These Are a Few of My Favorite … Reads

by Jackie Houchin

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages (from Amazon) tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things (reads)

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things (reads)
And then I don’t feel so bad” *

 

Who doesn’t know the catchy lyrics to that song? I bet you can even picture Julie Andrews singing them while twirling around. And who of us bibliophiles can’t say we have been transported and uplifted during and after reading those few special books that we cherish in our libraries.

The majority of my all-time fave books are mysteries, the old fashioned, clean, puzzling and often romantic reads that still make me smile just thinking of them.

My very favorite book was written by Mary Stewart** in 1964. But it was a few years earlier that I began my journey into this marvelous writer’s world.

Madam Talk audio 51B6UTiH4GL._SX342_I’d asked a wise librarian in Burbank if there was something beyond Nancy Drew, but kind of like her, that I could read. She looked at this budding, though still gangling young teen, and recommended Mary Stewart’s first book, Madam, Will You Talk? (1955)

I was hooked immediately!

The setting is Southern France and involves a young widow, a lovable mutt, a child in peril, high-speed car chases, and a dark and handsome man who is either villain or saint, and suspense.  Delish!

In less than a week I rushed back to the library to check out more of Mary Stewart’s books, reading down the list as fast as I could. Until I came to THE ONE. My favorite book of all time, re-read at least a half dozen times cover to cover, and often, as the song says, “when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad…”

Rough Magic Audio; 61gkNEBPKYL._SX342_This Rough Magic (1964), my opiate. ***

I’m not sure what makes my breathing slow when I open the book and settle into a soft chair, but in only a few pages I am deep into the atmosphere I love that is written so well by Mary Stewart in all of her books.

A writer’s hidden retreat on the isle of Corfu in Greece… An old house with secret passages… Wisps of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, quoted by the old recluse playwright living there, that seems to foreshadow the events in the book.

A young woman recovering from a career failure, arrives at the retreat with her sister seeking rest and solace but finding danger and death. Fog along the beach at dawn so thick you can only hear the waves slapping the shore… and the wooden oars of a boat bumping in their cradles, soft murmurs and oaths from its occupants, and grunts as they drag something heavy across the sand and into the trees.

A dolphin’s seeming magical appearances play an important role. And an arrogant and handsome figure, rough in clothes and manner slips in and out of the house at all hours. Is he a killer and smuggler, or a hero?

This is no silly Gothic, but is (to me) outstanding storytelling by a “wordsmith extraordinaire” whose sense of descriptive place is beyond amazing. My favorite read!

 

Next on my list is a puzzle mystery, that just so happens to also have a murder.

marinersCompass2Mariner’s Compass (1999) is Earlene Fowler‘s sixth Benny Harper mystery, set along California’s central coast. Each of her books is named for a quilting pattern although Benny is not a quilter herself. She is a rancher and married to a cop, but she helps maintain a historical museum in town that features old quilts.

What entrances me in this book, unlike any of her other mysteries, is the puzzle. In this story Benny receives a mysterious bequest from a dead stranger. She will inherit his entire estate if she will stay in his home in Morrow Bay for two weeks. Alone. Being alone, abandoned, is something that terrifies Benny.

She agrees, although her protective hubby-cop is not fond of the idea. Soon Benny is on a strange and dangerous scavenger hunt to find the man’s true identity. The clues he leaves hidden, if carefully followed, lead to more clues in a widening spiral of strange places. The deep mystery they reveal piecemeal is totally captivating. It’s a real stunner when she finally discovers who this Jacob Chandler was, and why he was stalking her.

More than the location in Mariner’s Compass, it’s the entwined maze of clues which makes this one of my favorite books. (BTW, if you look on Fowler’s fan page, this book is the favorite of many of her fans.)

 

Old Bones, maginfierOld Bones (1987) *** by Aaron Elkins is another favorite on my list. His protagonist Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist, but his moniker in the series is “bone doctor.” It is absolutely amazing what you (he) can discover from a set of fresh or ancient bones. Who they were, yes, but more importantly in the book, how, where, when, and why a person becomes bones.

Oliver himself is a big, kind of cute, socially inept “nerd” of a guy, who is brilliant with bones. I like all of his cases, but in this one, it’s the location that grabbed me, chilled me, and after many nightmares, made me book a tour to the real place in France.

Mont St Michel,  the small island off the Western coast of France topped by a towering monastery, is tour-worthy for sure. (The original cover pictures the island.) But it is the incoming tides, racing without warning at a speed faster than a man can run, over quicksand riddled mud, that terrifies me.

Yes, I went there, rode in a bus across the long, straight road from the mainland at low tide, trudged up the steep, winding road to the top, and toured the ancient building with a set of huge bells. Very Nice. Reminded me of Notre Dame.

But I could see those swirly patches of mud and sand from atop the “Mont” and in the distance a dark blue-green smudge. Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get into the bus and race back to mainland safety.

You are not so lucky in Old Bones. You will suffer fear, panic and worse, when you read the final chapters. I dare you! But, it’s the reason this is one of my faves.

 

Christining Day MurderA freaky location again is the reason for my listing The Christening Day Murder (1993) by Lee Harris as a memorable favorite. (All Lee Harris’ Christine Bennett – a former nun – mysteries have a special “day” as their title.) I can’t even remember the mystery, but I remember where a good portion of it takes place.

Thirty years before, the small town of Studsburg was evacuated by the government and flooded to create a reservoir. (Feeling creepy yet?) In this story, a drought has uncovered the town’s forgotten church, along with a gruesome discovery in the dank basement. It is the skeletal remains of a 30-year-old murder.

As Christine tries to piece together the sordid puzzle from the past, the water begins rising again and she is trapped in the basement…..(Gasping scream from me!)

 

Shell SeekersAnd lastly, the wonderfully warm and well-written family saga by the gifted Rosamunde PilcherThe Shell Seekers (1987) **** (all 582 pages ) This is not a mystery, but a lovely women’s novel featuring Penelope Keeling, a 64 year old woman whose days are limited, and whose family does not understand her. A woman whose past is calling her, but whose present threatens to fence her in.

A painting which her children vie for, lusting for the wealth it will bring at her passing, but which is too sweetly precious for Penelope part with, is in the center. Instead of giving it to her children, she uses it – to their chagrin and horror – to fund one last trip into her romantic past.

In the book, sixteen characters have their own section and say. Shell Seekers is not a linear book, so the characters each tell their story, almost as if they are all in a room together, and one steps forward to knit their story into the entire piece. They form a complete picture of “Miss Penelope Keeling,” who speaks last in the book.

These multiple POVs – besides Pilcher’s amazing, evocative, sweeping, tender, gorgeous writing – makes this a favorite. It is the voices of 16 people, separate and yet forever intertwined in the story of one wonderful woman. A tear-jerker. You won’t want it to end. When it does, you’ll fly to the first page and begin again. (PS: Rosamunde Pilcher was 60 when she wrote this book.)

 

Suspense and romance, locations and mystery

Old Bones and bodies, shrouded in history

Villains and heroes revealing their deeds

These are A FEW of my favorite reads.

 

Have you got any favorite reads? What is it that makes them memorable to you? Characters, setting, style, genre, author, the writing…?

 

 

* Richard Rodgers, The Sound of Music, with my words in italics

** Mary Stewart is credited with developing the genre of romantic suspense featuring intelligent, independent, and capable women who don’t fall apart in a crisis. A reviewer wrote, “There is an old-fashioned elegance about Mary Stewart‘s writing. A stately polish with more than a hint of an old 1950’s Hollywood movie.”

*** Mary Stewart‘s mysteries are now all available in audio through Amazon/Audible. Here’s the link to This Rough Magic

**** 1988 Edgar Award Winner – Best Mystery of the year. (“Look out Sherlock Holmes!”)

***** In her introduction, Pilcher writes that she intended The Shell Seekers to be “A big fat novel for women. Something above all, that tapped into my life and the experiences of my generation.”

Author: photojaq

First, I am a believer in Jesus Christ, so my views and opinions are filtered through what God's Word says and I believe. I'm a wife, a mom, a grandma and now a great grandma. I write articles and reviews, and I dabble in short fiction. I enjoy living near the ocean, doing gardening (for beauty and food) and traveling - in other countries, if possible. My heart is for Christian missions, and I'm compiling a collections of Missionary Kids' stories to publish. (I also like kittens and cats and reading mysteries.)

17 thoughts on “These Are a Few of My Favorite … Reads”

  1. Contemporary writers should spend quality time reading older books that are held in high esteem like the books you have referenced, Jackie. Sometimes we need to see what worked and what is still beautiful and add a touch of that magic to our own work. Too many writers forget quality and go for something with less heart and soul. And readers, too, should take a look at the classics before they are totally forgotten. They will have missed so much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The comment that Mary Stewart was like reading the old 1950’s movies, reminded me of you, Gayle. Although I believe her writing is in vivid color, not black & white. I loved her mysteries, but the trio of “Merlin” books, not so much.

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  2. Such a lovely look back at your favorite books, and thanks for introducing me to Aaron Elkins, I will be sure to find his books. Interesting about your memories of Mont St. Michel as I often went to the Cornish version, St. Michael’s Mount, with my family as a child. It is a twin island to Mont St. Michel complete with monastery and reachable by foot at low tide.

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    1. I think you will really enjoy Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver “bone doctor” series. (He writes others too.) Try to begin with OLD BONES if you can. It is fantastic. Later in his series, his characters revisit the place and people… and find another skeleton mystery to solve.

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  3. This is quite a list, Jackie. My mystery favorites: Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, Susan Wittig Albert (China Bayles series). I could list many more. I enjoy their settings, plots, and characters.

    From your list, I loved The Shell Seekers and have enjoyed the works of Earlene Fowler and Aaron Elkins. As for Mary Stewart, I’ve only read My Brother Michael, and didn’t care for it. I’m probably the only person on the planet to feel this way and I feel a little guilty admitting it! I did think she was masterful with her setting, and I like that her female character wasn’t a “damsel in distress” sort. But the story and characters didn’t move me. Maybe I should try another.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like Sue Grafton too, Maggie, and have read all of her alphabet mysteries except the last three (no time!). I’ve reviewed a few of Susan Wittig Alberts’ China Bayles mysteries, as well as the old ladies garden club books. I like what she knows about horticulture.
      I’ve read MY BROTHER MICHAEL also (and have an old paperback copy – in fact I have ALL of them in paperback.) I haven’t read it in a while, but I remember liking it. The settings and her marvelous writing is what captures me… and of course, back then, the romance part too. (haha) I’ll have to get it down and read it again. THIS ROUGH MAGIC is not universally liked, I have to warn you – not sure why it hits me so hard – but you could try MADAM WILL YOU TALK?, her first one. And like I said, they are all on audio format now as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. So many books, so little time, so slow a reader am I. All kidding aside, the books I love best, whether fiction or non-fiction and regardless of genre, have an element of mystery to them – I turn the pages and wonder what will happen…?

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    1. So true, Miriam, in your whole post! That’s why I have so appreciated audio books and am an annual member of Audible.com. I can listen to them while cooking, cleaning, gardening, walking and driving… and I often do! I’m listening to THE PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS by David McCullough now (because we are going to fulfill Hubby’s dream of a cruise through the Panama Canal in early January). It is 31.5 hours of listening, and I am about 1/3 of the way through. SUCH research!! Anyway, thanks for posting.

      BTW, Linda ‘s family background involves pogroms in Russia. I’ve recommended to her your PETAL IN THE WIND series.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Also a fan of Aaron Elkins and Earlene Fowler in the past, and you’ve reminded me how much I like them. I’ve never read Mary Stewart, and it sound like I’ve missed some good writing. I’ve tended to lean toward the Brits and the Golden Age of Writing — thinking I need to expand. But as Miriam points out, so little time, and for me aging eyes – but as you’ve also pointed out, there’s Audible, which I’m also a member of, and love.

    The world of the written words– ahhh! Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Madeline, Mary Stewart was a British author, though not in the league of your P. D. James. I also loved Helen MacInnis, a Scottish writer who wrote longer books at the same time, but were SPY mysteries. I loved the exotic places she wrote about and dreamed of going there. Such as The Salzburg Connection, Message from Malaga, Assignment in Britany, North From Rome, Decision at Delphi. Above Suspicious was great, also, I remember loving The Double Image. Hmmmmm, now you got me interested in her again. I’ll have to see what’s available. Thanks!

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  7. I guess I’ll add my five cents here (inflation). I’ve read two books this year that took my breath away, they were so well written and fascinating. The first was Educated by Tara Westover. The second was All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Like I said, I’m a slow reader : )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t heard of Educated, but I have heard about All the Light We Cannot See. I guess I’ll have to investigate that one. If you, Miriam, says it takes your breath away, then it must be “something!”
      Originally, I confused it with Louise Penny’s How The Light Gets In. I bet both authors used the same quote to title their books.

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