Thursday, July 28, 2022

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie


Publication Date:  November 6, 1939

Length: 272 pages

In my last Agatha Christie review I said I wasn't sure if I was ever going to like her books. This one changed my mind! It was unique, full of plot twists, and kept me guessing. So I have decided I'll continue to give her another try and see what everyone loves so much about her novels. True, the ending to this book is fantastical and mind bending, but then a lot of the novels I read require suspension of belief in order to appreciate the way the author explains events. And she used all of her imagination for this one. I read somewhere that she said this was her hardest novel to write and that she hoped she'd done a good job. I think she succeeded. 

 When eight people are summoned to a small island off the coast of England for a luxurious summer vacation, they are simultaneously excited and apprehensive. The host of the mansion is mysterious and vague as to who they are and why they are inviting the guests. Calling himself Mr. Owen in his correspondence, he gives little information as to why the people were chosen, only that he invites them to come and stay for rest and relaxation. Selfish and unconcerned, the guests only focus on their privilege at being invited and do not seem to care that the requests are random and odd. 

Upon arrival they meet the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers who also have not met Mr. Owen. They were employed to care for the guests and after a lovely dinner everyone is contented and visiting, enjoying each other's company. Suddenly, a voice interrupts the pleasantries to announce that each person on the island has been charged with indictments of murder. After the initial shock subsides, the guests investigate and discover that a gramophone in an adjoining room is the source of the voice. They immediately begin arguing as to who might have set up this uncomfortable arrangement. As they continue their musings, one guest collapses and dies. The horror has begun. Over the next few days, one by one, guests of the island begin to die. Those left alive each time are forced to attempt to discover how and why and what is to be done to save themselves. 

It is hard to review this book without giving away too much. I know that is why I had a hard time with the previous Christie book, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, because I'd read way too many thoughts on it before I started and that led me to figuring out the ending prematurely. I hate that. So I won't say much more in my summary. But it is more than worth the wait and I highly recommend you take your time and savor the story. Sometimes I have a tendency to rush through a book like this because I'm just dying (no pun intended) to see whodunit. But this book is already a short read with easy prose and I was able to wait it out. It is creepy, original, and I actually found myself a little disturbed at the end. 

I've always seen Christie as old fashioned and a bit innocent, the cozy mystery type. Not this book. It was not one I enjoyed reading in the dark before bed. Something about the helplessness of the characters, even though most are morally corrupt enough that you don't feel much pity for them, made me desperate for them to find a solution and get off that island alive. It stayed with me long after I finished and that typically doesn't happen with these types of stories. 

I didn't care for some of the style of the story. The short, choppy sentences, the way she continually writes "she said:" and "he said:" over and over again, with the character's name inserted instead of she or he. It was very distracting and unnecessary to keep repeating it. I also was a bit annoyed by some of the sections being so short that they really didn't require Roman numerals to separate them. These were just some odd thoughts and annoyances I had as I read. 

If you haven't read anything by this author yet I think starting here is a good idea. This book focuses heavily on the mystery and the psychological aspect of the characters rather than setting up the detective as the central focus. Her Poirot and Marple series are obviously going to be more about them and how they solve their cases and if you don't like their personalities you aren't going to enjoy the books much. And Then There Were None is a stand alone novel as far as I know and so you don't commit to a certain character throughout.  I am excited and relieved that I have found a Christie book I liked and will continue to try others. I just knew all these millions of readers had to be on to something, I think I just had to get used to her way of writing. Miss Marple's Caribbean mystery is waiting in my Kindle so I'm going to get going on it soon. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Why Reading Books Is Still Important



Sometimes I'll be talking with someone and they'll mention how they don't like to read books. They'll say, "well, I read....just not books. I mean, I can find everything I need in an online article or Netflix show. Why would I waste time reading the book?" And while it's true that you can get information much more quickly on Wikipedia or a documentary or a news story, I still argue that reading actual books is so important. I don't feel like myself if I go to bed without having read something from a book that day. On my busiest ones I might literally only squeeze in 10 minutes of reading time but it makes me cranky if I find I've not carved out any book time at the end of the day.

I love my Bible app, I love to read news articles and I'll spend way too much time scrolling on Facebook or Instagram. But I always, always come back to books when I need to just escape the day and its drama. I have tried to figure out exactly why I've always been this way. From the time I was very little, I've been obsessed with books, libraries, and bookstores. My Mom used to take me to the library and I remember I got the same book over and over: Arthur the Anteater. It was my favorite! It was comforting to hear the story again and again and know how it would end. The smell of the library and the shelves lined with all those stories is something that is implanted in my brain forever. I'm so thankful I had parents who found reading and books important and still do today. My seventy year old parents still read many hours per day in their retirement and I'm convinced it has contributed to their mental acuity. 

Books require more of you than short articles do. You have to be patient, let the story unfold, concentrate, and above all else, when you read, the story you see in your head is yours. How the characters look and sound, the scenery is all described by the author but YOU get to create the world in your head. This takes creativity and skills that aren't used when you have pictures, memes, or audio there for you to use. 

My job is to help kids in grades 3-5 that are struggling with reading and try to find out why. Sometimes they haven't had proper phonics instruction. Other times they have a true learning disability such as dyslexia or a processing disorder. But honestly, the majority of my students who are behind and struggling with reading are struggling with the act of reading and comprehending what they read. Many of them are able to decode any word I put in front of them. They read the text like champs. But reading isn't part of their soul. They sit down with a book containing little to no pictures and are immediately overwhelmed. They literally cannot concentrate long enough to finish a book. They don't see reading actual books modeled at home and aren't made to read books. In class they mostly use Ipads and quick articles to study test taking strategies or quickly cover a topic. Reading and absorbing whole chapter books and letting them sink into their imagination is rare. I find this incredibly sad. Technology and all the testing is taking away the importance and JOY of reading books!

I feel like if more and more grown ups aren't reading actual books, then our kids won't be either. Why would they? Why would they care about libraries or bookstores or Kindle books if no one encourages them to. Reading books is more important than ever today in order to counter all the technology and "quick bites" of information thrown at us. Tuning out of all that's going on around us and sitting still with a book engages our minds like nothing else. 

Do you agree with me? I'd love to know your thoughts. Do you read actual books? And do you think they require different analytical and concentration skills than reading articles and social media? 

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon


Publication Date:  June 1, 1991

Length: 640 pages

I started this book in 2003. I probably picked it up, started reading, and put it down a half dozen times. At one point I said I'd never finish it, that I wasn't interested. Then one day, inexplicably, I plowed through it and that was it. I.was.hooked. I read the whole series (Book 5 was the latest out at that time) and continued to collect and read them all as they were published. Then I moved on to the spinoffs with Lord John Grey and the novellas in Seven Stones. I cannot wait for Book 10 to be released in the future. It is safe to say I'm a die hard Outlander fan. 

This is the original...the one where it all started. Claire Randall is on her second honeymoon in Scotland in 1945. She is fresh from the war as a combat nurse and is trying to get reacquainted with her husband, Frank, who has also been away in the war working in intelligence. The two attempt to forget that they've been apart for most of their short married life and barely know each other now.  During a solo visit to a set of standing stones they visited the day before, Claire touches one of the stones and disappears into 1743. When she awakens and attempts to find her way back to Inverness she is accosted by Captain Jonathan Randall of His Majesty's Eighth Dragoons and then rescued by a Scottish Highlander who takes her to a hideout where she is forced to accept she is not in Kansas anymore. 

After a long night of disbelief, riding with the group of Highlanders, Claire is taken to Castle Leoch, seat of the Mackenzie lands and is interrogated by the clan chief, Column MacKenzie. The fictional story she relates is not believable to him and Claire suspects he plans to keep her there until he can find out who she really is. Claire despairs if she will ever find her way out of the castle, back to the stones, and home to Frank.

As she continues to devise a way out, Claire is forced to make the best of things in order to survive. She comes to rely on and trust one of her original rescuers, Jamie Fraser, an outlaw and nephew of Column and his brother Dougal, who is hiding out at Castle Leoch. Because she is English, she is distrusted by many of the inhabitants there and Jamie's kindness is a welcome change. Through a series of events Claire and Jamie are forced to marry in order to protect Claire from her original attacker, Captain Randall, who also does not believe her story of how she came to be in the woods near Inverness. He is highly suspicious of Claire's presence with the Highlanders and suspects her of being a spy. By marrying Jamie, Claire is protected by the Clan, although because of Jamie's status as an outlaw wanted for the murder of an English soldier, their safety is precarious. 

During their time together Claire becomes conflicted about her feelings for Jamie and as she witnesses his loyalty and devotion time and again it is hard for her to ignore the love and attraction she has for him. Through a series of events and near death experiences, Claire and Jamie find themselves working together to find a way to reconcile their relationship with the obstacles fate has put in their way. 

I knew trying to write a review of this book I wouldn't do it justice. Every review or summary makes it sound like a romance novel. And there is definitely romance. But there is so much more. Adventure, suspense, rich characters who are nuanced and have fleshed out, detailed background stories. There are twists and turns and premonitions and you never know what new circumstance Jamie and Claire are going to find themselves in. Rumors of witchcraft, murder, Jacobite plots, and hints of the coming rebellion provide readers with a mini history lesson along with the romance and drama. There are also the descriptions of the Scottish countryside and a real sense of what it would have been like to have lived and survived during the 18th Century. 

Gabaldon is a superb writer and I actually think her writing gets even better in the subsequent books. I remember thinking Outlander was amazing and also long...clocking in at 650 pages. After reading them all I realize it is actually a short story compared to the others. There is so much detail, so many subplots, and so much foreshadowing of coming storylines that no matter how many times you read the book you forget things. That is the mark of a true epic novel. You just can't remember it all.

If you begin this story thinking it is too fantastical and unreal and want to put it down, I urge you to give it a chance. Also, disclaimer....there is violence and sadism in the story which was off putting to me. I still wish the author hadn't gone as far as she did with it and I've had to get past it in order to enjoy the rest of the series. I know some people I've discussed the book with think it was necessary to explain some of the deeply held feelings of the main characters but it was disturbing enough to me that I don't care to re-read those parts again. Obviously it isn't the main focus of the book though or I'd not have become such an enthusiastic fan.  The amazing story outweighs the occasional ugliness and I wouldn't recommend the book if that weren't the case. 

If you finish Outlander and enjoy it you had better clear your calendar though. There are nine books now, all of which are anywhere from 700-1,000 pages long. And trust me when I tell you that when you reach the last page of each one you will immediately be opening the next! 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (A Hercule Poirot Mystery)


Publication Date:   June 1926

Length: 312 pages

I finished this book last week but it's taken me several days to get up the courage to write this review. I'm afraid I'm going to stir up a hornet's nest with the Agatha Christie lovers but I'm going to be honest.....I keep trying and I don't know if she's my cup of tea. I read somewhere recently that if you don't like this book, you won't like anything by her. That is discouraging because I really, really want to like Christie's books. I mean, c'mon...her books are only outsold by the Bible and Shakespeare according to the stats. Maybe what made it worse with this book was that I'd read other reviews about the ending and while they didn't give it away, it was too much hinting so that I figured it out way before I'd finished reading. That's a bummer with a murder mystery!

Our story begins with our first person narrator, Dr. James Sheppard. He discusses the sudden suicide of Mrs. Ferrars, a local widow in his hometown, Kings Abbot. She was recently engaged to widower Roger Ackroyd, who is of course, very upset by this recent turn of events. That evening, Sheppard is invited to dinner at Fenley Park, Ackroyd's home, along with Ackroyd's sister in law, her daughter, and other friends and business acquaintances.  Ackroyd confides in Dr. Sheppard that Mrs. Ferrars was being blackmailed and that is the reason he believes she took her life. Later, when Sheppard returns home, he receives a call from Ackroyd's butler who tells him that his employer has been murdered. Sheppard goes to Fenley Park and indeed finds Ackroyd has been stabbed to death. Sheppard, along with his very inquisitive sister, Caroline, becomes entangled in a search for his killer. 

When retired detective Hercule Poirot moves in next door to the Sheppards, he is recruited to assist in the hunt. Poirot is witty and stubborn as well as self assured and immediately tackles the list of viable suspects, including Ackroyd's niece Flora, her fiance Ralph Paton and game hunter and friend Major Blunt. He sifts through each new clue patiently, weaving a tale of his thought process to Dr. Sheppard. The two work to puzzle out the truth and the picture slowly falls into place. But it is not the picture anyone expects and the final reveal is in fact quite original and shocking.

I give this book a gold star for it's surprise element. And I'm sure that's why people frequently refer to it as such a great murder mystery. Poirot is an intriguing character and love him or hate him he is definitely unique. Dr. Sheppard's exasperation with his sister is written humorously and Christie is good about letting us see Poirot's reasoning unfold step by step as he confides his thoughts with James and Caroline. It is a well written novel with plenty of suspense. 

Where I get bogged down is often the constant repeating of the facts and the way things are recapped again and again. This is common in mysteries I know but in this book sometimes it seemed like filler. The chapters read like little blocks of interrogation instead of a story. There is no historical angle to speak of which I admit I'm partial to in any book and it felt sometimes more like a police report than literature. But maybe I'm in the minority because clearly it is a popular book. 

I'm going to try a Miss Marple mystery if I read another Christie book. Sometimes a character change can evoke an entirely different feel with the same author. I'd love to hear from the Christie fans out there who think I'm crazy! And recommendations of your favorite choices of her novels. 


Saturday, July 16, 2022

Crocodile On the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody Book One)


Publication Date: 1975

Pages: 352

I've been on a huge mystery kick lately. Especially cozy, historical mysteries. This book is number one on my list for summer mystery reading fun! It is strange that it sat in my Kindle to read list forever. I don't know why but I'd look at the cover and just think "yawn, not yet". Now that I finally gave in and read it I am kicking myself for wasting time. This is going to be an entertaining series. The sad part is that Elizabeth Peters (real name Barbara Mertz) passed away in 2013 and will not be writing more books. When I read up on her life after finishing the book I was absolutely fascinated. She earned a Ph.D. in Egyptology (didn't even realize that was a thing) in 1952 when most women normally wouldn't even dream of going to college for four years let alone the time it would take to earn a doctorate. She said later that writing gave her a way to earn money and be a stay at home mother. I could go on but this is a book review so I will get to it!

The story begins with our heroine, Amelia Peabody explaining how she came to know her friend, Evelyn Barton-Forbes and rescued her from the streets of Rome, Italy. Amelia is independent and wealthy, thanks to her inheritance, and Evelyn quickly is enlisted as her lady's companion to accompany her on a trip down the Nile, courtesy of Amelia, all expenses paid. I want a friend like that! Before they leave, Evelyn reveals that she has been disgraced by a scoundrel of a man and this being 1884 she is in despair that she will ever marry again or be fit for anyone else. Amelia, who is too independent minded to care about a husband, reassures her that she does not think less of her and encourages her to forget her troubles and enjoy life. Before the women can depart on their journey they meet the Emerson brothers, Walter and Radcliffe, who are embarking on an archaeological dig down the Nile. The encounter is an indication of the relationships to come between the four with Walter and Evelyn infatuated with one another and Emerson and Amelia completely exasperated with each other. 

As the ladies make their way through Egypt and down the Nile they begin to encounter strange happenings. They seem to be the victims of bad luck and eventually downright frightening events when a mummy appears to be stalking the Emerson brothers dig and Evelyn is almost kidnapped. Due to a turn of  events, the ladies stay with the Emersons on their excavation site and continue to try to solve the mystery of why it is being haunted by the mummy. If you are already rolling your eyes and asking "why would anyone think this is plausible or readable" you have to trust me when I say I understand and I thought the same thing at first. I mean, mummies?? But stick with me.

For one thing, Amelia's character and inner dialogue are both witty and hilarious. Her banter with Emerson is like watching an old movie from the 40's with Hepburn and Tracy. Some of the quips between the two are very subtle. Peters really leaves it to the reader to catch. This makes the humor authentic and enjoyable. So many authors today add way too much explanation which leaves me feeling like I am being lectured instead of entertained. 

I've seen other reviews of these books that compare Peabody's character to a female Indiana Jones. I disagree. One of the things that is so great about the book is that it feels like 1884. Amelia understands her place in society. She is brave and educated and independent, yes, but she also occasionally admits to being vulnerable and needing help. I didn't feel like I was reading about a modern, female version of a male character but rather a female version of a 19th Century single woman with the desire to explore and investigate. 

Another bonus in this book are the descriptions of the Nile, the Pyramids, and the history of the area. Peters does a superb job of transporting the reader to the time and place and her knowledge of the period and its people really shines. Several reviews have said the book comes across as racist and paints the indigenous Egyptians in a bad light. I think if you are looking at it through a modern lens you will see it this way. But I see a story that is realistic for the time and place and also I remember that it was written in 1975 by a woman born in the 1920's. You just have to get past the urge to judge every book by present day standards or you will miss out on a lot of great literature. Most of Amelia's thoughts are likely how someone of her time would have believed. It doesn't take away from the clever writing and engaging story. She accepts and gives credit to the locals who are loyal and hard working and reserves scorn for the ones who deserve it. 

The ending is honestly not a huge surprise and I didn't think the mystery part of the story was even the most important. She adds enough twists to make it worth your while and keep you guessing but the real meat of the book is in the setting and character development. The deranged mummy is just an extra bonus. 

I am going to read a few other books before I read book two in the series. I want to always try new stories before I go and devote all my time to an entire series. But it is difficult to write this review and not want to start the next story. I am anxious to pick up where I left off and see what Amelia is up to.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A Very English Murder by Verity Bright (A Lady Eleanor Swift Mystery) Book One


Publication Date: April 3, 2020

Length: 300 pages

As a Mom of two very busy teens I mistakenly thought, "oh during summer I'm going to get so much reading and reviewing done!" Wrong! I'm so behind on the Historical Fiction Challenge I'm embarrassed but.....I also have found it has been great for me in a new way to feel like I'm not able to read constantly. And that silver lining is that I have discovered so many adorable, short, easy to read books, especially cozy fiction and cozy mysteries that I am enjoying these shorts bursts of reading when I can knock out a book or two in a relatively short amount of time. Normally I feel pressure to read either long books or deep, meaningful books but as I get older I'm realizing it's okay to read things that are fun and quick! 

This book is a delight. It is like reading a mystery that takes place in Downton Abbey. And if you are familiar with the show you know that everyone loves Mr. Carson, the butler. In this book we have Eleanor, or Ellie, and her butler, Clifford. And his character is as sweet and clever as Mr. Carson. Ellie has arrived at her new home, the place she lived as a child, Henley Hall, to take the reins after her Uncle passed away and left it to her care. Her parents mysteriously disappeared years ago and she is on her own. Henley Hall is one of the few places with people who care about her still and where she feels somewhat welcomed, albeit a stranger as she has been away for so long. Clifford maintains his butler decorum but underneath we see a warm, protective feeling from him much like a father or guardian. Ellie does not know a lot about her parents, her Uncle, or their reasons for why she was sent away to boarding school at a young age and Clifford is her only steady link to the past. He feels a certain loyalty to her deceased Uncle though, so getting information out of him will take time. I suspect this will continue to evolve as the series progresses. 

She is quickly accompanied everywhere by her Watson-like sidekick, Gladstone, the trusty bulldog, and while out on a walk her first evening at the Hall she witnesses a murder. It is far enough away that Ellie questions what she actually saw. When she tries to report it and have it investigated the next day she is perplexed to discover that the body is missing and the town Constable is not interested in her delusional tale. The only people she can get on board to help her get to the bottom of things is Clifford and a new man, Lancelot, who takes an interest in the case, and in Ellie. Being a well traveled, independent woman she has a hard time admitting she is also smitten with him. 

As she continues to dig deeper into the mystery surrounding the murder she knows she saw, Ellie meets many colorful townspeople, all with their own special secrets. There's the stuffy aristocrats, the dismissive Constables and Inspectors, the quirky neighbors who have grudges with others in the area, and the housekeeping staff who serve to keep Ellie well fed, well dressed, and ready for anything. When the killer is revealed it is both entertaining and unexpected, and Ellie, Clifford, and Lancelot are in a race to save each other from harm and to find out the why behind the murder.

Is this series formulaic? Yes. Is the ending a bit too perfect? Yes.  It is a lot of fun though and I am going to continue with the next book in the series. I did have a hard time at first deciding who the murderer was although towards the end I guessed correctly. But somehow with this book I didn't mind that. I loved how Clifford was always saying, "My lady" and Gladstone was always tagging along and being Ellie's sounding board. I enjoyed the insight into Ellie's thoughts as she worked through suspects and clues. Lancelot is clearly going to factor in the series as her love interest and his family was portrayed in a clever and cute way. I will enjoy picking up one of these books when I am needing a bit of sunshine in my busy week. They are comforting in that cozy mystery way!