Friday, February 28, 2014

"The Beekeeper's Apprentice" by Laurie R. King

This is one of my top ten favorite books.  It's written by one of my top three favorite authors.  So I think saying "I love this book" fails to do it justice.  This is the fourth time I've read it, and I never tire of it!  After finishing the Sherlock Holmes canon, I was still in such a Holmes mood I couldn't resist rereading this.

The story begins this way:
"I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes, fifteen years old with my nose in a book as I walked the Sussex Downs, and nearly stepped on him.  In my defence I must say it was an engrossing book, and it was very rare to come across another person in that particular part of the world in that war year of 1915.  In my seven weeks of peripatetic reading amongst the sheep (which tended to move out of my way) and the gorse bushes (to which I had painfully developed an instinctive awareness) I had never before stepped on a person."
From this inauspicious beginning springs an unlikely relationship:  the retired Sherlock Holmes takes on a fifteen-year-old girl as his apprentice, protege, and eventually partner.  And a lonely orphan named Mary Russell acquires a teacher, mentor, and friend.

The first part of the book details how they become acquainted, how Holmes begins teaching Russell different aspects of his very specific skill set, and how Russell then helps him solve a couple of fairly trivial mysteries.  (Although Holmes is nominally retired, he still takes on quite a few cases, you see.)  They then take a case that involves a kidnapped child and is quite exciting.  Not to mention its my favorite part of the book.

The second half of the book... I can't talk much about without divulging spoilers.  Russell goes off to university, and then something from Holmes' past crops up, and that's all I can say.

Why do I love this book so much?  Partly because I see a lot of myself in Mary Russell, I think.  Not that I'm a deducting genius or anything, but she's very independent, tired of being treated a certain way because she's female and young, and just generally someone I would like to be more like.  Also... I would love to be Sherlock Holmes' protege.  Wow.  Wouldn't that be amazing?  

But a huge part of why I love this book is the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes himself.  He's a bit mellower than you tend to see him in the canon, partly because he's aging and partly because Russell avows he's never been as austere as Watson portrayed him.  Still acerbic, still abrupt, still uncompromising, but with an underlying humanity that is not always so evident in the canon (though it does peek through often enough that this portrayal does not seem off).  I remember that the first time I read this book, I laughed aloud in the break room at work through the first two or three chapters, so delighted was I by how entirely Holmesish Holmes was being.

And yes, Watson figures in here too, though only peripherally.  Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, and an Inspector Lestrade (son of the Lestrade from Holmes' years in London) all appear as well.  And that's another thing I love about this book:  getting to spend more time with these dear fictional friends.  But I think what I love most about this book is how it makes me so very happy.  Reading it is pure fun.  Simply thinking about it makes me smile.

This is the first book in a series, and I'm working on a post about the series as a whole.  But this book works just fine on its own if you don't want to read the whole series.  It's the only one I've read more than once or twice, and the only book in the series that I've bought new.  While the whole series is great fun overall, this book rises above the others, in my opinion, and is something akin to perfection.

Interestingly, although I'm not a fan of foreshadowing as a rule, it doesn't bother me in these books in the slightest.  Which is good, since it does crop up rather often.  Maybe because these are presented as Mary Russell's memoirs, and so it feels rather like the way I would tell a story of my life?  "Listen, this is why I'm telling you this part -- it was important in hindsight," that sort of thing.  I'm not sure.

Particularly Good Bits:

While I grew and flexed the muscles of my mind, the bodies of strong young men were being poured ruthlessly into the 500-mile gutter that was the Western Front, an entire generation of men subjected to the grinding, body-rotting, mind-shattering impossibility of battle in thigh-deep mud and drifts of searing gas, under machine-gun fire and through tangles of wire (p. 37-38).

Had I missed the Simpson case, had Holmes simply disappeared into the thin summer air (as he had done with numerous other cases) and not allowed me to participate, God alone knows what we would have done when December's cold hit us, unprepared and unsupported (p. 90).

He did not sound hurt, only resigned, and it occurred to me that Holmes was well accustomed to deceiving this man, because he was, as I had said, not gifted with the ability to lie, and thus quite simply could not be trusted to act a part.  For the first time I became aware of how that knowledge must have pained him, how saddened he must have been over the years at his failure, as he would have seen it, his inability to serve his friend save by unwittingly being manipulated by Holmes' cleverer mind (p. 183).

This self-contained individual, this man who had rarely allowed even his sturdy, ex-Army companion Watson to confront real risk, who had habitually over the past four years held back, been cautious, kept an eye out, and otherwise protected me; this man who was a Victorian gentleman down to his boots; this man was proposing to place not only his life and limb into my untested, inexperienced, and above all female hands, but my own life as well (p. 258).

"To a mind attuned to observation and deduction, the product reveals the mind of its creator."  He squinted up at the great, ponderous blocks that loomed up to hide the sky, and rubbed his hands together slowly.  "Take Mozart -- frenzied gaiety and weeping put to music.  The agony of the man is at times unbearable" (p. 260).

I became, in other words, more like Holmes than the man himself:  brilliant, driven to a point of obsession, careless of myself, mindless of others, but without the passion and the deep-down, inbred love for the good in humanity that was the basis of his entire career (p. 287).

If this was a movie, I would rate it: PG-13 for suspense, danger to a child, the occasional mild curse word, and violence.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Palantir (TTT Ch. 11)

This chapter is such a beautiful representation of the cycle of temptation, sin, repentance, confession, and forgiveness.  Pippin knows he shouldn't touch that glass ball, and even as he gives in to the temptation and tries to take it while Gandalf is asleep, his conscience is warning him not to.  Gandalf later reprimands him for not listening to his conscience here, saying, "You knew you were behaving wrongly and foolishly; and you told yourself so, though you did not listen" (p. 584).  Pippin picks it up and thinks it's not really the palantir, but just a bundle of Gandalf's effects or something, and feels "a strange sense of relief" (p. 577).  And yet, he gives in to that temptation still more, unwrapping it and then covering it again and sneaking away to hide his sin, not letting anyone see him.  

But like all sin, what at first seemed attractive, fun, even harmless has dangerous effects.  Pippin not only hurts himself, but puts all his companions and friends in potential danger.  And once he realizes how he has transgressed, Pippin cries out, "Gandalf!  Forgive me!"  He knows he has erred, is sorry he's done so, and wants to be assured he will not be cast away as a result.

But before Gandalf grants him forgiveness, he first demands that Pippin confesses what he has done so Pippin will recognize its harmfulness and ask his help to never do that again.  

Only once Pippin has realizes the seriousness of what he has done does Gandalf say, "I forgive you.  Be comforted!" (p. 580).  He tenderly carries Pippin to his bed and tells him that if he ever feels tempted to touch the Palantir again, to ask Gandalf for help in overcoming the temptation.  If only Pippin had done that in the first place, he would have been saved much grief and pain.  


Favorite Lines:

"All Wizards should have a hobbit or two in their care -- to teach them the meaning of the word, and to correct them" (p. 574).

"Perilous to us all are the devices of an art deeper than we possess ourselves" (p. 583).

Possible Discussion Questions:

If Pippin had not used the palantir, do you think that would have aided or hindered Frodo's quest?

Monday, February 24, 2014

"What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew" by Daniel Pool

Before I'd gotten to page 10 in this book, I put it on my birthday wish list.  This is precisely the sort of book I want to have beside me while I read 19th-century fiction so I can figure out the difference between damask and bombazine, why a dwelling is called a house or a park or grange or an abbey, why butlers ironed the newspaper, and so much more.  Invaluable!  In the Introduction, the author says that he wrote this "to answer some of the questions that nag any half-curious reader of the great nineteenth-century English novels," and that is precisely what it does.

The first half of the book is an explanation of various facets of life in the 1800s, and it links everything back to books by Austen, Dickens, Hardy, and the Brontes, as well as a few of their contemporaries.  It also explains how customs and practices and fashions and even words changed over the course of the century.  Fascinating stuff if you read or watch a lot of stories set in this era!  It's very, very read-able, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The second half of the book is a glossary of all sorts of words you'll run across in books about or from the era that we might not understand today.  Want to know what a ha-ha is, why the Bennets hoped Lydia and Wickham had gone to Gretna Green, or just exactly what an 'orange girl' did?  It's all there!  

My only criticism is that the author did tend to repeat himself from time to time in the first half.  I suppose that's so that if you only read the section on Occupations you wouldn't be missing some vital information from the section on Servants, but it did get a little annoying now and then.  Still, "repetition is the mother of learning," as my dad loves to say.

Particularly Interesting Bits:

In fact, heath and moor are different names for a similar terrain, namely, a desolate, sandy-soiled place, where dead vegetation piles up and accumulates into peat.  The difference between a heath and a moor is the greater amount of rainfall on the moor, which, unlike the heath, is characteristically boggy and marshy (p. 161).

It is the gentry from whom Jane Austen draws most of her characters -- educated, comfortably well-off -- they do not work themselves but oversee the work of others and spend their time plotting how to marry off their children, paying calls or seeking to elevate their social standing (p. 164).

We think of afternoon tea as being an English practice of long standing, but in fact the habit began in the 1840s.  Before that, tea was frequently offered after dinner, when the ladies and gentlemen had gathered together in the drawing room (p. 209).

I read this book as my way of participating in the Birthday Celebration and Reading Dickens event hosted by Fanda Classiclit.  I'm so glad I did!  Like I said, this is a book I absolutely want to acquire my own copy of.  But I got it from the library, which means it's also my second entry into the I Love Library Books Challenge 2014.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Voice of Saruman (TTT Ch. 10)

And after the happy little interlude in the previous chapter, we get heavy and serious here.  And suspenseful.  I mean, for a minute there, I started to think Saruman had totally gotten Theoden under his spell.  And I've read this how many times?  Seen the movie how many times?  But I still got all worried.

Saruman reminds me so, so much of Adolf Hitler.  The power of his voice, anyway.  Hitler was said to have a kind of mesmerizing thing going on when he made speeches.  And the guy convinced a nation to go to war, to either participate in or turn a blind eye to all kinds of atrocities.  That's a lot of power, and look at how Tolkien describes Saruman's voice:
Suddenly another voice spoke, low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment.  Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them.  Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves (p. 564).
Just like it's hard to tell what color Saruman's cloak is, it's hard to tell just what he's saying or why.  I find that so scary!  Not being able to tell just what something is or means... yikes.

Favorite Lines:

"The treacherous are ever distrustful" (p. 568).

"Well, well, things will go as they will; and there is no need to hurry to meet them" (p. 571).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Saruman says to Gandalf, "You are proud and do not love advice, having indeed a store of your own wisdom" (p. 567).  Do you think people who don't like advice are that way because they have enough wisdom of their own?  Do you think Gandalf actually does not love advice?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: Flotsam and Jetsam (TTT Ch. 9)

Ahh, a happy interlude.  I really like this chapter, with the remnants of the Fellowship eating and smoking and exchanging stories and information.  That bit where Pippin produces a spare pipe and Gimli calls him a "most noble hobbit" always makes me grin.  Same goes for when Pippin tells what Gandalf's reappearance was like -- that time, he got called a "tom-fool of a Took" instead, but it still makes me grin.

And aren't the Huorns nifty?  Especially how they can "wrap themselves in shadow" (p. 551) -- that would be such a useful power!  They're also a bit scary, and of all the not-evil creatures in Middle Earth, I think I'd want to meet them the least.

Favorite Lines:

"One who cannot cast away a treasure at need is in fetters" (p. 550).

"It is difficult with these evil folk to know when they are in league, and when they are cheating one another" (p. 552).

"A punch from an Ent-fist crumples up iron like thin tin" (p. 553).

"'Wherever I have been, I am back,' he answered in the genuine Gandalf manner" (p. 556).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Pippin says that "nobody, not even Elves, will say much about Gandalf's movements when he is not there" (p. 556).  Why do you suppose that is?

Aragorn says of Saruman that "[t]here are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat.  Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others" (p. 553).  Do you think that's because they possess the three Elvish rings of power?

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Literary Heroine Blog Party -- 2014

It's that time of year again!  Kellie Falconer is once again hosting her delightful Literary Heroine Blog Party.  I'm particularly excited for this event because, last year, this is the blog party that led me out of my blogging shell, as it were, and introduced me to so many blogs and bloggers that I'm so very fond of now.  (Look!  I used the word 'blog' or a variant four times in that sentence!)

I'm going to try to answer the questions differently where I can -- you can read my answers from last year here.  And if you haven't joined the party already, but want to, click on the banner above to do so.  Kellie is offering so many lovely prizes for the giveaway again!  

Anyway, here are The Questions:

Introduce yourself! Divulge your life's vision, likes, dislikes, aspirations, or something completely random!

Well, I'm Hamlette.  I'm 33, I'm a writer, I've been married for almost 12 years, and I'm a stay-at-home and home-schooling mommy.  My son is six, one daughter is nearly 4, and my younger daughter is 2.  My house is full of light, laughter, and Legos.  Lots and lots of Legos.  And books.  And movies.  

What, to you, forms the essence of a true heroine?

Hmm.  I think a true heroine puts others' needs before her own, while not neglecting her own spiritual and physical well-being either.  Jane Eyre and Anne Shirley come to mind as characters who achieved this.  This is something I'm striving for all the time, to be honest.

Share (up to) four heroines of literature that you most admire and relate to.

I'm trying to be different from last year's answers, so I'm going to choose these four:

Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View by E.M. Forster.  I just read this for the first (and second) time(s) last year, and I related so much with how she struggled with getting to know her own self, much less those around her.  It reminded me a lot of myself in my first two years of college, figuring out  was -- and wasn't.

Elizabeth Robinson from The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss.  She's probably my ideal when it comes to resourceful and courageous mothering.  She can cook anything, sew anything, care for animals, keep up the spirits of her entire family, and she rarely complains.

Mary Morstan Watson from The Sign of the Four and other Sherlock Holmes stories by A. Conan Doyle.  Sure, she agrees to marry Dr. Watson after they've known each other for only a week or two, and that might seem hasty.  But she is such a wonderfully supporting wife -- whenever Holmes summons Watson to go on an adventure, she says, "Of course you must go!  Have fun and be careful!" and sends him off without even thinking of complaining.  

Anne Elliot from Persuasion by Jane Austen.  I think a lot of readers kind of shake their heads at Anne Elliot -- that silly girl who let herself be talked out of True Love.  But whatever you may think of Lady Russell, she was basically Anne's adoptive mother, and Anne obeyed the Commandment to honor your father and mother when she broke off her engagement with Frederick Wentworth.  Significantly, that's the only Commandment that has a promise attached to it:  "it will be well with you, and you will live long on the earth."  And sure enough, Anne's obedience to God's will over her own is eventually rewarded.

Five of your favorite historical novels?

I'm again going to assume that "historical novel" means novels set in a time prior to our present day.  So to choose five I didn't mention last year, I'll say:  Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry, and The Hound of the Baskervilles by A. Conan Doyle.

Out of those five books, who is your favorite major character and why?

Sherlock Holmes.  There are five characters who, over the course of my life, have become infinitely more dear to me than the word "favorite" can imply, and Sherlock Holmes is one of them.  I'm talking the Sherlock Holmes of the canon here, by the way, not of any particular TV or movie version, though I do enjoy a lot of those too.  I actually just finished re-reading the entire canon (the novels and stories by A. Conan Doyle, not other things written about the characters by other people) in twelve months, and my affection and esteem for this character has only grown.  I think one of the things I like best about him is his dogged determination to find answers.  He's concerned with higher concepts like justice and truth and right vs. wrong, but his focus is really on finding answers.  Solving problems.  I admire that level of focus, which I rarely can attain myself.  Plus, he's one of those hard-on-the-outside-but-sweet-on-the-inside types that I can never resist.

Out of those five books, who is your favorite secondary character and why?

Alan Breck Stewart from Kidnapped.  He'ssuch a fun character, with a quick temper and quicker wits, and again, lots of determination.  He makes me laugh, he makes me want to hug him, and he almost makes me cry sometimes.  Plus, he's based on an actual person of the same name.

If you were to plan out your dream vacation, where would you travel to - and what would you plan to do there?

This year, I pick going to England and visiting all sorts of places connected to my favorite books.  I'd find that statue of Sherlock Holmes near Baker Street, visit the Shakespeare stuff in Stratford-on-Avon, attend a play at the Globe, visit the Jane Austen house, stop by Tolkien's grave... I would probably need a year.

What is your favorite time period and culture to read about?

I love the WWII era, all the various cultures involved.  Some of my favorite books that take place during that time included The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, A Memory Between Us by Sarah Sundin, and Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

You have been invited to perform at the local charity concert. Singing, comedy, recitation - what is your act comprised of?

This year, I'll get some of my college friends back together and perform another Monty Python comedy sketch like we did our freshman year.  We performed "Buying a Bed" that time, but I think the one about the penguins on the TV set might be awesome too.

If you were to attend a party where each guest was to portray a heroine of literature, who would you select to represent?

I chose Anne of Green Gables last year, so this year I'll say Jane Eyre.  I'm fairly plain, and I could make my husband dress up as Rochester :-D

What are your sentiments on the subject of chocolate?

Favorite author(s)?

I'm going to limit this to ten of the authors I've read in the past year this time.  So I'll say Raymond Chandler, Laurie R. King, Ernest Hemingway, Rex Stout, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jan Burke, and Amanda Grange.

Besides essentials, what would you take on a visiting voyage to a foreign land?

All my cameras, plenty of paper and pens, and books.

In which century were most of the books you read written?


In your opinion, the ultimate hero in literature is…

Helpful and kind.  You want one specific person?  I'll go with Henry Tilney this year.

Describe your ideal dwelling place.

Our house, Tir Asleen.  Though if it had built-in bookshelves in every single room, it would be even more ideal.

Sum up your fashion style in a short sentence.

If it's not comfortable, I won't wear it.

Have you ever wanted to change a character’s name?

Only while reading Dickens.

In your opinion, the most dastardly villain of all literature is...

Well, "dastardly" to me connotes tricksy and conniving, mean and evil and low-down, so I'm going to go with Rebecca de Winter from Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

Three favorite Non-fiction books?

Three different from last year:  On Writing:  A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King, I Never Had it Made by Jackie Robinson, and John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard L. Sterne.

Your duties met for the day, how would you choose to spend a carefree summer afternoon?

Sitting outside Starbucks with a Mocha Light Frappucino, working on my novel.

Create a verbal sketch of your dream hat - in such a way as will best portray your true character.

A cowboy hat of indistinct color, well-worn and sweat-stained, that fits like I've worn it for years.

Share the most significant event(s) that have marked your life in the past year.

My grandma died last summer, at the age of 94.  She was a lovely Christian lady, filled with unexpectedly feisty humor and a seemingly endless reservoir of patience.  We all miss her.

Share the Bible passage(s) that have been most inspiring to you recently.

"Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you."  (John 14:27a)

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

Miss Laurie of Old-Fashioned Charm posted a variety of beautiful Valentine's Day cards here, and I'm sharing one with you.  I hope you can enjoy today with someone you love, whether it's a romantic, familial, or friendship-based love.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The Road to Isengard (TTT Ch. 8)

This is one of those in-between chapters where I don't have a lot to say.  Legolas and Gimli's reunion is quite funny, and I love their plan to show each other Fangorn and the Helm's Deep caverns when the war is over.  And the reunion of Merry and Pippin with their would-be rescuers is always amusing.

Theoden says of the Ents that "the songs have come down among us out of strange places, and walk visible under the Sun" (p. 537).  This seems to be a theme with the Rohirrim, that characters in songs or stories can come alive.  A guard at Meduseld (was it Hama?) told Aragorn, "It seems that you are come on the wings of song out of the forgotten days" (p. 500), and Eomer started this whole theme by saying, "Dreams and legends spring to life out of the grass" (p. 423), while good old Eothain the Courteous scoffed, "Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?" (p. 424) when Gimli said they were searching for Halflings.  I wonder why this is such a repeated theme while we're in Rohan, but not with the Elves or in Gondor?  Okay, that's the discussion question for this chapter.

Favorite Lines:

"These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience" (p. 545).

"For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?" (p. 537)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkien

This is a difficult review for me to write, and not only because my two-year-old is refusing to take a nap and yowling at me in rebellious anger from upstairs.  The difficulty stems mostly from the fact that I keep trying really hard to love The Hobbit like I love The Lord of the Rings... and it just doesn't happen.

I'm happy to say, though, that thanks to Peter Jackson's movies, I actually liked the book this time through, which I didn't the first two times I read it.  It's probably a testament to either Tolkien's writing or my love of The Lord of the Rings that I've actually read it three times when I didn't like it much the first two times I read it.

In case you don't know the basic story, I'll recap quickly:  Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit, leaves his quiet, comfortable life to journey with thirteen dwarves to a distant mountain, slay a dragon, and reclaim the dwarves' lost treasure.  You'd think I'd love it right off, since it has some rousing adventure going on, I do have a small fascination with dragons, and part of this story involves the finding of the One Ring that is so very important in The Lord of the Rings.  And it is a fun story, don't get me wrong.  It's well-crafted, Bilbo is a nicely developed character, and Middle Earth is a lovely place to spend 250 pages tramping around in.


As I've mentioned once in a while (and you can read a lot more about this here), I have come to realize that the difference between me liking or loving a book and not liking it at all comes down to one question:  do I want to be friends with the characters?  And I have also realized that I am particularly drawn to characters who are helpful and innately nice.  And the trouble for me with The Hobbit is that there aren't a lot of characters I want to be friends with.  Gandalf and Bilbo, yes.  Bard and Beorn and Balin, probably.  But Bard and Beorn are minor characters, Balin is in the book less than the movie, and that leaves me with Bilbo and Gandalf.  Granted, Gandalf ties with Eomer as my third-favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, but he's only in like half of this book.  And one character plus one that's in half the book tends not to be enough to find a book (or movie or TV show or play) a place in my heart.  Especially when one of the other major characters is neither helpful nor nice.

I'm talking about you, Thorin.  You are obsessive, greedy, rude, and spoiled.  And snooty.  And kind of racist.  You love your dwarf buddies, you like Gandalf because he's powerful, and you merely tolerate Bilbo because he's useful to you.  You won't even speak to elves most of the time.  I am not your fan.

So that's the main reason I don't love this book.  The other reason is because I don't particularly like the writing style.  It's way different from The Lord of the Rings, which reads kind of like a history.  This is like a kindly but slightly condescending uncle telling a story to his nieces and nephews because they're all stuck at a family reunion and he feels he should be nice to them.  It has a hundred little foreshadowings where the narrator basically lays his finger beside his nose, winks, and says, "Well, well, I know," or "I could, if I would..."  And I'm not a fan of foreshadowing most of the time as it is, but when it's used over and over, it gets tiresome to me.

But, like I said, I did like the book this time through because I'm really enjoying Peter Jackson's movie versions, and if nothing else, they've helped me put faces to names of several of the dwarves.  The only one other than Thorin I could ever keep track of before was Bombur.  Now I can keep Fili, Kili, and Balin straight too.  And I do quite like Balin in the book -- he's very kind to Bilbo all the time.  Helpful and nice, so I like him, of course.  The rest all kind of muddle together in both book and movies (there is one in the movies that I think of as "the one who looks like George Harrison," and I can't ever remember his name either).  Also, Bilbo is even sweeter in the movies than the book, and by now I really like him better than Frodo.

The main reason I read this, to be honest, is that I really liked Bard in The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug, and I wanted to find out what happens to him.  I'm quite pleased by his role in the book and hope he has a nice chunk of screentime in the final movie.  I'm especially pleased because some blog I read hinted that Bard played a less-than-good role in the middle of the story, which I'm happy to say is total rubbish.

So.  Will I be reading this again?  Not until my kids are ready for it, I expect.  But I no longer feel grumbly about it taking up space on my bookshelves either.

Particularly Good Bits:

Poor Bilbo couldn't bear it any longer.  At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like a whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel.  All the dwarves sprang up knocking over the table.  Gandalf struck a blue light on the end of his magic staff, and in its firework glare the poor hobbit could be seen kneeling on the hearth-rug, shaking like a jelly that was melting.  Then he fell flat on the floor, and kept calling out "struck by lightning, struck by lightning!" over and over again; and that was all they could get out of him for a long time (p. 23).

"Good gracious heavens, no, no, NO, NO!" said Gandalf.  Don't be a fool Mr. Baggins if you can help it" (p. 103).

There it is:  dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much (p. 183).

Bilbo of course ought to have been on his guard; but Smaug had rather an overwhelming personality (p. 192).

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world" (p. 243).

"Farewell! O Gandalf!" said the king.  "May you ever appear where you are most needed and least expected!" (p. 247).

"There is a long road yet," said Gandalf.
"But it is the last road," said Bilbo (pp. 251-52).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for a lot of suspense and action and too many spiders.

This is my third book read and reviewed for The Classics Club.

Monday, February 10, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: Helm's Deep (TTT Ch. 7)

Another favorite chapter!  It's funny -- I get kind of tired of the Helm's Deep section in the movies, but in the book?  It's stellar!  The movie goes on and on and on, but in the book it's only like fifteen pages and so brilliant.  If you ever want to write a suspenseful action scene where the tension and excitement spiral tighter and tighter, and you're looking for an example of a scene that does exactly that, read this chapter.  By the end of it, I'm in goosebumps.  I'm in goosebumps just typing about it!  The horn starts blasting, Theoden and Aragorn ride forth, and then we see the trees.  And Erkenbrand.  And Gandalf.  It's amazing.  I might cry with joy.
(That's Gandalf arriving on Shadowfax -- it looks better on my TV.  Huh.)

Random other note:  in the movie, Eowyn leads the women, children, and elderly to Helm's Deep.  Here, she's not there at all, she's taken them all to some place called Dunharrow.  I totally forgot that.

Favorite Lines:

Even as they looked he was gone:  a flash of silver in the sunset, a wind over the grass, a shadow that fled and passed from sight (p. 516).

"Trust not to secret ways," said the king (p. 517).

"Give me a row of orc-necks and room to swing and all weariness will fall from me!" (p. 520).

"...oft the unbidden guest proves the best company" (p. 522).

"None knows what the new day shall bring him," said Aragorn (p. 527).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you find the eleventh-hour arrival of Gandalf, Erkenbrand, and the forest all together to be totally awesome, or a little too convenient?  How do you think the battle would have gone if any one of them had not shown up?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

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

I DID IT!  I read the entire Sherlock Holmes Canon in less than twelve months.  I began back in March of 2013 with A Study in Scarlet and read each novel and collection of stories in order.  I'm so pleased to have finally read the entire canon!  There were only a few stories I hadn't read, all at the end of this book, but I hadn't read most of them in many years, and this was altogether a delightful experience.

Anyway, about this particular book.  I regret to say there are no outstanding stories here, though there are several enjoyable ones.  I liked "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place" and "The Problem of Thor Bridge" best, and "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" was undoubtedly my least-favorite, as it was basically a reworking of "The Red-Headed League."  

Two stories are actually narrated by Sherlock Holmes in this collection, "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," and "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," which is quite a departure from the rest of the canon.  Also, "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" is told in third person.  It's entirely possible that several stories here were not written by Doyle at all, but merely approved by him and published under his name.  Certainly, facts, turns of phrase, and characterizations in "Mazarin" and "The Adventure of the Three Gables" in particular don't line up with the rest of the canon.

As I mentioned above, I had never read "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane," "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," "The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place," or "The Adventure of the Retired Colourman."  This is because the last time I tried to read through the whole canon, back in high school, I got as far as "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" and was so weirded out by images in it that I never read any farther.  This time around, I did find that story creepy, but not too disturbing.

All in all, I'm glad to have read the entire canon at last, and to have read it all in one year like I intended, but The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes is not a collection I'll be rereading any time soon.

Particularly Good Bits:

"He has breeding in him -- a real aristocrat of crime, with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it." ("The Adventure of the Illustrious Client").

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for themes of murder, violence, and suspense.

This is my second book read and reviewed for The Classics Club.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Bookshelf Tag

Mizzie-Me tagged me on her blog, and this is a fun little exercise in creative answering, so I decided to play along.  The idea is to use titles of books I own to answer the following 16 questions.  Here goes:

1. Are you a man or a woman?

The Quiet Little Woman (Louisa May Alcott)
2. Describe yourself

The Strong-Willed Child (Dr. James Dobson)

3. What does life mean to you?

Through Faith Alone (Martin Luther)

4. How are you doing?

An Antic Disposition (Alan Gordon)

5. Describe your current home

The Well of Lost Plots (Jasper Fforde)

6. Where would you like to travel?

The Ranch Next Door (Elisabeth Grace Foley)

7. Describe your best friend.

A Girl and a Gun (David N. Meyer)

8. What is your favorite color?

Under the Lilacs (Louisa May Alcott)

9. What is the weather like now?

A Light from Heaven (Jan Karon)

10. What is the best season in your opinion?

The Long Winter (Laura Ingalls Wilder)

11. If your life was a TV series, what would it be called?

Sentimental Journey (Pamela Winfield)

12. What is your (romantic) relationship like?

A Common Life (Jan Karon)

13. What are you afraid of?

Too Many Women (Rex Stout)

14. Aphorism for the day.

Trouble is My Business (Raymond Chandler)

15. What advice would you like to give?

Fear is the Key (Alistair MacLean)

16. How would you prefer to die?

The Big Sleep (Raymond Chandler)

I included the author's names cuz I always like to know who wrote books that sound interesting!  I hereby tag absolutely no one, because I dislike tagging people (but I don't mind being tagged myself -- go figure).  Play if you want to!

LOTR Read-Along: The King of the Golden Hall (TTT Ch. 6)

Here we are at last!  Edoras!  It doesn't really look in the movie the way Tolkien describes it (there's not really a fence that I can see, for one thing), but it's so awesome in both that I totally don't care. 

Is anyone else reminded of Obi-Wan Kenobi when Gandalf and company first arrive at Edoras?  Gandalf tells the guard to go announce their arrival, and then he stares hard at the guard until he slowly says he will go announce them.  It always reminds me of Obi-Wan saying, "These aren't the droids you're looking for."

Theoden joins the ranks of those that lament Boromir's passing, you'll notice.  Warms my heart.

A line that struck me this time through was a bit of Gandalf's advice to Theoden.  He tells the king "[t]o do the deed at hand" (p. 507).  I love that advice.  When I'm super busy and starting to stress out, I make myself slow down and just do the next useful thing.  For instance, when I'm packing for a trip, I often spend a day gathering everything that we need and gradually packing them in various suitcases and bags, and that can be a stressful and overwhelming day if I focus on all the stuff I need to do all at once.  But if I just keep finishing one task and then starting the next, it all gets done.  Maybe I should make a sign that says, "Do the deed at hand" for my kitchen or something.

And I want to particularly mention one line, which I think is the coolest description of a horse ever:  "Were the breath of the West Wind to take a body visible, even so would it appear" (p. 513).  Why, Eomer!  How poetic you are!

Favorite Lines:

"A king will have his way in his own hall, be it folly or wisdom" (p. 499).

" doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom" (p. 500).

"The wise speak only of what they know" (p. 503).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Tolkien describes Grima Wormtongue as having "a pale wise face" (p. 501).  I never caught the word "wise" before -- do you think this means Grima does have some wisdom in him somewhere?  Or does he only appear to be wise?  

Monday, February 3, 2014

LOTR Read-Along: The White Rider (TTT Ch. 5)

And so Gandalf returns, Tolkien melding the scenes of Christ's Resurrection and Transfiguration into one, as a returned-from-the-dead Gandalf appears to his disciples in shining white robes with eyes "piercing as the rays of the sun."  This is the only place where the book that is "neither allegorical nor topical" (p. xvi) gets a bit heavy-handed with the religious imagery (even more so than in "In the House of Tom Bombadil") -- and I don't mind it a bit!  Unlike with all the confusion Tom Bombadil gives me, Gandalf looks clearly like a Christ-figure to me, and I'm cool with that.  

So... Gandalf is back, we're all going to Edoras, hooray!

Favorite Lines:

"That would not baffle a Ranger," said Gimli.  "A bent blade is enough for Aragorn to read" (p. 477).

"Few can foresee whither their road will lead them, till they come to its end" (p. 481).

"It was not in vain that the young hobbits came with us, if only for Boromir's sake" (p. 485).

"A thing is about to happen which has not happened since the Elder Days:  the Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong" (p. 488).

"Go where you must go, and hope!" (p. 489).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Gandalf says of Sauron:  "That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind" (p. 485-6).  Does that ever seem a little convenient to you?  That Sauron hasn't even considered that they might all want to be totally free?

Also... Aragorn does become king over pretty much all the world, so while he's not exactly taking Sauron's place, they haven't exactly formed an autonomous collective, have they?