Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"The Last Dragonslayer" by Jasper Fforde

It's been a while since I read one of Jasper Fforde's books, and when I stumbled on this one at the library while looking for something entirely different, I knew I should give it a go.  After all, I love most of his Thursday Next novels so much I own them.  This being his first YA novel, I was curious to see how much of his quirky style translated to writing for a younger audience.

Turns out a lot of it.  This isn't actually set in the same alternate universe as the Thursday Next books, but it's got some similarities.  Only, instead of people who can jump in and out of books, you have magicians and dragons and berserkers.  And lots and lots of silly names, zany oddments of world-building, and sly digs at real world obsessions with silly celebrities.  No Toast Marketing Board, but I kind of expected it to crop up somewhere.

The protagonist here, sixteen-year-old foundling Jennifer Strange, also has a lot of similarities to Thursday Next, being intelligent and courageous and snarky.  I thought she lacked a little of Thursday's sparkle, but she made up for it with a startling amount of common sense.  She basically runs a sort of magical home improvement company, but winds up being the Last Dragonslayer and trying to stop a war, save a dragon from being slain, and keep all the world's magic from draining away.  I'm not going to try to explain anything more than that because really, either you'll like this book or you will find it too silly and odd, and only you can decide that for yourself.

So I'll just say that the magic in this book doesn't involve written-out spells or lists of ingredients for magic potions.  The magicians do the magic, we just see what happens.  In case you were wondering.  Visit Jasper Fforde's website to learn more -- this is the first book of a series of 4, and the third was released this year.

First Sentence:

It looked set to become even hotter by the afternoon, just when the job was becoming more fiddly and needed extra concentration (p. 1).

Particularly Good Bits:

Working with those versed in the Mystical Arts was sometimes like trying to knit with wet spaghetti:  just when you thought you'd gotten somewhere, it all came to pieces in your hands (p. 2).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for some tense and exciting moments.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: Fog on the Barrow-downs (FOTR Ch. 8)

Quick note -- it is not to late to join us!  If you're feeling like, "Man, they are eight chapters in and I will never catch up, I should just not try," please take heart.  We're less than 145 pages in -- you can knock that out in a weekend.  

But on to this chapter....

Bleah, this is another of the chapters I dislike.  It's really creepy and meandering.  Doesn't make me fall asleep, at least!  But all that stuff about the fog and the echoing voices, and then the crawling hand of the barrow wight -- yuck!  Good for reading around Halloween, I suppose, but I'm glad the majority of the book is not like this.

Favorite Lines:

The mist was flowing past him now in shreds and tatters (p. 136).

The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered (p. 137).

"Few now remember them," Tom murmured, "yet still some go wandering, sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless" (p. 142).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Why didn't Tom Bombadil escort the hobbits to the road in the first place?  They clearly got into trouble out in the forest on their own before.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Make the Bread, Buy the Butter" by Jennifer Reese

I read a cookbook every year or so, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've really reviewed one.  Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is part cookbook, part memoir, and was so fun to read that my husband finished it before I did.  Reese has a homey, humorous style, and some of her escapades reminded me of my friends who are/were raising chickens and bees and ducks and sheep.  Most of her writing centers around a time when she was between jobs and decided that surely she could make most foods at home cheaper (and better) than their store-bought counterparts.  She learned that some things are just too hard or too messy or too expensive to make at home.  And that many things are far, far cheaper to make -- like vanilla extract, which she made 12 ounces of for $7, while the equivalent amount at the store would be more than $50.  She provides the math on major brands versus these recipes, and also a note on how much hassle is involved in making each thing.

I smiled a lot while reading this, and laughed a few times.  I also copied down nine recipes to try myself, recipes for such varied things as vanilla extract, clotted cream, hummus, and truffles.  The chocolate kind, not the mushroom kind.  I haven't tried any of the recipes yet, but when I do, I'll try to remember to comment on this post with a note or two on how they go.  I'm especially eager to try the clotted cream, as I've read a lot of books about people living in England and eating clotted cream on their scones while drinking tea.  I'd quite like to try that.

I learned about this book on Emily Coleman's blog Classics and Beyond, and you can read her review of it (and some of the recipes) here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: In the House of Tom Bombadil (FOTR Ch. 7)

I'm not a huge fan of this section of the book, I'm just going to admit it here and now.  I know a lot of people love it, and so every time I read it, I feel like I'm missing something.  If you're one who loves it, can you please help me see what I'm missing?

Maybe what trips me up is all the religious imagery -- I know that Tolkien says in the "Forward to the Second Edition," which is included in my copy, that these books are "neither allegorical nor topical" (p. xvi).  So I bounce between trying to figure out who or what Tom Bombadil is supposed to represent and saying that he doesn't represent anyone/thing... but then what is the point of this chapter?  I'm so confused.

I mean, at the end of the previous chapter, Tom hops away singing, "Tom's going on ahead candles for to kindle" and "Fear neither root nor bought!  Tom goes on before you" (p. 118).  To me. that sounds so much like when Christ told his followers, "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2b).  And when the hobbits ask Goldberry who Tom Bombadil is, she simply says, "He is" (p. 122), which sounds an awful lot like God telling Moses that his name is I Am (Exodus 3:14).  And then, when the hobbits leave, Tom teaches them something to say if they get in trouble that sounds awfully prayer-like, ending with "Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!" (p. 131).

I don't get it -- I'm horribly confused.  If anyone can enlighten me, please do so!

Favorite Lines:

The sound of her footsteps was like a stream falling gently away downhill over cool stones in the quiet of the night (p. 123).

As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented (p. 126).

Possible Discussion Questions:  What's it all about, Alfie?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: The Old Forest (FOTR Ch. 6)

This is one of my least-favorite chapters of all the books.  I find the Old Forest really creepy, for one thing.  But also, considering how much danger befalls Merry and Pippen, it's kind of a boring chapter.  For me, anyway.  It makes me sleepy!  It honestly does -- I'm getting a bit yawny just thinking about it now.  Is that due to some crazy good writing, to actually put me under the forest's spell, as it were?  Or is it kind of boring?  Okay, that's your Possible Discussion Question for the day.

Favorite Lines:

Sleepiness seemed to be creeping out of the ground and up their legs, and falling softly out of the air upon them (p. 114).

Friday, October 18, 2013

"The Return of Sherlock Holmes" by A. Conan Doyle

There are thirteen stories in this book, which begins with Sherlock Holmes rising from the dead, in a way.  In "The Adventure of the Empty House," Holmes returns (and nearly gives Watson a heart attack) and explains that he didn't die at Reichenbach Falls after all.  Whew.  

Reportedly, Doyle had killed off Holmes because he was tired of the character, and only revived him because he either needed money or he couldn't resist the public pressure... there are different theories, and you can Google for more info if you're so inclined.  Regardless of why he brought Holmes back, Doyle clearly didn't have the same level of joy for the stories anymore.  The plots are weaker, and some of them are kind of recycled from previous stories.  But some of them are quite good, and they're all still enjoyable.  My favorites in this collection are "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" and "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter," probably because they're more original than some of the others.  I also have a fondness for "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," though not for the ending.

Particularly Good Bits:

No. 131 was one of a row, all flat-chested, respectable, and most unromantic dwellings.  ("The Adventure of the Six Napoleons")

Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows.  It was strange there, in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man's handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields.  ("The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez")

If this was a movie, I would rate it:  PG for dangerous situations, violence, and suspense.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: A Conspiracy Unmasked (FOTR Ch. 5)

I love the contrast between this chapter's title and the previous one.  We go from the whimsical "A Short-cut to Mushrooms" to the rather ominous "A Conspiracy Unmasked."  There's nothing truly ominous about this chapter, however -- just Frodo coming to realize he's not as clever as he thought.

And now I'm going to talk about Sam some more.  I'm afraid you're in for a lot of that later on, as it's Sam and his own personal journey that keep me awake and interested during the Frodo-and-Sam-wandering-through-you-know-where parts later on.  Here, he's the first to leave his comfort zone, crossing the Brandywine (Branduin to you Elvish-leaning sorts) for the first time and striking out into territory that, while still in the Shire, is unfamiliar to him.  Frodo, Merry, and Pippin have been here before, so for them, it's not that big a deal, but to Sam, wow.  Enormous.

But before you can get yourself all comfortable with the idea of Sam Gamgee as a simple, one-note country lad, you find out he's a spy!  And granted, he's just been spying on Frodo in a fairly innocuous way, but I think it would be harder to spy on someone who knows you well than on a stranger.  Not that I'd know anything about such goings-on, of course ;-)

And we learn what lovely, loyal friends Frodo has.  Merry and Pippin and Sam, of course, but also Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger, who got cut out of the movies and isn't in the book a whole lot either, but is equally doughty when it comes to pitching in to help his friend.  What marvelous hobbits they all are.

Finally, I really like the little song Merry and Pippin got ready for the occasion of their departure.  It really does work with the tune used in The Hobbit.  (Random note:  my hubby sang the Hobbit song to our third baby over and over to calm her down when she was tiny, and she still loves it.)

Favorite Lines:

Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before.  He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by:  his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front (p. 97).

"We can't begin life at Crickhollow with a quarrel over baths" (p. 99).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Merry describes friendship this way:
"You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin -- to the bitter end.  And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours -- closer than you keep it yourself.  But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word.  We are your friends, Frodo" (p. 103).
What do you think constitutes true friendship?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Guest Blogging about "Anne of Green Gables"

I wrote a short review of the 1985 movie version of Anne of Green Gables for The Book Chewers blog, and you can read it here.  :-)

Megan Follows as Anne Shirley

Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Anne of Green Gables" by L. M. Montgomery

Yes, I'm reading something else along with The Lord of the Rings.  I generally have one book going upstairs and one on the main floor.  The Book Chewers are discussing Anne of Green Gables this month, and they inspired me to reread this beloved book for the first time in many years.

When I was probably seven or eight, one of my mom's friends introduced us to the Anne books.  She couldn't believe Mom had never read them, and neither can I!  I guess they had never crossed her path before then.  She began reading them, then read them aloud to me and my dad and my younger brother.  It wasn't long before we discovered the wonderful 1985 movie version.  And for the next few birthdays and Christmases, I got Anne book after Anne book as presents, until I had all eight.  I still have them, and my battered and well-loved copy is what I reread just now.  It features a picture from the 1985 movie of Anne (Megan Follows) waiting at the Bright River train station for Matthew Cuthbert to pick her up and bring her home, right at the beginning of the story.

In case you aren't familiar with this story (and if you're not, how much you miss!), allow me to elaborate a bit.  Matthew Cuthbert and his sister Marilla are both unmarried and getting older, probably in their sixties (I can't remember if it specifies).  They decide to adopt an orphan boy to help around their farm, Green Gables, near the small town of Avonlea on Canada's Prince Edward Island.  Only, thanks to a message mix-up, they get a little girl.  An eleven-year-old redhead named Anne (with an 'e') Shirley who chatters incessantly and has one of the most powerful imaginations of any child in fiction.  By the time timid, girl-shy Matthew has driven her home, he wants her to stay.  It takes quite a while before stern Marilla understands why.

If you like books with a central plot that drives relentlessly toward a goal (and I love books like that), this may not be the book for you.  It's mostly made up of escapade after escapade where Anne does something heedless, thoughtless, or overly imaginative and learns a lesson.  She grows from eleven to sixteen over the course of the book, making many friends and a couple enemies along the way.  It's the epitome of slice-of-life style.  And I love it dearly, having been fast friends with the characters for twenty-five years now.

First Sentence:

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies' eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde's Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde's door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof (p. 1).

Particularly Good Bits:

Here sat Marilla Cuthbert, when she sat at all, always slightly distrustful of sunshine, which seemed to her too dancing and irresponsible a thing for a world which was meant to be taken seriously; and here she sat now, knitting, and the table behind her was laid for supper (p. 4).

Mrs. Rachel felt that she had received a severe mental jolt.  She thought in exclamation points (p. 5).

Here and there a wild plum leaned out from the bank like a white-clad girl tiptoeing to her own reflection (p. 19).

"Don't you just love poetry that gives you a crinkly feeling up and down your back?" (p. 41)

Mrs. Rachel was one of those delightful and popular people who pride themselves on speaking their mind without fear or favor (p. 64).

If this was a movie, I would rate it:  G for glorious.  Perfectly fine for all ages.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: A Short Cut to Mushrooms (FOTR Ch. 4)

I don't have a lot to say about this chapter, other than that I absolutely love the title.  It makes me laugh, and it also alerts readers that this is going to be lighter and less exciting than the previous one.  I love mushrooms myself, so I'd definitely like to know of any shortcuts to get to some.

Pippin continues to be concerned about the Black Riders' sniffing, and rather put out that Frodo didn't ask the Elves about it.

This is the chapter where I start to really love Sam.  It chiefly begins with this:
"If you don't come back, sir, then I shan't, that's certain," said Sam.  "Don't you leave him! they said to me.  Leave him! I said.  I never mean to.  I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon, and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they'll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said.  They laughed."  (p. 85)
Oh, Sam.  How perfectly wonderful you are!  I really feel like Sam has the greatest character arc in the whole book.  He goes from humble gardener who's never been out of the Shire to a brave hero who helps save Middle Earth.  Such an amazing guy.

Frodo notices that Sam is already growing and changing.  Shortly after that bit,
Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him.  It did not sound like the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew.  But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful.  (p. 85)
The Sams, they are a-changin'.  (And in case you can't tell, Sam is my second-favorite character in the whole book.)

Favorite Lines:

"I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire" (p. 85).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you like mushrooms?  Any favorite recipes you'd like to share?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: Three is Company (FOTR Ch. 3)

And so the adventure really begins!  Frodo says goodbye to Bag End (sniffle sniffle), and he sets off for Crickhollow.  Is that not the coolest name for a house?  I was really wishing we had bought a house that was anywhere near a creek and a hollow so we could name ours that.  Oh well.  Maybe some day.

But I digress.  Not only do Frodo, Sam, and Pippin begin their journey, but we get introduced to the Black Riders too!  I prefer to call them 'Nazgul,' but 'Ringwraiths' sounds cool too.  They are ultra creepy, and I can see why they kind of get copied in other fantasy novels.  It amuses me how Pippin fixates on the way the Black Riders sniff after Frodo -- when he says, "But don't forget the sniffing!" (p. 77), I always laugh aloud.  Dear, dear Pippin.

If you've seen the movies, did you notice that part of the walking song they sing gets used in Return of the King?  The last verse is what Pippin sings for Denethor.

And we meet our first elves!  High elves, too, not half-elvish like Elrond and his kin.  I have to admit that the Elves are not my favorite Middle Earth race.  They're a little too cold or remote or reserved or something.  Yes, too reserved.  But they fascinate me, nonetheless.  And I do like their way of speaking.  Not so much Elvish itself, though it's cool, but just their almost oratorical style.

Favorite Lines:

The road wound away before them like a piece of string (p. 72).

They passed slowly, and the hobbits could see the starlight glimmering on their hair and in their eyes (p. 78).

"A star shines on the hour of our meeting" (p. 79).

Sam walked along at Frodo's side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy (p. 80).

"The wide world is all about you:  you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out" (p. 82).

"But it is said:  Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger
"And it is also said," answered Frodo:  "Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes" (p. 82-83).

"Courage is found in unlikely places" (p. 83).

"...may the stars shine upon the end of your road!" (p. 83).

Possible Discussion Questions:

What do you think of the elves?  Who do you like better so far:  Frodo, Sam, or Pippin?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: The Shadow of the Past (FOTR Ch. 2)

What always surprises me in this chapter is how much time passes between Bilbo leaving and Gandalf figuring out that the ring is, well, The Ring.  This is probably because I saw the movie before I read the book, and in the movie, there are maybe a few months between the two, or so it seems to me.  But here we learn that it's seventeen years!

Anyway, things start heating up a bit in this chapter.  Things are changing in and around The Shire, and we learn all about how the Ring was forged, something of the power it wields, and the twisty path it took from Sauron's hand to Frodo's.  We also get to hear about some other characters we'll be running into more soon, like Aragorn and Saruman and Gollum.

And we get into one of the bigger themes of the book:  pity/mercy versus punishment/justice.  Bilbo pitied Gollum and did not kill him when he had the chance, even though Gollum was planning to kill him.  Gandalf says:  "It was Pity that stayed his hand.  Pity and Mercy:  not to strike without need.  And he has been well rewarded, Frodo.  Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so.  With Pity" (p. 58).  He goes on to say, "the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many" (p. 58).  

Possible Discussion Questions:  What do you think about this theme?  Is it something you relate to, showing mercy toward someone who does not deserve it?  Can anyone deserve mercy?

We also see the beginning of another major theme here:  being chosen for something you don't believe you can live up to.  Frodo says, "I am not made for perilous quests," and I can agree with that to some extent:  he's a hobbit, used to a comfortable and quiet life in the country.  Gandalf insists, however, that "you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as you have."  

Possible Discussion Questions:  Do you have any thoughts on that theme?  Have you ever felt like Frodo, that you can't possibly do what you must do?

Favorite Lines:

Everything looked fresh, and the new green of Spring was shimmering in the fields and on the tops of the trees' fingers (p. 45).

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us" (p. 50).

"Well, well, bless my beard!" said Gandalf (p. 62).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

LOTR Read-Along: A Long-Expected Party (FOTR Ch. 1)

Well, now that you've read the first chapter, you know why I tacked that "of special magnificence" thing onto the title of my blog party!  If you thought I was just being conceited, now you know I was just quoting the very first line of the very first chapter of The Lord of the Rings :-)

This chapter delights me.  I love learning about the customs and day-to-day life of other cultures, and every culture in Middle Earth is so thoroughly thought-out that they seem completely real.  Sometimes I almost forget this isn't a sort of sociologically and linguistically inclined history.  Aren't Hobbits just delightful?  On their own birthdays, they give other people presents.  They know How Not To Be Seen.  They're good at gardening and farming.  I want to be Hobbit, I admit it.  (I also want to be one of the Rohirrim, but we haven't gotten to them yet.)

Did you notice all that foreshadowing going on in this chapter?  The Gaffer warns Sam Gamgee that he'll land in trouble too big for him, Gandalf's real business is described as "more difficult and dangerous" than conjuring cheap tricks, etc.  Very subtle and nicely done.  If you haven't read it before -- did any of that feel like foreshadowing to you, or are you now going, "Oh!  Hmm.  Interrrrrrrrresting," and stroking your beards thoughtfully?  (I'll admit it -- I'm a girl; I have no beard.  I do stroke my chin thoughtfully sometimes, though.)

Does anyone else want to see some of Gandalf's fireworks?  They sound magnificent, and way better than even what they conjured up in the movies.

WARNING!  Once again, if you haven't read this or The Hobbit, but you're watching Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies and do not want to know how that all ends, you need to skip part of the paragraph that begins with "It is also, if I may be allowed to refer to ancient history..."  Skip what's in italics.

Favorite Lines: 

Before long the invitations began pouring out, and the Hobbiton post-office was blocked, and the Bywater post-office was snowed under, and voluntary assistant postmen were called for (p. 26).

The art of Gandalf improved with age (p. 27).

"I might find somewhere where I can finish my book.  I have thought of a nice ending for it:  and he lived happily ever after to the end of his days" (p. 32).

"I am as happy now as I have ever been, and that is saying a great deal (p. 35).

"It was a compliment," said Merry Brandybuck, "and so, of course, not true" (p. 38).

"Look out for me, especially at unlikely times!" (p. 40)

Possible Discussion Questions:

If you've never read this before, is this at all what you were expecting?  How are you liking it so far?

If you have read it before, are you liking it better during this reading than the last, in any way?  Or liking it less?