Oxford Blue

Following the trend of picking books up out of order, I recently finished Oxford Blue by Veronica Stallwood. In fairness, I wasn’t even aware this book was part of a series.

I discovered Oxford Blue in Blackwell’s, one of the greatest bookstores in the known universe. Located in Oxford, across the street from the Bodleian Library and History of Science Museum, right around the corner from my Oxford home, Exeter College, Blackwell’s has been a proprietor of the written word since 1879. I purposefully did not allow myself to enter the bookshop on a variety of occasions because I knew I would leave with a pile of books and an empty bank account. Let’s put it this way – when I headed back to the US, I had to buy a new suitcase and still ended up shipping 10 books across the pond. 

Like many bookstores, Blackwell’s has a section for local interests – books written or based in the region or by local authors. I always love these sections. It’s a way to take a little piece home or to learn more about where you are. That’s where I found Oxford Blue. 

It met my travel book buying specifications: Inexpensive, paperback, fairly small in size and interesting summary. I like books of all sizes, but one I can slip in my back pocket or into a small purse has my heart. I don’t leave the house without reading material, so I’m always on the lookout for a book I can cram into an evening back. 

What I loved the most about Blue was the sheer Britishness of the book. Sure, it had it’s stereotypes and tropes like lots of books. I just loved hearing people talk about taking tea, have “pud” after dinner, the talk of going to Hall and wearing robes to dinner (a very Oxford experience). I go through phases and read writers from different geographic regions. When I lived in Nepal, I get introduced to so many South Asian writers I would have otherwise not found. I discovered some interesting West African authors in college and in high school, I read a lot of European diaries in translation. While each writer has a unique voice and style, there is a difference in region. Sometimes it’s how phrases are built or word choice; it may be the translation of the book. But the authors share their shared regional heritage. There’s a reason Southern Gothic is a style of American Literature. There’s an essence you can pick up when reading a book by someone from the location they set their stories.

Oxford Blue transported me back to the cobblestone streets of one of my favorite places in the world. It had the cozy feeling of afternoon tea time in the summer sun but had exciting twists and turns like the old, rambling side streets of the town. Blue is the type of mystery that’s solvable for the average person – there’s no crazy car chases or international plots to take down a world leader. It’s a simple, but well constructed tale about a writer seeking refuge in the country, away from her home of Oxford. Instead of just finding a place to rest, she finds herself in the center of uncovering what really happened when a local gardener is killed. 

I like subtle mysteries. There’s a time and a place for thrillers that keep you up at night and have your heart pumping so hard sleep is elusive for weeks. What I enjoy is when an author makes me care about the characters and slowly builds toward action. Nothing out of the ordinary happens; just enough suspense to make me feel like I’m along for the ride. 

I look forward to checking out the rest of the Kate Ivory mysteries by Veronica Stallwood. I have a feeling they will be my easiest and fastest ticket back to Oxford. 

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Dangerous Kiss

I was always aware of Jackie Collins’ books. She’s a prolific writer (32! over the course of her career) and it’s nearly impossible to miss her section at the local library. While I have always seen her books, I didn’t read one until a few years ago.

My first Jackie Collins novel was The Power Trip. I picked it up one afternoon when I had a few hours to burn before covering a town meeting for my old newspaper job. I was wandering around Rite Aid, looking for a snack when this book caught my eye. Dangerous Kiss is actually the first Jackie Collins novel I picked up at the library. The others I’ve read were all purchased at either the drug or grocery store.

I ended up reading the last few Lucky Santangelo novels – Dangerous Kiss being part of the franchise –  last year on spring break. I didn’t realize they were part of a series until I was 50 pages in. But by that point, I was hooked and there was no going back.

I thought DK was the first of the Lucky novels, but again, I goofed up. What I love about these books are how they can be read out of order. Sure, there’s merit to read the novels in order. But Jackie fills in all the details – if you forget something or pick up the books out of order it doesn’t matter. I love the dramatic and over the top action. Lucky Santangelo always preaches about “Santangelo Justice” as a consequence of any and all horrific events that go down in Collins’ version of the world. And trust me, there are plenty of incidents that involve any and all methods of Lucky sanctioned justice.

In this Santangelo novel, there’s a horrible crime that rips multiple families apart and drives a wedge between Lucky and her husband. Brigette, Lucky’s niece and one of the richest women in the world, meets a devastatingly handsome and dangerous man and Lucky’s friends, Alex, Venus and Charlie Dollar all give the reader a glimpse of Hollywood life.

I like a Jackie Collins novel for the same reasons I like watching the various Housewives franchises – it’s so beyond my own experience. Dipping out of reality and into a bananas world of drama and intrigue can be exhilarating. These books are great for the beach or waiting rooms or any time you need a break. Collins herself never claimed to be a literary author, but she delivers a great story. Her books are fun and I adore them. Sure, the characters are a little contrived and the drama is completely over the top, but books like these have merit too.

Plus, she apparently loves leopard print, which is a neutral in my closet. I’ll give any woman a chance when I notice she rocks a great animal print.

Unfortunately, our author died last year after six years fighting cancer. So thanks, Jackie, for giving the world so many delightful, crazy books. I know I love them.

Winter Stroll

I know, I know, it’s too early for Christmas. I agree completely. However, I couldn’t help but pick up Winter Stroll by Elin Hilderbrand when I was at the library. I read the first book in this trilogy, Winter Street, when it first came out and I devoured it in one sitting. I haven’t had a chance to read the final installment, Winter Storm yet, but I’ll be picking it up soon.  I highly recommend grabbing all three and checking them out.

So as not to spoil anything, I’ll just say this, Winter Stroll picks up a year after the first book ends, a few weeks before Christmas on Nantucket. The story follows the Quinn family in the aftermath of a hard year full of huge changes.

I’ve read a few of Hilderbrand’s books at this point. And what I like most about her writing deals with her characters. It’s easy to pass her books off as fluff, with the covers full of beach scenes. But this is serious literature. If a man had written any of her books, the covers wouldn’t give off such a beachy vibe. What she does brilliantly is write truly complicated characters. None of them feel cliched or like they’re filling in the spot of a troupe. Instead, especially the women of her books, they are nasty and joyful and full of cracks and imperfections. At first glance, her characters come off as perfect preppy women of a certain social class in New England. As the reader gets to know them, we realize how they’re actually complicated women who are jealous, have bad relationships and try their best to be good mothers, partners and friends.

Sometimes I find myself trying to like a book others have recommended but I find the characters boring. That’s usually because they aren’t realistic. No one is perfect and Hilderbrand’s aren’t. She writes women that we assume have it together. Instead, they have fascinating inner dialogues and actions. They’re real and they could be the woman in front of you at Starbucks or the woman who you help gather the contents of her purse after it explodes in line at the grocery store. I recognize the women I’ve babysat for, who I teach yoga too and even sometimes myself in her characters.

In Winter Stroll, I enjoy how each section of the story is broken up by point of view. The cast of characters is large and diverse and getting a chance to hear from them all is an interesting way to digest a story like this. This novel takes place over the course of a stress filled weekend, one of those intense family times when everyone is edgy. Getting to experience it from everyone’s point of view makes the book even more interesting and enjoyable.

Over Thanksgiving, start with Winter Street, Winter Stroll and Winter Storm. These books will be a nice break and allow you to focus on the Quinn family drama, not your own.

 

 

 

To Helvetica and Back

When I was growing up, my nanny, Jojo always read mystery novels that prominently featured a cat on the cover. Those books she read and introduced me too could be blamed in part for my book addiction. Reading with her, sitting on the couch together will always be some of my most cherished reading memories.

The other day when I was wandering around my library, To Helvetica and Back by Paige Shelton caught my eye. On the spine, there was a blue mystery sticker and a small picture of a calico cat. The front cover has the same cat, an Underwood No. 5 typewriter and some fancy pens. I knew I had to check this book out. I can’t help but take a book with that kind of cover home.

The book follows  Chester Henry, proprietor of the Rescued Word, a typewriter repair shop, and Claire Henry, his granddaughter and business partner. They live in Star City, Utah, a sleepy mountain town dominated by the ski industry. Mystery and intrigue comes into Clare’s life when a strange man from out of town asks about an Underwood typewriter in the shop for a tune up. Later, the same man ends up dead in the alley behind the store. Like any good mystery heroine, Clare takes the sleuthing into her own hands and tries to figure out what’s going on.

Not every mystery novel needs to be filled with spies, explosions and dramatic kidnapping attempts. Some of the best ones tend to be a little more realistic. What I liked about Helvetica is how I could imagine myself as Clare. Her nosiness and curiosity to what was happening around her was completely believable. She was interested in what was going on around her place of business and how to keep all her  her grandfather and niece safe. Any information she came upon, Clare would share with her best friend and police officer in town, Jodie.

While To Helvetica and Back is not a fast paced thriller, it’s  a fun mystery. I didn’t devour the book in one setting like some books, I also didn’t feel wrecked after reading it. I enjoyed the book and will definitely be checking out the other books in the series once their published.

Plus, who doesn’t love a good old typewriter and a grouchy store cat?