“Peter swept aside Yogi Tea and Harmony Herbal Blend, though he hesitated a second over the chamomile. But no. Violent death demanded Earl Grey.”

Books on Tap met at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, October 7 for a lively and loud discussion of Still Life by Louise Penny. Library events are not all quiet and subdued, that’s for sure! 

“Cozy mysteries” are an entire subset genre of mysteries, defined by NoveList in this way: “In ‘cozies,’ an amateur or professional sleuth investigates to uncover the truth behind puzzling circumstances (frequently involving murder, or some sort of unusual crime). Traditionally set in a small, close-knit community full of colorful characters, the criminal/murderer in question easily passes as just another local. While serious issues may be raised, cozy mysteries are generally intended as an escape from day-to-day stresses. The tone is humorous; paranormal elements may be present. Violence occurs ‘off-stage’; murder scenes are briefly described, without undue lingering on graphic details. By the end of the story, justice is always served (arrest and trial optional). Cozies are often written in themed series and may have modern or historical settings.” Common characteristics include avoiding overt sexuality, profanity, and graphic descriptions of violence. In fact, the mystery itself is almost secondary. Instead, memorable characters and relationships take center stage. 

Characters were certainly central to this book! We found the story entertaining and easy to zip right through, in part because of the characters: likeable lead detective Gamache, jovial townspeople, incompetant yet prideful newbie-detective Nichol, and plenty of “usual suspects” to keep us guessing. One of our favorite moments, for its wholesomeness, intrigue, and peculiar poignance, was when Gamache gathered the entire community to gather information, potential leads, and general thoughts. While we didn’t think it would ever happen in real life, it was strangely appropriate in this book, because Gamache genuinely needed the perspective of the town, as he was an outsider. Many readers enjoyed (or at least noticed) that this book was different from plot-driven, cliffhanger-obsessed mystery novels. 

We discussed plot holes, plot questions, and what elements of the structure were “weak” in our minds. One reader lamented: “If this had happened in real life this mystery could not have been solved. In many books, you finish and think, ‘I should have known!’ But in this one, I didn’t have that feeling, because it was all so crazy and unbelievable.” Book clubs are amazing ways to connect with other readers, share your opinions, and also ask questions. We enjoyed hearing readers ask “why would this character do that?” and “what was going on inside her head?” 

Towards the conclusion of our discussion, we asked an ominous question. Would you do something if you knew you would get away with it? Maybe murder, maybe something else — where is the limit of what you would do? A reader followed up with: what if you did something accidentally, and then found out the full scope of the negative consequences — would you come forward? How strong is your moral compass? And how does reading a mystery novel, centered on a murder, shape that part of you? Food for thought for you today!

Other authors mentioned: 

Janet Evanovich

Lee Child (Jack Reacher novels)

Michael Connelly 

Robert Parker

Carl Hiassen

Agatha Christie 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, November 4, at 7 pm, to discuss Feed by M.T. Anderson. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.”

Brown Baggers Book Club met virtually on Thursday, September 16 to discuss A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré. Le Carré passed away on December 12, 2020, right before our annual potluck selection meeting, sparking interest among our members to read one of his famous espionage novels. Le Carré worked for both the Secret Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s and 60s, hence the pen name (Foreign Office officers were not allowed to publish under their own names). A Perfect Spy draws heavily from his life as a professional spy and as half of a troubled duad — the main character’s relationship with his father is based on Le Carré’s relationship with his own father, who was a con man “of little education, immense charm, extravagant tastes, but no social values” (LitLovers). 

Sounds interesting, right? Especially when it has come to be known as Le Carré’s “masterpiece.” So how did our readers respond? Put quite frankly, we had our fair share of halfhearted shrugs; readers were often “waiting for something to happen.” They found the writing flat, lifeless, convoluted, and arduous. The experience was like driving through fog; every few pages the fog would clear, and the book would move quickly, but then it would quickly bog down again. Most people found the novel a little slower than anticipated, but one reader held nothing back as he gave his impression: finishing the book, he felt he was “worshipping at the altar of masochism.” 

Was there anything to be had here? Yes! Some readers (albeit a very slim minority) stated the novel was excellent (but they too had a bone to pick — the novel being too depressing). Others appreciated that part of the journey of reading a spy novel is the process of deciphering and organizing code names and true alliances. Related, we had readers who enjoyed the trickery, secrecy, and “trappings of spydom.” 

There was also the character study of the lead, Magnus, and his father. Readers described the father as a “despicable and interesting” character. The two love each other, but the father ultimately destroys the son, creating him to be the “perfect spy” (a euphemism for soul-selling). We had interesting conversations about love and loyalty which harkened back to the classic games of morality: would you let a bus filled with children (all strangers) die to save your family? Is any one person worth more than another? Do some of us have an obligation to be selfless and impartial that others of us do not share? And how does patriotism fit into all of this? Can an abstraction such as country, value, belief, or religion trump a human being? In summary, our readers found this one more intellectually interesting than exciting. 

How would you answer the questions found above? If you read the book, did your reading shape your answers in any way? Has any book ever shaped a belief you hold? 

Brown Baggers will meet to discuss The Yellow House by Sarah Broom on Thursday, October 21. Please email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

If you’ve read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré and would like a chance to discuss it, consider attending the Mystery Book Group‘s virtual discussion on Tuesday, September 28, 1-2:30 pm. For more information, email Evan at estankovics@jmrl.org.

Books Mentioned: 

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

Smiley’s People by John le Carré

Hoffman’s Hunger by Leon de Winter (not owned by JMRL; suggest a purchase if you’re interested!)

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (read the JMRL blog post)

“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Books on Tap met outside at Champion Brewing Company on Thursday, September 2nd to discuss J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  

As usual, we started the discussion with some background information on the author, who was a World War II veteran and later in life a recluse. The success and controversy around the book as well as aspects of his personal life (including a nine month relationship with eighteen-year-old Joyce Maynard when Salinger was fifty-three) brought him undesired publicity.

A coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye takes place over a few days in New York City, 1951. The protagonist and unreliable narrator, sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield, has become a cultural touchpoint, often referred to as an important 20th century literary character. NYC is also a “character” in the novel as Holden visits so many NYC landmarks over the course of his wanderings.

Several in the group had never read this classic; others had read it years ago and were revisiting it. Most enjoyed and recommended the novel, finding the theme of adolescent angst timeless, but a few of our readers found the story exhausting and didn’t care at all for Holden.

While written for an adult audience, The Catcher in the Rye is often on English class required reading lists in many high schools. As such, it has also been frequently challenged or “banned” due to some of the profanity and behaviors of the characters. A timely read for Books on Tap, as Banned Books Week 2021 takes place later this month.

Other books mentioned:

Frannie and Zooey

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Joe Speedboat by Tommy Wieringa

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (discussed by this group Nov. 2015)

Salinger/Joyce Maynard on PBS 

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, October 7th, at 7 pm, to discuss Still Life by Louise Penny. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information.