A Middlebrow Month

An engrossing group portrait of five women writers, including Virginia Woolf, who moved to London’s Mecklenburgh Square in search of new freedom in their life and work.

“I like this London life . . . the street-sauntering and square-haunting.”–Virginia Woolf, diary, 1925

In the early twentieth century, Mecklenburgh Square–a hidden architectural gem in London’s Bloomsbury–was a radical address, home to students, struggling artists, and revolutionaries. And in the pivotal era between the two world wars, the lives of five remarkable women intertwined around this one address: the modernist poet H. D., detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, classicist Jane Harrison, economic historian Eileen Power, and author and publisher Virginia Woolf. In an era when women’s freedoms were fast expanding, they each sought a space where they could live, love, and–above all–work independently.

With sparkling insight and a novelistic style, Francesca Wade sheds new light on a group of artists and thinkers whose pioneering work would enrich the possibilities of women’s lives for generations to come.

For the last two months, basically every post on this blog has been focused on a certain type of reading that, for me, works so well for autumn. But, officially, Halloween bingo is over, and has been a rousing success, as always. I blacked out my bingo card, and then some. You can find my In Memoriam page here.

With that introduction, I’m moving into a different part of my reading year. I can’t say that I won’t be reading mysteries, because by far the most consistent genre I read is mystery, and especially vintage mystery. In addition, with the holidays rapidly approaching, I will be pulling out winter/Christmas themed mysteries and stories. But, as well, I am trying something new this year – November is Middlebrow Month for me, and I will be directing my attention, and my content, to books that were written by British women during the interwar and WWII period.

Which brings me to Square Haunting – a book that I actually finished in August. This review has been sitting in my “scheduled” reviews since before September 1, waiting to drop. This is a fairly rare occurrence for me – I typically only write up reviews one or two days before they post. This is also a non-fiction book, which is also fairly rare for me.

The title of the book is presumably taken from a Virgina Woolf essay called Street Haunting, a London Adventure, which a friend and fellow blogger, BrokenTune, linked to in a thread on Goodreads. I haven’t read very much Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse as a young(er) reader, but none of her essays or other books. I found Street Haunting to be a delightful essay about the glories of “Town” living:

As the foxhunter hunts in order to preserve the breed of foxes, and the golfer plays in order that open spaces may be preserved from the builders, so when the desire comes upon us to go street rambling the pencil does for a pretext, and getting up we say: “Really I must buy a pencil,” as if under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter–rambling the streets of London.

BrokenTune had also been reading Square Haunting, which looked intriguing, so I added it to my library hold list and started reading as soon as it came up. It took me a week or so to finish it – I often struggle with nonfiction – and I loved it. So much that I have since bought a copy of the book for my own shelves.

The premise of the book is unique – miniature biographies of five British women, all of whom ended up living in the same Bloomsbury square (Mecklenburg square) between 1919 and 1940. The women are: Hilda Doolitle (who went by H.D.), Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power and, of course, Virginia Woolf. Of the five, I had only previously read (or even heard of, to be frank)  Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf. H.D. was a poet, Jane Harrison was a classical scholar and Eileen Power was a medievalist. All five women were members of the “Bloomsbury group” in some capacity or another; all but Woolf were serious scholars who attended either Oxford or Cambridge, but who were unable to receive degrees at the time of their “graduation.”

Ultimately, the women who graduated from an Oxford womens college were awarded degrees – the University passed a retroactive statute in October, 1920. It took until 1948 for Cambridge University to do the right thing and grant degrees to women, a full quarter century later.

But, I digress into an area that will simply enrage me, so back to Square Haunting. I so thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in any of the five women profiled, the Bloomsbury Group, or feminist history. Their lives were fascinating. They were privileged, sure – a group of intellectually brilliant women from backgrounds that were sufficient to grant them entrance in one of the Oxbridge Universities in the late 19th or early 20th century when places for women were scant indeed. 

Nonetheless, each of them, in her own way, chose a life that was completely different from what she had been brought up to expect. And each woman supported herself in a world where women didn’t really do that. They were expected to use their intelligence and their resourcefulness to help the men who chose them in their careers, not have a career of their own.

As Dorothy Sayers writes, in Strong Poison, her first Harriet Vane/Peter Wimsey mystery:

Genius must be served, not argued with,” sniffs an associate of Boyes’s, insisting that Harriet poisoned her lover out of jealousy at his superior intellect. A friend of Harriet’s puts it differently, summing up the attitude a successful woman writer had to contend with: “She ought to have been ministering to his work, not making money for them both with her own independent trash.” 

Nonetheless, as Wade says “Harriet knows her own worth, and refuses to spare Boyes’s ego by diminishing her own achievements.

With respect to the fourth woman profiled, Eileen Power, she “was very conscious that, as Jane Harrison put it in 1914, “the virtues supposed to be womanly are in the main the virtues generated by subordinate social position.” Like Dorothy L. Sayers, who wrote in her caustic 1938 essay “Are Women Human?” that it was “repugnant…to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person,” Power railed against the social system which “is so anxious for people to be correct that it effectually prevents them from being true.

Virginia Woolf lived in Mecklenburgh Square quite a bit later than the preceding four, and her residence occurred at least partially during the Blitz. Her connection is the most tenuous – she lived there a very short time, and spent much of the time she lived at her home in the country. When she left Mecklenburgh Square, she left London for good. Many of the homes in the square were leveled in the Blitz.

The most engaging thing about the book was the overview of the intellectual life of the five women and their social group – it was a veritable who’s who of interwar British literary and scholarly society, and just tracking the other women authors who were mentioned as a delight – Rose Macauley, Elizabeth Bowen, Agatha Christie (of course – although she wasn’t a part of this very Bohemian group of individuals), Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain are just some of the names mentioned. 

After finishing, I picked up Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession, which covers many of these same novelists. And  it inspired, at least in part, the next few months of my reading plans. I don’t think that there could be a higher recommendation than that?

Halloween Bingo – Week 4

The State of the Card:

I made a lot of progress this week, finishing books for Amateur Sleuth, Trick or Treat, Lethal Games, Splatter, Halloween and Psych.

  • Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie: I read this one for the Halloween square. I had been planning to read one of Ngaio Marsh’s “theater” mysteries, because this particular square includes a fancy dress component, but my library holds didn’t cooperate. This is a perennial favorite, and I have read it for this square before – Ariadne Oliver is always worth reading.
  • The Family Plot by Megan Collins: I read this for Psych, although it would have fit in a number of places. It was okay, but not my favorite type of book. People who enjoy the “domestic thriller” genre will probably enjoy it more than I did.
  • Five Red Fingers by Brian Flynn: this Anthony Bathurst mystery is set in the world of horse racing, so it was a great fit for Lethal Games. I enjoyed it, although the solution was silly.
  • The Box in the Woods by Maureen Johnson: I read this one for Trick or Treat, which is the square that combines YA mystery & horror. Johnson is very obviously a Christie fan, and this one was very entertaining.
  • Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly: I am a Harry Bosch fan. I’ve read the entire series a couple of times, and anything in the Harry Bosch Universe (except for the Mickey Haller books, which I find meh) are an autobuy for me. This is the third book, and is where the series really hits its stride. A fantastic entry. I read this one for Splatter.
  • The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor: Female vicar named Jack, and her daughter Flo, are exiled to a weird little town steeped in darkness after Jack gets into some sort of trouble at her last parish, and someone immediately begins trying to kill them. I read it for Amateur Sleuth, and liked it a lot.

I only have four more squares and I’ll black out my card. I’m hoping to complete the card by October 1!

Halloween Bingo: Week 3

The State of the Card

Week 3 was spent mostly on vacation at the Pacific City, on the Oregon Coast. It is a very beautiful place, and there was a lot of walking on the beach, craft beer, visiting tide pools with my kids, and playing ball with my 16 month old Golden Retriever pup, Gus. There was, also, plenty of time for reading!

I finished several books:

  • Falling Star by Patricia Moyes for the Vintage Mystery square: this was the 5th book in the Inspector Henry Tibbets series. It was first published in 1964, but was only a mediocre installment. The solution to the mystery was a bit too clever, and it was told in a first-person narration through a thoroughly unlikeable narrator. I think he was supposed to be a bit of a Bertie Wooster type, but he was just ugh.
  • My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart for Romantic Suspense: Mary Stewart is a longtime favorite author. Her books were released for the kindle a few years ago now, very inexpensively. I bought them all and have been parceling them out bit-by-bit rather than just going on a binge. I always love her beautifully rendered settings, and this was no exception, being set in Greece.
  • Relic by Preston & Childs for the Free square: I bought this book for my husband years ago, and hadn’t read it. I was hoping that it would fit my Relics & Curiosities square, but it really didn’t – title notwithstanding – so I dropped it into the Free Square. I could juggle my squares a bit and move some things around to put this one in Dem Bones, but I think I’m just going to leave it be.
  • The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman for Dem Bones: This book was a lot of fun. It’s been sort of everywhere recently, and I understand why. I also read that it has been optioned by Spielberg – as I was reading it, I was imagining what a wonderful movie it would make.
  • Why Kings Confess by C.S. Harris for Darkest London: I started reading Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscolo for this square, but DNF’d at about 20% because it really wasn’t working for me at all. I’ve been reading this historical mystery series for years, and am still about five books behind!
  • Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece for Southern Gothic: This was one of my anticipated Halloween Bingo reads, partially because of the gorgeous cover. It was good, but not great – I felt like it was trying to do too any things all at once. I liked the story about the town and the wisewomen and the magical realism, but when it came to the murder mystery and the cartoon villains, I was very meh.

And that’s it for the vacation week! Fifteen books done, ten to go!

Halloween Bingo: Week 2

The State of the Card:

Last update, I had finished 3 books. I had a very good reading week this week (as is the norm when I’m playing Halloween Bingo – I just can’t read fast enough!) and finished an additional 5 books.

  • The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald: I read this for my Noir square. I’ve been reading quite a bit of hardboiled/California noir fiction recently and MacDonald does it really well. Lew Archer, MacDonald’s PI, is the natural heir to Philip Marlowe, and operates within the same Los Angeles as Marlowe. The plotting in this one had some weaknesses, and the reader is blindsided at the end by a character who behaves entirely out of the character that had been built through the entire novel, but overall, very enjoyable.
  • Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: This has been on my TBR for ages, and I’m trying to bring more diversity to my Halloween Bingo reading, which is why I selected this one. It was terrific and I highly recommend it. The inclusion of the black experience in a piece of noir fiction was really intriguing. I used a Double Trouble card so I applied this one to both Diverse Voices and Film at Eleven.
  • The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow: I also really loved this book. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Colonial America, that has a strong connection to fairy tales and feminist themes. This is the second book I’ve read by Harrow, the other being The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a portal fantasy, which I also loved. Harrow is an auto-buy for me at this point. I used this one for A Grimm Tale.
  • The Cutting Season by Attica Locke: I thought I had read everything Locke has published, but it turns out I was wrong. This is an early stand-alone, and is my least favorite of all of her books. That doesn’t mean it’s not good, but I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag. I used an Amplification card (Locke is a Black author) to fill Fear the Drowning Deep.
  • Traitor’s Purse by Margery Allingham: I am not knowledgeable about the Campion books, and I picked this one more or less at random, and because I could get it for free from the KU library. Mistake. This is an amnesia book, and I don’t know the series well enough to feel anything other than completely confused when dropped into a book where the MC doesn’t know his own name. I will probably revisit it when I have read more of the series. This one checked off the Paint It Black card, with its predominantly black cover.

I am on vacation for the week, and am headed over to the coast tomorrow, so I’ll still be reading, but not probably posting.

Halloween Bingo Update #1

The State of the Card:

I switched up my markers a bit. The owl is the marker for “read” squares, and the moon/cat is the marker for “called + read.” There is also a marker for “called but not read,” but I don’t have any of those yet. The only call that has been on my card so far is Ghost Stories.

I have finished three books so far:

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik: I read this for the Dark Academia. It came pretty close to a DNF, because I wasn’t crazy about it at the beginning. I didn’t find any of the characters very engaging until about 40%, when it hooked me. I ended up really liking it, and I will definitely continue with the series.

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie: I read this for Country House Mystery. This is a beloved Christie, and it will get the full review treatment sometime this month.

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: This is another take on Dark Academia, although I read it for Ghost Stories. It was another slow starter, but I really loved the second half. It’s a twisty tale set at Yale, in New Haven. It is pretty much begging for a television adaptation.

I started a fourth book, The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, but I’m just not feeling it right now, so I’m going to set it aside. It’s definitely the sort of thing that I like, so I’ll come back to it eventually.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

Publication information: this is Agatha Christie’s 11th full-length mystery, published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on September 7, 1931. It was published in the U.S. that same year by Dodd, Mead & Company under the title Murder at Hazelmoor.

The Sittaford Mystery is a stand-alone, with only a single character who appears in more than one Christie – Inspector Narracott also makes an appearance in a radio play called Personal Call, which is part of an audio anthology called Agatha Christie: the Lost Plays. If you are interested, you can find it on Audible here.

I have read The Sittaford Mystery several times – four at least. I always enormously enjoy it, and this was no exception to that rule. Agatha is at her most playful here, incorporating a number of Sherlock Holmes-ish elements, including a seance, an escaped convict and the Dartmoor landscape.

She sets the book during a notable snow-storm – the book opens on a snowy evening party at Sittaford House, which is being rented by a mother-daughter pair of Australians. This makes The Sittaford Mystery a perfect winter reading escape – I was actually reading it at the wrong time of year altogether. I do remember that my last reading of the book occurred as part of a family winter holiday. My daughter & I listened to it on a drive between our home in the Portland area and the Bend area of Oregon, which was sheer perfection. The roadsides were white and piled with snow, and we drove in a very light snow, so that there weren’t safety issues, but there was added atmosphere for the Hugh Fraser audiobook.

Snow on the Tors

Back to the beginning of The Sittaford Mystery, though. Looking for entertainment, the party, which introduces many of the characters, decide to indulge in a spot of table-turning. The “spirit” who contacts them claims to be Captain Trevelyan, the owner of Sittaford House, where the party is taking place. Captain Trevelyan is spending the winter in a nearby town, because he wanted the money offered by Mrs. Willett to take Sittaford House for the winter. He is supposed to be very much alive at the moment of the table turning. The spirit’s announcement becomes even more dramatic – with a claim that he, Captain Trevelyan, has been murdered.

This all happens very early in the book, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s a cracking opening, though, and is immediately intriguing.

The announcement that Captain Trevelyan has been murdered has quite an effect on the table-turners. His best friend, Major Burnaby, who was reluctantly drawn into the table-turning enterprise, is shaken against his will. He decides that he needs to get to Exhampton to make sure that Trevelyan is all right. The conditions are terrible, deep snow and more snow falling with a blizzard expected. The roads are impassable so driving to Exhampton is out of the question. Nonetheless, Major Burnaby is the sporty type, so he takes off on foot, for the two and a half hour walk through the snow. He finds Captain Trevelyan murdered.

I’m not going to spoil this book because Agatha’s puzzle mysteries are such fun. I almost never figured them out the first time through. I don’t remember if I figured this one out or if it was wholly baffling.

I want to talk about bit about two of my favorite characters in the book, though. First, a mention of Inspector Narracott, our Inspector du Livre, who is very well-drawn and likeable. He is no bumbler – he comes to Sittaford to solve the mystery, and is quite capable. It’s a bit of a pity that Agatha never really used him again.

The life and soul of this book, though, is Emily Trefusis, whose fiance, James Pearson, is one of Captain Trevelyan’s heirs. It seems that the good Captain is quite well-off, and, as well, is a woman-hater so he has no wife or children to stand in the way of his siblings – and their children, inheriting a packet. Each of the four heirs are quite hard up, and they all stand to gain approximately 20K pounds.

This is a tidy sum – according to a calculator I just used, 20K pounds in 1931 had the equivalent purchasing power of 1.4M pounds today. For American readers, that’s almost 2M dollars.

Motives everywhere! Anyway, back to Emily Trefusis, who is delightful. Over the many years that I have read Christie’s books I have found that some of her best characters are young women, and Emily Trefusis is a firecracker. She is resourceful and, at times, manipulative. She is a very capable young lady who is determined to clear her boyfriend’s good name, as he has been arrested for the murder. He’s a weak, albeit attractive, young man and is but clay in her hands – her plan is to marry him and make him into a success.

I have no doubt that she will prevail in any endeavor she undertakes. Because Emily Trefusis is a force of nature. Not everyone will connect with her character, but I absolutely do. There was a time in my life, before I raised kids, had a career for 30 years, and was worn down by life, when I, too, was a force of nature. I didn’t need to manipulate a man to fulfill my ambitions, because I have the good fortune of having been born in 1966 instead of 1911 and could do for myself. I don’t hold Emily’s fierceness against her, even when she uses it to manipulate the men around her. Which she does, very effectively.

This being a Christie, there is a love triangle between Emily and her two suitors: the afore-mentioned, somewhat wet, James Pearson and the not-at-all-wet Charles Enderby, a journalist who comes to town to deliver a prize to Captain Trevelyan for winning some sort of a puzzle competition and stays for the murder investigation. Emily very openly uses Enderby to accomplish tasks that she isn’t able to manage by dint of her status as a young woman. Also this being a Christie, Emily chooses between them by the end, and will go off and be married, never to be seen or heard from again (which is really too bad. A mid-career visit from a mature Emily Trefusis would have been a sight to behold).

The Sittaford Mystery isn’t Christie’s best work – but it’s an enjoyable mystery with a great setting and some wonderful characters.

Halloween Bingo: Romantic Suspense

I am not particularly a fan of romantic suspense, except for Mary Stewart, but I do love old-fashioned gothic romance, which fits this square as well.

Vintage gothic romance has been a stable of my Halloween bingo games since the very beginning, in 2016, when we started HB with a group read of Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels. This was great fun, a ghost story set in Georgetown, of all places, and first published in 1968. It was just the right amount of creepy.

In addition to Ammie Comes Home, I have read:

  • Falonridge by Jennifer Wilde
  • The Looking Glass Portrait by my friend, Linda Hilton, who also plays Halloween Bingo with me on Goodreads
  • Greygallows by Barbara Michaels
  • Listen for the Whisperer by Phyllis Whitney
  • Columbella by Phyllis Whitney
  • The Walker in the Shadows by Barbara Michaels
  • The Lost Island by Phyllis Whitney
  • The Sea King’s Daughter by Barbara Michaels
  • The Singing Stones by Phyllis Whitney

Last year, in 2020, was the first and only year that I didn’t read anything by Michaels or Whitney. I’m surprised to see that there aren’t any Victoria Holt gothics, and also that there isn’t any Mary Stewart in past bingo games. The large number of Phyllis Whitney books makes sense to me, though – Open Road has reissued her entire backlist, and I’ve ended up buying most of them as they have gone on sale for $1.99 to $2.99. And my library has a bunch of the Barbara Michaels ebooks, so that also makes sense. This is one of the great things about ebooks – many of these old fashioned gothics that are long out of print are newly available through small publishers (same is true of vintage mysteries).

Last year I was browsing my UBS and someone had just dropped off a stack of old paperback gothics. I grabbed some of them and have been kicking myself ever since for just not buying them all – this is a lesson to me. There have been a few times that I have let books that I wanted go unbought, and I’ve always regretted it. I have never regretted buying the book. I love old paperbacks and used copies are difficult to acquire. A lot of them are pretty battered, but they were quite a find nonetheless.

So, this year I am planning on something by one of my big 4: Holt, Whitney, Michaels or Stewart. I have many that I am considering, including:

I own unread copies of Emerald and Airs Above the Ground and they are waiting for me on my kindle. I also checked out Into the Darkness by Barbara Michaels. If I end up not reading it for this round of bingo, I am sure I will check it out again at some point.

Halloween Bingo: Southern Gothic

Yesterday we visited all of the Londons of my imagination – and today I’ll talk about a place that couldn’t be more different if it tried – the swampy, violent, and often murderous, version of the American South that is found in Southern Gothic books. Books set in this region get their own square. In my mind, it all looks like the bayou and, well, there are ghosts.

Is this why William Faulkner wrote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’ve had this square on my card twice:

In 2020, I read Amy Engel’s The Familiar Dark, a murder mystery set in the Ozarks of Missouri. I wrote “I’m not sure how much I actually liked this book. It was set in a small meth-devastated town full of awful people in the Missouri Ozarks, though, so it was perfect for this square,” and, as well, I’ll admit that I barely remember this book a year later. As such, I can’t recommend it.

Southern Gothic didn’t appear on my card in 2019, but in 2018 I read Sharyn McCrumb’s The Ballad of Frankie Silver, which is part of her Ballad series set in Appalachia. Most of them are set in Dark Hollow, Tennessee, but this one takes place in North Carolina. I’ve read at least three of these books and they are universally good.

There are other books that I’ve read for other squares that I can also recommend, most especially Blackwater: the Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell which is an incredibly atmospheric piece of southern gothic horror, with a really unique voice. I am not a horror fan. I absolutely loved this book.  In fact, I loved it so much that another book by McDowell is on my short list for this category this year. I also read Be Buried in the Rain, by Barbara Michael, a gothic romance set at a Virginia plantation called Maidenwood, where terrible family secrets are about to be uncovered.

So, for 2021, I am choosing from:

The Elementals is set on the Gulf Coast, and concerns two families from Mobile, Alabama, the McCrays and the Savages, who have been spending their summers in a pair of Victorian homes on a spit of land called Beldame, on the Gulf Coast, for years. There is a third, abandoned, summer home that is slowly disappearing into the encroaching sand, which houses a “vicious horror which is shaping nightmares from the nothingness that hangs in the dank, fetid air.” Yikes. 

The other possibility that I’m considering is a piece of magical realism, Wildwood Whispers by Willa Reece, set in Morgan’s Gap, in Appalachia. I really want to read this book, but my library says that it won’t be available to check out as an ebook for 16 weeks, which is well-past my Halloween Bingo cut off. On the other hand, I did place a hold for the print version, which should show up at my branch in the next few days.

Halloween Bingo: Darkest London

I have only been to London in the real world once – I had just graduated from high school and, as a reward, my parents sent me on one of those two week, whirlwind European tours, where we raced through several of the major cities: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Lucerne, Rome, Venice, Barcelona, Madrid. I loved London (loved every place, honestly) and always intended to return. I never have.

Except as an armchair traveler. If we count the number of days I have spent in Piccadilly and Mayfair, lurking in a Tube station, dancing at Almack’s, or solving mysteries in a mansion flat in Whitehaven Manor or Mrs. Hudson’s rooms at 221B Baker Street, I’ve spent months there. Maybe years. Some of those mental trips have been to the London that is real; many of them have been to a fictional London that exists only in the imagination of the author who conjured them up. I love all of the Londons – real and unreal, fact and fiction. The Londons of the past, present and, probably even future.

I think it’s probably my love of Victorian literature that is at the bottom of this London obsession. I can’t get enough of gaslit London – Sherlock Holmes, Dickens musing on the pea-soupers, A Christmas Carol and Scrooge and the Cratchits. Or, possibly, the Regency London of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer (and their progeny), with its strolls along the Serpentine, marriageable Dukes and curricle races. And then, the interwar London and London of the Blitz, the London of Bloomsbury and Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot. These are the Londons that I think of – places that are barely even real because they have been idealized and fictionalized across a century or more, and yet have more depth and resonance to me than Phoenix, Arizona and other brand-new cities scattered across the United States, like infections of urban blight, places I have been and can barely even remember because they all look the same.

  • 2020: I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King. This is the first in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, and takes place partially in 1920’s London.
  • 2019: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson. I’ve mentioned this one a few times in prior posts. Anything involving Jack the Ripper is pretty much catnip to me.

And so far in this post, I haven’t even mentioned the magical Londons – the red London of V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic, the underground London of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the steam-punk London of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate, and the ghost-infested Shades of London series by Paul Cornell. And that brings me to this year’s books.

So, for this year, I’m thinking that I will go with the third book in the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, Whispers Underground. I recently reread the first, and read the second, in the series and really enjoyed them both, and Whispers Underground is sitting in my library loans. I also have Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco (see above Ripper = catnip comment) checked out, and I am behind on the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka, which is sort of a British version of Harry Dresden.

Halloween Bingo: Dark Academia & Paint It Black

This post covers two, two, two squares in one!

It wasn’t until I came up with the Dark Academia square (Any mystery, horror, suspense or supernatural book that occurs at a school – boarding school, high school, university, college, etc.) for Halloween Bingo that it occurred to me how much I love books with academic settings. I must not be alone here – given how many of them there are, this must be a fairly beloved literary trope.

  • I read Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James last year, and really enjoyed it. It is set in a rather unusual theological seminary on the East Anglian Coast. The book combined the “academic” setting with another element that I love – the isolated, windswept coastal setting. I can’t get enough of books with these themes!
  • In 2019, I read The Cat Among The Pigeons by Agatha Christie. This book is set at a very traditionally untraditional English girl’s school – Meadowbank – and combines murder mystery and political thriller elements. It features some of my favorite side-characters, including Julia Upjohn, the very clever student who solves the mystery and outwits the killer, and Miss Bulstrode, the headmistress. As an aside, the adaptation of this novel for the BBC Poirot series is outstanding, with the always incredible Harriet Walters playing Miss Bulstrode.

And speaking of Harriet Walters, Ms. Walters previously performed the role of Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series. I have never (re)read Gaudy Night, the 10th Wimsey mystery, specifically for this square but that book may be the quintessence of the perfect academic mystery, and I recommend it to absolutely everyone.

This square debuted in either the 2018 or the 2019 game, and I’ve only had it on my card twice previously. I have read additional books set in schools for other squares, including: Some of Us Are Lying (Karen McManus); several of the Harry Potter books (J.K. Rowling), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs), Down a Dark Hall (Lois Duncan), Truly Devious and The Name of the Star (both by Maureen Johnson), and Etiquette and Espionage (Gail Carriger).

This year, my Dark Academia and Paint It Black squares are, coincidentally, side-by-side on my card. In addition, the two books that I have selected for Dark Academia happen to also qualify for Paint It Black, which includes any book with a cover that is predominantly black.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novick: I already have this checked out of the library and am holding off on reading it until the game begins! I’m a fan of Novick’s fairy tale retelling, The Uprooted, and also enjoyed several books in her alternative-history-with-dragons series set during the Napoleonic Wars, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon. This one is set at Scholomance, a school for the magically gifted.

The Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo: This has been on my TBR since it was published. It’s set at Yale and with a main character who is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. I have several friends who have loved this book.

If neither of these end up working for me during the game, I can always go back to a Gaudy Night reread – that book is so wonderful I can’t get enough of it. And, fortuitously, several of the Margery Allingham Albert Campion mysteries have covers that would qualify for Paint It Black. Lots of options!.