Billy Boyle

At one of our Christmas time family gatherings, people bring a gift for anonymous exchanges – draw a number, pick a gift, etc. Over the last few years, the theme has been about a country or city. It’s been kind of fun to see the different things people find to package together.

Last year I opened an England package, which included a book by James R. Benn, The White Ghost, A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery. It turns out that The White Ghost is #10 out of what is now fifteen books! The series seemed intriguing, so I went in search of #1: Billy Boyle. I found a copy at my local bookstore, Third Place Books,  Ravenna. I just got around to reading it.

It’s an interesting setup, with Billy Boyle being a young Boston policeman of Irish ancestry who ends up enlisting in the army and getting posted to General Eisenhower’s staff in London. He is related to Ike through his mother’s family, and indeed calls him “Uncle Ike.” Initially,  I wasn’t sure about the whole thing because there was a little too much “Gee, I’m Irish from Boston and here I am in London” stuff. But after that was dispensed with it turned out to be a really good story about the invasion of Norway. I’m always interested to learn more about that because of my Norwegian family. It appears that Mr. Benn has done his homework very well, so there is a great plot, fine characters, and historical accuracy.

So with lots of other things to read, it will take me a while to catch to book #10 on my bookshelf, but I’ll enjoy working on it. It’s always fun to look forward to another installment in a good series.

Billy Boyle



World War II

Today, May 8, 2020, is the 75th anniversary of VE Day, the end of World War II in Europe. I’m just finishing the latest novel in the Lane Winslow series by Iona Wishaw. These are really good books that take place around and after World War II. (I wrote about them on June 2, 2019:

Today I was reminded of the heroism of my Norwegian family. One great-uncle was lost flying for the RAF, another was captured by the Germans and died in a concentration camp. The family comes from the most westerly islands off the coast of Norway. It’s a straight shot to the Shetland Islands, so they were among those many fisherpeople who transported refugees to Great Britain.

There are lots and lots of great novels about World War II, but a favorite of mine is a children’s book I read over and over again as a child and a few times since! It is Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. It’s about a group of Norwegian children who carry their town’s gold bullion to a waiting boat by hiding it in their sleds as they ostensibly play in the snow. It’s still in print, and well worth a read. It would be a good memorial on this VE Day anniversary or any day.

Snow Treasure



Books and Newspapers

We’re fortunate in our very bookish city here in Seattle as there are lots of opportunities for good reviews and new discoveries. The Seattle Times book critic, Moira MacDonald is particularly good. Today she writes a great article about discovering books to read in other books. I love her comments about always remembering who recommended a book to you or who gave it to you.

Enjoy her article!


Sequential Stories

I’ve always enjoyed authors who continue to write about the same characters in new novels. Sometimes this is a significant work, like Hilary Mantel’s current trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, and sometimes it’s just the fun of a good writer developing character with new adventures. We all loved the whole Harry Potter series, didn’t we?

I have enjoyed, for the most part, Sheila Connolly’s County Cork mysteries. Her protagonist, Maura Donovan, has been thrown into the life of Irish pub owner after an inheritance comes her way, leaving Boston for the small Cork village of Leap. It’s a nice plot premise, and I have mostly enjoyed these books. The characters are interesting and the village life is full of twists and turns.

I just finished the newly published eighth installment, Fatal Roots, and I think I may be done with this. I have continued to be annoyed at her attempt at dialect, which is to only have the Irish refer to people in conversation as  “yeh.” I get what that sounds like, but I wish she had used some descriptor to note that people speak English differently there and let the reader put the sound to it. As I noted, the premise is good with Maura making her way from big-city American Boston to small village Irish life. But Connolly’s style tends to be what I call the Dan Brown way of doing plot: “‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s the Mona Lisa.’ ‘What is that?'” You get the drift. It really got out of hand in this latest book. I really grew weary of hearing that Maura was from Boston (we got that the first time!) and about her ongoing attempts to figure out Irish life. (We also got that the first time.)

I did stick it out to the end (these are quick reads) as the plot does draw you in and I wanted to know how it all came out. But I’m not sure I can do another one of these unless Ms. Connolly learns to trust her readers more.

Here are the books in order:

  • Buried in a Bog (2013)
  • Scandal in Skibbereen (2014)
  • An Early Wake (2015)
  • A Turn for the Bad (2016)
  • Cruel Winter (2016)
  • Many a Twist (2018)
  • The Lost Traveller (2019)
  • Fatal Roots (2020)


Rosemary Sutcliff

I am enjoying reading The Eagle of the Ninth by  Rosemary Sutcliff. It was a gift from my dear friend Paul Hinderlie who has been reading history of every kind forever. Although written for older children, these wonderful stories of Roman Britain work for readers of all ages.

The Eagle of the Ninth tells the tale of an injured Roman and his now-freed Briton slave as they go in search of the Eagle emblem of the Ninth Legion that mysteriously disappeared into the north of England, into the realm of Caledonia. It is really fun to read through the geography outlined, especially as they enter the north side of Hadrian’s Wall at what is now Corbridge. We were just there last summer, and it adds to the drama and depth of this wonderful novel to have the scenes of the place in my mind’s eye.

The book was purchased through the inestimable Slightly Foxed. They resurrect and publish these treasures of old so we can enjoy and relish these amazing tales. The Eagle of the Ninth is the first of four. The second is The Silver Branch, then Frontier Wolf, and The Lantern Bearers. I’m looking forward to them all. You can check them out at

Here are pictures of Hadrian’s Wall from our visit there in August:

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth

Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island and The Road to Little Dribbling

I’ve seen a few requests on Facebook for funny books. One of the funniest authors I know is Bill Bryson. An American from the Midwest, he has lived in England since 1977, with a brief sojourn back to the US in the early 2000’s. He is most noted for his very accessible books about science and the natural world, but it is his books about England that I find hugely entertaining.

When I first read Notes from a Small Island, the beginning was so funny I had to set the book down and do something else for a while before I could get myself together in order to read it. He is a really good writer, and his observations of his adopted country are, as the English would say, spot on.

A couple decades after he wrote Notes, he followed it up with a sequel: The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning, when he reflects on first arriving in England in his 20’s:

In a pub I asked what kind of sandwiches they had. ‘Ham and cheese,’ the man said. ‘Oh, yes please,’ I said. ‘Yes please what?’ he said. ‘Yes please, ham and cheese,’ I said, but with less confidence. ‘No, it’s ham or cheese,’ he explained. ‘You don’t do them both together?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, surprised, then leaned towards him and in a low, confidential tone said: ‘Why not? Too flavourful?’ He stared at me. ‘I’ll have cheese then, please,’ I said contritely. When the sandwich came, the cheese was extravagantly shredded – I had never seen a dairy product distressed before serving – and accompanied by what I now know was Branston pickle, but what looked to me then like what you find when you stick your hand into a clogged sump. I nibbled it tentatively and was pleased to discover that it was delicious. Gradually it dawned on me that I had found a country that was wholly strange to me and yet somehow marvellous. It is a feeling that has never left me.

-Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling, Doubleday (Great Britain), 2015, pp. 19-20.

(His sandwich story reminds of me a 1972 experience in a bakery in London re: a Mandarin Torte.)

So if you want a good laugh and some wonderful insights about England, do check these out!





Julia Spencer-Fleming

The other novel digitally delivered on April 7 was the new book from Julia Spencer-Fleming. For years I’ve kept a list of novels about pastors. The novel always provides new perspectives about all of life, and I’ve found it entertaining and interesting to read about clergy of all varieties. Being one myself adds its own dimension to my reading enjoyment.

Spencer-Fleming’s novels are about a fairly new Episcopal priest named Clare Fergusson and her relationship not only with her parishioners in Upstate New York but also with the local chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne. The town has the ominous name of Millers Kill, and the two of them find plenty of murder to explore. Being a priest is a second career for Clare, her first being an army helicopter pilot.

I like these books a lot, and Spencer-Fleming’s own participation in the Episcopal church gives her a good view on the work of the priest. I think of all clergy everywhere in these days of COVID-19 and the new dimensions and patterns they’ve had to devise to work through this sad and uncertain time. But, like Clare, I trust them to be wise in their judgments, articulate in their speech, and grounded in their faith. I know I see that in my own pastors and colleagues. Reading these novels can help us all get a better handle on the work of the priest.

Most of her titles are lines from hymn. The latest, Hid from Our Eyes comes from the first line of Walter Chalmers Smith’s great hymn, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Here are the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novels in order:

  1. In the Bleak Midwinter 2002
  2. A Fountain Filled with Blood 2003
  3. Out of the Deep I Cry 2004
  4. To Darkness and to Death 2005
  5. All Mortal Flesh 2006
  6. I Shall Not Want 2008
  7. Letters to a Soldier 2011 (short novella)
  8. One Was a Soldier 2011
  9. Through the Evil Days 2013
  10. Hid From Our Eyes 2020

Susan Hill Simon Serrailler Novels

A couple weeks ago I wrote about being excited by the delivery of two novels (pre-ordered digitally) from two series I really like. One was the latest in Susan Hill’s series about police detective Simon Serrailler. Hill is a well-known and respected writer, most noted for her ghost story The Woman in Black. It is required reading for students in English schools, and the dramatic version has been on in the West End for a very long time.

Her Simon Serrailler books are excellent crime novels that include the fascinating and interesting dynamics of his family of origin. They keep you engaged on both levels, and I have enjoyed each iteration.

Until now. I was very disappointed in Benefits of Hindsight. I did not think it held together well, and it included one story in the plot that did not seem to fit at all. Although we learned more about Simon’s family and about his return to police work after a serious injury which included the amputation of his left arm, nothing seemed to work very well or make sense.

I would recommend the entire series – nothing is perfect, and it seems Susan Hill missed the boat this time. But do check these out – in order, please – and enjoy this excellent foray into contemporary English crime fiction and modern family turmoil.

Here are the books in order, followed by a photo of my own collection, minus the ebooks!

The Various Haunts of Men(2004)
The Pure in Heart(2005)
The Risk of Darkness(2006)
The Vows of Silence(2008)
The Shadows in the Street(2010)
The Betrayal of Trust(2011)
A Question of Identity(2012)
A Breach of Security(2014)
The Soul of Discretion(2015)
Old Haunts(2018)
The Comforts of Home(2018)
The Benefit of Hindsight(2019)

Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season

Easter, like Christmas, has always been an inspiration for writers of every time. There are books and stories that either retell the Biblical narrative in a new way, or highlight the core themes of the season.

One lovely collection is Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season, published by Plough Press. From Oscar Wilde and C. S. Lewis to Selma Lagerlof and Elizabeth Goudge, this collection will give a you a wide range of reading to inspire and encourage. The editors suggest these stories would be wonderful read aloud. I agree!

Plough also publishes a lovely collection of short readings for Lent and Easter titled Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. Easter has 50 days, so it’s not too late to enter into the riches of that volume as well.

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown

I’m sure many of you enjoy the now many seasons of the BBC’s adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was an interesting person who was also an articulate Christian apologist in the early 20th century. Two of his books about Christian theology, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are still regarded as significant in understanding the core principles of Christian faith. Chesterton himself, as he delved more deeply into it all, eventually moved from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism. It is thought that the parish priest the Rt Rev. Msgr. John O’Connor, who was significant in Chesterton’s shift in 1922, was the priest upon whom Father Brown was modeled.

Chesterton really enjoyed writing about this priest who could see clearly the good and evil in people and circumstance, and so sort out the situations. If you’ve watched the television series, you know how closely Father Brown observes everyone and everything. The humor in these stories, and the excellent mystery plots are all part of Chesterton’s broad view of life and the world.

He was the first president of The Detection Club, a group formed in 1930 that included Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, to name a few. Chesterton, who was a very large man, wore flowing robes and had new initiates place their hand on a skull and recite this oath: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? Despite the tomfoolery, these authors were deadly serious about their craft, and they did it very well.

Reading the Father Brown stories is a real treat, and would certainly be an anecdote to the current world crisis. There were five volumes and many stories. Penguin still publishes a collection of all the stories.