right now.  As is custom, Ms. Crombie and her publishers include a hand drawn map of the setting on the flyleaf (hardcover only – worth the price alone).  Here’s just a sample:

 


 

As you can tell, I highly recommend any of Ms. Crombie’s series, but A Bitter Feast has to be one of my favorites so far.

Now comes the hard part – waiting for the next one. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many thanks to Harper Collins for providing an advanced readers copy.

 

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap

Wendy Welch and her Scottish husband, Jack Beck, impulsively bought a huge Victorian home in the town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, with the intent of transforming it into a used bookstore.

Unfortunately, they had much working against them. Big Stone Gap is not exactly welcoming to strangers and its economically depressed state does not make it an ideal business location. Additionally it didn’t help that they lacked a business plan or even any books to start with. 

The couple remained undaunted and The Little Bookstore recounts their struggles and experiences as they build their beloved used bookstore and a readers’ community around the store.

I’ve dreamed of it — My Very Own Bookstore, and appropriately, this book has lived on my shelf for years. I grabbed it to re-read, as I’m currently traveling in the area, and their Big Stone Gap, Virginia bookstore — called Lonesome Pine Used Books — is on my itinerary.  (Have convinced Husband it will be a nice drive, we can stop for a nice lunch, and it’s really not at all out of the way.  Husband nodded and remained silent — after 40 years, he’s on to me.)

But back to the book, The Little Bookstore is a pleasant, breezy memoir of opening a bookstore in a small town and working really hard, learning on the fly, and caring enough about books and people to go from newcomers (or ‘Come-from-Aways’) to an integral part of a community.

The author writes about the economically depressed area, the isolation of the community and especially how becoming part of such a community is sometimes hard work and sometimes serendipity. 

Yet upon re-reading, I noticed that while Ms. Welch obviously has great heart — she loves her store, her books, and the many cats and dogs she rescues — yet, she sometimes treads into meanness with passive-aggressive observations about Big Stone Gap’s sometimes small-minded inhabitants.  Perhaps this is due to the endless struggle the couple face as they try to make the bookstore a success both financially and socially.

That little niggle aside, this charming book is chocked full of little treasures of humor, social insight, literary observations, and an over-arching love of books and book people. Certainly a must-read memoir for anyone who ever dreamed of running a bookstore or just loves them.

 


My plans to visit Lonesome Pine Books, are in shatters.  Sadly, Wendy and Jack closed it down in July.  Sighh ~~here’s  photo of the now-closed shop:

You can read more about Wendy, Jack and the bookstore on their blog HERE.

Another tidbit, Big Stone Gap is the hometown of the author, Adriana Trigiani, whose first novel novel of the same name was made into a film back in 2015. The bookstore makes a cameo appearance– Trailer HERE.

Downton Abbey ~ The Film

Yes, I’ve done it.  I’ve seen the Downton Abbey film — not once, but twice*

And I have to tell you I thought it just wonderful.

It was just grand to see it on a big film screen.

A close-up view of the dresses (sigh),

the interiors (whoa),

and the table settings (gasp).

 

And, while there are several story lines to keep the viewer intrigued, Julian Fellows has made Downton Abbey, in all its splendor, the star of the film.

And what was most encouraging was that the film leaves room for another potential series (oh please, please).  

But, if not, the film has tied things up beautifully.

I’m okay either way.

If you’re a fan of the Downton Abbey series, please go see this film – on the big screen.


* I was fortunate to be invited by two different groups of friends.

Library score…

 

I woke up to a beautiful morning, made even better by the notice that my latest hold was ready at my local library branch – Score!  I was out the door, walking over as their doors opened.

Longtime Book Barmy followers may have noticed this is the first year I haven’t been able to preview Louise Penny’s latest installment.

 

 

Sadly, I am no longer one of Ms. Penny’s advanced readers.  I was denied an early copy of this, her newest book,  A Better Man.

I’m trying to be a grown up about this and must come to grips with the obvious —  Ms. Penny’s books are immediate best-sellers without the support of my little Barmy book blog.

Husband gamely tried to cheer me up by pointing out that I did come up quickly on the long waiting list for the library book – but I’m still pouting ~~

 

 

 

 

 

You all understand — don’t you??

 

I’m sure to cheer up when I start reading A Better Man tonight…

 

p.s. It probably wouldn’t have killed me to actually purchase a copy

Kitchen Yarns by Ann Hood

If you’ve not read Ann Hood, you’re missing out on an author with insight and humor.  Kitchen Yarns – Notes on Life, Love, and Food is a great place to start.

This is not your normal (often pedantic) genre of culinary literature, this is a heartfelt memoir of Ms. Hood’s life told through twenty-seven essays, each accompanied by a recipe.  From a happy childhood, through failed marriages, then a happy one, and two tragic deaths — each essay is told through the context of a favorite dish or meal.

Ms. Hood’s essays feel as if you were chatting with a friend and you are sharing her memories, her beloved family, her funny stories, and of course her favorite recipes.

Within the pages of Kitchen Yarns, you’ll find antidotes of joy and sometimes of great sadness, but there’s always the comfort and import of family and friends gathered together with good food prepared and shared with love.

I knew I was in simpatico when Ms. Hood makes references to her friend Laurie Colwin one of my favorite foodie writers and novelist — as well as, the Silver Palate Cookbook — still one of my favorites – from the 80’s.

Did I mention that these essays are often fun?   In Carbonara Quest, she experiments with variations of this seemingly simple, but deviously difficult dish in an effort to fill her lonely nights as a flight attendant.

When she writes about her daughter who died suddenly at age 5, it wasn’t maudlin, but so truthful and full of love that I had to make the recipe for Grace’s Cheesy Potatoes that very night.

There is one tiny drawback.  Many of these essays had appeared in other publications, such as Gourmet magazine, and this makes for an sometimes stilted structure/flow.  Mentions of family members, recipes, and parts of Ms. Hood’s past were introduced and re-introduced throughout. We read about her Mama Rose’s meatballs several times and the description of Ann’s brothers passing is repeated almost verbatim in a later essay.

Again a small criticism, as I found this a warm and easy book to sink into.  Kitchen Yarns is filled with beautiful language and comforting descriptions of food.

Yes, I do plan to try some of her recipes in my kitchen:  including, but not limited to – Peach Pie, Green Herb Sauce, the above mentioned Cheesy Potatoes and Laurie Colwin’s Tomato pie.

An advanced readers copy was kindly provided by W. W. Norton & Co.


If you’re not a foodie, you could also try Ms. Hood’s lovely memoir on reading and books Morningstar: Growing Up with Books.

I also recommend her amazing first novel Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine