It’s a gorgeous early evening after an equally gorgeous day, with blue skies and sun, sun, sun, a welcome relief after yesterday’s on-again/off-again rain showers.
I had a Volunteer Book Club meeting yesterday to discuss Canadian author Susan Juby’s novel, Mindful of Murder, a cozy mystery that takes place at a meditation retreat on a fictitious West Coast island. This was supposed to be our book for December, but our April selection, Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, was unavailable due to too many holds at the library. I read and really enjoyed this book last year (it turns out almost exactly one year ago!), and thought it would be a great book club selection. Here’s what I said about it in April of last year:
I had three adult books from the library to choose from, and I ended up selecting a novel with a really bright red cover that jumped out at me and turned out to be exactly what I needed. Mindful of Murder by Canadian author Susan Juby is set on a small gulf island off the coast of British Columbia, where Edna, the owner of a spiritual retreat, has died under what may be suspicious circumstances. Her former employee, Helen, also a former Buddhist nun and a recent graduate of the American Butler Institute, is the executor of Edna’s will, and one of her duties is to execute Plan B, an elaborate process whereby she will decide who will take over running the institute from a selection of Edna’s grand-nieces and -nephews. This Plan involves hosting these relatives for ten days and having them participate in concurrent courses to decide who is the best candidate. Since Edna had been on a self-directed spiritual retreat for several months prior to her death, no staff were retained at the institute, so Helen calls on her friends from the butler academy to help her out, as well as a friend who is also an amazing chef. She also takes on one of the locals to round out the staff, and calls on two of the regular teachers from the institute to teach the floral design and dance classes. When the relatives arrive, they appear to be ill-suited for this type of work. Tad Todd is a handsome, self-absorbed, selfish young man who just wants Edna’s money. His brother Wills is a bit less grating, but he also doesn’t really want to take part in this retreat that has been thrust upon him, but grudgingly agrees because he also wants her money. Whitney seems to be more in tune with the spirit of the institute, but she, too, has plenty of personal and family issues and is also in desperate need of financial support. And finally there is Rayvn, the mystery cousin, who appears to be perfect for the role and doesn't seem to care about money at all, but she also seems a bit too flaky and admits quite freely that her favourite thing to do is sleep. Helen has her work cut out for her, but takes this responsibility very seriously and manages to keep things running smoothly with the surreal calmness associated with Buddhist mindfulness, despite the many challenges she, the staff and the guests face along the way. After a couple of unsettling occurrences, Helen decides she must also help with the investigation to find out if Edna’s death was truly by her own hand or at the hands of a murderer. Between the cast of characters at the institute and those we meet on the island, this entertaining, cozy mystery was a positively delightful read. It was a mystery, but it also offered insight into mindfulness and Buddhist beliefs and values. It reminded me of the “Isabel Dalhousie” series by Alexander McCall Smith, in that Isabel and Helen are both amateur detectives and philosophers/Buddhist nuns. These books are gentle yet thought-provoking, and the protagonists are women that I would be happy to have coffee with (that’s what my book group said about Isabel Dalhousie). So if you are in the mood for a cozy mystery or an exploration into the basic beliefs of Buddhism (or even the basics of being a good butler!), then this might be the book for you.
I felt the same about it this time around, and I also made a connection to the vegan cookbook I purchased over the Christmas holidays, written by a Buddhist chef from Quebec who manages the kitchen at a meditation retreat. My book club members also enjoyed the book, although they thought that there was too much “busy-ness” going on and too many potential threads that were left hanging and incomplete. I would agree with this, and I’m hoping that some of the things the main characters hinted at will be developed and explained in future “Helen Thorpe” books. One member commented on how much she enjoyed the random bits of Buddhist beliefs that were dropped into the story, and another said she wanted to be more like Helen, mainly her calm demeanor both as a Buddhist nun and as a butler. I had to leave the meeting early, so I didn’t hear the rest of the conversation, but I think it was a good choice. I certainly enjoyed rereading it, and would definitely recommend it.
That’s all for today. Enjoy the last rays of the day's sunshine!Bye for now…
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