January Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just don’t have a lot of things to say about.  Sometimes it’s because it was a super meh book (most of these are 3/5 reads), or sometimes it’s because it was just so happy that that’s about all I can say about it!  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

Copper-Toed Boots by Marguerite de Angeli

//published 1938//

This was a sweet, gentle children’s book with beautiful illustrations (by the author).  There really wasn’t much of a plot, other than Shad wanting boots and various adventures along the way to his earning them, but it will still a pleasant story.  4/5.

Waiting for Normal by Leslie Conner

//published 2008//

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this book.  It’s told from the perspective of 12-year-old Addie, who lives with her mother.  At the beginning of the book, she and her mom are moving into a small trailer.  As the story unwinds, we find that the trailer is owned by Addie’s step-father, who isn’t actually her stepfather anymore since he and Addie’s mom got divorced.  But even thought Dwight ended up with the two daughters he and Addie’s mom had together, he is not blood-related to Addie and couldn’t get custody of her, despite how unfit of a mother Addie’s mom actually is.  The overall book is just about Addie’s life with her neglectful mother – “she’s all or nothing” Addie says, and when she’s “all” she is fun and entertaining and exciting, but when she’s nothing – she’s gone.

My problem really wasn’t with the story, which was genuinely poignant and told very well.  I just don’t a single middle-schooler who would enjoy it or really take much away from the story.  So much of it is told in a sort of euphemistic kind of way that it felt like a book that would need a lot of explaining for a kid to really understand what’s happening – and that feels like it sort of defeats the whole purpose of Addie’s innocent voice telling the tale.

The event (in the backstory) that led to Dwight getting custody of his two daughters is when Addie’s mother left Addie (at the time age 9) and her two half-sisters (a toddler and a baby) unattended for three days.  What I found almost impossible to believe was that Addie wasn’t put in foster care/in her grandpa’s home at the time.  I just can’t believe that a judge would give Addie back to her mother without any kind of probationary period.  On the other hand, I have firsthand experience with just how jacked up the whole system is, so maybe they would.

All in all, while I wouldn’t say that Waiting for Normal was a pleasant read, exactly, it still was a good one, and one that I would recommend to adults, if not to the theoretical target audience of the book.  3.5/5.

The Cat and Mrs. Cary by Doris Gates

//published 1962//

I used to check this book out of the library when I was little, and then, later, I actually found that same copy as a discard on the library’s booksale shelf.  The funny part is, I really can’t explain why I like this book.  It’s not really a book that gives me lots of warm feelings, or one that I have strong emotional memories attached to.  It’s just a fun and happy little book.

Part of it may be that it really isn’t a typical children’s book in that it isn’t particularly about children.  The main character is actually an elderly widow, Mrs. Cary, who has recently moved into a small cottage in a small coastal village.  I think one of the other things that makes me love this book is that when The Cat first talks with Mrs. Cary, she is only momentarily stymied.  From there forward, she’s basically just like, “Huh, talking cat.  Okay.”  And then she rolls with it!

There’s a bit about smugglers that keeps things interesting, too.  It’s just overall a fun story with some nice characters, and everything comes together in the end very well.  The Cat is very cat-like, even when he talks, and never fails to make me snicker.  This book is very fitting for its age – for instance, we never do find out what Mrs. Cary’s first name is!  (Even her nephew refers to her as “Aunt Cary.”)  All in all, this is a 4/5 read for me, one that I still enjoy and do recommend.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

//published 1913//

This is a classic thriller that I picked up thanks to a review by FictionFan last year.  The story is about the Buntings, and older couple who used to work in domestic service but now have their own lodging house. However, they’ve had quite a bit of bad luck and all of their money is gone.  They’ve been forced to pawn things they never thought they would pawn, and to give up every bit of pleasure, like ha’penny newspapers and a nice smoke.  Things are looking quite dark for them when a strange man appears on their doorstep and rents their rooms – a full month in advance!  Like magic, the money problems are gone – as long as Mr. Sleuth is kept happy.  Luckily, he’s really a very undemanding man, even if he is a bit odd (and arrived without any luggage).  Meanwhile, out in foggy London, women are being murdered by a mysterious man who leaves a scrap of paper on the bodies with his name: THE AVENGER.

There really is a lot of tension built up in this story, and I was completely engrossed.  Lowndes doesn’t make it obvious as to whether or not Mr. Sleuth is also the Avenger, and in fact gives us a perfectly reasonable bit of muddy water around the fact.  On one hand, Mr. Sleuth does have a lot of very strange habits.  On the other – most of these really can be explained by him being rather shy and eccentric.  The Buntings are now completely dependent on their income from Mr. Sleuth, so much of the story is about their moral quandary – should they report their suspicions?  If Mr. Sleuth is innocent, they will be on the verge of homelessness yet again.  But if he’s guilty and they say nothing – does that mean that they are partially responsible for the continued deaths?  It all plays out very, very well, and I honestly had no idea what I would do in Mrs. Bunting’s shoes.  (Well, other than try to not be quite as grumpy.  Mrs. Bunting was a rather cranky character.)

While this book is an easy 4/5, it lacks that final star because it did get a smidge repetitive in the middle and because I felt like the ending was a little rushed.  Still, I was completely engrossed in the Buntings’ dilemma.  Lowndes draws their situation so incredibly well that I felt strangely sympathetic towards literally everyone.  An excellent read and recommended.  (NB I read this as a free Kindle book, which can be found here.  There were also editions that cost money, so I actually had a little trouble finding the free one originally.)

On Swearing in YA …

Yesterday I grumbled a bit about swearing in a YA book I recently read (and greatly enjoyed), Kids of Appetite.  While I still don’t like swearing in general, and especially in YA, it was random because that same exact day I saw Maggie Stiefvater address the topic on her Twitter.  Someone had tweeted her saying that they had enjoyed the lack of profanity in Stiefvater’s most recent book, All the Crooked Saints.  Stiefvater replied:

Intentional! Scorpio Races is also mostly without swears. Pip Bartlett is 100% profanity free. I use it as shorthand — if I think a book has difficult content a younger reader ought to talk through with an adult, I throw in swears to make sure it gets labeled for older readers.

Difficult content, in my opinion: suicide, self-harm, abuse, drug or alcohol use, an excessive number of Latin verbs.

While I can’t imagine that every author uses (or doesn’t use) swearing as thoughtfully, I thought that it was an intriguing methodology, and a reminder that just because I like or don’t like something that an author has done, doesn’t mean that that thing was done thoughtlessly.


Kids of Appetite // by David Arnold

//published 2016//

I first read about this book over at Heart Full of Books, although rereading Bee’s review makes me wonder what exactly inspired me to add it to the TBR?  Because while it doesn’t sound like a book I would necessarily dislike, it doesn’t really sound like one that I would immediately pick up!  But I’m really glad I did, as I quite enjoyed this story.  Not only was it engaging and funny, it had a solid story, character growth, and an ending that made me fill up with happy tears.

The story starts with present tense, first person – Vic narrating.  He’s in a police interrogation room with an officer who is asking him questions about a murder.  Because we have Vic’s perspective, we know that he is stalling for some reason, but we don’t know why.

This morning’s memory is fresh, Baz’s voice ingrained in my brain.  Diversion tactics, Vic.  They will need time.  And we must give it to them.

Vic’s diversion tactic is to begin telling the story of where he’s been in the last eight days – ever since his mom reported him missing.  And he tells it in his own way.

The story is told in alternating narration between Vic and Mad, a girl he meets along the way of the story.  There are a few other kids caught up in the story (Baz, his brother Zuz, and Coco), and despite the fact that I should have been rolling my eyes at this gang of ridiculousness, I loved them all and was completely invested in their story from the very beginning.

Pacing in this book was spot-on.  It’s the kind of mixed up timeline that makes you want to immediately start the book over and reread it once you get to the end and have all the pieces.  We have the past being told by Vic and Mad, with each chapter opening at the police station in the present (Mad is being questioned in another room).

While I don’t want to give too much of this story away, a big part of it is about Vic coming to grips with his dad’s death.  Vic loved his dad and they had a great relationship.  His dad died of cancer a couple of years before this story, and now Vic’s mom is thinking about getting remarried.  Vic ends up running away and having this sort of coming-to-terms journey that could have been cheesy and cliched, but instead is done so well.  

One of the things that I really liked about this book is that Baz is a Christian.  It’s not this huge part of the story, or something that Baz goes on and on about.  Instead, it’s just an organic part of his character that influences some of his actions because it’s a part of who he is.  It doesn’t make him better or worse than any of the other characters – it’s just a layer of his essence, and I really appreciated the way that he was portrayed.

It was the same with Vic’s physical condition.  He has a condition with which he was born, but the whole thing was handled so tastefully.  Like it was a huge part of who Vic is and how he has become this person – but it wasn’t his defining characteristic.  It’s just another one of the layers.

There are a few reasons that this book can’t quite achieve a full 5-star rating for me.  There was a decent amount of swearing in this book.  And like I get that “that’s the way kids talk these days” or whatever, except I don’t really feel like it has to be the way kids talk these days, and I personally prefer to not have to read the word “fucking” a few times in every chapter.

The other thing is the murder itself – kinda unexpectedly graphic and intense.  Not a long, drawn-out thing but – just a bit of a surprise.  I wasn’t ready for it.

Finally, I was just a smidge confused by Vic’s mom.  Vic is taking this journey, following instructions that his dad had left for Vic’s mom.  It was never really clear if Vic’s mom had already done this?  Or had just… not?  I felt like her character was a little fuzzy, although I really did appreciate the scene where Vic and his mom were reunited.  Their conversation felt genuinely healing, like they were on the right track together going forward, and I loved that.

All in all, a solid 4 stars for Kids of Appetite.  There was a lot to enjoy in this book.  I loved the characters, the story, and the pacing, and if the swearing – and brief gruesome scene – don’t bother you, I definitely recommend it.  To me, this is what a coming-of-age novel should actually look like.

The Bees // by Laline Paull

//published 2014//

When this book was published a few years ago, I felt like I kept seeing it crop up  here and there.  The thing that drew me to it were the comparisons to Watership Down, which is a book that I really do enjoy, despite the fact that it’s a bit dark.  I actually like books about animals wherein the animals are still basically true to their actual nature.  (The book – not movie, obviously – Bambi also does this quite well.)  I also find bees to be quite intriguing and complex creatures – such an involved and precise colony of activity!

However, The Bees just didn’t quite deliver for me.  It had its moments, but the main problem was that there was basically no plot.  We meet our heroine, Flora 717, as she is emerging into adulthood.  And then the rest of the story is just Flora kind meandering around from here to there.  While the rest of the bees are subject to a very strict caste system – the family you belong to (Flora, Sage, Teasel, etc.) dictates your role in the hive – Flora 717 is an unusually large and strong bee, and is able to perform different jobs throughout her life, rather than just being the sanitation worker her type would normally be.  This allows the reader to see various levels of the hive, but added a rather disjointed feeling to the story.  Flora’s character felt like a tool Paull was using to take us around the hive.  Eventually, the number of times that Flora very narrowly escaped death also became rather implausible.  I mean, how much luck can one bee have?!

Paull sets up the hive as a theocracy.  The Queen is the Mother Bee and a goddess; the Sage are her priestesses who make sure that everyone is following their castes’ set duties; there prayers and religious ceremonies at set times of day, etc.  Overall this worked, although I was honestly disturbed when Paull rewrote the Lord’s Prayer to fit her weird bee religion – it felt a bit sacrilegious to take what is a very sacred text to many and use it in this context.  Religion is used to control all the bees – Accept. Obey. Serve.

Part of the problem with this story on the whole is that bees do really weird stuff in real life, and it was sometimes hard to differentiate between what was physically possible for bees to do, and what Paull was exaggerating for the sake of her story.  For instance, Flora 717 lays an egg, despite the fact that she has never mated with one of the drones.  I was super confused by this.  How is this even possible?  Finally, I had to actually look it up and see – and it turns out that male bees are created asexually, while female bees are produced sexually!  (Actually, it gets even weirder – did you know that a queen bee only makes one mating flight in her entire life?  During that flight, she mates with multiple drones, and actually stores their sperm inside of her.  This sperm lasts her entire life – usually around 4 years!  She lays thousands of eggs in that time span, and the queen determines at the time of laying whether or not an egg will be fertilized, and thus female, or not fertilized, and thus male.  How bizarre is that?!  And as a side note, the drone is killed during mating, as the process actually tears off his penis!??!  Bees are WEIRD.)  And I guess I can’t really expect Paull to put that all in her book, but it was still really confusing and distracting at the time.

Throughout, the story is arbitrarily violent.  I think this was to illustrate the ruthless society of the bees, which was fine, but I didn’t need all the gory detail.  I also couldn’t find any information wherein female bees actually kill the drones at the end of the season – they usually just drive them out of the hive and let them die.  So that whole slaughter-scene, which was genuinely gross, was one of the ones where apparently Paull was exaggerating to make her story more exciting.

And maybe it wasn’t exactly the violence that bothered me as much as just the overall crudity?  There are an awful lot of sexual references for a book comprised of almost all females who don’t actually mate, and, like I said, so much violence in descriptive depth.  There is also this thing where all the bees are way into waiting on the drones and catering to their every whim, etc. all in a very sexual way – which is kind of disturbing considering the drones are all their brothers??  Like it just felt super weird and uncomfortable to me, especially when the drones are having the workers groom them in very personal/sexual ways – it was just WEIRD.

There was also this kind of small but still annoying thing to me where the bees are having a very difficult time making enough food because of a very wet summer, yet the beekeeper still comes and steals honey from them.  I realize that Paull is trying to present this from the perspective of the bees, who would obviously be distressed by this, but she definitely comes through as being very negative about people interfering with bees.  I actually know multiple people who do raise bees, and absolutely none of them would endanger the hive by taking food that the bees actually need to survive the winter – it’s completely counterproductive!  Beekeeping has actually become very important as places for wild hives are becoming more restricted and there are so many problems with disease.  Beekeepers work with and for their hives, not against them.  While some of Paull’s presentations of humans – for instance, spraying pesticide on a field that then leads to bees dying – comes through as reasonable, this particular scene made no sense to me, because no beekeeper would take honey that the bees need.

In the end (this whole paragraph is spoilers) there is this whole thing where the queen gets sick and dies and the hive goes kind of crazy and then two of the battling factions of bees each produce their own potential queen bee – with no explanation has to how these bees could suddenly lay a female egg on their own.  Like it makes a little bit of sense when Flora does it, only because I had done all this bee research so I could actually make sense out of this stupid book, and it was obvious that Flora was at least partially a South African bee, some of which can produce females asexaully.  But we are given no reason to believe that any of the other bees are anything but the standard honey bee variety, so none of them should have been able to just hatch a female bee.  So that was weird.

I was also a little confused because at times the bees were 100% animals, yet at others there were strange humanizing moments.  For instance, at one point there is a reference to one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting doing something with embroidery – as though she had an actual embroidery hoop like a human lady-in-waiting.  At another point, there is this weird scene where some of the worker bees are serving the drones and it says something about the drones touching them in a sexual way… and I just have no idea how a drone bee can molest a worker bee?  Sometimes Paull would reference a bee’s “hands” when bees don’t actually have hands.  It just felt like Paull wasn’t sure how much she wanted to humanize the bees, and the inconsistency was confusing.

Because there wasn’t really much of a story, I wasn’t really sure what Paull was trying to say, either.  Was she just writing about bees?  Or was she trying to give us some kind of message about class or religion?  (In case you were wondering, the religion is presented pretty negatively, of course – a drug for controlling the masses; a tool for the elite few to use to control those masses.)  I wasn’t really sure and never had a clear idea of what the point of this whole book was.

All in all, 2/5 for The Bees.  I wanted to like this book because I like bees and I like books about nature.  But there just wasn’t enough cohesive story to make up for the crudity and violence throughout.  It’s also annoying when I have to stop reading a book and do research to find out whether or not the author is making crap up or if it’s true.  I think this book would have benefited from a short introduction that basically said, “Bees are crazy!” and explained a few of the weirder parts of bee society that are actually true.  Despite not really enjoying this book, I was weirdly drawn into it and wanted to find out what happened.  I also kept hoping that I would start liking it, but I never did.

Thornhill // by Pam Smy

//published 2017//

I saw this book recommended somewhere or other and thought the formatting looked quite intriguing.  This story follows two timelines.  Mary’s story is set in 1982, while Ella’s is set in the present (2017).  Mary’s story is told through her diary entries, while Ella’s story is told entirely through illustrations.  This method worked very well, and also made the book read quite quickly.  I loved the way that the sections were divided by two solid black pages each time.  All the illustrations are in grayscale as well, which adds to the atmosphere of the story.

The two tales are connected because Mary is living in a children’s home in an old, large house called Thornhill.  Her diary entries talk about how the home is going to be closed and she isn’t sure what is going to happen to her.  In the meantime, she is suffering a great deal because of a terrible bully in her life.  In 2017, Ella moves into a house whose back yard backs up to Thornhill, now abandoned.  Ella sees strange goings-on in the abandoned house and starts to explore what is happening.  Ella’s mother is not in the picture (presumably dead), and her father is buried in his work, leaving Ella alone a great deal of the time.

From the beginning I realized that this was supposed to be a sort of creepy/horror book, but it’s also a children’s book.  To that end, I felt like this book’s ending crossed a line that shouldn’t have been crossed.  More details concerning the ending (so, big spoiler) below.

While I found this book completely gripping while I was reading it, and was anxious to see what was going to happen next to both girls.  But the ending just ruined this book for me, so I ended up only going 2/5 and not particularly recommending it.  I loved the formatting, but just couldn’t get behind the story’s message.

Spoilers below.

Continue reading

The Mapmakers // by John Noble Wilford

//published 1981//revised 2000//

I love maps.  Let’s just get that out of the way to start.  I mean I genuinely love them.  I’m a very visual learner, so I think maps have always been a way for me to make sense of things.  Back in high school, my best friend and I would often spend an evening planing an intricate and involved roadtrip that we had zero intentions of taking.  We would get out the road atlas and various state maps (this was before Google Maps was really a thing because I’m old) and spread them out all over the table.  We would use those charts in the front of the atlas that give you distances between cities to help figure out how long it would take us to drive from place to place.  We would make notes of interesting places along the way where we would like to stop.  We would discuss the merits of various cars within our families and determine how much gas would cost for each one to accomplish the miles we had outlined.

And now that I’m an adult, I still love maps and I still love planning trips I’m probably not taking.  And even though we have a GPS and all that, you had better believe that I bright along paper maps every time we go on a trip!  I also collect maps in a haphazard kind of way.  I finally purchased a map of Great Britain a couple of years ago to help me with all the reading I do that is set in that country.  (I mean, someone says they are going to have to go from Bath to Brighton… I have no idea if that’s five miles or fifty or five hundred.)  We have a 4’x6′ map of the country hanging in our bedroom, and the husband and I honestly look at it all the time, discussing possibilities.  Recently, in an antique store, I found myself purchasing a 1950’s road atlas – printed before the interstates.  It’s a fascinating look at how people used to drive this country in the old Route 66 days.

All that to say, I was excited to pick up The Mapmakers.  The history of maps and the people who created them?  Sounds fantastic!  And while this book did somewhat deliver, it was still a bit of a mixed bag.

Basically, Wilford starts at the beginning of time and works forward from there.  It’s a lot of distance to cover, and this book was incredibly dense.  It’s 473 pages of incredibly tiny print, and it felt like I was reading this book forever.  Every time I looked at my little stack of books, this one was on top because it was always this book’s turn to read!  Personally, I think this book would have benefited from less time spent at the beginning of humanity and more time spent on modern innovations, as the earlier section of the book was definitely where it dragged the most.

The first few chapters cover the foundations of mapmaking and maps as a concept, back in the Greek and Roman days when men of Science abounded.  This is interesting, especially to realize just how long ago humanity was interested in things like measuring the earth.  However, Wilford then spends an inordinate amount of time in the Middle Ages (26 pages, which felt even longer) basically explaining how nothing happened in the world of cartography because Christians were in charge of everything, and Christians hate science, so Christians just made up stuff, and Christians ignored all the scientific progress made in earlier generations, and Christians believed the world was flat, and Christians couldn’t handle anything that wasn’t written down in Scriptures, so Christians made sure that no one else was allowed to study science either.  And if that paragraph sounds a little miffy, it’s because the whole chapter was quite offensive.  It just felt like (a) this chapter was excessive in length for the minimal amount of information gained (considering the chapter on mapping the entire moon is actually eight pages shorter than this one), and (b) Wilford went out of his way to find individuals on the fringes, presented their theories in detail, and then would wrap up with a sentence like, “While few medieval thinkers subscribed to this concept…”  If only a few subscribed to this concept, why did you just spend three pages describing it??  Oh, that’s right, it’s so you could spend those three pages mentioning Christians, Scripture, and complete lack of science all combined.  Whatever.

I think the reason it really annoyed me was because one of the things he literally mocked the medieval mapmakers for was how if there was an area on a map where they didn’t know what was there, they would just make something up so there wouldn’t be a blank space.  But then over the next few chapters as he discussed world exploration and the gradual filling in of the world map, he would talk about how things like a giant southern continent were drawn into maps as facts, as well as islands and all sorts of things that weren’t actually there; people would just make up what they believed was true and put it in.  So… if you’re religious and you do it, you get put in a chapter titled “myth and dogma” because you’re too stupid to use real science to figure things out.  But if you’re a scientist and you do it, it’s a “logical error,” even if it persists for decades.  Hmm.

ANYWAY sorry that turned a lot rantier than I was intending.  Once I struggled through the first hundred pages or so, the book turned a corner and got much more interesting (basically, when Wilford started focusing on maps instead of making snide remarks about religion).  The problem is that there was just sooo much to cover!  Wilford considers mapmaking to be a pretty broad concept.  I was really intrigued by things like setting up time zones, for instance – when did that happen?  How much of it was political?  I mean, this is a huge, international thing and it was really interesting to see how it all came together.

There were multiple events that felt like they could be an entire book all by themselves.  For instance, talking about early efforts to map the Amazonian jungle – people had to go out ahead and set up stations because they were triangulating distances by broadcasting signals from the stations to be picked up by aircraft flying overhead.  I mean – what an adventure!  Some of these guys had to pack in all of their supplies by mule and then just hang out there.  I would love to know more about that!

Or the survey parties that worked on mapping the country in the 1930’s and 40’s.  Originally they were sent out on brief, specific tasks as funding allowed.  When FDR decided we should spend pretend money instead of only spending real money, they sent out a semi-permanent caravan that traveled from place to place, mapping as they went.  This meant that the whole expedition now included wives and children, all living in trailers, spending three to six months on average somewhere before packing up and moving to the next project.  How intriguing is that?!

This book was originally published in 1981.  This edition was revised in 2000, because so much mapping technology changed in those twenty years.  The later chapters on GPS, satellites, extraterrestrial mapping, etc. were extremely interesting.  This book could really use yet another revision, as we’ve had another almost twenty years go by, and mapping technology has gone through yet another incredible series of updates.  At the time of Wilford’s initial revision, for instance, cell phones were just beginning to emerge – since then, basically everyone now carries around their own personal GPS unit, tracking their every move, allowing more and more maps to be created concerning human activity.

All in all, a 4/5 for The Mapmakers.  It definitely felt like Wilford could have skimmed over sections where he did nothing but complain about how the Christians prevented progress, and spent a little more time in places where progress was being made.  (E.g., the Jesuit priests, who created detailed and fairly accurate maps of South America in the 1700’s are blown off in one sentence…)  This book would also really benefit from some color pictures – the black and white images come through as rather blurry and not particularly useful.  This is a book about maps, it having some pictures of maps would really help explain a lot of Wilford’s jargon.

Still, if you like maps and history books about random things, this was an interesting, if rather slow, read.  Recommended.

Cornish Mysteries // by Carola Dunn

  • Manna from Hades
  • A Colourful Death
  • The Valley of the Shadow

Note: this series also includes Buried in the Country, which I did not read at this time, for reasons that shall be revealed below…

So a while back I read through Dunn’s other cozy mystery series, set in the 1920’s and starring Daisy Dalrymple.  I overall really enjoyed that series, although it had its ups and downs, so I thought that I would give this set of Dunn’s books a go.

//published 2009//

Set in the late 60’s or possibly early 70’s in Cornwall, Eleanor Trewynn (widow) has retired to a small coastal village.  She and her husband worked for many years for a charity organization whose purpose was honestly rather vague but I think somehow involved giving food and shelter to poor people in… places??  (It’s called the London something-or-other, but they travel all over the world, so apparently it’s for lots of other countries as well?)  Since her retirement, Eleanor has been living in the upstairs apartment of a cottage she purchased, and has renovated the downstairs to be a thrift shop whose proceeds benefit this charity.

There were aspects of these books that I liked.  I felt that the setting was done well, and overall the mysteries come together decently.  But there were little things about these books that aggravated me. Usually I enjoy reading a series straight through and really immersing myself in it, but I think these books would have benefited if I had read them spaced apart a bit, as those little aggravations become more annoying with each passing book, and by the time I finished The Valley of the Shadow, I realized I had literally zero interest in picking up Buried in the Country.  Valley was honestly a bit of a struggle for me to get through; I was just so bored while I was reading it.

I really like my current method of reading four books at once and rotating between them, but the disadvantage is that it sometimes takes me longer to realize that I don’t actually like a book, and that’s what happened here.  I enjoyed these books less and less as I went along, but kind of didn’t notice it until I finished Valley.

//published 2010//

So I realize that the things I’m going to complain about are going to sound rather nitpicking and maybe overly-sensitive, but hey, it’s my blog so I can say what I want!

The biggest thing was Eleanor herself.  I started out not exactly liking her but at least not being actively aggravated by her.  She’s kind of a batty old woman, which was definitely at its worst in the first book – I honestly just wanted to shake her at multiple points in time because she’s so vague and rambly and someone has been murdered and yet it felt like she wasn’t even making an effort to remember things or get things straight.  It wasn’t quite as bad in the next two books, but I did get very tired of hearing how bad she is at remembering to lock up (because she’s spent so much time in countries that don’t even have doors, much less locks!  Like how many times do you need to tell me that…???) but how even though she might be vague about some things she has an excellent sense of direction and always can find her way through the rambling lanes of Cornwall.  Blah blah blah.

I also realized that the more I read about Eleanor, the more she came across as just obnoxiously superior.  The biggest place that this came through was in her relationship with her supposed best friend, Jocelyn.  Jocelyn is the vicar’s wife, and also is in charge of the charity shop.  She’s efficient and intelligent, yet Eleanor/Dunn always manage to sound incredibly condescending about her, because Eleanor isn’t religious.  This, of course, makes Eleanor superior because she does charitable things out of the goodness of her heart, while Jocelyn only does them because of duty.  Eleanor has the flexibility to make her own decisions about what is best to do or say at different moments in time, but Jocelyn is bound by duty because of all the annoying religious rules she has to follow, so obviously she can’t listen to gossip even if it may aid the investigation, and she’s going to be super judgy about a pair of strangers living together because her religion has made her so sanctimonious and sheltered that she doesn’t really understand real life like Eleanor, who has traveled the world and seen lots of other cultures and realized that everyone has a legitimate point of view so she’s incredibly open-minded unlike poor, narrow, stick-in-the-mud Jocelyn.

//published 2012//

It just felt like these comparisons happened more and more frequently as the books went on, or maybe I just became more sensitive to them.  I found the constant snide remarks about how Christianity, and religion in general, is only for people who aren’t strong enough to be compassionate on their own.  They are only compassionate because of rules and duty and are also only compassionate to people who fit within their boundaries of rules and duty.  But people like Eleanor are much more enlightened and superior.  Besides being a complete misrepresentation of Christianity, it also got quite old, as a reader, to listen to how clever and kind Eleanor was.

Eleanor, as an aside, also knows a special martial arts that she still practices, and of course this means that she’s basically invincible (in her mind).  On a couple of occasions she even uses “a move” to get out of a bad situation.  While I find this realistic, the concept that she could then continue to fight her antagonist and come out ahead – I’m sorry, an elderly woman vs. a young man, even where elderly woman knows martial arts, is never going to actually end with the elderly woman winning.  The best she can hope for is what she did – to stun/startle her opponent long enough for someone else to step in.  But Eleanor is convinced that she could basically win any fight that comes her way because of her martial arts, and this made me roll my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head.

The other nagging thing, besides Eleanor herself, was her niece, Megan.  I actually like Megan a lot.  She’s a detective and so is another connection in Eleanor’s involvement in various mysteries.  Of course, this is an earlier time, when women weren’t often on the police force.  For the most part, I felt like Dunn handled this well and didn’t make to big of an issue of it.  Like yes, it’s a thing, but there is more to Megan’s character than that.  But she still managed to bring up things that just felt obnoxious.  Like at once point, Megan is in the car with another officer and something happens and he swears:

Dawson reversed, swearing.  He shot Megan a half-shamefaced, half-defiant look and muttered, “Sorry,” as he backed into a passing niche.

After six years in the police, she still hadn’t worked out how to deal with this situation.  He’d never have apologised for bad language to a male colleague.  On one hand, he was being polite.  On the other, he was treating her differently because she was a woman.  She muttered something indistinguishable even to herself.

Here’s an idea:  just say, “Hey, no worries,” and then move on with your life.  Stick with the part where he’s being polite, accept it for what it is, and move on.  This crops up in multiple places, where men do something that is just simple, basic politeness – like holding a door – and Megan has all this internal angst about how she should respond to this.  SAY THANK YOU AND MOVE ON.  It’s not that hard.  In none of the situations are the men doing it in a way that is condescending or acting like she’s inferior.  It’s just regularly politeness, and Megan consistently acts like it’s this big deal.  None of the other officers act like she’s weak or pathetic or can’t handle the job.  She ranks higher than many of the other characters, and they consistently treat her with the same deference as their other commanding officers.  If she was in a situation where she was really battling against a lot of snide treatment, or if guys were holding doors open with an attitude like they had to do this because she’s too incompetent to handle it herself, I could understand where she’s coming from.  But instead it felt like she was always making a mountain out of a molehill.  The best way to blend in and not make a fuss is by saying thank you and not making a fuss.  Sheesh.

So this is a lot of griping for three books that I just felt incredibly meh about.  I honestly wasn’t full of rage while I was reading them, but I did realize as I went on that I was just really bored of them, bored of the characters, bored of the story, and bored of Eleanor’s superiority.  The mysteries themselves were fine, but didn’t really have any kick, and The Valley of the Shadow especially felt polemic as it was about illegal immigrants, of course comprised of a poor, upstanding, well-educated, hardworking family with small children, because those are the only types of illegal immigrants that show up in literature.  (Not that there aren’t poor, upstanding, well-educated, hardworking families with small children who are illegally immigrating, but they aren’t the only ones or even the majority so.)  In the end, the book felt like a long lecture about open borders instead of an actual mystery.

In the end, 3/5 for the first two books and 2/5 for the third and a pass for the fourth.

The Blue Sword // The Hero and the Crown // by Robin McKinley

These two books take place in the same world, although The Hero and the Crown is set many generations earlier.  I can see reading either book first, honestly.  I read them in published ordered (my default), and when I was reading The Hero and the Crown, it kind of gave me some The Magician’s Nephew kind of vibes – like yes, you get something out of it reading this one first, but to really understand the depth, you have to have read the chronologically later books before reading this one, if that makes sense.  (I hate it that the “official” order of Narnia now puts Nephew first.  Utter nonsense.  And don’t give me that line about Lewis wanting them to go in that order.  He offhandedly mentioned it to one person, and now it’s 100% the way people are supposed to read them.  Ridiculous.  Nephew is so much more magical when you read it later in the series and actually understand what’s happening.  Anyway.)

//published 1983//

Anyway, anyway, back to this actual review.  The Blue Sword focuses on Harry (female), recently orphaned, now traveling from “Homeland” (definite England vibe) to Damar (India/high desert vibe), where her only living relative, brother Richard, is serving as a soldier.  He has made arrangements for Harry to stay with Sir Charles and his wife, and older couple (Sir Charles is some kind of diplomat).  I never really understood why Harry wasn’t just allowed to stay at home, since she’s in her late teens and it seems like she should have been able to rustle up some kind of companion, but whatever.  Harry arrives in Damar, an arid and rugged country, and tries to adjust to her new life.

A while back, Damar was invaded and taken over by the Homelanders, who enslaved, employed, and displaced the natives – the Hillfolk.  Only a small part of Damar is not under Homelander rule, the northern desert.  This border region is where Richard is posted and where Harry comes to live.  Shortly after her arrival, and unheard of event occurs: the king of the Hillfolk comes to call.  But when he asks for help resisting the impending invasion of the Northerners (who live over the mountains beyond the Hillfolk’s desert), the Homelanders put him off with various diplomatic phrases that basically refuse to help him, and the king and his entourage leave in a huff.

There are many strange stories about the Hillfolk, and some of those stories even sound… magical.  Of course the prosaic Homelanders would never believe such tales, but…!!!

But the king’s visit accomplished one thing: when he saw Harry, he knew immediately that she had a role of importance to play for his people, even though he has no idea why or what it is.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book.  I liked Harry and the Hillfolk king (Corlath) very well, and I liked how their romance was very secondary to the more imminent issue of our country is being invaded by demons.  (So often YA fantasy has a tendency to go off on long tangents where no one has any sense of urgency and plenty of time to lounge about snogging, which makes literally zero sense.)  I liked how not everything came naturally to Harry, and that her training montage took longer than like two days.  The world building was done very well, and I loved the culture of the Hillfolk.

However, the story did drag a bit in the middle, especially when they go to visit Luthe.  The pacing just felt rather slow.  Still, I liked the ending and felt like things came together well.  While this wasn’t an instant classic for me, it was still an easy 3.5/5.

//published 1985//

The Hero and the Crown is about Aerin, the daughter of the Damarian king many generations before the invasion of the Homelanders.  There is some question about her mother’s heritage, so Aerin is somewhat the ugly duckling of the palace, as some people say that her mother was a witch who enchanted the king, etc.  I actually liked this story a lot, but it felt like it was incredibly choppy in places.  McKinley starts the story and goes a couple of chapters, then goes back a few years to give us some backstory for a couple of chapters, and then goes back a few more years for a couple of chapters to give us backstory to the backstory… and then jumps back to the original time and goes from there.  In this instance, it would have made way more sense to start with the earlier time, because I honestly didn’t understand the seriousness of some of the initial conversations and events she described because I had no context for them.  The way she wrote it left me feeling a little confused in places as to whether or not different events had happened yet or not in Aerin’s life.

Eventually, Aerin rides off to become a hero, and the pacing seemed odd there as well.  She completely loses her sense of urgency while her country is being invaded by demons.  At one point, she learns some really important information, that through one incredibly simple task could make everything so much better for her father and the people who are fighting back in the City… and she’s just like, “Oh, huh, interesting,” and we don’t hear anything else about it until chapters later.  It seems like at that point I would have been like, “Whoa, that’s crazy.  Let’s like send a messenger or something to make sure they know about this thing!”

I also didn’t really care for the sort-of love triangle, which left me feeling weird about her marrying the person she marries in the end.

Still, an overall enjoyable book and a 3/5 read.

I definitely enjoyed these stories, but they didn’t really become new favorites of mine like some of McKinley’s works have in the past – her writing is really hit or miss for me.  I do recommend these if you enjoy fantasy stories, but they aren’t the most magical books I’ve read lately.

Wrestling Prayer // by Eric and Leslie Ludy

//published 2009//

Sometimes you read a book that you don’t really want to read, because you know reading it is good for you.  Wrestling Prayer was that kind of experience for me.  I honestly was scared to read this book, because I knew that it was going to challenge me on a level I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be challenged on.

This book is a brutally honest look at what Christianity should look like, and why so many of us are willing to settle for a lesser version.  (Hint: getting the real deal means making some real sacrifices.)  While a lot of so-called Christian leaders out there pander to our selfish whims by reassuring us that we all need “me time”, the Ludys stand firm on a pattern of Scripture that shows that God isn’t particularly interested in part-time followers.

Wrestling Prayer is about way more than prayer – it’s about getting serious about following Jesus, about recognizing what that really means, and living a life that reflects it. This book is about confronting the fleshly weaknesses in your life and ousting them. It’s about claiming the promises of God for yourself in the way that they were meant to be claimed.

I really liked how accessible this book was. It’s not written in a dry, academic kind of way. Instead, it’s completely full of practical, useful information – which can make it all the more difficult to swallow!  The Ludys never come across as holier-than-thou – they never write from the mountaintop.  They don’t claim to have all the answers, and they are very clear about the differences between the “prosperity gospel” (“Of course God wants you to have the convertible you’ve always wanted – give us all your money and He will make it happen!”) and genuine, Christ-centered prayer that brings real results.

I don’t really see this as a book that would appeal to non-Christians.  It’s pretty clearly written for those who have already taken the first step.  But even if you are not a follower of Christ, reading this book about how it should look may be intriguing for you.

Honestly, I’m not ready to jump on board with the Ludys yet, but it’s not because I think they’re wrong.  It’s because I think they’re right, and I’m just not quite ready to make the sacrifices in my personal life that I know need to be made – kind of the same way that I know I would be able to loose weight if I’d stop eating a bowl of ice cream every day, but I’m just not quite to the point where I’m ready to take that kind of plunge!

4.5 for some brilliant writing – and the half-star off is actually just because Eric Ludy kept saying, “with boyish (and girlish) faith” like a zillion times and it was driving me crazy.  Just say “child-like” already!

All in all, Wrestling Prayer gave me so much to think about – more, really, than I want to think about.  It’s a dangerous book.  Highly recommended.


Shelfie by Shelfie // Shelf 1A

Last fall, Bibliobeth started a new book tag, Shelfie by Shelfie.  You can see her original post here – and I’ve nabbed her image as well.  :-D  The concept is that you take a picture of a bookshelf, and then answer ten questions about the books on it.  I have about a billion bookshelves, so I thought that I would give it a go!

Luckily, my husband is pretty awesome at building shelves, and about three houses ago we had a really long, wide hallway that seemed perfect for bookshelves – and it was.  Except we were renters, which meant we were moving pretty much annually at the time.  The shelves have come with me for every move since then (and since we own this house, here’s to hoping they stay where they are for many years to come!), but haven’t always fit together in the same order as they did in that original hallway.  Still, they are pretty awesome, designed for both books and knickknacks.  So I’ll post a picture of the overall bookshelf, and then focus on just one of those shelves – hence the 1A.  ;-)

You’ll have to excuse the clutter – we’re still doing renovating (neverending) and this room is the current catch-all.  I’m sure taking these pictures will also inspire me to organize the clutter a bit, right??  (ha!)

Okay, here is today’s shelf – on to the questions!

 1 – Is there any reason for this shelf being organized the way it is, or is it purely random?

The majority of my fiction books are shelves in alphabetical order by author’s last name, with some exceptions here and there.  I look at amazing pictures of people shelving books by size or color or other aesthetically-pleasing methods and I’m jealous, both of their creativity and the fact that if I did that I would never be able to find a book again because there are just TOO MANY.  :-D  So yes, alphabetical – and this shelf takes us from Adjordan to Alexander.

However, there are some exceptions to my alphabetical rule, and the three books under the moose are an example – those are three of the four Bayern books by Shannon Hale (the first one seems to have wandered off to introduce someone else to the magic of this series).  Sometimes books just fit in certain spots in the shelves!

2 – Tell us a story about one of the books on this shelf that is special to you; i.e. how you got it, a memory associated with it, etc.

I think I’m going with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (by Joan Aiken) for this one.  I have so many memories of reading this with my Mom!  We used to read it together every winter, and even when I was too young to really ‘get’ the story, I still loved the feelings it invoked.  This is the first book I can remember reading that really had an ‘atmosphere’ – just reading it made me feel cold and made the room seem a little darker!

It’s a tough question, though, because I also have a deep attachment to all of the Louisa May Alcott books, especially Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom.

3 – Which book from this shelf would you ditch if you were forced to and why?

Well, it seems like the logical answer would be “one of my many copies of Little Women,” especially since the two copies on that shelf are not actually the only copies of that book that I own.  But that’s not the answer at all, because every copy of Little Women that I own has its own story and its own special place in my heart!  :-D  I suppose I would ditch one of the two Ginny Aiken books, mainly because I haven’t actually read them yet – picked them up at booksales somewhere along the line – so I don’t have an emotional attachment to them (yet).

4 – Which book from this shelf would you save in an emergency and why?

Probably Rose in Bloom, which teaches me something new every time I read it.  That particular copy, as you can see from its rather battered condition, has been with me many a year.

5 – Which book has been on this shelf for the longest time?

I’m going to interpret that as “Which book have I owned the longest?” since they’ve all been there since I moved here.  I’ve had most of these books a long time, but the red copy of Little Women (illustrated by Jesse Wilcox Smith – gorgeous) – I received from my mom for my 13th birthday, so it’s been with me for over 20 years!

6 – Which book is the newest addition to this shelf?

It’s actually the skinny blue book to the left of Jane Fairfax.  The blue book is a sequel to The Cat-Sitter Mystery (which I’ve owned forever, maybe even longer than Little Women), The Copy-Cat Mystery, which I just recently purchased when I was rereading The Cat-Sitter Mystery – I didn’t even know there was a sequel until this year!

7 – Which book on this shelf are you most excited to read (or reread if this is a favorite shelf)?

Wow, this shelf actually has a lot of favorites, as I really love Louisa May Alcott’s works, and the Bayern books are fantastic – Dominion was also a gripping read, of course Wolves of Willoughby Chase is always perfect, and the last book on the shelf is actually the third book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, which I also dearly love!  But if I really, really had to choose, probably Little Women as it has actually been quite a while since I’ve read it, and it’s a book that means a great deal to me.

8 – If there is an object on this shelf apart from books, tell us the story behind it.

These actually do tend to be knickknacky shelves as well, so there are indeed non-book objects…  the jar contains rose petals from various momentous events in my life; the stuffed bunny was a childhood favorite; the white dish has a cow on it because I collect cows; I also collect giraffes; the glass jars seem to have just appeared from nowhere as I honestly have no recollection as to where they came from or why I have them (apparently I just like dusting things); the framed motto was a gift from my mom; and the moose (which is incredibly soft!) was purchased on our trip to Colorado in 2015, when Tom and I saw our first wild moose!

9 – What does this shelf tell us about you as a reader?

Umm…  well, probably that I like things to be somewhat orderly, I have a love for Louisa May Alcott, and I don’t mind owning more than one copy of the same book.  :-D

10 – Choose other bloggers to tag or choose a free question you make up yourself.

Hopefully many of you will choose to participate in this fun book tag – and make sure you tag Bibliobeth (and me!) when you do!

For a free question – Which of these books do you think everyone should read?

I think I am going to go with An Old-Fashioned Girl for this one.  Polly’s adventures have gotten me through a lot of my life, and especially gave me encouragement and challenged me when I was single.  I love how she is independent and industrious, but still so kind and womanly.  And of course Polly ends up with a Tom as well.  :-D