In the Bleak Midwinter and other thoughts

I don’t feel like I need to write an entire post on Julia Spencer-Fleming’s detective novel In the Bleak Midwinter, but I did want to say that I liked it quite a bit and am eager to read further into the series. In fact, I made sure to find a copy of the second in the series while I was out book shopping last weekend. As is usual for me, it wasn’t the plot that made me like it so much, although I found the plot perfectly satisfactory. It was the dynamic between the main characters that held my interest. There’s Clare Fergusson, the Episcopal priest who gets drawn into the mystery when she finds an abandoned baby on the church steps, and there’s Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief in charge of the investigation. It’s probably a little unrealistic the way Clare kept accompanying Russ on his police work — would she really have been able to do that? — but the dynamic between the two of them is so interesting that I was willing to overlook this.

I also liked the setting, which is in upstate New York, near the Adirondack mountains. It’s pretty far from my home town in western New York State, but the territory is still somewhat familiar, especially the small town culture and the dark, snowy winters. I thought as I read about when the best time to read a book with a title like In the Bleak Midwinter is. Do you really want to read about bleak midwinters in the summer? Or while you’re in the middle of winter? Or in the fall when you dread winter’s arrival, or the spring when you can’t wait for it to warm up? IS there a good time? But that comes from someone who is no fan of winter, and I know some people feel differently. And I liked the book enough to be willing to read it no matter the season.

I did wish Spencer-Fleming had given more information on Clare’s religious faith; I wanted to know how she went from being in the military to being a priest (there is an explanation hinted at in the story of a family tragedy, but it’s not developed) and what her faith means to her now. But perhaps these things are developed in later books.

My weekend with my parents was very good; western New York can be miserable in the bleak midwinter, but it’s beautiful in the summer with temperatures that are more moderate than home and rolling green fields and orchards. I was able to ride my bike along Lake Ontario twice, which was great, and I went book shopping twice with my dad, which was also great. We found two used bookstores that we hadn’t visited before, and discovered a couple more that we didn’t make it to this time but can explore later. In addition to the next Spencer-Fleming novel, I bought a copy of Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Sadly, I probably won’t get to the book this summer to participate in Litlove’s reading of it, but at least I now have it on hand. And I also got Pierre Bayard’s book Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I love the title and premise of the book — can he really be right about Holmes? — but I’ll have to read The Hound of the Baskervilles before I pick this one up. That will be something to look forward to.

I also brought home my mom’s copy of Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture. It happens to be the copy I gave her for Christmas last year. But no, I did not buy her the book in hopes she would let me borrow it later. Not really. At least not consciously…. I’ve been flying my way through the Little House series and have made it through three books and am in the middle of the fourth. They read very, very fast, and it’s been great fun to remember all the details and rediscover their charm. But more on that later.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “In the Bleak Midwinter and other thoughts

  1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the Spencer-Fleming books. It’s a series I’ve been wanting to try, and I do love the title–it’s one of my favorite advent songs.

  2. Sounds like you had a wonderful time! Isn’t it fun to discover a new bookstore. I can’t wait to travel and do that.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed the book and hope the series continues to be a good one for you.

  3. Always good to have a recommendation for another crime series. And so glad you had a nice weekend away – does the fact you’ve been out bike riding mean that you are feeling much better now? I DO hope so. And don’t worry about the readalong – I hope you’ll read the Rilke whenever the moment is right for you and enjoy it. :)

  4. I do know what you mean about trying to figure out a good time to read books about winter. I find if the winter scenes are really harsh I read the book in winter I actually feel better because my reality isn’t as bad as it is in the book! I had a faint hope that I might be able to read Rilke too but that’s not going to happen. Oh well.

  5. I always usher in the summer weather by reading a book set in a very cold place. It’s kind of an annual tradition. This year it was Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (we didn’t actually GET warm weather here until late July); the year before that it was Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and before that Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife. I like the contrast of the extreme cold of the story with the hot summer sun; they kind of balance each other out for me. :-)

    It sounds like you had a lovely weekend with your folks. Book shopping and lakeside bike rides sound amazing.

  6. Teresa — it’s great how she uses hymn lyrics, but picks the dark ones so they fit detective novels. The second one is called A Fountain Filled with Blood.

    Iliana — it certainly is fun to find new bookstores! I really did enjoy the novel and am so glad to have a series to look forward to.

    Litlove — I am doing very well health-wise — thank you! It’s actually a temporary thing, as I expect to become hypothyroid any day now, but that’s all part of the process. Once I become hypo, then I’ll go on medication and I should be permanently fine then, thank goodness!

    Stefanie — good point about reading the book in winter and not feeling so bad about my own situation! Connecticut winters aren’t usually nearly as bad as upstate New York ones (I mean far upstate, not barely out of NYC upstate). We will both get to the Rilke one day, I’m sure!

    Emily — what a nice tradition! I can see that the contrast would work well. I guess I dislike winter so much I’d prefer not to think about it at all, but in the midst, or better yet at the beginning, of a long hot summer is probably the best time.

  7. I have number four in the series sitting on my shelf and the fact that I bought it because it wasn’t available in our library system says a lot about the way in which I think the characters develop. Now I just need the time to read it. Organising Summer Schools always seems like such a good idea in the middle of winter when I’ve forgotten just how much work they are:)

  8. I’m planning on reading In the Bleak Midwinter this Christmas season, because the title is from the Christmas hymn. I’m glad to hear you liked it. Bob liked it, too, as have some of my other friends who’ve been reading their ways through the series. Can’t wait to hear your take on reading all the Little House books as an adult. I think I need to do that at some point.

  9. What a wonderful time–I am waving to you (in retrospect) from the other side of the lake. I’m curious about the book on Wilder. I read the Hound of the Baskervilles in grade 6 and would love to hear how Holmes got it wrong. I now prefer Mary Russell to Holmes any day!

  10. Annie — I hope you have time to read it soon. Your recommendation is one of the ones that got me going on these books, so thank you! I’m entirely sympathetic about the work — it sounds like you’ve earned a break.

    Emily B. — so far the experience of reading through the Little House books has been great, and I highly recommend it. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Spencer-Fleming.

    Lilian — I’m waving back :) I’m very curious about the argument that Holmes got it wrong — and the book is more than just that and turns into some kind of argument about crime fiction, which is intriguing.

  11. To paraphrase Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, it’s all about chemistry, and Clare and Russ have chemistry…it’s what makes the story and the series work. I devoured the first four books in the series, then had a big problem with number 5 and didn’t read it for about a year…then read it, got over my issue, devoured 6 and am eager for 7. I also love the setting, though I’m Colorado born and bred and have only read about really bleak winters.

    YOu will learn more about CLare’s past and how she became a priest if you stick with the series.

    BTW, I really enjoyed Little House, Long Shadow and will be interested to read your review of it. Reading it prompted me to start my own rereading of the LH books, but I only got through Big Woods before too many other reading commitments derailed that project…for awhile.

  12. After reading what you had to say about In the Bleak Midwinter I bought a copy for myself, too! :) I like the sound of it and have heard others say how good it is. Not sure when I’ll read it (maybe when it’s cold out…?), but I like that it is handy. Glad you had a good time with your family and always love to hear about your bookstore excursions.

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