The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way // by Bill Bryson

//published 1990//

Quite a while back I read Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America 1927.  At the time, I really loved Bryson’s knack for relating historical anecdotes in a way that was informative, organized, engaging, and entertaining.  He pulls off more of the same in The Mother Tongue, an overview of the craziness that is the English language.

Bryson begins with a look at language in general, and the hows and whys of language development.  He goes on to talk about the many (many) inconsistencies in English language, and why some of them exist.  History, pronunciation, grammar, dictionaries, swearing, and American v. British English are all covered as well.

For the most part, the book reads really well.  However, the very nature of the topic invites one to list examples –

Sometimes, just to heighten confusion, the same words ends up with contradictory meanings.  This kind of word is called a contronym.  Sanction, for instance, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done.  Cleave can mean cut in half or stick together.  A sanguine person is either hotheaded and bloodthirsty, or calm and cheerful.  Something that is fast is either stuck firmly or moving quickly.  A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off.  If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it.  To ravish means to rape or enrapture.  Quinquennial describes something that lasts for five years or happens only once in five years.  Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing.  A blunt instrument is dull, but a blunt remark is pointed.

And while all of these examples are intriguing, after a while, it begins to feel as though the entire book is comprised of lists.  Every chapter is littered with paragraphs like the one above – here is an interesting thing; here are ten examples of it.  And while I might remember a contronym, I’m not likely to remember all of those examples, and I found myself frequently skimming those paragraphs in order to skip ahead to the next interesting tidbit, rather than weighing myself down with so many illustrative words.  To me, the book was more interesting when only one or two examples were chosen –

Sometimes words are made up for a specific purpose.  The U.S. Army in 1974 devised a food called funistrada as a test word during a survey of soldiers’ dietary preferences.  Although no such food existed, funistrada ranked higher in the survey than lima beans and eggplant.

I also quite enjoyed the history aspect.  The truth of the matter is that English has borrowed from so many sources, taken words from so many different languages, and made up so many words just for fun, that the language doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.  While some may try to give us rules of spelling and grammar, a brief look at English’s history shows that this may actually be an impossibility.  Still, many have tried!

People began to feel passionate about it [consistent spelling].  Noah Webster not only pushed for simplified spelling, but lobbied Congress to make it a legal requirement – turning American into the only country in history where deviant spelling would be a punishable offense.

By its very nature, English is a flexible language.  We make up words and terms at an astonishing rate, some of which spread and become widely known, while others remain inside family jokes.  There is a constant battle between people who do not wish for words to be new or used in new ways, and those who advocate English’s versatility.  It can be a difficult balance.

It’s a fine issue.  One of the undoubted virtues of English is that it is a fluid and democratic language in which meanings shift and change in response to the pressures of common usage rather than the dictates of committees.  It is a natural process that has been going on for centuries.  To interfere with that process is arguably both arrogant and futile, since clearly the weight of usage will push new meanings into currency no matter how many authorities hurl themselves into the path of change.

But at the same time, it seems to me, there is a case for resisting change – at least slapdash change.  Even the most liberal descriptivist would accept that there must be some conventions of usage.  We must agree to spell cat c-a-t and not e-l-e-p-h-a-n-t, and we must agree that by that word we mean a small furry quadruped that goes meow and sits comfortably on one’s lap and not a large lumbering beast that grows tusks and is exceedingly difficult to housebreak.  In precisely the same way, clarity is generally better served if we agree to observe a distinction between imply and infer, forego and forgo, fortuitous and fortunate, uninterested and disinterested, and many others.  As John Ciardi observed, resistance may in end prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.

As Bryson moved through the history of dictionaries and the men who wrote them, it was quite fascinating to contemplate just how much effort must have gone into such a task before the modern conveniences like computers and the internet.  Small wonder that the authors sometimes took some flights of editorialization –

[Samuel Johnson] defined a patron as “one who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery” or oats as a grain that sustained horses in England and people in Scotland.

Yet for all that, his Dictionary of the English Language, published in two volumes in June 1755, is a masterpiece, one of the landmarks of English literature. … Without a nearby library to drawn on, and with appallingly little financial backing … Johnson worked from a garret room off Fleet Street, where he defined some 43,000 words, illustrated with more than 114,000 supporting quotations drawn from every area of literature.  It is little wonder that he made some errors and occasionally indulged himself with barbed definitions.

Bryson always does an excellent job capturing the people of history, with snippets of background information that are entertaining and insightful.  The picture of Johnson, scribbling away in his garret, is really inspiring in a way.

I quite enjoyed the chapter that discussed the differences between British English and American English.  For all of the reading I do of British literature, I am still sometimes confused by small terms or phrases (and it definitely was years before I realized that the first floor in England is not the same as the first floor in America – and while I grant that “ground floor” is a more useful term, I’m still not convinced that you should have to go up a flight of stairs to attain the first floor!).

Of course, Bryson himself left me a bit confused by this tale –

…an American lady, newly arrived in London, who opened her front door to find three burly men on the steps informing her that they were her dustmen.  “Oh,” she blurted, “but I do my own dusting.”

Bryson continues merrily on with his paragraph…without bothering to tell the reader what a dustman really is!  (I had to look it up.  They collect garbage!  Which makes sense, considering that I did know that trash cans are dustbins!)

He also devotes a chapter to the globalization of English.  I always enjoy reading instructions that are obviously written by a non-native speaker (and I say this as someone who speaks about twenty words of Spanish and no other foreign languages; I am a strong advocate of the saying that “Someone who speaks broken English speaks another language much better than you”; however, this does not lessen the entertainment I derive from the fascinating attempts at our obviously ridiculous language); I have some instructions that came with a small speaker I purchase that tell me that I connect “more and two” I will have “a sound boom heard in the world everywhere.”  Bryson sites a similar example with an eraser he has from Japan –

…which says: “Mr. Friendly Quality Eraser, Mr. Friendly Arrived!!  He always stay near you, and steals in your mind to lead you a good situation.”  On the bottom of the eraser is a further message: “We are ecologically minded.  This package will self-destruct in Mother Earth.”

Many people do strive to learn English, and the few times that I have left the country, I have been quite grateful for their efforts.  (Although, speaking of erasers, I did once ask a hotel clerk in Guatemala for a razor and he gave me an eraser, which I cherish to this day as an example of the sometimes entertaining aspects of language barriers and accents.)

Besides the neverending lists of examples, the only other complaint I had about this book is just that it’s ready for an update.  It was published in 1990, and a lot has changed since then.  I would be really interested to learn about the impact that the internet has had on English, and language in general.  Things like hashtags, texting abbreviations, memes – these and more would be really interesting fodder.  Consequently, this book is left feeling slightly dated.  Isn’t it ridiculous how much has happened just in the last 25 years??

Overall, The Mother Tongue was an interesting read.  I’d love to see a new edition with fewer lists and some chapters on all the intriguing twists that our ridiculous, nonsensical, and fascinating language has taken since this book was first published.  Recommended.

PS Not actually a part of 20 Books of Summer, as I started this one all the way back in May!!!

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street // by Natasha Pulley


//published 2015// I do love this cover art!

?!?!??!!? = my feelings towards this book…  still!  And it’s been almost two weeks since I finished it.  It’s a book I just can’t decide whether or not I liked!  There were definitely aspects that I loved, and other aspects that I did not.  At the end of the day, the love story felt extremely strange and somewhat contrived… I think I’m going 3/5, but this was one of those books that was very close to swinging either up or down a step.  Actually, after finishing the review, I realize that I actually am going 2/5…  see how easily it swung a step down??

The home office telegraphy department always smelled of tea.

So begins our tale, set in 1883 London, possibly in some kind of alternate universe…??  Our story centers around Thaniel (short of Nathaniel), who works as a clerk in the above-mentioned home office telegraphy department (and who is also to blame for that smell of tea).  Thaniel is quiet, hardworking, and reliable.  In the second chapter we are told

He [Thaniel] almost said that he wasn’t so much older than all the rest of them, then saw that it wouldn’t have been fair.  It didn’t matter how much older.  He was older; even if they had all been the same age, he would still have been older.

I had a lot of empathy for Thaniel, as I’ve always been the oldest everywhere I go, too.  He has a strong sense of responsibility, sending home money to his widowed sister and her family – setting aside his own dreams and ambitions to do so.

This story unwound slowly.  Nothing was rushed – in many ways, the narration felt like a watch ticking, steady and rhythmical.  The language is lovely, and some of the descriptive passages are wonderfully immersive.  Despite the (relatively) slow pace, I was drawn into narrative.  (It was an especially nice change of pace after the heart-pounding race through Academ’s Fury!)  However, I started to get a bit confused about that very narrative, as Pulley herself didn’t really seem to know which story she wanted to write.  There’s kind of this thing with a bombing, and kind of this thing with the watch, and kind of this thing with a girl, but it was all quite meandery, and I really had no idea where Pulley was going half the time, and I wasn’t sure she did, either.  The ending was this sudden rush of chaos and action that was somewhat, but not satisfactorily, explained.

I’m really struggling to write this review without spoilers, as a great deal of this story’s charm lies in that gentle unwinding.  The thing is, my biggest issue with this book centers around a pretty big spoiler.  So I’ll put it below the cut, because I simply cannot write this review without a mini-rant explaining why this book frequently annoyed the bejeebers out of me.

Then there were other random moments that I found myself confused.  Tell me, my British friends, in your alphabet, does ‘M’ come directly before ‘N’, or someplace after?

He stood slowly and opened the drawer for N-R, which was dominated by Nakanos and Nakamuras.  There were only two people whose name was Mori.

That paragraph had me singing the alphabet song repeatedly.  It caused me to completely doubt everything I’ve ever known about the placement of the letter M in the alphabet.  L-M-N-O-P, right??  AM I right?!  M wouldn’t be in the N-R drawer, would it??  These are not rhetorical questions, people.  I have stared at this paragraph so many times since I first read it!

20booksfinalThe main female character (more about her in the spoiler section) made basically no sense, and I really didn’t appreciate the way that she thought she was incredibly intelligent and brilliant, that everyone else was stupid, and that all other women were just weak and dumb.  She doesn’t have a single positive thing to say about a single other female, is sarcastic and cutting towards the suffragist movement, and overall the introduction of her character should have been a huge red flag to me that, at the time, I glossed over.  Whoops.

While I liked a lot of the writing, the characterization seemed somewhat weak, as there were multiple times that I was quite surprised or confused by someone’s actions.  This made it really hard to get into the story, as I never really felt like I was getting to know real people.

All in all, what I saw as pitfalls in the plot were not overcome by the lovely language or intriguing setting.  An all-right tale for a one-time read, but not something I would want to read again, or that inspires me to see if Pulley has written any other books.

Spoilers below!

Continue reading

Academ’s Fury // by Jim Butcher

Greetings, friends!  It is time for 20 Books of Summer – review #2!


//published 2005//

Academ’s Fury is the second book in the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book, Furies of Calderonand was excited about this sequel – and it did not disappoint!

“If the beginning of wisdom is in realizing that one knows nothing, then the beginning of understanding is in realizing that all things exist in accord with a single truth: Large things are made of smaller things.”


Absolutely GORGEOUS fanart of Doroga the Marat on his gargant, Walker. LOVE IT. By Sandara on DeviantArt

Like I mentioned in my review of the first book, I really appreciate Butcher’s emphasis on the idea that huge things hinge on small, seemingly insignificant decisions.  He goes on to say, “Significance is cumulative – but not always obvious.”  It’s the perfect way to introduce his story, which is actually several stories that interconnect and weave together, each one made up of individuals who do not appear to be important in the grand scale of things, yet each of them makes a decision that will impact their entire world.

The main thing you need to know about this book is that it is HIGH ENERGY.  There were multiple times that I would literally have to set it down and go do something else because it was making my blood pressure rise.  This was an incredibly intense story, told with perfect timing.  It’s a hefty book – the paperback weighs in at 702 pages – but it did not feel like it was too long or too slow.  When we were kids, and the family was watching a movie, if the movie got too intense, my littlest brother would have to get up and stand behind the couch so that he could literally jump up and down with nervous excitement.  There were times during this book that I almost reached that point, despite my 33 years!


More fabulous fanart by Sandara – we meet the Canim in this book as well – wolf-people warriors, another intriguing race of creatures.

We continue to follow the stories of our main characters from the first book – Tavi, the young shepherd boy who is now attending school in the capital city; his uncle Bernard; Bernard’s sister, Isana; a young cursor named Amara; and several of the bad (???) guys.  This book picks up two years after the last one ended, which I also liked.  Everyone has settled into their new roles, the bad guys that were defeated in the last book have taken some time to regroup and try a different angle this time around, and it all felt really reasonable and natural.


Just because I can, a third picture by Sandara – this one is of Bernard and his earth Fury, Brutus. I love how in these books, many of the Furies are in the shape of an animal and are named. And this is a FABULOUS picture of Brutus!

However, I can’t even begin to describe the plot, and I’m not sure that I want to.  Suffice to say that it was brilliantly done and that the Vord are some of the most terrifying creatures I have ever come across in fiction.  I LOVED the way that Butcher is greying the lines between good guys and bad guys, really bringing up some excellent questions about loyalty, duty, and honor.  It’s also great to have a hero who is at an actual disadvantage in his culture – everyone else can call up a Fury except for Tavi.  The way that he works to compensate for this lack is great.

Again, these are definitely YA/adult.  They are intense, there is non-graphic sex, and there is violence.  But they are brilliantly written and incredibly exciting.  Hopefully my heart is strong enough for book three…20booksfinal

Freckles // by Gene Stratton Porter

Well, my friends, the time has arrived!  My first review for 20 Books of Summer!  First, a brief update on the List!

20booksfinalMy original post about 20 Books of Summer, being hosted by Cathy746, is here.

Here is the list of 20.  Links are to GoodReads, and titles that have been crossed off have already been read and are awaiting review…

As you can see, I am now on Book #5 (Life or Death), so things are tooling right along!

And now for Freckles. 

Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter

This book was originally published in 1904.  Its setting, the great Limberlost Swamp, is in eastern Indian, between Fort Wayne and I-70, and parts of it are still a park today.  I’ve always wanted to visit but never have gotten around to it, despite the fact that it is only a few hours away.  Porter, a passionate naturalist, was unafraid to brave the terrors of this virgin forest.  With a revolver and a sack of photography equipment, she spent a great deal of time exploring the swamp, photographing and making notes on its natural residents.  Porter wrote numerous articles on nature, several nature studies, and a dozen novels.  Even in her novels, Porter did her best to create a love not just for her characters, but for the nature that surrounded them.

Porter does an excellent job with this in Freckles.  Her story of a lonely, orphaned young man, who is striving to make his way in the world, is balanced by the beautiful and terrifying vastness of the Limberlost.  Without getting too carried away, she still manages to convey the beauty of the birds, flowers, and other animals that live there.  Her sense of place is fantastic, and the setting is really a large part of what makes this story.  In a way, the Limberlost is it own individual – and very important – character in the story.

Our tale begins with an unlikely hero –

Freckles came down the corduroy that crosses the lower end of the Limberlost.  At a glance, he might have been mistaken for a tramp, but he was truly seeking work.  He was intensely eager to belong somewhere and to be attached to almost any sort of enterprise that would furnish him food and clothing.

In this first chapter, Freckles (in his early 20’s or possibly late teens) comes across a lumber camp.  He asks if they are seeking workers, and even though the cook, whom he approaches, says the boss couldn’t use Freckles, Freckles insists on speaking to the boss for himself.

“Mr. McLean, here’s another man wanting to be taken on in the gang, I suppose,” [the cook] said.

“All right,” came the cherry answer.  “I never needed a good man more than I do just now.” …

“No use of your bothering with this fellow,” volunteered the cook. “He hasn’t but one hand.”

And so we are introduced to Freckles’s other great handicap.  Not only is he orphaned and penniless, he struggles to find work because, as an infant, someone cut off his hand.  In a passionate interview with the boss, however, Freckles convinces McLean to give him a shot.  McLean is still logging a tract, but has purchased his next.  Within the new tract are several very valuable trees, and he needs a man to walk the fence twice a day – seven miles per lap – to make sure that the trees are not stolen.  McLean is extra concerned because another man from his crew recently quit, threatening to steal trees.  Black Jack is quite the villain, a man who knows the swamp and its secrets, hates McLean, and intends to have his vengeance by stealing the valuable lumber…!!!

Freckles is hired, and despite his initial terror of the swamp – which is full of rattlesnakes, cesspools, insects, and other dangerous things – and a hard adjustment to hiking fourteen miles a day (!), he makes good.  The rest of the story is Freckles, working hard to protect the lumber no matter what.  Freckles is the ideal hero of the early 1900’s novel – loyal, upright, responsible, brave, truthful, hardworking.  I’m not really sure why such heroes have gone out of style.  Freckles is no sissy, and would make an excellent role model.

It’s a funny thing, but despite Porter’s enthusiasm and love for the Limberlost, no character in her story ever suggests that the swamp shouldn’t be logged.  The attitude is definitely a reflection of its time.  McLean is never presented as a villain or a terrible man – he is simply doing his job and trying to do it well – a job which involves logging acres of virgin woods.

In the course of the story, we also meet the Bird Woman, Porter’s way of writing herself into the story.  The Bird Woman, whose name we never learn, is an avid naturalist who loves to photograph her subjects.  For the summer, she’s taken on an apprentice of sorts, a young woman whose name we also never learn.  When Freckles first sees her, he dubs her the Swamp Angel, and Angel she remains for the rest of the tale.

That Freckles falls madly in love with Angel should come as no surprise.  That Freckles believes himself – a penniless, one-handed orphan, in case you’ve forgotten – unworthy of the love of a beautiful creature like the Angel, should also be no surprise.  Still, despite using most of the normal cliches, Porter still spins an enjoyable little love story.  The Black Jack angle is quite exciting, and if Porter falls into the trap of her good guys being very, very good, while her bad guys are very, very bad – well, sometimes it’s good to read a story without much ambiguity.

Although Porter is wont to go off into paragraph-long raptures regarding the beauty and goodness of the Angel, she has still written a character who is no simpering maid sitting about waiting to be rescued.  Angel dashes about the swamp, shoots a gun, charms the bad guy so that she can escape for help, and then rides a bicycle miles across the rough corduroy to bring assistance to Freckles.  She is brave, intelligent, kind, and basically all the same qualities as Freckles.  Angel is always feminine but never weak.

The other characters are good as well, even when Porter doesn’t flesh them out a great deal.  Freckles stays with the Duncans, and this first glimpse he has into a loving family home is touching without being pathetic.

There is plenty of action, with Freckles adjusting to the Limberlost, the love story between Freckles and Angel, a rare type of bird nesting in the swamp, and (of course) the evil Black Jack lurking about, waiting to steal trees!

For me, the weakest part of the story takes place after the action leaves the Limberlost.  The part where Angel discovers Freckles’s heritage – through a series of perfectly-timed coincidences – feels very contrived and unnecessarily melodramatic.  Consequently, the last few chapters saw me rolling my eyes a great deal.

Still, this story is an easy 4/5.  It is classic literature for its time, an excellent story, and the setting is impeccably described.

House of Thieves // by Charles Belfoure

This was one of those random books that GoodReads recommended to me.  While the overall premise of the story was excellent, and the pacing was good, I just couldn’t really get attached to the characters as individuals.  An overall 4/5, but a low one – this was a book that was very close – I honestly originally listed it as 3/5 until I started writing the review and remembered all the things I really liked about this story!  I just really wish that I could have been more emotionally vested in the characters Belfoure created.


//published 2015//

It was a perfect day to rob a bank.

Our setting is New York City in 1886.  After reading so many books set in England around this time, it was interesting to be back on my own side of the pond for once.

John Cross is a respectable man who works as an architect.  He has a wife and three children.  George has just graduated from college; Julia is getting ready for her grand entree to Society, and Charlie is a scamp around ten.  John’s wife, Helen, is well-known for being beautiful, gracious, and intelligent (but not too intelligent, of course), and if she and John aren’t particularly close, well, no one expects married people from their class to actually be friends with each other.

In short, Cross is a perfectly normal man, spending his days designing buildings for the rich, his evenings attending social functions, and all of his time making sure that no one in the family does anything to bring disgrace upon them.

The problem is, Cross has no idea that his entire life is about to turn upside-down. Turns out, young George has a very serious gambling problem, one that has led him to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in debt to a sophisticated crime boss named James Kent.  When George can’t pay up, Kent kidnaps him and plans to kill him – until he realizes what George’s father does for a living.  The wheels in Kent’s head begin to turn, and he pays Cross a little visit.  Kent tells Cross that Cross must use his inside (literal) knowledge to help set up robberies in the homes of various rich people, banks, clubs, etc. in order to pay off George’s debt – or else George (and probably the rest of the family) will be killed.

It’s a brilliant concept, really.  Cross admits to himself that he’s a bit of a coward – he paid someone else to fight in his place in the recent Civil War – and he hates every moment of planning the crimes.  But Kent is deadly, and Cross knows he has no choice.  As the book progresses, Cross still hates Kent and what he represents – but he begins to take a bit of professional pride in his plotting.  I loved the robberies – some of the ideas really were quite fantastic, and it had this sort of Ocean’s Eleven feel to it.

The story is interspersed with random scenes from the lives of the rest of Cross’s family.  At first, the bits with Julia getting ready for her big “coming out” ball seem completely dull and irrelevant, but Belfoure is playing a long game with the family, and about a quarter of the way into the story, I could start to see how things were coming together, and it was fantastic.  Things really get interesting when Cross’s brother, a Civil War hero (and one of Cross’s heroes, as well), returns to New York with a new job – working as a Pinkerton.  His first big assignment?  Investigating the rash of robberies that all seem to be being orchestrated by a man known as The Engineer.

Speaking of which, one of things I did like about Cross was his genuine enthusiasm for architecture.  Belfoure doesn’t overwhelm us with details – just enough to make us really interested in what Cross is actually doing.  I quite enjoyed the architectural references throughout.

Belfoure never really tries to convince us to like Cross.  He’s rather a weak and passive person, who is just sort of letting life take him where it will.  I liked seeing Cross develop some backbone throughout the book, and actually step up to take charge by the end.  The way that Belfoure brings the entire Cross family together is also really quite fantastically done.  I also loved the epilogue.

Still, the characters somehow came across rather stiff and wooden, and I couldn’t quite believe in them as real people, even when I wanted to.  While I was interested in the story and seeing where it went next, I didn’t really feel that much attachment to any of the individual characters.

I also felt like Belfoure spent just a little too much time dwelling on the utter uselessness and emptiness of the lives of all society people – at some level, yes, that’s true.  But was there really not a single person in that entire class who did a single worthwhile thing with their life?  Belfoure basically tells us that they were all (ALL) empty-headed ninnies, and I just couldn’t quite get behind that message.

In a way, it kind of reminded me of Longbournwith this constant emphasis that the upper class if full of silly, empty-headed, foolish people, while the lower class is full of REAL people who know what life is REALLY about, and so somehow it ended up sounding like Belfoure was trying to convince me that betting on how many rats a terrier can kill in two minutes is somehow more worthwhile than going to a fancy ball, and I just wasn’t buying it.

So, to sum up – the story was excellent; the pacing was spot-on; the characters were meh; and the societal commentary was aggravating.  I think I’m sticking with the 4/5, and have added Belfoure’s earlier book, The Pairs Architect to the TBR.

Remembered Death // by Agatha Christie

AKA Sparkling Cyanide 

Remembered Death_Sparkling Cyanide

//published 1945//

First paragraph*:

Iris Marle was thinking about her sister, Rosemary.

And so begins Christie’s Remembered Death.  Rosemary died of cyanide poisoning – ruled a suicide – almost a year before.  And for the first six chapters, we hear the perspective of each of the other people present at Rosemary’s death as each of them reflects on who Rosemary was as a person – and why they are glad she’s dead.

I love it when Christie gives us a rather unlikable murder victim, someone who could easily have been knocked off by multiple people.  At first glance, Rosemary had no reason to commit suicide or to be murdered – beautiful, friendly, dashing – really, the word is, in the old sense, gay.  That sort of frivolous, careless happiness that brushes off other people and focuses entirely on self.

When Rosemary died at her own birthday party, one would assume that she was surrounded by people she loved – but as Christie gives us the internal reflections and ruminations of each person present, we learn more and more how disliked she was by each of them, and how each of them had a very specific and very strong motive for wishing her dead.

Rosemary’s husband, George, has received an anonymous letter, which informs him that his wife did not commit suicide – that she was actually murdered.  Since receiving the letter, George – who is the exact opposite of the man you would expect to marry someone like Rosemary, being middle-aged, a bit portly, and a stolid and unexciting businessman – has methodically been examining the circumstances of Rosemary’s death, trying to find out the truth.

Throughout, Christie’s wry sense of humor is strong, with her ability to give us a clear picture of a person in just a few lines –

Lucilla Drake was twittering.  That was the term always used in the family and it was really a very apt description of the sounds that issued from Lucilla’s kindly lips … “Really, dear, I feel quite anxious about you – you look so white and washed out – as though you hadn’t slept – did you sleep?  If not, there’s that nice sleeping preparation of Dr. Wylie’s – or was it Dr. Gaskell’s? – which reminds me – I shall have to go and speak to the grocer myself – either the maids have been ordering in things on their own, or else it’s deliberate swindling on his part.  Packets and packets of soap flakes – and I never allow more than three a week.”

…Iris was too languid and too used to Mrs. Drake’s discursive style to inquire why the mention of Dr. Gaskell should have reminded her aunt of the local grocer, though had she done so, she would have received the immediate response, “Because the grocer’s name is Cranford, my dear.”  Aunt Lucilla’s reasoning was always crystal clear to herself.

Christie doesn’t lay out red herrings so much as she keeps the field of potential murderers wide, providing us with motives and means for multiple characters.  Her classic character, Colonel Race, who, like Superintendent Battle, shows up randomly throughout her writing, is one of the primary (unofficial) investigators into the case, as a friend of George’s.  I quite enjoyed his interviews, and Christie does a good job of giving us access to the same information – and, in some cases, more – as Race.

I also got quite a chuckle out of the appearance of an American in the story.  Christie consistently gives her American characters the most ridiculous accents –

“Went with Chrissie – that baby sure is hard-boiled!  She said it was a good joint.  ‘Honey pie,’ I said, ‘we’ll go just where you say.’  It was a classy joint, that I’ll admit – and do they know how to charge you!  Set me back the best part of thirty dollars.  But the band was punk – they just couldn’t seem to swing it. … Sure there was a table and some people at it.  I don’t remember what they looked like, though.  Didn’t take much account of them till the guy there croaked.  Thought at first he couldn’t hold his liquor.  Say now, I remember one of the dames.  Dark hair and she had what it takes, I should say. …  No, not [the girl in the green dress].  She was skinny.  This  baby was in black with some good curves.   … I watched her dancing – and say, could that  baby dance!  I gave her the high sign once or twice, but she had a frozen eye – just looked through me in your British way.”

Seriously, Christie.  What even.  I love it.

At any rate, while there was a bit of a twist at the end, in retrospect, all the clues were there if I had been able to read them.  A definite 4/5 for this read.  Just twisty enough to be interesting without being tortured, enough humor to leaven the story, excellent pacing, and some brilliant characterizations.

*As an aside, I think I am going to start including the first paragraph of the book, when I still have the book around to reference.  Lately, I’ve become quite enamored with how a book hooks me from the very beginning.

20 Books of Summer – Update #1


Well, I am tooling right along with this challenge!  My original post about 20 Books of Summer, being hosted by Cathy746, is here.

Here is my original list of 20 (links to GoodReads):

As of today, I have completed Freckles and am halfway (ish) through Academ’s Fury.  However, I already have an elimination from the list – The Ransom was just tooooo hokey (GLH gives me mixed results), so it is officially OFF the list.  The replacement will be the fifth Codex Alera book, Princeps’ Fury.  

I still have two books to review before I start getting into my 20 Books of Summer reviews, but they’re coming!!!  I’m enjoying everyone else’s updates as well, even if I’m terrible at Twitter.  ;-)  Hope everyone is having a great time with this fun challenge.

Furies of Calderon // by Jim Butcher

Book One of the Codex Alera


//published 2004//

So, after a year of reading Pern, I am ready to begin a new series!  And the fates have given me the Codex Alera, a series of six books about a fictional land, Alera, whose people can harness the elements, called Furies.  Everyone is able to work with at least one Fury, and some are able to work with multiples.  Different people’s Furies have different strengths, and an individual’s Fury may appear in a specific form and be given a name.

Our story begins with Amara, a young woman who has recently become a Cursor – the elite group who works directly for the ruler of Alera.  Amara and her mentor, Fidelias, are attempting to infiltrate a camp of potential rebels against the First Lord, in an attempt to determine who is behind the rebellion.

The next story line is about Tavi, a teenage boy with a terrible curse – he has no Furies.  His uncle, Bernard, has a powerful earth Fury named Brutus.  Bernard’s sister, Isana, is a strong water-crafter whose Fury is named Rill.  But Tavi himself remains Fury-less, putting him at a singular disadvantage in a world where everyone else has the ability to call upon earth, water, fire, wind, wood, or metal.

All in all, this was a very credible beginning to what I hope will be a solid series throughout.  The story was completely engaging and the world-building was perfect, with enough information explained (naturally) for Alera to make sense, but without any kind of lengthy lecturing on the whys, wherefores, and hows.  The main characters are well-drawn, with Amara, Fidelias, Tavi, Bernard, and Isana portraying individual voices and characters.  I enjoyed that there was a range of ages amongst the characters as well, although I will say that I was a bit confused as to Amara’s age. At first she felt quite young, Tavi’s age, but later she came across as a bit older, probably into her 20’s.

The villains are very villainous without being over the top – their actions and motivations felt natural and believable, which made them even scarier.  The battle scenes were intense, but not overly violent.  These are, however, definitely in the older YA/adult range as there are some conversations that are sexual in nature, as well as an incidence of rape, which, while not graphic, was still disturbing (as it should be!).

I really enjoyed Amara, who is feisty and independent without being obnoxiously so.  She is a powerful wind-crafter and a natural leader, intelligent, loyal, tenacious, and a good fighter.

Tavi has lived his entire life with the disadvantage (and embarrassment) of not having a Fury, but he is still quick to learn and very determined.  I liked his strong sense of right and wrong, and his willingness to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.

Butcher has created a world where the humans are the citizens of Alera, but Alera itself is surrounded by countries where other creatures, some more human than others, dwell.  In this book, Alera is faced with danger from the Marat, a race of more or less giant humans who do not have Furies.  However, each tribe has a connection with a specific type of animal with whom they bond, and they are able to communicate with their totem animal.

I really, really liked the plotline that involved Tavi getting mixed up the Marat, and how that all unwound.  Without being too spoilery, I’ll just say that some inherent prejudices were eventually overcome, with far-reaching results.

Furies of Calderon did a really good job of setting up things for future books, while still being a complete story in its own right.  I felt completely satisfied with the ending, while still being intrigued as to what would happen in the next book.  However, I will say that I have some strong suspicions as to the actual origins of Tavi.  We will see if they play out!

I’m about halfway through the second book right now.  One thing I like is that for both of these books, Butcher has started with a “quote” (his source being a non-existent book supposedly written by Alera’s ruler), with both quotes focusing on how a small, seemingly unimportant event can lead to huge things.

The course of history is determined not by battles, by sieges, or usurpations, but by the actions of the individual.  The strongest city, the largest army is, at its most basic level, a collection of individuals.  Their decisions, their passions, their foolishness, and their dreams shape the years to come.  If there is any lesson to be learned from history, it is that all too often the fate of armies, of cities, of entire realms, rests upon the actions of one person.  In that dire moment of uncertainty, that person’s decision, good or bad, right or wrong, big or small, can unwittingly change the world.

In a way, I think that that is the point of the story.  Just like that great Dr. Seuss book, Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo, many events can be set off by one tiny, insignificant action.

A definite 4/5 start to the series, and I am excited to continue the story.

PS No, this title is not a part of the 20 Books of Summer.  However, Book #2 is, so progress is being made on those goals!!

Rearview Mirror // May 2016

Well, as of yesterday I am officially retired from my seasonal job at the nursery!  I’m pretty stoked about not working 40+hrs/week anymore.  No set plans for employment in the future – for the summer, I’m hoping to focus on catching up on about a zillion projects here around the house, including (but not limited to) maintaining the huge vegetable garden we planted last weekend, painting virtually every paintable surface on the property, reorganizing closets and other storage areas, sifting through the million pictures we’ve taken in our six years of marriage, and helping my mom with some big stuff she has going on.

And, of course, blogging!  It’s super addictive.  I’m really behind on our house blog, so maybe as the picture situation gets under control, I can actually update some big projects there (like our front porch, which is now screened in and is amazing).

In the meantime, here’s the wrap-up for May!

Favorite May Read:

200-noneI think I’m going with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for this one.  It’s just brilliant writing all the way through – in my opinion, one of her best works.

Most Disappointing May Read:

51dnQWQDr5LFor this slot, Dragon Harper wins the prize.  I really felt bad not finishing this series, but Dragon Harper was sooo boring and choppy, with nonsensical plot lines and ridiculously young people running everything, plus not all that many dragons, which are kind of the point of the series…  point being, even though I didn’t want to give up, I just couldn’t wade through another 2000 pages of boringness.  Dragon Harper was a great example of how to take a really great series and just kind of ruin it by being boring and repetitive.  Super disappointing.

It also means that Todd McCaffrey’s Pern books win the Most Disappointing slot for two months running – a rather dubious accomplishment!

Other May Reads:  

  • Dragon’s Fire by Todd McCaffrey and Anne McCaffrey – 1/5 and a close second place for Most Disappointing Read.
  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly – 1/5 – a book I wanted to like but just didn’t.  It was depressing, violent, weird, gross, and acted like everything bad that happened to twelve-year-old David was his own fault, instead of the fault of his incredibly selfish dad.
  •  The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly – 3/5 – a tale of absolutely absurd adventure that was still rather entertaining.  And, you know, DRAGONS.
  • Towards Zero by Agatha Christie – 4/5 – putting the murder closer to the end of the book added a whole new level of intensity!
  • The Eternal World by Christopher Farnsworth – 3/5 – a really intriguing premise, but the ending fell off a bit, leaving me conflicted as to whether or not I should seek out another of Farnsworth’s books…???
  • Belle by Cameron Dokey – 3/5 – a pretty unexciting but pleasant retelling of Beauty & the Beast.
  • Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl – 3/5 – close to a 2/5 – not unenjoyable but a story with a pretty muddled plot.
  • Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie – 3/5 – an interesting mystery with an unusual setting, but nothing crazy.

Other May Posts:

  • A-Z of Books – basically, me nattering on about books in my life.

20 Books of Summer:

So this year I’ve officially signed up for Cathy746’s 20 Books of Summer Challenge – I’m pretty excited, actually.  Here’s the link to my (hopeful) list.  And I’ve already finished my first book!

TBR Update:

For those of you who don’t know, I’m weirdly obsessive with organizing the TBR, and have it on a spreadsheet divided into four different tabs:

  • Stand-Alones:  787 (DOWN TEN from 797!)
  • Personal (which includes all books I own, but lists any series I own as only one entry…):  533 (DOWN FIFTEEN from 548!)
  • Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series):  123 (up three from 120)
  • Mystery Series (each series counted separately, not each book within a series):  51 (up one from 50)

The drop in numbers, if I’m honest, is probably due to a couple of DNFs and also the fact that I have several emails marked with books that need to be added (I get everyone’s book blog entries as emails, and then star the ones I want to add to the TBR  haha) but that I haven’t actually added yet…

Awaiting Review:

I knocked out a bunch with minireviews there right at the end of the month.  One of my summer goals is to review closer to completion so the book is fresher in my mind!!  Only three in the queue right now –

  • Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher (first book in the new series I started)
  • Remembered Death by Agatha Christie
  • House of Thieves by Charles Belfoure