The Domino Effect // by Davis Bunn


//published 2016//

I do not usually request ARCs because there is a lot of pressure to get them read and reviewed in a timely manner.  (Which is totally reasonable, because they are basically paying me a book in exchange for my review, so I don’t think it’s unfair for reviewers to expect to see those reviews sometime within a month or so.)  However, I am still on the email list for Bethany House, and request only one or two books a year from them.  I received The Domino Effect free of charge, but it doesn’t impact my review.

The official synopsis from the back cover says:

Esther Larsen, a top risk analyst at one of the country’s largest banking institutions, is becoming more and more convinced that she has uncovered a ticking bomb with the potential to make the 2008 market crash look minor by comparison.  And as her own employer pursues “investment” strategies with ever-increasing levels of risk, she becomes convinced she must do something.  But Esther is only one person; can she stand up to an international conspiracy of greed?  And if she does, will anyone take her seriously?

Every moment of indecision edges the markets closer to a tipping point – the teetering first domino in a standing row that circles the globe.  And when Esther finds her voice, those she seeks to expose will not sit idly by.  With global markets on the brink, and her own life in danger, Esther is locked in a race against the clock to avert a financial tsunami that threatens worldwide devastation.

I really liked the premise of the story, and Esther herself is a likable character.  A mathematical genius, Esther still manages to not fit the “geek” stereotype so often portrayed in these types of books.  I really liked her independence, intelligence, and courage.

For those of my readers who may not be familiar, the book of Esther in the Bible is set during a time that Israel had been conquered and Jews were being persecuted for their faith.  Esther, through a series of events, became queen – but those in power did not know that she was a Jewess.  Her position enabled her to save the lives of her people when an evil man sought to destroy them.  As Esther’s uncle told her – “Who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”  (Honestly, Esther is a gripping read that I highly recommend, even if you aren’t really interested in God or religion.)

Point being, it’s obvious that Bunn is making some connections between the historic tale of Esther and his Esther set in current times.  One young woman, in a position of knowledge and power, able to take risks and speak out against the powers that be in order to save the lives of many others.  In Bunn’s story, Esther’s father named Esther after the Biblical character, and although Esther has not been particularly interested in religion throughout her adult life, the many circumstances and “coincidences” of what is happening to her currently begin to draw her back to her childhood faith.

In the end, though, this book just wasn’t enough of a thriller to really engage me.  Bunn had to spend a lot of time explaining all the terms and activities of investment banking and stock investments, so there were multiple chapters that felt rather lecture-y, even though the lectures were brought into the story through more-or-less natural conversations.  And while I agreed with pretty much everything Bunn had to say about the current state of today’s markets, the story just came across as basically polemic.  I also found myself wondering if this book would even be interesting to someone in say, five or ten years: the story is very much set TODAY with lots of references to the 2008 crash and other specific dates and events.

There was also an entire subplot with Esther’s brother that added virtually nothing to the main thrust of the story – I thought maybe it would tie back in somehow, but it honestly didn’t.

I never really bought the concept that Esther was in danger.  The bad guys just didn’t seem bad enough, and most of Esther’s challenges were just overcoming her own reluctance to speak out, not fighting against any outside sources.  There were some halfhearted attempts on her life, but it never felt legit.  There weren’t any moments in this book where I couldn’t read fast enough.  The pacing felt rather slow, and the ending kind of abrupt.

While I liked the characters in the story, especially Esther, I was never completely invested in their futures.

So, overall, a decent 3/5 read.  Engaging enough to make me interested in picking up another of Bunn’s works, but I don’t give a particularly hearty recommendation to this one.

September MiniReviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  (And yes, I realize that that is what I’m supposed to be using GoodReads for, but I just can’t really get into GoodReads.  I just don’t have time to update fifteen different places with reviews/thoughts of the same book.  It’s a combination of reading a LOT of books and not having a great deal of spare time – since most of said spare time is spent reading – and it’s also part of the reason that I don’t really like reading ARCs all that much, because publishers expect reviews in multiple locations.  Anyway.  Where was I?  Oh yes, meh reads.)  So, inspired by the way that Stephanie reviews the unreviewed every month, I think that some months (or maybe all of them!) will get a post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia McKillup


//published 2010//

This was a story set in this alternate Britain-like place, where magic is somewhat a thing, but there are already steam-engines and some technology of that sort.  The tale is in the capital city where the royal family lives, and where there is a school for bards.  One of the young bards, who is almost set to graduate, is writing his final paper on an ancient legend.  The book alternates chapters – one set in the current time, while the other chapter begins with a few paragraph’s from the young bard’s paper, followed by the rest of the chapter that tells what really happened back in the day.

There were a lot of things about The Bards that I really enjoyed.  McKillup weaves and engaging story with likable characters, and the tension between the two timelines was plotted really well.  The writing reminded me a lot of Diana Wynne Jones, where I had troubled putting the book down, despite the fact that I was confused a lot of the time.  I can’t tell if I genuinely am not clever enough to understand these kinds of books, or if it’s a case of Emperor’s New Clothes, where everyone pretends like there is a lot more to get out of them than there is so that they look clever.

At any rate, it was an enjoyable story, but not one that spoken to me at a deeper level, and one that still left me with some questions unanswered at the end.  I’ve already read a couple of McKillup’s books that I liked, and think I will still try to read some more.

The Heir and the Spare by Emily Albright


//published 2016//

This is definitely a fluff book.  But I enjoy reading fluff from time to time, where things are romantic and impractical and everyone gets happy endings all around.  Evie’s mother died of cancer when Evie was a little girl.  Before she passed away, Evie’s mother wrote her letters, one for every birthday (although one wonders how far ahead Evie’s mother planned?  Did she write a letter for Evie’s 70th birthday, for instance??).  And during her senior year of high school, Evie received another letter from her mother, this one the first letter of a quest.  And the first step of the quest was for Evie to leave Seattle and go to school at Oxford.  That is where the book begins, Evie’s first day at university.

While parts of this book were enjoyable and entertaining, it overall made my eyes roll so hard that it was, at times, difficult to read.  It felt like the author really blurred the line of what was improbable and just plain ridiculous.  With these kinds of books, you basically already know the ending within the first couple of chapters, so if there isn’t a good story leading us to that end, the whole thing is pointless.  While I really liked Evie, I was genuinely annoyed by her relationship with Edmund.  Even though Edmund was a super nice guy, it came back to that whole USE YOUR WORDS thing, and there were just tooo  many misunderstandings that dragged on and on, when about three sentences of conversation could have straightened everything out.

All in all, an alright fluff read, but not one that left me feeling like Alrbight’s books are something I need to find more of in the future.

The Pothunters by P.G. Wodehouse


//published 1902//

So I believe that I am going to start on a quest that I’ve been thinking about for a while – reading all of Wodehouse’s books in published order.  (!!!)  I realize that this means that I’ll have to wade through some of his earlier works that were basically school stories.  The Pothunters, Wodehouse’s first published novel, was not, if I’m honest, particularly engaging.  However, there are brief glimpses of things that will eventually become Wodehouse hallmarks – a butler “trying to look like a piece of furniture,” or, my personal favorite line of the whole book – “…an expression on his face [that was] a cross between a village idiot and an unintelligent egg.”

The story was originally a serial before it was a novel, as are many of Wodehouse’s early books, and it was intended to appeal to younger audiences.  The story’s heroes are all school-aged boys, and the entire plot revolves around various happenings at their school.  There is a lot (LOT) of cricket and other sports and slang and far too many characters, many of whom have multiple nick-names, making it quite difficult to track them all.

I’ll admit to skimming parts of this book as it just didn’t completely hold my interest as an actual story – I was reading it more for the background, and it was interesting to see where Wodehouse’s published works start.  Many of his earlier works are out of copyright now and are available for free as ebooks, which is how I read this one.  While this wasn’t a particularly engaging book (to me), there are definite glimpses of the droll humor that I know Wodehouse continued to develop throughout his writing career.

Misty’s Twilight by Marguerite Henry


//published 1992//

This book isn’t really a sequel to the other Misty books, but I went ahead and read it after those first three, because it is about a descendant of Misty.  Unfortunately, this story wasn’t nearly as good as the other three.  Twilight was very disjointed and unfocused, without a clear story or goal, or even main character.  Part of the problem is that this story covers almost two decades of time, which is a lot of ground to go over in a children’s book.

In Twilight, Sandy Price has always dreamed of owning a Chincoteague pony, ever since she was a little girl and read Misty.  As an adult, she takes her two children – who are completely uninterested – and drives to Chincoteague where they attend Pony Penning Day and buy four ponies, including one of Misty’s granddaughters, Sunshine.  Back home in Florida, the ponies who were purchased are basically ignored in the story until Sunshine is bred and foals – Misty’s Twilight.  Twilight is trained for a few different things over her lifetime, but Sandy doesn’t really do any of the training, and much of the time Twilight is off having her own adventures – but the narration is stuck at home with Sandy who just receives letters or phone calls with updates on Twilight.  I think the story would have been much more interesting if we had focused on Twilight instead of Sandy.

Published in 1992, I think that in some ways this book was an effort to introduce a new generation of readers to the Misty books.  This was one of the last books that Henry ever wrote – she was 90 years old at the time.  By this time, Wesley Dennis, the illustrator of so many of Henry’s books, had already passed away, so I think this book also somewhat lacked in that area.  Dennis’s illustrations are so amazing, genuinely bringing so much of the story to life.  While Karen Haus Grandpre’s illustrations are standard, they lack the magic of Dennis’s.

All in all, a 2-star read, and not particularly recommended – just stick to the original three.

The Menagerie // by Tui T. Sutherland & Kari Sutherland


//published 2013//

So first off, this is the first book in the next series that I am going to read.  Technically, this means I ought to have finished The Codex Alera first… but I haven’t.  The last book is still sitting right on my desk, where I look at it and think about it pretty frequently.  The problems are twofold: first, I really, really, really liked this series… so what if the last book flops? Doesn’t wrap things up right? Does something to ruin my favorite characters??  Basically, I’m scared.  Secondly, these books take a huge emotional toll on me, and all I want to do when I am reading them is, well, read them!  And I just don’t have time for that right now.  So, someday I will finish the series by reading First Lord’s Fury.  Until then…  well, I’m taking things a little easier by reading this children’s series, The Menagerie.

Logan, who is in seventh grade (about age 13), is adjusting to life in a small, rural town in Wyoming.  Logan has been through a lot of changes in the last year.  Not only has he moved to Wyoming from Chicago, his mom left Logan and his dad without even saying goodbye – she just sent them a postcard saying that she was ready for a new life.  Logan’s dad gave up his job as a lawyer and became a wildlife officer in Wyoming – which, coincidentally, is where that last postcard from Logan’s mom was postmarked: Logan’s dad hasn’t given up on finding her.

However, all that is mere background to the story.  The actual story begins when Logan finds a griffin cub in his bedroom.  Soon, Logan has joined forces with two of his classmates – Zoe and Blue.  Together, they are in a race against the clock to find the griffin’s siblings and get everything back in order in a top-secret facility that Zoe’s family has guarded for centuries: the Menagerie.

I completely enjoyed this book.  Logan, Zoe, and Blue are all very likable, and I enjoyed the fact that they were able to get along as friends throughout the story (read: no romantic crushes, THANK YOU).  Logan is lonely, and it was fun to watch him become friends with this unlikely duo.  The fact that Logan has a natural ability with the wild creatures of the Menagerie added to the fun.  Overall, the Sutherlands do a good job of keeping the story moving, and while we get some conclusions in this book, there are plenty of open plot-lines to lead into the next.

A 4/5, and definitely recommended – I think that middle schoolers (especially ones who love animals) would enjoy this fast-paced and entertaining romp.

Shadows on the Moon // by Zoe Marriott


//published 2012//

This book is a sort of retelling of Cinderella with an alternate-universe ancient-Japan setting.  There were things I liked about this story (for example, the setting), but in the end there was just too much time spent on feelings and not enough on actual character development for me to really like this book on the whole.

Suzume is the narrator and main character of the story.  When the book opens, she is living with her parents and her cousin/best friend in the countryside.  She has a wonderful and happy life, so we know that isn’t going to last.  This is, after all, YA!  And, sure enough, while Suzume’s mother is away visiting a relative, soldiers arrive, tell Suzume’s father that he has been convicted of treason, and proceed to kill both Suzume’s father and her cousin.  Suzume manages to hide.

When Suzume’s mother returns to the devastation, she and Suzume take refuge with one of Suzume’s father’s best friends – who, it turns out, has loved Suzume’s mother these many years.  So it’s no big surprise when they get married a short while later.

Early in the story, Suzume finds out that she is a shadow weaver – a sort of magical person who can bend light and create illusions.  As Suzume struggles to adjust to all the changes in her life, she uses her shadow weaving to project the person she thinks people want to see, keeping her true self hidden.  But, as ended up being par for the course for this book, Suzume only ever learns enough about this skill to benefit herself for her own selfish reasons.

I just don’t know what to say about this book.  Basically, Suzume drove me crazy.  The entire book is all about her feelings, and her feelings are frequently irrational and selfish, not to mention annoying.  She is obsessed with her own personal grief and guilt, which makes her completely incapable of understanding or caring about anyone else around her.  All of her actions are completely motivated by what she wants to do for herself.  She claims that it is for the memory of her father or cousin, or because of love, but it’s obvious that it’s really all just about her.

And that would be fine, except at the end of the book, I really wasn’t convinced that Suzume wasn’t just as selfish and self-centered as she was to begin with.  I would have been willing to overlook some of the ludicrous plot “twists” if I had felt like Suzume grew as a person, but I just don’t think she did.

There was a lot of potential here – the love story could have been fantastic.  There was an opportunity for a great friendship.  There could have been a really interesting look at Suzume’s relationship with her mother.  But instead, all of the relationships in this book are muddled and inconsistent.  The characters don’t react naturally, and it makes the whole story hard to get into.  And since Suzume herself hates pretty much everyone, it’s hard to get an even kind of objective picture of the people in her life.

(Like the one servant who initially helps her with the shadow-weaving… turns out he totally lied to her??  But that is never addressed?  Was this guy a horrible dude?  Confused?  Because of the “twist” at the end, suddenly his entire character made NO SENSE.)

Then, there is the fact that Suzume totally lies to the guy who is in love with her.  Suzume thinks she has done this terrible thing, and it haunts her every waking moment and we have to listen to her whine about how hard her life is because she did this thing (which was an ACCIDENT by the way) and oh woe is me my punishment is to live even though I wish I could die, I guess I’ll go self-harm again (more on that later).  Point is, she never tells this guy that she supposedly loves more than anything in the world the truth about what she has done, or the real reason that she’s distressed.  When she finally “confesses” her “true” life story to him, she omits her big mistake, completely lying to him about the real reasons that she’s depressed and upset.  In the end, it turns out that the terrible thing Suzume thought she had done never really happened…so she just never tells him at all.  It felt like their whole relationship was built on lies because Suzume was never open or honest with him, ever.  And the way Marriott wrote the story, it came across as a perfectly acceptable way to have a serious, life-long relationship with someone.  Huh!?

Despite all this, I would have still given this book 3 stars except for two things.  The first is that literally AS SOON as Suzume and her friendboy confess their love to each other, they have sex.  I mean IMMEDIATELY.  That really disturbed me.  Sex in YA on the whole disturbs me, because I hate (HATE) the way that it’s belittled and normalized, like hey, no big deal!  Everyone is doing it!  Except it IS a big deal – sex is so, so much more than a physical act, and to pretend like that’s all it is, is to completely devalue it.  Basically, I feel like our culture lies to kids about sex by pretending like ti isn’t that important, and that angers me.  Anyway.

The second thing, even bigger, is that fairly early in the story Suzume begins cutting herself as a way to deal with her grief.

The morning after I had been informed of their engagement, I had an accident.  A silly, clumsy accident, nothing more.  As I peeled fruit at breakfast, my knife slipped, opening a long, shallow cut on my palm.

Blood welled up as I stared in shock, and pain sang through my hand.  Then there was a rush of…something.  Something like happiness, or peace, or relief.  It made me dizzy.

After that initial accident, Suzume begins cutting in earnest whenever she is feeling depressed or frustrated.

I held the pin between my teeth as I rolled up my sleeve and selected an area at the side of my elbow, then I touched the now warm pin to the skin and pushed it in.

I hissed, tears springing to my eyes as I dragged the sharp end across my arm.  Tiny beads of bright red welled up against the white skin.  Then the most glorious sense of relief filled me; I let out a long, ecstatic sigh.  I had done it.  It had worked.

This must be why Moon Priests starve and beat themselves, I thought.  The pain did something to you: set you free.  Gave you control.  I had caused the pain.  I had chosen the spot, and I had applied the pin.  The pain was mine, and no one could take it from me.  It made me feel…real.

W H A T ?!?!?!?!

Throughout the entire story, while a couple of people tell Suzume she should stop self-harming, she never really gives it up (sometimes she stops for a while, but then something happens and she goes back to it… almost like it’s an addiction…), and it is consistently described as a way that she finds relief, “happiness,” and escape.  This was disturbing on SO MANY LEVELS.  In some places, it really felt like Marriott was telling her YA readers that self-harm is a valid way to deal with depression and grief.  I  mean, seriously.  Read that example above.  Does that sound like Marriott is describing something that is incredibly self-destructive??  What.  Even.

At the end of the day, this turned out to be a classic example of everything I hate about YA.  It was depressing and pointless.  The plot was sloppy.  The character development was nonexistent.  It made casual sex and self-harm sound like acceptable practices.  The narrator was completely self-absorbed and never changed.  All of Suzume’s “good” decisions were made because the situation changed so that doing the “good” thing was the new thing that would actually benefit her the most – not because she understood that it was a good decision, or that her original choice was bad.

2/5 because the setting was interesting and unique, but definitely not recommended.

PS this book gets awesome reviews on Goodreads – almost 4 stars as an average – so maybe it’s just me… again…

The Scorpio Races // by Maggie Stiefvater


//published 2011//

So a while back I read Stiefvater’s werewolf books.  They were totally outside my usual reading parameters, but I am super glad that I gave them a whirl because despite the fact that they were angsty YA paranormal stories, I still weirdly enjoyed them (and not just because the cover art was A+ gorgeous!).  So I definitely knew I wanted to find some more of Stiefvater’s books, but she hasn’t actually written all that many.  The Raven Cycle books are still on my series TBR, but The Scorpio Races is a standalone, so I thought I would give it a try.

While we are never given a clear time period for the tale, it has a very 1920’s-feel, with a few cars and electricity, but not a lot else going on technology-wise.  Of course, that could be because our setting is a remote island somewhere that sounds very northern-British-Isles.  The opening line is brilliantly enthralling and smidge terrifying:

It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

The story is told in alternating viewpoints between Sean, a young man who works as the head groom for the richest man on the island; and Puck, an orphan girl who is trying to hold her family together.  Both Sean and Puck were very likable, and their narration felt personable without devolving into constant introspection about feelings.

The island of Thisby is very much like another small islands: most of the people make a living by fishing, they are poor but close-knit, and there isn’t a whole lot in the way of entertainment or job opportunities.  But Thisby has one major thing that makes it different: the capall uisce.  These creatures look like horses, but live most of their life in the ocean.  They come ashore every autumn, which is when the people of Thisby try to catch them so that they can race in the Scorpio Races.  But the water horses are cruel and vicious.  They eat meat and kill livestock and humans.  While you may be able to control them for a time, they are never really tamed.  And so, when the races are run on the first of November – someone always dies.

Even though this book is leading up to and is centered around the races, it is really about so much more.  It’s about family and growing and hanging on and letting go. And it’s all woven through a story that was fast-paced and completely engaging.

While there were things about The Scorpio Races that I would have changed – mainly because I like my endings 100% happy and this one was a bit on the bittersweet side – it kept me racing through the pages and made me yearn for a sequel.  4/5 and recommended.

Also, Sophie also reviewed this book, so be sure to check out her thoughts!

The Pale Horse // by Agatha Christie


//published 1962//

I will be the first to admit that, as a general rule, I prefer Christie’s older works to her later ones.  Some of my very favorite of her books came out of the 1920’s and early 30’s, and while her later books are still enjoyable, they just don’t always seem to have that lighthearted feel that still incorporates a twist in the plot that blindsides you.

However, The Pale Horse, published in 1962, broke the mold.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and loved the way that Christie lured me into a rather self-satisfied feeling of knowing who the murderer was, only to flip everything upside down.  Delightful.

Our story is told in small part as a third-person narration, but, for the most part, as first-person narration by a fellow named Mark Easterbrook.  Mark is the studious type, an author, and also friends with Mrs. Oliver, who flits in and out of the story as well.  It doesn’t really seem as though there should be any connection between Mark and the death of a kindly, well-loved priest, but the threads of the story soon begin to weave together.  Except, as usual, Christie is weaving something completely different from what the reader thinks.

I really liked Mark a great deal, and, for once, didn’t feel as though the little bit of romance was completely unbelievable.  There was really a good amount of intrigue and tension, all with a completely satisfactory ending.  The Pale Horse is getting added to my personal collection.  4/5 and recommended.

So, Anyway // by John Cleese


//published 2014//

While I cannot say that I am a passionate Monty Python fan, it has still been a strong influence in my life.  So much of my family’s vernacular traces back to a Python sketch, and I think I may have fell in love with my husband at the point in our relationship that he told me that he could have been an aeronautical engineer, except he spent most of high school memorizing Monty Python instead.

So when I stumbled across John Cleese’s autobiography, I thought that I would give it a whirl.  About 2/3 of the way through the book, however, I realized that Cleese wasn’t just taking a long time to get to the Python years – he wasn’t going to get there at all!  Closer perusal of the jacket summary does say that he tells his story “to the founding of the landmark comedy troupe”…guess I missed that “founding” when I first read it!  Truthfully, I was much more interested in reading more about Fawlty Towers, which is also a long-time favorite (my family legit quotes from the episode with the Germans all the time), but we didn’t even get to that point in life.  Ah well.

Other than wondering when we were going to get around to Python stuff, the book was an interesting read.  Cleese is a little too fond of self-analysis for my taste (things like, “As an adult, I was talking with a therapist when I realized that this episode of my childhood caused me to blah blah blah”), but that was mostly in the early chapters.  The early chapters also included a lot of slightly crude humor, with jokes involving things like penises, but thankfully that also wasn’t as prevalent for the entire book.

There were multiple things that caused me to laugh while reading the book.  For instance, I loved when he was talking about the bombing, during World War II, of his hometown, Weston-super-Mare, and how the people there were, in a weird way, proud that they were bombed on multiple occasions.

The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it?  That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.

Cleese spends several chapters describing not just his early years, but also how his parents met.  His parents actually eloped since, Cleese tells us, the social gap between them was too great:

You see, Dad came from, at best, the middle-lower-middle class; to be exact, he was middle-middle-lower-middle class.  Whereas Muriel Cross came from the great auctioneering house of Marwood Cross, who were almost middle-middle class; their lowest possible social classification was upper-upper-lower-middle-class.

Throughout his book, Cleese actually returns to this concept of class on multiple occasions.

He was the epitome of the Oxonian code of “effortless superiority,” whereby to be seen trying really hard to achieve something was in many ways worse than actually failing at it.

As Cleese’s history continues, he goes to school and then to college, and then is a teacher, and then works for the BBC…throughout, there is this sense of randomness that Cleese admits is real.  He didn’t have much of a plan, and things just sort of seemed to come together.  Once he reaches adulthood in his story, the book gains in interest (for me, anyway), as he talks about stumbling into the drama group at college and how things grew from there.

One tidbit that he mentions is how none of the Pythons considered themselves actors – they were all writers who also acted.  And so what you see as you read about Cleese’s life is how writing became more and more important as he began to find his place.

A final thing that really struck me was when Cleese was talking about one of the things that made so many Python sketches work –

…no matter how wacky the premise of a sketch was, once it had been established, its rules had to be followed, or else the sketch would lose coherence and, thus, “believability.”  It may seem bizarre to use the word “believability” about a Python sketch, but in some mysterious way the audience will accept any premise, no matter how weird, and then allow it to set the rules for what is, and what is not, believable in that piece.

I think this really stuck out to me because this is an issue that I have with a lot of fantasy/sci-fi that I read, or even just a piece of regular fiction where the characters don’t make sense – any story has its own rules.  The important thing isn’t that you have make “believable” rules, or rules that are real-life rules, but you have have consistent rules.  The same goes for a character – I can accept any crazy character if that person stays true to the character as established.  It’s so frustrating to read a book and feel like it is floating around wherever the author wants to go because the author hasn’t bothered to tighten up his rules.  That’s a big reason that I stopped reading the Pern books once they were being written by Todd McCaffrey – he just never seemed to understand the world of Pern, and all of his books felt so discordant, not just with the series as a whole, but even within each story.

Anyway, this was an overall entertaining read, worthwhile if you are interested in Cleese or in learning about how someone becomes a successful comedy writer, but it isn’t particularly one of those autobiographies where you get a real scope of the times or anything like that.  Overall recommended.

Stormy, Misty’s Foal // by Marguerite Henry


//published 1963//

The original Misty book was published in 1947, with its sequel, Sea Starfollowing in 1949.  Henry said that she never intended to write even one sequel, much less two.  But in 1962 a huge storm hit the Atlantic seaboard. Later known as the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, it is considered in the top ten worst storms of the twentieth century (in the US), wreaking millions of dollars of damage along the coast, killing several people and injuring more, wiping out homes, businesses, and livestock, as well as destroying and causing devastating damage to many towns.

The island of Chincoteague, along with its personal barrier island, Assateague, were among those hit by the storm.  In 1963, Henry wrote another Chincoteague book.  While much of the book is fiction, Misty really was brought into a house to be saved from the storm, and the damage Henry describes is completely accurate.  She says that she wrote the book as a response to the hundreds of children who did their part to help restore Chincoteague and Assateague.  Her dedication says:

Dedicated to the boys and girls everywhere whose pennies, dimes, and dollars helped restore the wild herds on Assateague Island, and who by their spontaneous outpouring of love gave courage to the stricken people of Chincoteague.


The real Misty and Stormy

At the end of Sea Star, Misty had been sold to a movie producer so that she could travel to advertise the movie.  When Stormy opens, a few years have passed, and Misty is back at home on the island with the Beebe family, ready to give birth to her first foal.  The family is quite excited, of course, and the first couple of chapters reintroduce us to the warm, happy family, greatly aided by Wesley Dennis’s suburb illustrations.

But a storm is brewing.  While the people of the island are no strangers to nor’easterns, this one coincides with one of the highest tides of the year, and soon water covers almost the entire island.  The people of Chincoteague band together to rescue and protect one another, but soon they are forced to evacuate.

I’m not going to lie – I did actually shed a few tears over this book.  Many of the ponies die, and just knowing that so much of this story was true made it hard to read.  But Henry does a magnificent job capturing the hope and beauty that so often balances these tragedies – wherein strangers are willing to give what they can to help those who are in need.

Because so many of the wild ponies – who are rounded up every year during Pony Penning Day, with some of the young being sold to raise money for the fire department – were killed by the storm, donations poured in to help purchase back island ponies to reestablish the herds.   Another twist, which Henry doesn’t mention in her book, was that, at the time, parts of Assateague had been sold into lots for development.  After the storm, however, the development plan was abandoned, and now the entire island is a wildlife refuge.

In her afterword, Henry says:

Boys and girls all over the United States … deluged Chincoteague with a fresh tide – of letters!  … and tucked inside were pennies, dimes, and dollars.  The letters are stories in themselves:

“Here is a check for four dollars and four cents for the Misty Disaster Fund.  It is an odd number because we earned it weeding dandelions and they grow odd.  We hope the money will come in handy.  Please excuse our poor writing.  We are doing this in my tree house.”

“During our Story Hour we set out a jar marked ‘For Pony Pennies,’ and we marched around the library until 386 pennies were dropped in.”

“The radio said your ponies and chickens drowned.  … Here is one dollar.  I know it isn’t much, but that’s how much I can give.”

Henry adds that by June enough money had been received for the firemen to purchase back ponies, and Pony Penning Day was still held.


Aerial footage of the Beebe farm just after the storm.

Something about this story really got to me.  Just the idea that fifteen years earlier Henry happened to write a story that children loved, so when the storm hit, they gave back.

Henry doesn’t shy away from death in this book, and the scene where Grandma Beebe’s little chicks all drown legit made me cry.  In some ways it was a hard book to read, but in a good way, and it is a story that is never too dark.  It was also funny to read some of the “signs of the times” in things like the women and children not being allowed back on the island because of typhoid scare, when in this day and age, I’m sure just as many women would be on the island helping with the cleanup!  (Although the part where Grandpa and Paul smuggle Grandma and Maureen back onto the island early is just fantastic!)

All in all, Stormy is an excellent addition to this little series, and a solid read.  4/5; recommended.

Also, here is a webpage with more details about the storm – and more pictures – if you are interested.

Ordeal by Innocence // by Agatha Christie

Two years ago, a man was convicted of murdering his adopted mother.  Six months ago, the man died in prison.  Now, a witness comes forward who proves the man’s innocence.

But instead of being relieved and glad to hear that Jack didn’t kill Mrs. Argyle, the reactions of Jack’s family range from uncomfortable to distressed.  At first, the witness, Arthur Calgary, is confused at the response of the family.  But as he learns more about the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Argyle’s death – and her life – he realizes that everyone wanted it to be Jack.  Jack is the trouble child, the one whom they can all not excuse, exactly, but at least understand.  If Jack wasn’t the murderer, than it was someone else in the family.  And after two years… how will they ever know?  Now the entire family is torn apart by suspicion and doubt.

Christie weaves an engaging story with a range of characters.  Mrs. Argyle, unable to have children of her own, adopted a brood, all of whom came from various “troubled” backgrounds.  Many of the children came to her during the war, when she opened her home to youngsters from London with no where else to go.  Some just never went back.

While (as always) the mystery is good and the solution quite twisty, this was one of the rare occasions where Christie’s personal opinions made  me a little uncomfortable.  While I could understand – if not justify – her repeated description of one of the adopted children as “half-caste” because her mother was from India, as a product of Christie’s time, her frequent references to heredity as the main reason that some people become criminals and some don’t seemed a little off.  While I could agree that Jack was the type of person who would be a “wrong’un” no matter his upbringing, I wasn’t sure I could agree that it was because of his parentage.  Christie tells us on several occasions that, basically, breeding always tells.  Her conclusion seemed to be that adoption was a futile process.

‘It was an article of faith with her that the blood tie didn’t matter,’ [Mrs. Argyle’s widower said].  ‘But the blood tie does matter, you know.  There is usually something in one’s own children, some kink of temperament, some way of feeling that you recognize and can understand without having to put into words.  You haven’t got that tie with children you adopt.  One has no instinctive knowledge of what goes on in their minds.  You judge them, of course, by yourself, by your own thoughts and feelings, but it’s wise to recognize that those thoughts and feelings may be very widely divergent from theirs.’

And I’m not sure that I can completely concede this one to Christie, perhaps because I have an adopted sister and know many other happily adopted children who did come from terrible backgrounds and terrible parents.  But these children aren’t doomed to failure because of their parents’ choices, and they aren’t doomed to be forever misunderstood and only half-loved by their adopted families.  Of course their thoughts and feelings will be widely divergent – they are humans and no two humans can fully comprehend the way the other’s mind works.

Adoption is difficult, especially when the adopted child is older, but Christie’s comments on how Mrs. Argyle’s adoptions may have been more successful if she had been able to find children from her “class” rather than from the offspring of prostitutes and alcoholics, whom are already doomed to repeat the mistakes of their parents no matter what training, love, or discipline they receive, did not sit well with me.  And while I know that these opinions are also somewhat a product of her time, it was still a bit much.

While Ordeal by Innocence was a decent mystery, it wasn’t particularly a favorite of mine.  3/5, but not particularly recommended.

Living as a Christian // by A.W. Tozer // compiled & edited by James L. Snyder

A.W. Tozer was a minister who lived, wrote, and preached in the early-to-mid 1900’s.  Known for his soundly and unapolgetically Biblical teaching, his most famous book, The Pursuit of God, has been in print constantly since it was written in 1948, and is still as insightful and challenging today as it was when it was first published.


//published 2009//

In the early 2000’s, James L. Snyder received rights from Tozer’s estate to sift through Tozer’s many recorded sermons and compile them into books.  Thus, in the last ten years, several “new” Tozer books have appeared, even though Tozer himself died in the 1960’s.  Living as a Christian is one of these books.  Challenging and gritty, Tozer’s writing isn’t afraid to make the reader examine her life.  Reading Tozer is like opening the curtains of a dark room to let the sunshine in so you can really, really get down to the cleaning the room needs.

Tozer thoroughly understands the strange balance that is the Christian life: that our good deeds do not save us or make us better.  Only Christ’s sacrifice, and our acceptance of it, allows us to eternal life.  But that very acceptance is only the first step in our pursuit of God and holiness.  Our good works stem from this.  Tozer preaches a strong line of no-compromise holiness to those who have agreed to follow God.  Not only does he not expect non-Christians to live up to these standards of holiness, he doesn’t really expect them to understand why anyone would.  Tozer’s writings are, for the most part, directed to Christians, to strengthen, challenge, and encourage them.

Someone may say, ‘Mr. Tozer, how can a man cleanse his own heart?  How can a man purge his own soul?’  I might ask you how can a man wash his own hands?  He cannot; he can only subject his hands to water and detergents and they do the washing.  If he does not subject himself to water and detergent, he will not be cleansed.  Just as a man is clean by washing his hands and yet cannot wash his hands, so a man’s heart is cleansed when he cleanses himself, yet he cannot cleanse himself.

Living as a Christian is a collection of writing based on the book of 1 Peter, which is actually one of my favorite epistles.  Peter wrote to a group of Christians who were being persecuted for their faith following the burning of Rome.  Peter encourages his readers to stand firm in their faith, and helps them to understand why trials and trouble are a part of our lives even after we have come to Christ.  Tozer expands on Peter’s writing, show how what he said then is just as applicable to our lives today.

Snyder has given us seventeen chapters, most only about 10-15 pages long, making them very accessible chunks to digest.  Tozer is never condescending or superior, but he is also never soft and never compromises.  Some people may have trouble with his hard-line approach, especially in our day of universal acceptance and the constant fear of – gasp! – offending someone, but I don’t think that anyone who genuinely reads Scripture can deny its overall hard-line approach.  It is not called the Sword for nothing.

One of the things that I love (LOVE) about Tozer is his insistence that Scripture is not inaccessible or difficult to understand.  He believes that God has given us a letter that is very clear in its terms and conditions, and that our efforts to make it muddy or complicated are because we don’t like what it says, not because it is actually hard to understand.

You can throw your flesh into the effort, and with strong religious determination break your teeth and batter your own head black and blue but never get anywhere.  You can do that in theology too.  The simplest explanation of any text it just what it says.  you read it, get on your knees and take it at its plainest meaning.  As Mark Twain quipped: ‘Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they don’t understand, but for me I have always noticed that the passages that bother me are those I do understand.’  You will have time enough following the text you understand without seeking piously underneath the surface to bring up some esoteric meaning that God never put there.

Tozer’s emphasis is always that God intends us to start where we are and work towards Him, and that the best way to get anywhere is to start on the path you can see and follow it, rather than worrying about where the path is a few miles away from where we’ve begun.  Those parts of the path will be clear when you get there.  So many people refuse to accept any Scripture unless they can understand all of it, rather than beginning with what they do understand, accepting that, and building from there.

A heresy always hunts obscurity, and false teaching always hunts the difficult text.  You see, it is as if I were to take you to my farm and say to you, ‘Here you will find apples and peaches and grapes and watermelons and cantaloupes and sweet potatoes … now, this is all yours, take over.’  And then I came back a month later and found my guests half starved, and said to them, ‘What’s the matter?  You look undernourished.’

They would say, ‘We are undernourished because we have found a plant we cannot identify.  There is a plant behind  the old oak stump back there in the near end of the far field, just over the hill, and we have stayed one month trying to identify this plant.’

‘But you’re starving!  You’ve got so many other plants around you, but you look sick.  What’s the matter with you?’

And they would reply, ‘We’re worried about this one plant.’

That is exactly what many of God’s children do.  They starve themselves to death knee-deep in clover because there is one little old plant … that they cannot identify.  Heretics are always starving to death while they worry about that one passage of Scripture.

While this is an excellent book and one that I definitely recommend to anyone wanting to know what the Christian’s life ought to look like, it is, at times, obvious that this book was mostly transcribed from sermons.  There are sections that are a bit repetitive, as Tozer reviews something he covered in last week’s sermon – which would make sense if you were listening to him and it had been a week since you heard the last lesson, but can bog down the book a bit when you read the last lesson just yesterday.

Still a challenging and insightful book that is a really wonderful contrast to the lazy compromises so prevalent in our churches today.