‘The Murder at the Vicarage’, ‘Thirteen Problems’, and ‘The Body in the Library’ {introducing Miss Marple}

by Agatha Christie

published 1930, 1932, 1941

Sometimes I just need to read some good mysteries, ones where the bad guys are always appropriately punished, and the hero is unlikely but brilliant.  And so I turn to Agatha Christie yet again.  :-D

All the way back in early 2012 (before I was even on WordPress!  Back when my main book blog was on tumblr!  Ah, those were the days!  Not really; WordPress is a much better format for this blog.  Anyway) I started reading the Hercule Poirot books in their published order.  It took me a while to work through them, but it was well-worth the effort to see his character (and those of various secondary characters) unfold and build.  While Miss Marple does not star in nearly as many works, I’m still intrigued about following another character through her progression.

I’ve never liked Miss Marple as well as Poirot, but she is still a fun character in her own right.  She is much smarter than I am, as I never see what she’s driving at with her village connections, but I do love to see how she explains how, exactly, a body in the library ends up being like the little boy who put the frog in the clock.

The Murder at the Vicarage is narrated by the vicar himself.  While Miss Marple had appeared in a short story previous to this (“The Tuesday Night Club”), this was her first full-length novel.  I actually really liked the vicar and his wife, and their relationship made a nice second level.  As always, Christie’s strong morals and droll sense of humor lend a flavor to her books that I greatly enjoy.

“Will you tell me exactly what it is that has upset you?”

“Tell you that in two words, I can.”  Here, I may say she vastly underestimated.

Her humor is so dry, and she frequently makes me giggle.

On the other hand, she can also give me pause –

“If you catch him on the wrong side of the law, let the law punish him.  You agree with me, I’m sure.”

“You forget,” I said.  “My calling obliges me to respect one quality above all others – the quality of mercy.”

“Well, I’m a just man.  No one can deny that.”  I did not speak and he said  sharply, “Why don’t you answer?  A penny for your thoughts, man.”

I hesitated, then I decided to speak.

“I was thinking,” I said, “that, when my time comes, I should be sorry if the only plea I had to offer was that of justice.  Because it might mean that only justice would be meted out to me.”

Thirteen Problems is a collection of short stories that were published at various times throughout the late 1920’s and compiled into one book in 1932.  The first chapter is “The Tuesday Night Club,” Miss Marple’s original appearance.  Several friends are gathered together for dinner, and decide that every week a different one will tell a story and see if the others can solve the mystery.  Miss Marple, of course, never ceases to astound those around her with her intuition and common sense.  Although even Miss Marple can be distressed at times –

I was more disturbed than I can tell you.  I was knitting a comforter for old Miss May at the time, and in my perturbation I dropped two stitches and never discovered it until long after.

As I discovered when reading through the Poirot books in order (and actually the same thing happened when I read the Bertie & Jeeves books in published order as well), many of the secondary characters reappear, and getting to know them through multiple stories really increases the depth and interest for each subsequent tale.  The Body in the Library was a much stronger read this time around because I already knew the Bantrys and Sir Henry and Inspector Slack – even the vicar’s wife pops back in – the names of various gossip-mongerers match up with personalities from Murder at the Vicarage, and everything just ties together so much more completely.

Miss Marple is a fun character, and her little insights do actually give the reader a better chance of solving the mystery herself, so that’s an added bit of fun as well (although I’m notoriously bad at mystery solving).  I can’t help but admire her strong sense of practicality that enables her to strip human drama down to its basic form –

Everybody is very much alike, really.  But fortunately, perhaps, they don’t realize it.


A Bit about Harry Potter {part 2}

So I mentioned the other day that I’ve been reading the Harry Potter books again.  Usually I blast through this series like a dog scarfing a hamburger, but this time around I’ve been reading them as a part of my round-robin reading style (usually library book, personal book, library book, series, library book, mystery series, and then around again), which means I’ve had a bit of contemplation time between each title, and that’s been kind of fun.  All I have left is the final book in the series, so my most recent reads were my least favorite of the series (Order of the Phoenix) and my favorite (The Half-Blood Prince).

As I mentioned before, I really enjoy these books.  They have loads of plot holes and plenty of discrepancies, but so do most epic series, so I just go with it.  However, as I also mentioned before, what I don’t really enjoy about these books (besides Rowling herself, who really, really gets on my nerves) is the fandom.  I’m an avid tumblrer, and I find myself rolling my eyes frequently at oh-so-clever Harry Potter books that really aren’t clever at all.  So, for today’s personal opinions about Harry Potter:  Why Harry Potter Isn’t Stupid and a Bit About Teenage Angst.

So one of my pet peeves is posts that go on about Harry is really quite dumb.  The one that irritates me the most (probably because it’s always pronounced with such a smug, self-satisfied attitude) is that Harry is so stupid that he couldn’t recognize Snape’s handwriting in his potions book in The Half-Blood Prince because, DUH, Harry has been watching Snape write on the chalkboard for years!  What a dummy!  Really?  That’s the best you can come up with?  First off, any time there is any mention of Snape putting something on the board it’s with a “wave of his wand” or something along those lines:  Snape doesn’t stand there and writing out the potions recipe – he puts it up there by magic.  It could be anyone’s (or no one’s) writing, not necessarily his own.  Secondly, does your writing on a chalkboard really look exactly like the writing you use to scribble notes?  And thirdly, does your 16-year-old handwriting look the same as your 40-year-old handwriting?  Egads.

The point is, Harry isn’t stupid.  However, he is a kid.  So yes, he makes mistakes.  Yes, he sometimes misses the obvious.  Yes, he has lots of regrets.  But they aren’t because he’s dumb; they’re because he’s young.  Not only does Harry illustrate his intelligence by getting top grades and, you know, defeating multiple dark wizards in his spare time, he also proves it by acknowledging that he can’t complete his mission on his own.  He has friends who complement him and bolster him where he is weak.

I think that Rowling does an excellent job writing to the age of the characters – the points where they are unreasonable or ridiculous are times that they are most acting like one would expect someone their age to do so.  Is Harry super obnoxious in Order of the Phoenix?  Yes, yes he is.  Why?  Because he’s 15 and thinks he knows everything, like the majority of 15-year-olds.  There is a great quote from Phineas, a portrait of one of the old headmasters at Hogwarts –

“You know …  this is precisely why I loathed being a teacher!  Young people are so infernally convinced that they are absolutely right about everything.  Has it not occurred to you, my poor puffed-up popinjay, that there might be an excellent reason why the headmaster of Hogwarts is not confiding every tiny detail to you?  Have you never paused, while feeling hard-done-by, to note that following Dumbledore’s orders has never yet led you into harm?  No.  No, like all young people, you are quite sure that you alone feel and think, you alone recognize danger, you alone are the only one clever enough to realize what the Dark Lord may be planning.”

To me, that quote perfectly summarizes youth.  Youth always thinks that it is the only one to have suffered in this way; Youth assumes that Age does not understand and can never understand the agonies of Youth.  And I think that part of the reason I enjoy this series is because Harry learns that his youth is not always a strength.

Like I’ve said, there are plenty of weaknesses in the series.  But Harry’s intelligence is not one of them.

Final thoughts will probably include a lot about Snape, so be ready!  :-D

Dear Mr. Knightley


by Katherine Reay

Published 2013

So I actually really enjoy books that are letters when they are done well.  Someone told me that this was a remake of the 1912 delight Daddy Long-Legsso I thought I would give it a whirl.

In Dear Mr. Knightley, Samantha (of course known as Sam…  is there any Samantha who goes by Samantha?) has grown up in various foster care homes, and spent the last several years of her legal childhood living in a sort of group home run presumably by Catholics, since the fellow in charge is Father John, called Grace House.  Sam is offered a scholarship of sorts of a prestigious journalist school in Chicago.  In exchange for having her tuition paid, Sam must write monthly letters to her unknown benefactor (“Mr. Knightley”) telling of her progress.

So this book was a solid 3/5 for me.  It literally stirred zero strong feelings in me, to the point where I wasn’t even going to bother reviewing it.  A fine read, not a waste of my time, but not something I want to recommend or anti-recommend to anyone, either.  But I enjoyed it enough to want to give Reay another chance, so I got on GoodReads to see if she had written anything else.  While there, I made the mistake of getting sucked into other people’s reviews of this book.  To my surprise, it apparently stirs very strong feelings in everyone else, because everyone either gave this book a 1 or a 5, which I found intriguing.  As I read through the reviews, I began to get annoyed, because people disliked this book for the wrong reasons, and so, here I am, writing a review for a book that I apparently liked more than I thought because the negative reviews made me feel rather defensive.

Here’s the deal: this concept doesn’t really work as a modern adaptation.  I don’t know how else to say it.  Where Daddy Long-Legs felt natural and real, Dear Mr. Knightley felt stilted and forced.  The whole book would have worked a thousand times better if Sam had just been writing in her journal, to the point where I just pretended she was writing in her journal so I could enjoy the book more.

But most of the complaints in the negative reviews centered around the fact that Sam didn’t sleep with her boyfriend, and that really began to tick me off.  Sam ends up living in an apartment over a garage.  The family who owned said apartment are super nice and rather conservative and they have younger children, and Sam decides that she really doesn’t want her (new) boyfriend staying the night because she doesn’t want to set a bad example for the kids.  As the story progresses, Sam just simply isn’t read to get in bed with this guy.  She really likes him, but she has a lot of trust issues (see: Sam’s tragic back story growing up in foster homes) and just isn’t ready.  All the reviews saying that this was “completely unrealistic” and that Sam just needed to “loosen up” and no 23-year-old girl could be so naive as to not know what her boyfriend wanted (which, by the way, misses the whole point – Sam did know what he wanted, and she just didn’t want to give it to him), really, really, really annoyed me.  Just because you are dating someone does not mean you are obligated to sleep with him/her.  I’m quite tired of the message being the opposite, that dating = sex and that if you aren’t having sex, then you aren’t dating right.  My gosh.  Sam’s reasons behind her decision to not sleep with her boyfriend were sound and logical, and even if they weren’t, it’s her choice and she can do what she wants.  I think it’s funny that the liberals are quite insistent that everyone do whatever they want to do, unless, of course, they don’t want to do whatever it is the liberals are doing.  Sheesh.

Anyway.  The other big rant about this book, read in multiple reviews, also illustrated that people missed the entire point of the story.  Sam has been abused and neglected her entire life.  She discovered Pride and Prejudice at a younger age, and books became her escape.  She loves the classics and has an excellent memory.  When she gets nervous or doesn’t know what to say, she quotes.  It’s her way of putting up a barrier, making sure people don’t get too close, keeping her life hidden.  Is it annoying?  Yes, that’s the point.  Sam isn’t real when she’s quoting; she’s hiding.  She spends the entire book learning to grow out of that shell, learning to face her past and let it make her stronger, instead of hiding it and letting it cripple her.

While I didn’t love this book, I appreciated Sam’s growth as a person, and her yearning for normalcy.

Actually, my biggest – by far and away – beef with this book?  It’s an obvious retelling of Daddy Long-Legs, yet that book is not mentioned a single time.  I literally read through everything – dedication, acknowledgements, endnotes, you name it, looking for some acknowledgement of Jean Webster’s classic story, and it wasn’t there.  That really burned me, actually, to the point of thinking about writing Reay a letter.  I mean seriously?

This is a fine fluff book, not a total waste of time, and I wouldn’t mind reading something by Reay in the future (if she can avoid plagiarism next time), but overall I would say time would be better spent reading Jean Webster’s Daddy Long-Legs and, even better, its sequel (and my favorite), Dear Enemy.

Cruel Beauty


by Rosamund Hodge

published 2014

In this retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Nyx has known her entire life that she would eventually be wed to the demon who has entrapped her land.  Her father and her aunt have raised her with the knowledge she needs to defeat this demon and free their world.  I love a good B&B retelling, and I liked the darker edge this story had.  The whole idea of Beauty being an assassin sounded pretty cool to me.   However, in the end, I found no one likable in this entire story, and thus was completely detached from what would happen to them.

Nyx tells the story, thankfully in past tense.  The problem is, Nyx goes out of her way to make us dislike her, emphasizing her negative qualities, dwelling on the bitterness she feels about her mother’s death, her father’s promise to wed her to the demon, her destiny to kill said demon, and a host of other things.  Nyx is a pretty bitter person, and it just doesn’t make for interesting reading, especially combined with her whining about how she knows she’s bitter but she just can’t help it!

Then Nyx heads off to the Beast’s castle, and we meet the demon, Ignifex, who is more a charming rake (actually reminded me of some Georgette Heyer characters lol) than a horrific demon.  Nyx feels an immediate attraction to Ignifex, which she calls “love” but is obviously mere lust because all she knows about him are the horrible things she’s been told.  At the same time, she also falls in love/lust with Ignifex’s servant-shadow, Shade, who can only take on a solid form in the darkness (although that seems a loose rule later in the book).   The whole story devolves into a rather dreadful love triangle comprised of bitter/conflicted/annoying Nyx, dashing/devil-may-care/roguish Ignifex, and mysterious/martyr-attitude/pitiful-yet-mysterious-attractive Shade.

Woven into the story are numerous references to Greek/Roman gods/myths, that added more confusion rather than clarification to the current tale, especially since I couldn’t tell if Ignifex was supposed to be another god, or if he was just mixed in for fun.

But it was the love triangle that irritated me the most.  First, Nyx is attracted to Ignifex.  Then, disgusted with the idea that she can feel any draw towards her enemy, she falls for Shade, the poor shadow-slave.  She smooches him a few times (at their first meeting, of course), and decides she must be in love with him.  Then she starts hanging out more with Ignifex and really likes him a lot.  A series of events and Shade does something that makes Nyx not trust  him, so Ignifex suddenly just locks him up, then he and Nyx start shagging and everything is all love and rainbows…????

I don’t know.  The whole story was choppy and confusing with flat characters.  I just couldn’t get behind Nyx as a person, and I didn’t like either of the guys either (or Nyx’s father, or aunt, or sister…), so while I continued to plow through the story until its end, it was a very meh read for me, 2/5.  I guess what irritated me the most is what irritates me the most about books that irritate me – I hate it when the characters are stagnant.  At the end, I didn’t feel as though anyone had grown has a person or learned anything from their trials and adventures, which is, to me, the entire point of writing a story.

As an aside, several months ago I read another retelling of Beauty & the Beast that was much better – beautiful writing, engaging characters, a fresh plot – if you’re looking for a good retelling, I would definitely recommend Of Beast & Beauty instead, as it actually  has a point and character development.

A Curious Man



by Neal Thompson

published 2013

Subtitled The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley, this book was an entertaining, informative, and fascinating read.

So quite a while back I got an email telling me about a new book reviewing program called Blogging for Books.  I am always excited to get free books in exchange for my opinion (since free books and expressing my opinions are two of my favorite things), so I jumped right on the bandwagon.  When Tom and I were in the Key West back in February of 2011, we visited a Believe It or Not museum that was great fun, so this book grabbed my attention.  I love reading biographies of random people.  I mean, everyone reads about George Washington, but Robert Ripley??  New and exciting.

Unfortunately, this book arrived the same week we got possession of our new house – actually, it has the privilege of being the very first book I received at this house.  But that meant that I was immediately swept up into the madness of turning this place into something livable, and that was definitely a time-consuming task.  I’m notoriously slow at reading nonfiction even in the best of times, and I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to work my way through this read.

Don’t be fooled by my slow pace – actually, this book was well-written and entertaining.  Thompson does an excellent job pacing the story of Ripley’s life.  I’m always frustrated by biographers who jump all over a person’s timeline, but Thompson manages to stick to a fairly linear tale.  Ripley, of course, makes an intrinsically fascinating subject, with a life full of madcap adventures, unusual travels, and wild ideas.

I only had  a few cons about this book, and they had more to do with personal preference.  For one, there were no chapter titles.  For a biography, it’s nice to have some kind of indication as to what point in the person’s life we are going to be talking about, and I missed having some kind of signpost along the way.  My second thought is that while there was a little section of photographs in the center of the book, it felt as thought here could definitely have been some more illustrations/pictures, preferably some of Ripley’s cartoons that Thompson was describing.  I don’t know if there were copyright issues or something that prevented that from happening, but for a biography about a cartoonist, it was sadly lacking in cartoons.

But those are finicky points just to prove that I actually read and was engaged in this book.  Overall, it flowed very well.  I appreciated Thompson’s ability to introduce characters and then reintroduce them later with just the amount of reminder background.  This was especially helpful since I was reading this book over several weeks’ time.

Another thing I also appreciated was that while Thompson did not attempt to deny or gloss over Ripley’s rather loose morals as concerns women, he didn’t make that the cornerstone of the book, either.  I’ve noticed a tendency among modern biographies to read more like a gossip magazine, spending copious amounts of time trying to determine an individual’s true sexual preferences, and explaining in detail the various affairs in which said individual found himself entangled.  Thompson strikes the balance of keeping with the facts as they are important to telling Ripley’s life-story as a whole, which was nice.

Thompson also manages to have a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor that I think even Ripley would have appreciated.  I got a particular chuckle out of this line –

[Ripley’s claim that Lindbergh wasn’t the first to fly across the Atlantic] sounded absurd, even anti-American, as some angrily claimed.  It was as if someone recklessly asserted that George Washington wasn’t the first president, that New Jersey wasn’t really a state, that Pluto wasn’t a planet.

I was also much entertained to come across other familiar names –

The show would air in prime time on Sunday nights, with Ripley as the host, assisted by a sidekick/bandleader named Ozzie Nelson and Nelson’s soon-to-be wife, the singer Harriet Hilliard.

As someone who grew up watching Ozzy & Harriet reruns, I never knew that they made their start with Ripley!

Another familiar name popped up a few pages later –

When a young Minnesota cartoonist noticed his dog’s propensity to eat broken glass and sewing needles, his first thought was Ripley.  The boy drew a picture of his dog Spike and mailed it to New York.  In early 1937, Ripley published the sketch inside a Believe It or Not panel with a caption explaining that C.F. Schultz’s dog “eats pins, screws, and razor blades.”

Charles F. Schulz, whose ill-mannered dog became the cartoon legend Snoopy, was just fourteen.

(And that’s what I mean about how it would have been nice to have some more cartoons – this would be a fun one to see.  I will say that there is a page at the beginning of the book encouraging me to download an app and then scan the photo pages and be able to see more photos…  except when I  buy a print book, I want to read the print book, and like to have all the material, you know, in print.)

In fact, Ripley was one of those people who seemed to know everyone.  His career spanned a time period that saw great changes in the entertainment industry – he started with cartoons in newspapers, but throughout his life he published books, ran radio programs, and eventually even had television shows.

I’ve noticed that frequently, when I’m studying something, I keep noticing that something popping up everywhere.  A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I were out adventuring.  We stopped in a small town about 30 miles from home, New Straitsville.  We’d been through town several times before and always seen a sign for “Robinson’s Cave.”  This particular day we stopped and checked it out.  Considered by many as the birthplace of the mining unions in this country, the cave itself isn’t much to look at (in southeastern Ohio, “caves” are usually more like gashes in the sandstone; our family calls them “cavishes”), but there are several informative signs explaining the history and importance of the location.  During the chaotic throes of several mining strikes, angry miners set coal carts on fire and rolled them into a mine.  This fire, started in the 1880’s, is still burning today underground (believe it or not!).  Off and on throughout the last 130 years, the fire has come closer to the surface; in the 1970’s it got so hot that one could literally fry eggs on the state route that runs through New Straitsville.  While reading the signs, I was quite pleased and entertained to come across Ripley.



Tom and I were especially entertained by the rifle in the picture above…  really, that’s still the attitude one finds in New Straitsvillians today.

At any rate, A Curious Man was well-written and engaging, telling the story of Ripley’s life in a easy-to-read and interesting manner.  I definitely recommend it if you are interested in Ripley himself, or, like me, random biographies are intriguing people.

Many thanks to Random Reads for providing this book free of charge; the only way in which this impacted my review was to make me feel quite guilty that it’s taken me so long to finish reading and reviewing it!


‘Eight Cousins’ and ‘Rose in Bloom’

by Louisa May Alcott

Published 1874, 1876 (although my editions are 1917 and 1932, so practically brand-new!)



Well, I thought I had pictures of these books, but apparently not, so.

These are two of my most favoritest books in the world.  I love Louisa May Alcott over all, and Little Women is definitely a classic that everyone should read, and a book that I dearly love, but for some reason Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom are my two favorites (although An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I also recently read and may be reviewed soon, definitely ranks up there as well).  These books are about a girl, Rose, who, at the beginning of Eight Cousins has been orphaned and gone to live with her aunts and uncle.  They live close by several other aunts (in a neighborhood referred to as “Aunt Hill” :-D) and Rose’s seven cousins – who are all boys.  When our story opens, Rose, around the age of 13 (I can’t remember exactly), is rather sickly and mopey.  All of this changes when Uncle Alec, her new guardian, arrives.  With his rather unorthodox educational and parenting methods, Uncle Alec soon helps Rose become happier, healthier, and wiser.  With seven energetic cousins in the mix, there are plenty of adventures, mishaps, and life-lessons.  When we reach Rose in Bloom, time has skipped a few years while Rose and Uncle Alec (and Rose’s best friend, Phebe) have been abroad.  Home again, romance is in the air as the cousins navigate those dangerous coming-of-age years.  Throughout the books, Alcott makes everyone real and relatable, giving us lessons that are so pleasant to learn that we don’t really mind, as she has perfected the art of preaching without preaching.  While simple enough for younger readers, these books still contain a great deal of depth – books that strike me differently with every reading (and there have been many).

The first time I read these books, Mom told me that, though she didn’t realize it at the time, Uncle Alec was her inspiration for home schooling.  Even before she and Dad pulled us out of school, Mom had a rather unorthodox concept of education, frequently having me skip a day if she felt we had something better/more educational to do.  Throughout the stories, Uncle Alec encourages Rose to learn through experience and exploration, while spending plenty of time outdoors, eating well, and learning to serve those around her.  Even though Rose is a rich young woman, Uncle Alec helps her to realize that the value of people is not in their money, helping her to learn the importance of being kind to all.

I’m afraid I’m making these books sound dreadfully dull and preachy, but they really aren’t.  The stories are lighthearted and happy, yet manage to explore some serious topics.  Rose in Bloom is a wonderfully romantic tale, with the contrast between Rose’s two beaus a study on the topic of what makes true love.

Alcott does a wonderful job of stressing the importance of true beauty – kindness and health – reminding her readers that following the fleeting fashions of the world is not a profitable way to live.  I love the fact that these books were published in the 1870’s, yet still have so much relevance for modern readers.  “A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman,” Uncle Alec tells Rose.  At another juncture, while discussing a school Rose used to attend, he states, “I dare say [the school] would be [excellent] if the benighted [headmistress] did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way.”  Uncle Alec is a wonderful teacher, and I can see how Mom, even at a young age, was inspired by him.

In Rose in Bloom, Rose’s education continues, though even more informally.  Returning Stateside after several years abroad, Rose is ready to take charge of her fortune and make her way in life.  Alcott was a strong believer in woman’s rights, and an even stronger believer in the importance of retaining femininity and the beauty of true womanliness while taking advantage of those rights.  Rose’s coming-of-age illustrates that concept many times as Rose grows into a strong and independent woman, while retaining the grace, gentleness, and vulnerability that are a woman’s true birthright.   Rose yearns to find true love, but is content to wait for it in the right time, and to stay busy and productive while waiting.

In her eyes love was a very sacred thing, hardly to be thought of till it came, reverently received, and cherished faithfully to the end.

I believe Alcott would have been horrified to see where the so-called feminist movement has brought women today – far more used and abused than they ever were in 1876, and entirely by their own hand.  Perhaps due in part to our lack of ability to see these other truths she unearths?

“It is the small temptations which undermine integrity, unless we watch and pray, and never think them too trivial to be resisted.”


“Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it.”

Or these words from one of the cousins, as he expresses to a few of the others how he yearns to find a wonderful wife.  The whole conversation is really fantastic, but a few highlights –

“Well I know this much,” added Mac … “it is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints, and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts, or, at best, ones not half as good as theirs.  If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a mean advantage we take of them, and not make such sad bargains.”

A few paragraphs later, one of the other cousins asks Mac how he intends to remedy this situation.  Mac’s answer is not that women should become more coarse, or lower their personal standards, but that men should learn to mature and do better.

“How will you begin?”

“Do my best all round: keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate my soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can.”

I think this is the crux of Alcott’s writing.  So much of the trash I read today says something like “This group expects this group to do x, and that’s not fair when they only have to do y.”  But instead of saying that maybe everyone should step up to the standards of x, they try to drag everyone down to the standards of y.  I’m not saying it very well, but hopefully you can understand what I’m driving at.  Alcott’s writing, on the other hand, encourages everyone to step up to the plate and become a better, stronger person, rather than dragging everyone down to the lowest level.  She encourages her readers, through her stories, to be strong – not physically, but morally, to stand up for the right and to do whatever it takes to become purer, kinder, and better.

“It is not cowardly to flee temptation; and nobody whose opinion is worth having will ridicule any brave attempt to conquer one’s self.”

Alcott recognized the fact that, as humans, our tendency is towards laziness and selfishness.  She still encourages her readers today to become more than the lowest common denominator – to learn to stand tall, work hard, and help others.  This is what makes her writing timeless, books worth reading almost 140 years after they were written.


The Rest of the Vicky Bliss Series {minireviews}


by Elizabeth Peters

Trojan Gold – published 1987

Night Train to Memphis – published 1994

The Laughter of Dead Kings – published 2008

I was going to review these books separately, but I’ve already read all three, so it kind of makes sense to just combine them into one entry.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed the Vicky Bliss books, but not nearly as much as the Amelia Peabody mysteries.  I’ve tried to determine why that is, and I’m still not exactly sure.  I do think that a large reason for the preference has to do with  my so-called old-fashioned sensibilities.  In short: I don’t like stories where the main characters are sleeping together but aren’t married.  Don’t get me wrong, Peters’s books are not steamy, graphic romances.  But just like in the Peabody books, there is plenty of innuendo (plus just the fact that they’re always sharing a bedroom), and while it was fine with the Peabody books, it really bothered me in the Vicky books, and I think it really just came down to the unmarried thing.  In the Peabody books, Amelia and Emerson were a married, loyal, devoted, madly-in-love couple, and that carried on throughout the entire series (which covered about three decades of time).  They were a team; they trusted each other implicitly; they were partners in everything that they did.  But with Vicky, her main love interest ends up being John Smythe (later found to be John Tregarth).  In the  beginning, John is a thief, but he “goes straight” in Night Train to Memphis, and proves his determination to be honest in The Laughter of Dead Kings.  But John and Vicky never marry.  Not only that, Vicky doesn’t trust John and further than she could throw him, and both of them frequently prove themselves to be working as two individuals rather than a team (often they aren’t even working towards the same goal…).  I just couldn’t work up any warm feelings for them as a couple, and it really hampered my overall enjoyment of the series.

My second big problem with the series was that it wasn’t really focused.  The Emersons belonged in Egypt, and their setting felt incredibly authentic and realistic.  A month or so after finishing that series, I was reading a book about Egypt in the 1910’s, and almost felt like I should run across them in the  history pages.  Vicky, however, jumps all over in regards to historical artifacts (although the last two books are in Egypt and hang together a bit more), and even as regards her actual place in history.  As you can see, the books are published very far apart, but Peters basically sets each book in its current time, even though her characters are only aging a year or two at a time.  She even says in a foreword to The Laughter of Dead Kings that she can do that because she’s the author, and authors are the gods of the worlds they create, so if she wants someone to be 29 in 1987 and 32 in 2008 she can do it.  And that’s fine as far as it goes, but someone annoying as a reader, to have characters that felt very firmly in the 1980’s at the beginning be using text messaging and emails in the final book.

Even though I’ve griped about them, though, I did like the books just fine.  While I didn’t really care for Vicky or John very much, I greatly enjoyed some of the secondary characters, especially Vicky’s boss, Schmidt.  The mysteries were well-paced and engaging, especially Night Train to Memphis.  Peters’s writing is solid, and I’m definitely planning to read the rest of her books.  I’ve discovered that Elizabeth Peters is not her real  name, and that she’s written books under other names, too, so add those to the list of things I need to look up!

A Bit About Harry Potter…

Recently, I’ve been reading back through the Harry Potter series.  I’ve decided against reviewing each of the volumes separately – I just feel like there really isn’t much more I can add that the internet hasn’t analyzed a million times already in far more depth that I could ever hope to attain.


But what I can add is my own personal opinions (which, let’s be honest, is all this blog really is), so I thought I’d throw a few of those out there.


I first read the series when books 1-4 had been published.  That July, I was housesitting about thirty miles from home, which was far enough away that I pretty much stayed there and didn’t go home much.  Translation: an entire week of reading.  It was glorious.  I was also super close to the main Columbus library, which is gigantic and beautiful and amazing and magical.  I went there almost every day, especially since it was only taking me about a day to get through each HP book!  After that, I housesat for those same friends pretty much every summer.  I found myself returning to the HP books every July, reading them all through to include the newest volume.  While everyone seems to think of them as Christmas books (why do all the movies play every Christmas?  They aren’t remotely Christmasy!), for  me they always bring back memories of lazy, humid days, reading on  my friends’ screened-in back porch, with their funny little black-and-white mutt, Henry, snoring on the rug, cicadas chirping and the distant sounds of children playing in a sprinkler.


As for the books themselves – well, they’re brilliant.  If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time, you know that I’m a simple reader: I read what’s written, and enjoy the story for what it is.  I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing a turn of phrase and trying to pull hidden meanings out of thin air.  All that to say, I think these are good stories – excellent stories, even.  They’re well-written and engaging with great characterizations.  I really enjoy watching the three main characters grow and mature throughout.  And while there are times that I get annoyed with all them (especially, let’s be real, Harry), they come through as realistic and relatable.


One thing I really appreciate is how I feel like the characters are also true to their ages.  While yes, they pull off some impressive stunts as 11-year-olds, their actions, language, and thoughts are consistent with someone that age (in my opinion), and that continues through the books.


I also love the snarky humor.  The Weasley twins are easily my favorites – funny, witty, intelligent, and kind.  Overall, the dialogue makes these books worth reading.  Rowling gives us natural and interesting interactions between characters, and with a seven-book range, she’s able to develop relationships with a lot of depth.


Really, the main thing I don’t like about these books is Rowling herself.  I’m of the opinion that a writer should write her books and then leave them be, or write some more of them.  I don’t like the way that Rowling just says random things, making them canon, even though they aren’t in the books.  The whole thing with Dumbledore being homosexual – that isn’t in the books at all.  Dumbledore being gay doesn’t annoy me – what annoys me is Rowling come along years after the books are printed and just tagging it in there as a thing that’s a thing even though it’s not actually a thing.  (And, side note, thanks, Rowling, for devaluing yet another friendship by telling us that obviously Dumbledore and Grindelwald were gay because they were “too close” to be “just” friends.  Because obviously it’s impossible to have a close friend of the same sex, and later in life to not want to have to kill that friend, and not actually be involved in  a sexual relationship of some kind.  Arrrrgggghhhh But that’s actually a rant about the devaluation of friendship in fiction in general; Rowling just gives us a classic example.)


Anyway, I also don’t think any author should come back later and say that she actually “wanted” to change a huge part of the stories – e.g., have Hermione end up with Harry instead of Ron.  If that’s what she wanted to do, that’s what she ought to have done.  She really annoys me because so often it’s obvious that she’s coming up with stuff just to keep people talking about her books, not because she’s actually adding anything useful or even interesting.  (And really?  Harry and Hermione?  I could write an entire article about why Hermione and Ron are perfect, and why that’s one of my favorite things, and why I felt like that really added a lot of depth to the story – so thanks, Rowling, for making it appear as though one of things I was most inclined to give you credit for was actually just an accident.)


But as long as I avoid Rowling’s press releases and interviews, I enjoy reading these books every summer.  The world-building is amazing and the story gripping.  It’s fantasy at its best, and I think that these books deserve their admittance to the “classics” category.

China Dolls



by Lisa See

Published 2014

So I’ve been reading a lot of books set in the first half of the twentieth century.  One of these days I’ll move past World War II in my (very very very slow) study of twentieth century history, but there is just so much about the world wars and the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, and I keep finding books that look so interesting from those decades so…….

I picked up China Dolls in hopes of reading about a different culture in the 1930’s leading into the war.  From the dust jacket:

San Francisco, 1938:  A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities.  Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from very different backgrounds, meet by chance at the exclusive and glamorous Forbidden City nightclub.  Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes.  Helen Fong lives with her extended family in Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade.  The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes.  When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams.  But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspicion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

The book is told in first person (thankfully past tense!), but the narrative is split between all three of the main characters.  For  me, this didn’t work for two reasons.  The first was that even though these three girls are very different in personality, goals, and background, their voices sound incredibly similar.  And I think the reason for that is my second reason for not liking the narrative style – all three are very reserved.  Usually, the point of a first-person narrative is that we get to hear the thoughts and ideas and prejudices and dreams of the narrator.  But See gives us very little of that.  I think that this book would have been much better written in third person.

A slightly spoilery reason is that someone in this book is not actually Chinese, but Japanese.  After Pearl Harbor, many Japanese were put into camps (a horrible blot on our history, and one I’ve been interested in learning more about since I read Concentration Camps USAand part of the reason I picked up this book to begin with), so when one of our three  narrators is betrayed, it’s a big deal.  We don’t know who the betrayer is, but one of the other narrators is blamed.  To me, this is a classic example – the tension of the book could have been much, much higher in third person.  As it is, we already know that the girl who has been accused isn’t the  betrayer, so the tension is gone.

None of these girls were particularly likable for me.  All three are rather ruthlessly ambitious, and the lack of personal thoughts means that, as a reader, I don’t really understand a lot of what drives them.  Plus, I’ve never been any kind of performer, so the intensity of the desire to be dancers is lost on me.

While there were interesting glimmers of American-Chinese culture, See also seems to assume, at some level, that we already know a lot of about what’s going on.  As someone who knows virtually nothing about this culture, I could have used a a few more explanations – but, once again, the first-person narrative prevents that from being a natural part of the story.

There’s also this whole weird love-triangle situation that seems pretty unnecessary and strange to me.  Because the boy involved is not Asian, I think we could have had plenty of drama by just focusing on how taboo it was for a “white” person be romantically involved with, well, anyone not considered white.

Overall, it felt like there were a lot of really intriguing cultural issues that could have been explored, but instead we ended up with a novel that basically could have been about three white girls, except for the part where one of them gets thrown into a concentration camp (and even that part of the story is really glossed over – I was hoping, since I was stuck listening to three narrators, that I would at least get some intriguing material of daily life inside the camp, but instead we basically don’t hear from that voice the entire time she’s in the camp so).

While this was a fine story, and I’m sure many people love it, I have found more and more that I rarely enjoy a book that has “A Novel” printed on the front.  They end up covering far too much time, with depressing undertones, little redemption, and not a lot of creativity or challenge.  China Dolls fit the basic novel-writing premise.  Instead of pursuing intriguing cultural differences and helping the reader to understand what it was like to be a Chinese (or Japanese) American leading into the war, we got a tired love triangle in impersonal first-person narration.  The story was meh and the character development weak, leaving me with a 2/5.