2020 in Facts and Figures

I already posted my main 2020 in Review and Looking Ahead to 2021 posts a while ago — only on my new blog (separate post to come) –, but I held back on my 2020 reading statistics until the year was well and truly over.  And for all my good intentions when posting my mid-year summary back in early July 2020, the second half of the year continued pretty much in the same vein as the first half had begun; i.e., my statistics for the whole year are still a variation on the theme of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover, or, 17 charts showing that 2020 was a year of reading Golden Age mysteries written by women (and following other Anglo-/ UK-centric reading proclivities); i.e. comfort reading galore … it was just that kind of year, I guess.

As a result, my Golden Age Mysteries / Detection Club reading project progressed very nicely.  Luckily, as I said in my main 2020 in Review post, I also managed to add a number of new countries to my Around the World challenge, and the gender balance is solidly in favor of women authors: I read almost 2 1/2 books by women for every book written by a man — in fact, I even reread more books by women than the total number of books by men.  So there was at least some progress in other areas, too.  And I liked or even loved most of the books I read in 2020 — including most of the new-to-me books –, which of course was another huge plus; in a year where reading was my go-to source of comfort, at that: most of my ratings were 4 stars or higher and thus, above the rating that marks “average” in my personal scale (3.5 stars).

Still, in 2021 I’m going to make a fresh attempt to refocus on my Around the World reading project, in furtherance of which I’ve also created a Diversity Bingo that I’ll try to get through in the space of this one year (though if it takes longer, it takes longer); and I’ll also try to include more books from my Freedom and Future Library in my yearly reading again.

And now, without any further ado:

Greatest New Author Discoveries of 2020

Classics and LitFic
Bernardine Evaristo
Olivia Manning

Historical Fiction
Dorothy Dunnett
Jean-François Parot
Paul Doherty

Golden and Silver Age Mysteries
Josephine Bell
Moray Dalton
Molly Thynne
Christianna Brand
Anthony Gilbert
Raymond Postgate
Patricia Moyes

My Life in Book Titles

This is a meme I’ve seen on quite a few blogs towards the end of 2020; it was created by Annabel at Annabookbel.  You’re to answer the prompts, using only books you have read in 2020; without, if possible, repeating a book title.  I thought I’d include it in my yearly roundup — and to up the ante a little bit further, I decided to use only books I read for the first time in 2020.

In high school I was Unspeakable (John Bercow)

People might be surprised by (my incarnation as) Lioness Rampant (Tamora Pierce)

I will never be The Horse You Came in On (Martha Grimes), nor Resorting to Murder (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

My life in lockdown was like (a) Tour de Force (Christianna Brand) and (a) Tragedy at Law (Cyril Hare)

My fantasy job is The Thinking Machine at Work (Jacques Futrelle)

At the end of a long day I need to be Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi) (to my) Pilgrim’s Rest (Patricia Wentworth)

I hate being (around) Serpents in Eden (Martin Edwards, ed.; Various Authors)

Wish I had The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)

My family reunions are (often with) Thirteen Guests (J. Jefferson Farjeon)

At a party you’d find me with My Friend Mr. Campion (Margery Allingham), Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (Emmuska Orczy), and other Bodies from the Library (Tony Medawar, ed.; Various Authors)

I’ve never been to Goodwood (Holly Throsby), Cherringham (Matthew Costello, Neil Richards), or At the Villa Rose (A.E.W. Mason)

A happy day includes A Small Place (Jamaica Kincaid) (of my own): My Beloved World (Sonia Sotomayor)

Motto(s) I live by: To Love and Be Wise (Josephine Tey); and We Should All Be Feminists (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)

On my bucket list is Shakespeare’s Local (Pete Brown)

In my next life, I want to have The Grand Tour (Matthew Pritchard, ed.; Agatha Christie)

The Stats

Number of books started: 273
Number of books finished: 271
DNF: 2
Average Rating (overall): 3.9
Average Rating w/o Favorite Annual Xmas Rereads: 3.8

Note: The above chart includes my 6 annual Christmas rereads, which have a habit of slightly skewing my overall rating figures upwards; without these books, the number of 5-star books is reduced by 5 and the number of 4.5-star books is reduced by 1.

Note: “F / M (mixed)” refers to anthologies with contributions by both male and female authors, as well as to books jointly written by male and female authors. — “N / A” in the protagonist gender chart refers to Martha Wells’s Murderbot, who is deliberately created as gender-neutral.

Note: “Multi-ethnic” either refers to several persons (authors / protagonists) of different genders, or to one person of mixed ethnicity.


Emmuska Orczy: The Elusive Pimpernel

Not So Clever, After All

Ye gods! the irony of it all! Had she not been called the cleverest woman in Europe at one time? Chauvelin himself had thus acclaimed her, in those olden days, before she and he became such mortal enemies, and when he was one of the many satellites that revolved round brilliant Marguerite St. Just. And to-night, when a sergeant of the town guards brought him news of her capture, he smiled grimly to himself; the cleverest woman in Europe had failed to perceive the trap laid temptingly open for her.”

Totally with you there, M. Chauvelin, I’m afraid — Marguerite is behaving like the worst of literary history’s headless TSTL chickens here.  This is one of the books that really should have captured me, because it is from this book (not from the first one) that the creators of virtually all screen adaptations of The Scarlet Pimpernel (and its sequels) have drawn a plethora of the screen “Pimpernel’s” signature attributes and plot highlights, or almost all of the things, anyway, that go beyond the central features of his dual identity and his league’s activities: The “demmed elusive Pimpernel” ditty, the attempt to draw Sir Percy into a duel by creating a scandalous scene at a social gathering involving Marguerite, the explicit entrapment of Marguerite (and / or her brother) in order to entice Percy to travel to France (where a trap will be laid for him in turn — and where he will have to save one or both of the St. Justs in addition to completing the venture that is actually taking him there), the use of a treacherous French actress, and the suggestion of a fencing duel between Sir Percy and Chauvelin in a fortress on the Channel coast, with Blakeney’s yacht Daydream waiting in the waters off shore, ready to take him and Marguerite back to England at the end.

Unfortunately, however, this book only worked for me up to about the halfway point (or actually, only a little before that even); i.e., as long as Marguerite was displaying at least a modicum of wit.  The moment she basically allowed her brain to shut down and decided to heedlessly run after her husband, with no idea (nor really any way) how to help him on his mission to France and every probability of making his life about a million times harder, the whole thing turned into a pretty consistent groan fest.  It also didn’t exactly help that there is a whole lot of telling instead of showing going on in the second part of the book, as well as scenes and dialogue that don’t exactly advance the plot — this is not an exceptionally long book, but the final (or, well, next to final) part still dragged interminably.  All of which is a shame, as the book starts with a lot of wit and panache, and Sir Percy himself is, once again, in great form.  So, three stars for the beginning, for the Pimpernel himself, and for the odd scene here and there in the second part.  Others might give even a less favorable rating, but I just can’t bring myself to go any lower than this for one of my all-time literary heroes (though I do seriously hope Marguerite will recover her wits in the next book).


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Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel

“They seek him here, they seek him there …”

Oh, what a glorious prelude to the 2018 Summer of Spies.

Maybe not a “spy” novel in a narrower sense, but writing in 1902 and leagues ahead of her time, Orczy created the first book of what would become a series of perfect swashbucklers, starring a power couple in which the heroine is every bit her partner’s equal and then some.

Indeed, cleverly Orczy even tells this book’s story chiefly from Marguerite’s point of view, which not only has the benefit of keeping the first-time reader (though … is there such a creature, in this day and age, when it comes to this particular novel?) unaware of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s identity as long as possible, but also gives Marguerite an added reason to hurtle all the way to France in Sir Percy’s pursuit once she has cottoned onto (1) his alias, and (2) the fact that Chauvelin has unmasked him as well and is now hunting for him in turn.  After all, the narrative perspective would go to hell in a handbasket if Marguerite were to just stay at home and gnash her teeth, anxiously awaiting her husband’s safe return — whereas this way, Orczy is able to present her as a woman of action … even if, for the most part, it looks like the much-touted “cleverest woman in Europe” is stumbling blindly after her husband and Chauvelin in their respective tracks and comes darned close to ruining Sir Percy’s whole enterprise, not to mention imperiling the life of her beloved brother Armand, to whose assistance Sir Percy had rushed off to begin with (well, that and in order to finish the job of getting the de Tournay family safely across the Channel).

No wonder, in any event, that the reading public soon demanded a sequel — and Marguerite  and Sir Percy would soon also find their way onto the silver screen.  The rest, as they’ve never said more truly than here, is history …


My “Summer of Spies meets Women Writers Project” reading list:
Women of Intelligence



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Emmuska Orczy: The Old Man in The Corner

London’s First Armchair Detective

This is a collection of twelve stories taken from the first two (of three) books featuring the “Old Man in the Corner,” one of Emmuska Orczy’s very first literary creations and — but for Edgar Allan Poe’s M. Dupin (who solves the Mystery of Marie Rogêt solely based on a number of newspaper articles) — one of, if not the earliest armchair detective ever to grace the pages of a book: He may occasionally attend a coroner’s or police court hearing, but in all but one of the cases he is not personally involved in any way in the investigation, taking the bulk of his knowledge from what is reported of a case in the newspapers — and yet, disdaining the police and the criminal courts for their inefficiency, since virtually all of these cases are considered mysteries because law enforcement has failed to produce the real culprit; in the “Old Man”‘s opinion, as a result of getting caught up in procedure and petty routines instead of applying logical thought.  (Which, obviously, is an attitude that the “Old Man” shares with many a “consulting”, amateur or plain private detective from Sherlock Holmes to Nero Wolfe and beyond.)

Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner stories were originally serialized in newspapers and published in book form only later, with the third batch of stories (originally published in 1904) collected in book form first, in The Case of Miss Elliot (1905), and a book containing the first two batches (serialized in 1901 and 1902, respectively) following three years later and entitled simply The Old Man in the Corner.  (A final batch of stories, ultimately published in book form under the title Unravelled Knots, only followed in 1924-1925 and, if reviewers and editorialists are to be believed, wasn’t up to the same standard as their much earlier predecessors.) This particular Dover Publications collection dating from 1980 is taken in almost equal parts from the first and second “Old Man” books, with three stories each representing the original 1901 and the 1902 series, and six stories the 1904 series later collected in The Case of Miss Elliot. — One of the stories from the second series, The Glasgow Mystery, here sees the light of day for the first time since its original publication in a newspaper, as Orczy’s erroneous inclusion of “coroner’s proceedings” in a city where such do not actually exist (she should have referred to the Procurator Fiscal instead) caused a public outcry; and as a result, the story was not included in the selection originally published in book form — which is a shame, because the mystery would work just as well if the proper law enforcement bodies and procedures were substituted for the miscast coroner.

BrokenTune noted in a recent review of a Sherlock Holmes story how certain recurring features in Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, from setting to dialogue to the construction of his stories, foster a sense of familiarity, recognition, and literally of “coming home” (to 221B Baker Street) on the part of the reader and can create, even for today’s readers, a sense of community with these stories’ original audience: The same can be said almost certainly, at least as far as Baroness Orcy’s original readers were concerned, for the Old Man in the Corner stories.   In fact, reading them all in rapid succcession (as I did) may not be the best approach, because it’s impossible not to notice their formulaic structure that way — but that same formulaic approach that starts to grate a bit in quick mass exposure may well just have been the very element that invoked a sense of looked-for familiarity in the original readership, and the fact that there were several successive series of these stories manifestly testifies to their popularity.  Stylistically, in any event, they are accomplished enough, and if I hadn’t known that the very first of these tales, The Fenchurch Street Mystery, was one of the first prose works (and the very first crime story) ever published by Orczy, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed as much.

In each installment, a “Lady Journalist” (in the final stories, identified as one Polly Burton) meets up with the eponymous unnamed “Old Man”, who sits in the corner of an A.B.C. tea room reading his newspaper, to proceed, in short order, to discussing the latest reported unsolved crime with her, all the while  tying and untying a piece of string into a series of impossibly complicated knots.  As in Conan Doyle’s mysteries, the formula exceeds the mere framework setting and the Old Man’s idiosynchrasies and extends to content; here, however, not so much to dialogue as to plot — and while there still may have been either a sense of genuine surprise in the original audience (or, who knows, this, too, may have been part of the comfortable feeling of meeting old friends), I confess to me at some point it started coloring Orczy’s narratives with a bit of a “one trick pony” brush, particularly as virtually everyone of them relies on a sleight of hand that is central to The Scarlet Pimpernel, too, and I ended up just looking for how she would set it up this time around, knowing once I had uncovered this particular feature I would also know the solution — which somewhat impinged on the joy of the hunt and pretty much removed the element of surprise after a while.

Interestingly, the Old Man in the Corner shares a bit of publication history with both Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, in that his creator actually did not intend him to have quite the long-lasting career that he ended up enjoying: At the end of the last of the original five stories published in 1901 she has the Lady Journalist unmask the Old Man’s identity (and, incidentally, his involvement with the case they have been discussing), which forces him into instant retirement — so every installment of the later series has to remind the reader that this is an occurrence which actually took place before that “final” case at the end of which, so far as the narrator / Lady Journalist knows, for all practical purposes he vanished from sight.  As in the cases of the Old Man’s (today) much more famous contemporaries, this, too, of course testifies to his enduring popularity with the reading public; not least taking into account Orczy’s “Glasgow coroner” mess-up.

I’ve already read another book for the first square / chapter of the Detection Club bingo (A New Era Dawns), so I’m just going to be doubling up on squares there, but I will get to count this book towards the “O” square of the Women Writers Bingo.



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