Readable Piffle

Now here’s a book rating system I really like.

Lifetime reader, Stefanie Dreyfuss, used her own personal system of book rating abbreviations, and it’s totally inspired and brutally honest.


Here’s her delightful rating system:

RB: Readable Banality

RP: Readable Piffle

NFM: Not For Me

DNF: Did Not Finish

DNR: Did Not Read

RP+1: One Step Up From “RP”

RPM: Readable Piffle Mystery

G: Good, Different, Holds My Attention

VB: Very Bad

NMS: Not My Style

PB: Pretty Boring

NBAA: Not Bad At All

RR: Readable

WOT: Waste Of Time

Author Lauren Tarshis, Dreyfuss’ daughter-in-law, shared her discovery of Dreyfuss’ codes as she sorted through her belongings after Dreyfuss’s death last week at the age of 96. 

I think I would have really liked this lovely lady, and without question, I’ll be pilfering her rating system

Excerpted from BuzzFeed.  Full article HERE.


In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Remember the old, creepy nursery rhyme?

In the dark, dark wood, There was a dark, dark house.

And in the dark, dark house, there was a dark, dark room.

And in the dark, dark room, There was a dark, dark cupboard.

And in the dark, dark cupboard, There was a dark dark shelf.

And on the dark, dark shelf, There was a dark, dark box.

And in the dark, dark box,  there was a big white ghost!

With this rhyme as it’s preface, I knew this book was going to be scary and — well — dark.  I saved In a Dark, Dark Wood for the plane home from Europe.   Turns out it was the perfect antidote for the mind-numbing flight.  Here’s the blurb from the book:

When reclusive writer Leonora (Nora) is invited to a hen party (British for bachelorette party)  in an eerie glass house deep in the English countryside, she reluctantly agrees to make the trip. But as the first night falls, revelations unfold among friends old and new and a haunting realization creeps in—they are not alone in the woods.

Forty-eight hours later, Nora wakes up in a hospital bed injured but alive, with the knowledge that someone is dead. Wondering not “what happened?” but “what have I done?” she tries to piece together the events of the past weekend. Working to uncover secrets, reveal motives, and find answers, Nora must revisit parts of herself that she would much rather leave buried where they belong: in the past.

Creepy and yes, dark  — this is pure thriller enjoyment — complete with an Agatha Christie-ish limited list of suspects, much Gothic foreshadowing, and a story line that twists and turns.   Like all good mysteries, the reader is challenged to piece together all the elements —  who, what, where, when, how and why. I had figured out some of it, but was surprised by the final tying up of loose ends.

Ms. Ware has crafted a perfectly creepy setting — a cold, modern glass house that looks out a large forest– a “wood” which looms dark, large and menacing throughout.

The characters were engaging and the story moved at a steady, never once bored, pace.  I must admit that I didn’t find the book to be the scary read promised —  to me it was just creepy — which is plenty for me.  (I’m still recovering from reading my one and only Stephen King novel back in my teens.)  In a Dark, Dark Wood was an easy read that kept me engaged for hours.

I wasn’t a fan of Ms. Ware’s other book The Woman in Cabin 10, but this, her first novel published in 2015 — is much better.

Recommended for your summer reading list– especially if you have a long plane journey ahead of you.

And, guess what folks, Reese Witherspoon is developing In a Dark, Dark Wood it into a film.

A digital review copy was kindly provided by Gallery/Scout Press via Netgalley.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside

A joke birthday gift from a friend, No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club languished on my shelf for several years now.  I plucked it out the other evening, needing a break from a serious read.

Virginia Ironside is a British humor writer well known for her writings about getting older.   She’s also an agony aunt (British for advice columnist) with a column in the Independent, and once had a one-woman show,’Growing Old Disgracefully’.

In this novel/fictionalized diary, Marie has just turned sixty and decides to chronicle her life. Often funny, sometimes a bit sad, and usually snarky, this book has a cover blurb that calls it an AARP-issued ‘Bridget Jones Diary’.  

She has a curmudgeonly outlook on growing old gracefully,

~~ or not:

The thing is: I don’t want to join a book group to keep young and stimulated.  I don’t want to be young and stimulated anymore.

I’ve done fascinated, I’ve done curious.  I want to wind down,  I want to have the blissful relief of not being interested.  Like being able to spend a day doing nothing instead of being obliged to cram it with diversionary activity to avoid guilt and anxiety.

Ms. Ironside uses the diary format to up the humor.  She calls memory lapses CRAFT moments  —  as in ‘can’t remember a f***ing thing’.  She journals about a party discussion wherein no one can remember an actress’s name from a famous film.   Then two days later, this appears as the single entry, ‘Glenn Close’.

Here she argues with a friend, who talks about getting older as a time to have adventures and learn new things:  Marie just wants to put her feet up and ‘start doing old things’.

That’s what’s so great about getting old. You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping. It’s a huge release! I’ve been feeling guilty about not learning another language for most of my adult life. At last I find that now, being old, I don’t have to! There aren’t enough years left to speak it. It’d be pointless!

Marie’s life is constantly changing and evolving, there’s the arrival of a grandson, and the loss of some dear friends.   And, although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – unless a nice, rich and attractive crush from her childhood can change her mind.

This novel is an honest look at life as we age and, at times, I found it both touching and humorous.

However, half way through, the journal format starts to loose it’s charm and her continued grumpy treatises on the same points became tiresome.

Ms. Ironside has much more to say about being old (sorry, older) as there are two other books the Marie series all with equally funny titles:  No I Don’t Need Reading Glasses and No Thanks, I’m Quite Happy Standing.

The title cracked me up, but sadly No! I Don’t Want to Join a Bookclub got put aside unfinished.  Marie (and the author) would be OK with that, she would understand and give me a high five — it’s our age –we don’t have to finish a book or go bungee jumping.


N.B.:  While we’re on the subject of humorous essays on aging, I found Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About my Neck” and “I Remember Nothing” ever so much better, and well worth whatever free time you have when not learning Swahili.

The Chinese Shawl by Patricia Wentworth

Where I have been that I’d never read any Miss Silver mysteries? Naturally, I was aware of this series and even have had one on my shelf for ages.  But not until my friend (and devoted Book Barmy fan), Sally mentioned this series, did I crack open The Chinese Shawl.

But first a trip down memory lane.  If you want to get right to the book you can skip this.  But, you’ll miss a good story.

Let me take a moment to tell you about Sally.  Sally is my mother’s best friend. They met in the 1960’s through a babysitting club where young parents on a budget exchanged free babysitting.   I’ve now forgotten the nameless mothers (and sometimes fathers) who came to babysit when my parents went out.  Except one — Sally, who came over in black Capri pants and a red sweater.  Sally exuded Glamour with a capital G.  Beautifully coiffed hair, dramatic eye makeup framing brilliant aquamarine eyes, and she smelled really good — I think it may have been Chanel No. 5.  Sally brought exciting new-to-us books from her own children’s library.  My little brother and I snuggled up next to this exotic creature as she read aloud.

Sally was, and still is, a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Mary Poppins.  Turns out her daughter was my age, she had a son my brother’s age and two other little ones who were my littlest sister’s age.  Her husband and my father shared a love of cars and woodworking.  So our families soon became close and we all grew up together in the suburbs of D. C.

To this day, Sally, my mother and I share a secret love of cozy mysteries both on TV (yes, Murder She Wrote – don’t judge) and on the written page (talking about you, Dame Agatha Christie).  The other day Sally sent an email admitting she had binged watched some old Murder She Wrotes and while embarrassed, they got her out of a funk.  She went on to say that she greatly admired Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver series on whom it is reputed Agatha Christie stole based her own Miss Marple character.  I remembered my mother also admired the Miss Silver series, so I rummaged through my piles of books book collection until I found The Chinese Shawl and dove right in.

This is the story of Laura Fane, whose parents died while she was quite young and left her a historic estate called The Priory. Laura didn’t have the funds required  to maintain The Priory, so was forced to lease it to her wealthy Aunt Agnes. Now that Laura has turned 21 and gained her inheritance she has come to the Priory to determine if she wants to inhabit or sell it to her Aunt Agnes and her other niece Tanis Lyle.  Laura soon discovers  there is family bitterness over old wounds, and this bitterness is personified most strongly by Tanis Lyle. Tanis is known for stealing other women’s  boyfriends, then unceremoniously dumping them.  We soon realize that Tanis has many enemies who could happily kill her.   And dead she turns up.  

As it happens, Miss Maud Silver, amateur detective is already a guest at the Priory.   And, the Superintendent sent to investigate the murder was a young charge of Miss Silver when she was a governess.  So the investigation proceeds with lively exchanges between these two. Miss Silver gently chiding her “dear Randall” over his hasty judgments and guiding his efforts — all while clicking away on her knitting needles.  The Priory setting is beautifully rendered and Laura is a nicely developed character.  There are plenty of suspects from jilted boyfriends, to angry ex-girlfriends, to a pilfering maid. 

As all this is going on, Laura is falling in love with a handsome war veteran and one of Tanis’s discards.   It’s a old-fashioned 1920’s style courtship but Ms. Wentworth adds just the right bit of heavy breathing   Just read this exchange between the couple as they first fall for each other:

“I shouldn’t be surprised if it meant that we were falling in love.”

She changed colour, but the change was to white, not red.  She looked for a moment as if she had been shocked right out of her senses.  There was a rushing around in her ears like water, like great waves.  And then Carey saying her name urgently

“Laura – what’s the matter?”

“I – don’t  – know”

Then he saw the colour come back and her lips begin to tremble.

“Laura are you alright?”

“Yes, she said.”  He was holding both her hands.

“Would you mind if I fell in love with you?  Because I’m going to.”

“You’ve only got to look me in the eye and say you don’t want me to fall in love with you.”

Laura’s tongue was suddenly loosened  “What would you do if I did?”

He said, “Fall a little deeper.”

I was totally engaged by this splendid mystery. The suspects are characters in and of themselves.  I enjoyed them all, but also tried ascertain their motives, could they have done the deed?    There’s some great writing, such as this small passage:

It was the entry of Lucy Adams which broke the tension.  Flushed with hurry, on the edge of being late, clanking with chains, bangles and assorted brooches, she plunged into the midst of the situation without the slightest idea that it existed.

I had a great time with Miss Silver and the Superintendent, as we solved the crime — actually they solved it — I still hadn’t quite figured out in the end.

Stereotypical? Certainly.  Similar to Miss Marple series? Of course.

I’ve learned the 1920’s Miss Silver series, while lesser known than Ms. Christie’s, set the standard for cozy mysteries solved in old estates, with lots of fun characters, cups of tea, and charming old (OK Older) ladies who knit.

Count me in any day.

A Lowcountry Heart by Pat Conroy

Have I told your about Pat Conroy?  I’m a card-carrying adoring fan. 

Mr. Conroy wrote books unlike anyone else, he was a magician storyteller and wove tales that explored the many layers of human nature. Fearless in his writing, his perfect wording could give any character or life event a voice — the frail families of the old South, uncertain love, the angst of loyal and betrayed friendship, the pain of suicide, and the infinity of human flaws  — really, just awe-inspiring.

Cancer took him quickly in 2016, at age 70.

A Lowcountry Heart is a collection of his blog entries, articles, speeches and letters but also contains writings and eulogies by those that loved him.  But fear not, this slender volume never treads into the saccharine, but instead is a joyful reflection of his life and times. Mr. Conroy shares his time in Vietnam, teachers in his life, his beloved Citadel, his adored second wife, and of course his love for the South Carolina lowcountry –the lifeblood of his books and his life.

When his publishers advised him that he should start a blog, Mr. Conroy hated the idea but then took it as a challenge. He used it as both a journal and a way to reach out to his readers. His blog posts always began with “Hey out there,” and closed with “Great love…”.

Unlike many authors Mr. Conroy loved book tours and especially meeting with his readers.

It (book tours) is part of the covenant I sign with Doubleday that I’ll do everything possible to help the sell the book, including not getting drunk on tour or embarrassing my publishing company with my cutting-up on the road. I go out to sell books and it has become one of the greatest things about being a writer during my lifetime. No writer should turn down the chance of meeting the readers of his work.

His book signings often went late into the night because he wanted to speak personally, and at length, with each reader. They opened up to Mr. Conroy because he asked, “so, what’s your story?”.  (I wonder what story I would’ve told…)

Mr. Conroy could have easily been a Southern ‘good old boy’, but it turns out he was a role model of humanity and progressiveness.  He actively supported racial equality, even having a public meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King at a time when race was still a heated issue in southern society.  On learning that a stranger and fellow southerner was dying of AIDS, Conroy went to be at his side so he wouldn’t die alone. Once, accidentally in a gay bar, he danced with a man because his mother raised him not to hurt anyone’s feelings.

His wife and fellow author, Cassandra King  wrote the introduction to A Lowcountry Heart — a beautiful piece of writing I read several times.

The book also contains his 2001 Citadel commencement speech — I’ll just say, I found myself trying to read it through my tears.

Mr. Conroy is likely best known for his books (and the films based on his books);  The Lords of Discipline, The Prince of Tides and  The Great Santini. 

But instead, get thee to your favorite library or bookstore read my favorites; The River is Wide, Beach Music, and South of Broad. 

I’ll leave you with this, perhaps the most compelling part of this collection; Mr. Conroy is buried on a small island off the coast of South Carolina , in a modest cemetery of a Gullah Baptist church among a community that “graciously allowed a non-Baptist, non-African American writer to rest among them.”


A digital review copy was kindly provided by Doubleday Books/Nan A. Talese via NetGalley

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve been gathering some picture books to tell you about all at once. This winter, I enjoyed these visually enchanting escapes which took me from the streets of New York, to France, and even wartime England.




Well, grab a beverage of choice and sit right down next to me and let’s look at them together.


Going Into Town

A Love Letter to New York

by Roz Chast

When Ms. Chast’s daughter was preparing to move to Manhattan for college, Ms. Chast wrote up a tongue-in-cheek guide book with tips for suburbanites navigating the city. This little booklet turned into Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York which is a cartoon book about all the things Ms. Chast appreciates — or doesn’t— in the city she loves.

I love Ms. Chast’s work and always chuckle at her cartoons in the New Yorker magazine, on greeting cards, or her books. Remember THIS?

This book is a collection of  stories and visuals — the “overheard and the overseen”, on the streets of New York — and Ms. Chast is her usual funny and cynical self.

She starts with a brief background on how she and her family moved out of the city to the suburbs for the better schools and the chance to have actual trees.  But the downside was that her daughter had no city skills when venturing to university in the city.

There’s an introduction to the geography of Manhattan

Diners are all but extinct, hawks aren’t, Uber cars outnumber taxis, and in GENERAL:
3 blocks = 1 avenue
20 blocks/7 avenues = 1 mile
even streets run east, odd run west, crosstown run east-west

Going Into Town then goes on to describe the people you’ll encounter, with special warnings about the tourists…

It is evident throughout the book that poor Ms. Chast greatly misses living in the city.  There’s a section on the things to do from the obvious Broadway musicals and gallery openings to the more obscure — “best hat on a dog contest”.  She advocates looking — really looking  — as you walk around — freshly seen through her quirky visual lens.


While Ms. Chast may have wanted to give her daughter a straightforward guide to the city, she can’t help herself and interrupts the narrative with delightful digressions about such things as the quirky stores that sell nothing but ribbon or enticing off-brand lipstick.

or the city’s great variety of standpipes,

As the title says, this is Ms. Chast’s very own love story to New York:

I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love. I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it, too. I’m not worried about it being ‘ruined’ by too many people ‘discovering’ it. Manhattan’s been ruined since 1626 , when Peter Minuit bought it from Native Americans for $24.00.

And, if like me, you’re stuck on the opposite coast – you’ll have a hankering to follow the author’s advice:

One of the greatest things you can do in life is walk around New York



France is a Feast

A Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child

by Alex Prud’ Homme & Katied Pratt


From the coauthor of My Life in France, this volume is a collection of the photographs taken by Paul Child during his and Julia Child’s years in France.

This is a sometimes fascinating look at the lesser-known Paul Child, who in fact, was a talented artist, photographer, painter, lithographer, woodworker, metalsmith, stained glass expert, writer and poet.

Here’s just a sample of his fine photographic eye:

But Paul also delighted in photographing Julia:

She[Julia] was ten years younger than Paul, and not well known at the time, but she was a sunny, questing, powerful personality who had a profound impact on her husband’s evolution.  He adored her and photographed her constantly; without realizing it at the time, he was chronicling her rise from a fumbling know-nothing in the kitchen to an accomplished cook and author, and America’s first celebrity TV chef.


Because of my slight obsession with Julia Child, I found myself lingering on those iconic photos:

My Life In France was one of my favorite books about Julia and Paul’s life in France and I had high hopes for this photographic essay.  However, their relationship is sketched over and the often pedantic writing is focused on Paul Child, his career and interests. The final pages are devoted to the Child’s move back to Cambridge and Paul’s decline which Julia handled with courage and grace.  Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to know more about Paul Child but I often lost interest. Perhaps he will always remain in Julia’s shadow.

The photographs are fascinating and France is a Feast for the eyes, but alas, not the writing.


A Fine Romance

Falling in love with the English Countryside

by Susan Branch

A friend gave me an Amazon gift card for Christmas and I quickly ordered A Fine Romance.  I had longingly thumbed through this beautiful book in a little bookstore ages ago and added to my list of “someday books”.  Well, this past January was that someday.

This is not a travel guide, there is no agenda here other than to entertain and delight the reader  A Fine Romance is a hand-written, illustrated chronicle of Ms. Branch’s visit to England with her husband.  I lingered over almost every page — each watercolor is a tiny jewel — all interspersed with photographs, her reflections and observations

Here I’ll show you:







I read bits of this book each morning (with the obligatory cup of tea) in order to slowly savor the experience of going along as they roam the English countryside.

The book opens with the story of how the divorced Ms. Branch met Joe, which proved a bit tedious as well as, well, creepy.  Here’s the creepy bit; on one of their first dates, she asked for two hotel rooms but behind her back he reserves only one. She’s surprised,unsure but just goes along with it. (Say what? Ever heard of respect for boundaries?)

This little niggle in no way detracts from the charm of the book (I just had to make that comment).

Apparently Ms. Branch has a huge following and has an impressive website with recipes, events and merchandise which sports her watercolors on everything from calendars to party favors.  A bit over the top for my taste, but take a look HERE to see what you think.  She also has a BLOG which I enjoy, especially the travel entries, just to admire their elegant travel style — always accompanied by a great deal of luggage.

A Fine Romance is not only for Anglophiles, but for anyone who likes pretty villages, cozy cups of tea, and beautiful gardens.  Part travelogue, part diary, part sketchbook, part personal scrapbook —  A Fine Romance is just wonderful.



The War Brides Scrapbook

by Caroline Preston


I loved Ms. Preston’s previous novel, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt ,a gift from my sister.  So I had to purchase another “someday” book — her newest scrapbook novel, The War Bride’s Scrapbook.

It is 1941 and Lila has graduated from Sweet Briar without the two things her mother expected; making connections with moneyed friends and a rich fiancee.  Instead she came home with a magna cum laude and an art degree. Her true passion is architecture, but there’s little opportunity for women in the field.  She goes to work instead for her father’s insurance business.  She meets and falls hard for enlisted soldier Perry Weld and, after a three week whirlwind romance and marriage, he has shipped out.

Following the advice in a woman’s magazine,

Lila starts a ‘War Bride’s Scrapbook’ in which she chronicles their two-year separation — through their letters, but also tickets, menus, food labels, and newspaper articles.

This ‘story in pictures’ is told through this scrapbook device, as we get to know the characters and their experiences both at home and in war-time Europe. 

Just take a look at this visual and literary feast.

Lila matures into a strong independent woman who eventually gets accepted into the male-dominated Harvard architecture school and onto a career of her own.

Ms. Preston uses this scrapbook to give us a insight into the issues of the time — the changing roles and societal expectations for women, PTSD, the atomic bomb, and even the Japanese American imprisonment.

Many of the visuals are from Ms. Preston’s own collection of vintage scrapbooks and ephemera, but she also did a fair share of research and borrowed items from other artifact collectors.

The War Brides Scrapbook brims with vivid characters and a brilliantly laid-out collection of WWII-era ephemera.


Whew, congratulations  you made it through this long post.  So now, we’ll have to return to the real world of grown-up books -most, sadly without pictures.