“The Last Camel Died at Noon” and “The Snake, the Crocodile, & the Dog”

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by Elizabeth Peters

Published 1991, 1992

These next two installments of the Amelia Peabody series were possibly my favorites so far.  Basically, instead of following a traditional murder-mystery format, in which someone is murdered and we spend the rest of the book gathering clues and eliminating possible perpetrators, Peters creates crazy situations and revels in them.  They are still within the realm of possibility (there is no magic or miraculous occurrences), but they are pushing the boundaries, so to speak.

The Last Camel Dies at Noon is, actually, a literal title.  In the first chapter, we find the Emerson family (Amelia, Emerson, and son Ramses), along with a servant/guide struggling across the desert, and their last camel dies at noon, leaving them in desperate straits.  We then  backtrack, and learn all the story that has led up to this point.  It’s not a method that I always enjoy, but because we have been traveling with Amelia through several books, this doesn’t feel like a gimmick at all.

The story is intense and intriguing and kept me on my toes up until the very last page.  A definite win.

The next story actually ties in closely (these are books that should definitely be read in series order), as in the Last Camel Died at Noon the Emersons discovered a sort of “lost city” and have promised to never reveal its location.  In The Snake, the Crocodile, & the Dog, someone has guessed the secret they know and is desperate to find the city’s location.  Throughout this book I was frustrated at times by things that didn’t really seem to make sense to me, but Peters did a magnificent job of pulling everything together in the end – this is one of those books that I almost wanted to sit down and read again right away, now that I held the key.

Per usual, my main beef with these books is Emerson’s negative commentary on religion that exists for virtually no reason.  Amelia joins in herself sometimes, like this passage from The Last Camel:

I would not be at all surprised to find that it was for gold that Cain committed the first murder.  (It happened a very long time ago, and Holy Writ, though no doubt divinely inspired, is a trifle careless about details.  God is not a historian.)

Okay, first off, this is COMPLETELY unnecessary to the plot.  Basically, she’s only mentioning Cain so she can make a jab at God’s apparent inability to keep track of what’s really happening through history.

Secondly, the whole statement is completely false.  God actually is, in fact, a historian, since the majority of His scriptures are history.  He is incredibly detailed (some would actually say too detailed), and the whole first murder is recorded at length.  Cain’s motive is explained quite thoroughly (Genesis 4 if you’re interested): God had regard for Abel’s offering and none for Cain’s; Cain murdered his brother from jealousy, and gold was not involved in any way, manner, shape or form.  But this is typical of Peter’s/Peabody’s narrative.  Usually I just brush over it, but when it is so obviously only thrown in for shock points it is especially aggravating.

However, I am greatly enjoying these mysteries overall and do recommend them as fun, spirited, and entertaining reads.

The Hundred Dresses

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by Eleanor Estes

Published 1944

Okay, I know I say this all the time, but I’m super serious this time:  EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS BOOK.

It is short, simple, and an easy read (it took me less than twenty minutes to read it).  And yet it manages to truly look at the problem of bullying and prejudice in a way that is brilliantly insightful, and, in the end, deeply beautiful.  And on top of all of that – the writing is gorgeous.  Not only should you read this book (tonight, if possible), you should buy copies of it and give it to every child you know.  Because so often children are mean not because they are mean, but because they are ignorant.

This is a story about three little girls.  Wanda is poor and awkward.  Peggy is well-off and popular.  Maddie is poorer than Peggy, but is Peggy’s best friend.  All three of these girls are nice, generally kind girls, yet Peggy begins a game of mocking Wanda, a game that Maddie isn’t comfortable with, but doesn’t know how to stop.

How had the hundred dresses game begun in the first place, she asked herself …  Oh, yes.  She remembered.  It had begun that day when Cecile first wore her new red dress …

It was a bright blue day in September.  No, it must have been October, because when she and Peggy were coming to school, arms around each other and singing, Peggy had said, “You know what?  This must be the king of day they mean when they say, ‘October’s bright blue weather.’ ”

Maddie remembered that because afterwards it didn’t seem like bright blue weather any more, although the weather had not changed in the slightest.

Seriously.  Find this book and read it.  It’s less than 80 pages long and has lots of pictures, but the simplicity of this story is precisely what makes it so timeless and so important.

A Measureless Peril

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by Richard Snow

Published 2010

In this non-fiction book, Snow tells us about America’s World War II effort in the Atlantic Ocean.  While not as dramatic as the Pacific theater (although probably plenty dramatic if you were actually there!), the Atlantic nonetheless offers plenty of scope for adventure, what with convoying goods to Great Britain and fighting off German u-boats.  Snow’s father was in the Navy and served in the Atlantic during World War II, and so he lends a personal touch to the story.  Actually, I think that Snow strikes a perfect balance – we aren’t dragged down with details about his father and family, but by checking in with Snow Senior throughout the book, we are given some personal perspective of how things worked.

This book reads quite easily, managing to give an interesting and engaging overview without bogging down too  much in details.  As with most war books, there is a tendency to introduce dozens of names that are basically impossible to keep straight, but that’s life in the war.

Definite recommendation if you have any interest in World War II – this book presents an excellent outline of a little-talked-about part of that war.

“Is” and “Cold Shoulder Road”

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by Joan Aiken

Published 1992, 1995

At the end of Dido and Pawe leave everyone (the ones that lived, anyway) seemingly happy.  Is, the little girl who had worked as a servant for Dido’s father and his mistress, is invited to live with Dido’s older sister, Penny, who eloped in Black Hearts in Battersea.  Apparently, that marriage didn’t work out so well; Penny’s husband has long since absconded, leaving Penny to shift for herself; she lives in the woods and makes toys.  Another character from the Dido and Pa, a kind, goodhearted man, also takes up residence, leaving us with the impression that they will be a happy (if immoral) household.

But, of course, happiness can’t last in Aiken’s alternate world, and when Is opens, we find that the kind gentleman has also disappeared (which honestly seems decidedly out of character for him, which rather annoys me.  It’s obvious that having him around would make the whole plot of these two books not work, but I would much preferred him to have died instead of sneaking off in the dead of night; I’ve begun to wonder if Aiken hated men, as she seems incapable of writing any who are not sneaks, thieves, philanderers, or just plain evil), and Penny and Is are enjoying a peaceful life on their own.  However, their peace is shattered when a stranger stumbles into their home, fatally wounded.  Before dying, he tells them that he has been desperately searching for his son, who has disappeared.  Penny and Is are surprised to find that this man is actually their uncle.  (It was never made clear in Dido in Pa whether or not Is was Twite’s daughter, but in Is, it seems an accepted fact.)

And so, Is heads to London, having promised her uncle that they would do their best to locate their cousin.  In London, there is a mystery deeper than the disappearance of one boy – many children are being mysteriously spirited away from London’s streets.  Is’s adventure takes her far from home and introduces her to many new family members, friends, and enemies.

Throughout these two stories, Is discovers a sort of thought-speech, wherein she, and other children who are so gifted, are able to communicate without vocalizing.  It’s an interesting way to add to the story, but also a bit creepy.

Dido is conspicuously absent from these two books (in Cold Shoulder Road, Is and her cousin make their way  home, with a great deal of difficulty), but at times I forgot I wasn’t reading about Dido, because Is basically sounds and acts exactly like her.  While these books weren’t quite as dark as Dido and Pa, they are still rather creepily strange.  Aiken is unafraid to write about cruel, evil people; she is also unafraid to give those people their just desserts (in detail).  Per usual, plenty of perfectly innocent, happy characters get killed off as well – there is really just too much death in these books for me to really get into them.  In Cold Shoulder Road, a little girl who has been especially friendly and helpful throughout the story is killed almost as an afterthought.  The book ends on page 233; the girl dies on page 228, after the enemies have been defeated and everyone is congratulating themselves:

“They shot that poor girl,” [Penny] told Is bitterly, when she was within speech range.

“Who?”

“Jen Braeburn, she was called.  From Seagate.  She came to the house in Cold Shoulder Lane to fetch me.  Those two coves who followed me were lurking outside and shot her. …”

“Oh, poor Jen, how dreadful.  How wicked.  Why should she have to die?”

“Why should any?”  said Pen.

I wonder the same thing, Penny, exactly the same the same thing.

A Little Folly

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by Jude Morgan

Published 2010

This is my third Jude Morgan book this year; I enjoyed this one more than An Accomplished Woman but still not as well as Indiscretionwhich I think I’m going to purchase with my birthday money.  :-D  But this story has the same lighthearted and delightful dialogue and fun characters as the other of Morgan’s books I’ve read.  While I liked the heroine much better than the one in An Accomplished Woman, Louisa still aggravated me a great deal at times.

Louisa and her brother Valentine have grown up under the (very) heavy hand of their domineering father.  When he dies, at the beginning of the book, they are suddenly free to do as they like.  Comfortably off, upper-class adults, they can go to London, entertain visitors, or even just simply get rid of furniture they don’t like.  That’s how it begins – by removing a fire screen they’ve both hated for years but their father insisted remain in the drawing room.  As they pair of siblings begin to explore life and encounter adventures, they learn that making your own decisions isn’t always as much fun as it sounds.

For me, the main problem with this book was that it felt as though Morgan wasn’t sure what the ‘lesson’ should be.  Every good story has a lesson, even if it’s a trite, simplistic one like “love conquers all” or a completely wrong one like “being sneaky always pays off.”  This story waffled a good deal.  Was the lesson “growing up is tough”?  “It’s easier to have a domineering person make your decisions so you aren’t responsible for them”?  “Your parents always know what’s best even when they’re jerks”?  “Never listen to advice”?  “Follow your heart”?  I never could quite decide what point the author was making.

Another problem was that Louisa and Valentine supposedly had this super close relationship growing up, their difficult parent drawing them together.  But because part of the story was how they grew apart during the course of all these changes, it was hard to understand many of the decisions Louisa made to protect/defend her brother, because I didn’t really like him, and I didn’t have the solid background of knowing that Valentine really loved his sister.

Louisa spends much of the book dithering because she knows that Valentine is making some very stupid decisions, but she doesn’t want to interfere with him for fear of appearing to try and run his life as their father had done.  That was another one of the lessons that were never quite clear – are we supposed to walk away with the conviction that we should always, never, or sometimes interfere?  At the end of the story, I never felt that Louisa had learned any kind of balance in that area – that if Valentine did something else dumb, she would spend just as much time dithering as she had the first time.

And then their are Louisa’s love interests.  From the beginning, we learn of this one fellow (whose name I can’t remember) – he’s the fellow that Louisa’s father intended her to marry.  But Louisa doesn’t like this fellow because he’s just as bossy and domineering as her father.  So he shows up, and he is a bit of a jerk, but then suddenly in the middle of the book, he’s not a jerk any more – I never knew if I was supposed to like him or not.  There was no real revelation of whether something had happened to make the fellow be nicer, or if Louisa had always just perceived him as more of a jerk than he really was?  Or what?  His character development was haphazard and confusing.

So while this book was fun and enjoyable, it still had an undercurrent of randomness that subtly irritated me throughout.  Another 3/5 for a book with a lot of potential that it didn’t quite reach.

Spindle’s End

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by Robin McKinley

Published 2000

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust.  (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.)  If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water.  (It didn’t have to be anything scary or unpleasant, like snakes or slime, especially in a cheerful household – magic tended to reflect the atmosphere of the place in which it found itself – but if you want a cup of tea, a cup of lavender-and-gold pansies or ivory thimbles is unsatisfactory.  And while the pansies – put dry in a vase – would probably last a day, looking like ordinary pansies, before they went greyish-dun and collapsed into magic dust, something like an ivory thimble would begin to smudge and crumble as soon as you picked it up.)

This is another well-loved book.  It’s a vacation book – I always buy at least one book on vacation; this one was purchased in Traverse City, Michigan, in September of 2003, and has probably been read at least ten times since then.  I think I fell in love with this book because almost the entire first paragraph is a parentheses.  As a parentheses addict myself, I love it.  If parentheses annoy you, steer clear of this book, as it is riddled with them.

What I love about McKinley is her ability to create a completely different world, yet one to which I can relate and one that I can understand almost immediately.  Although new rules reveal themselves as the story wends on, she doesn’t make any giant illogical leaps.  I also love the way that this story encompasses the entire 21 years of Sleeping Beauty’s life pre-spindle, but does it in a way that flows and is easy to read.  The book starts focused on Katriona, who becomes Princess Rosie’s foster-mother, but seamlessly flows into a focus more on Rosie when she is old enough to think interesting thoughts.  McKinley also does a wonderful job with the animals – although some characters can understand what animals are saying, it doesn’t make the animals less animal-like – it almost makes them more so.  (Like the movie Up where we can hear the dogs talking, and what do they say?  Exactly what we would expect dogs to say!)

I am not a 100% fan of McKinley; some of her stories aren’t my style.  But Spindle’s End is one of my very favorite books, and if you’re a fantasy fan and haven’t read this one, I highly recommend it.

Lion in the Valley and The Deeds of the Disturber

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by Elizabeth Peters

Published 1986, 1988

Amelia Peabody Emerson is back, with husband and son in tow.  I have actually really been enjoying these unique mysteries.  The setting is just so random – 1890’s Egypt?? – and Amelia, for the most part, makes an entertaining and intelligent narrator.  Because she makes no secret of the fact that she believes her writing may be published after her death, the whole fact that she’s writing the story makes sense.  (Frequently, my problem with first-person writing is the constant nagging in the back of my mind – to whom is this person talking!?!? but Amelia is actually writing to the world, and she knows it, and everything flows well because of it.

The Lion in Valley (although I forgot to take a picture of it) was an intriguing mystery, although the book as a whole was not a favorite of mine, mostly because of religion.  Throughout the series, Emerson makes no secret of the fact that he thinks all religion is hogwash, which is fine.  However, especially in Lion, the was a constant insistence that all religion is hooey, and, consequently, that it doesn’t matter if one is a Muslem or a Christian or whatever.  I don’t believe that, and I can’t think that most Moslems do, either.  Religion is, by nature, somewhat exclusionary.  While I believe that you have the right to believe whatever you want to believe, I naturally think that my beliefs are the correct ones …  else, they wouldn’t by my beliefs!  And so, Emerson’s unnecessary lumping together and insulting of religion did begin to wear on my nerves after a while.

Deeds of the Disturber took a twist by being set in London.  Home for the season, the Emersons are hoping to catch up on their writing.  Unfortunately, the Museum in London is being “haunted” – by the priest of a mummy.  This was probably my least favorite of all the mysteries so far.  The story was quite far-fetched, the conclusion completely bizarre, and just – it was weird.  And a bit confusing.

There was also a whole side story where Amelia’s nephew and niece were staying with them.  Throughout the story, it was painfully obvious that Ramses was being bullied and tormented by both siblings, but Amelia and Emerson were so caught up in their mystery that they didn’t notice what was going on.  While Ramses chatter has annoyed me in past books, it was more frustrating to hear him incessantly cut off by parents who assumed that they already knew what he was going to say.  While everything was clear in the end and relationships restored, it was hard for me to get into the mystery when I was so distressed by Ramses’s situation.

Still, on the whole, the series is good and I have been enjoying the stories.  I’m reading the next in the series, The Last Camel Died at Noon, right now, and am quite enjoying it, so hopefully I will have some more good reviews to report soon!

PS It appears that that lack of a picture has confused me for sure!  I just realized that I already mention Lion in the Valley in my last post on the series.  Whoops!

Gone-Away Lake and Return to Gone-Away

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by Elizabeth Enright

Published 1957, 1961

As you may be able to tell from the battered cover of my copy of Gone-Away, I love these books.  Elizabeth Enright writes happy. lighthearted stories.  While not long on plot, they are still fun to read.  The children in her stories manage to have adventures using mostly the great outdoors and their imagination.

I have to say that, as a child (and maybe even now) one of my favorite daydreams was that my family would end up buying an old, rambling house – one with a tower and an attic full of history.  So it is with a hint of jealousy that I read these stories.  Porita and her cousin discover not just an abandoned house, but an entire (almost) abandoned village!

These are simply, happy books that I would highly recommend, especially as read-alouds for children.  5/5

Bidding for Love

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by Kate Fforde

Published 2005

This was a book that I almost really liked…

20’something Flora Stanza unexpectedly inherits 51% of a family business – an antique auction house in the country.  Although Flora knows nothing about antiques or country living, she decides to take the plunge.  Her cousin, Charles, who owns the other 49%, has been managing the business for several years with the assistance of his fiancee, Annabelle.  Flora thinks she has never met a stuffier couple, but because her cat is having kittens she can’t go back (???  the whole kitten thing seemed weak to me.  The fact that she had sublet her London flat made a much more believable reason for sticking around, but that was glossed over in favor of the fact that the cat had just had kittens…), so she ends up taking up residence in a very isolated cottage owned by Annabelle.

This was really, really close to be a super-fun fluff book.  I actually liked Flora (despite her obsession with clothes), and many of secondary characters were a lot of fun.  The dialogue was engaging, and the story moved right along.  But for me, there wasn’t very clear character development, and that frustrated me.

SPOILERS BELOW BUT NOT REALLY BECAUSE IT’S A SERIOUS CHICK FLICK AND YOU WILL FIGURE THIS ALL OUT WITHIN THE FIRST THREE CHAPTERS OF THE BOOK ANYWAY –

It’s pretty obvious that Flora ends up falling in love with Charles, although she doesn’t realize it herself at first.  She and Charles are distant cousins, so it’s cool, but she keeps calling him her cousin, and everyone calls him her cousin, so it feels super strange that she’s going to end up with him.  Even though Charles and Annabelle aren’t actually married yet, and they come to realize that their engagement was really just a habit, not because they were ever in love, I still don’t like the way that it unwinds – it feels really awkward (to my old-fashioned sensibilities, anyway) that Charles is living with/presumably sleeping with Annabelle even though he has fallen madly in love with Flora.

Annabelle is her own enigma.  It’s as though Fforde couldn’t decide what she should be like.  Literally, I had no idea what Annabelle was going to say/do next, and not in a good way.  There was no consistency to her character, and I never did figure out if I was supposed to like her, hate her, be indifferent towards her…  she would be super possessive of Charles at one moment, and then not at all the next.  She cheats on him like crazy with the crazy hippy dude, William (more on him in a minute), but tells Flora to stay away from Charles.  Literally, in one chapter she confronts Flora and tells Flora how Annabelle’s dad is the one who loaned Charles a bunch of money to help the business so Charles can’t be with Flora no matter what and then IN THE VERY NEXT CHAPTER Annabelle has eloped with William.   How does that make sense AT ALL??  She spends the whole book being super snooty, and Flora goes on and on (in her mind) about how Annabelle and Charles won’t suit, and it’s partially because Annabelle is such a spoiled rich girl, but in the end Annabelle purposely throws her lot with a hippy who lives in a trailer and makes most of his meals by harvesting wild food in the woods?  Annabelle gave me whiplash the entire book and made it hard for me to get into the groove of the story overall.

William – okay, so Flora is living way out in the middle of NOWHERE and she wakes up one morning and there is a STRANGE MAN IN HER HOUSE and because she doesn’t get “creepy” vibes off of him, she just goes with it?  Because he makes her coffee?  W H A T ?!?!  And William continues to live with her off and on throughout the summer because he spends lots of time living in the woods and he’s a total hippy but his character is just super strange and a little too random to fit into the story.  Flora’s immediate acceptance of him and the way he just lives there whenever and she’s cool with it and it’s okay because they aren’t attracted to each other so it’s all good …  it was just weird.

And then there’s Henry.  He’s the guy Flora is SUPPOSED to fall in love with.  He’s young and good looking and super flirtatious.  He’s also divorced because he cheated on his wife.  Everyone warns Flora away from him, but she keeps dating him anyway even though she doesn’t really like him.  Henry’s character was basically whatever it needed to be to make the story move along; his character was SO flat and dull and completely pointless.

And then one of the things I liked about this book was how there weren’t any sex scenes.  A little smooching, a little innuendo, that’s fine, but I don’t need all the details, you know?  And then, WHAM right at the end, she sneaks it in.  Super disappointing and, to me, completely unnecessary.  For me, a happy wedding is a way more satisfying conclusion to a love story than a shag scene.  And even though Flora and Charles are planning to get married (eventually), it’s just not the same.  It lacked the real commitment – after all, Charles has been engaged to Annabelle for years, and didn’t end up marrying HER.  I’m not convinced that they’re really in it to win it.

So, in conclusion, this book was a combination of flat characters and morals too modern for me to really enjoy it.  A fine read, fluff, a lot of funny dialogue, but not one I’m going to add to my personal library.  2/5.

Ready, Set, Dogs!

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by Stephanie Calmenson and Joanna Cole

Published 2013 – This is an Advanced Reader’s Copy provided in exchange for an honest review, etc etc

So this is another book for younger readers, an early-reader chapter book about two best friends who LOVE DOGS but can’t own one because of their apartment restrictions.  When they find a pair of matching necklaces at a thrift store, they discover that the necklaces can turn them into dogs!  And adventures ensue.

This was a fairly simple book, but I think that it did a fine job of not falling into too many stereotypes – the girls are neither obsessed with girlishness or insistent on proving they are “as good as” the boys.  The boys in the story are not mean or bullies, but just boys.  While their moms are both single moms, we manage to get past that with just a couple of sentences:  “Their moms were best friends just like they were … They were single parents and helped each other out a lot.”

While the girls start out by using their dog-power to tease the boys, in the end they all become friends and work together for the common good – writing a new jingle for the Adopt-a-Dog Week at the local shelter.

Fairly inane, but a book I won’t be embarrassed to hand over to my little sister.  3/5.