LotR Reread – no, seriously

There are lots of other things I should be writing right now. I never posted anything about my Jeopardy audition (it went well, I think; I might hear back between now and November 2019, or never). I have approximately eleventy-one book reviews I should be writing and posting. But … instead, I’m kind of excited about The Lord of the Rings, and so that’s what I’m writing about.

It seems that about every two years or so I decide to try and read The Lord of the Rings, and to write about it. I’ll be honest – that latter part is one of the reasons I’ve failed previously; the need to sit and listen or read it when I can also sit and take notes and write up my comments, and then put everything together in an at least semi-coherent blog post, has made it all the harder. That, and past associations I’ve discussed in past posts; I’ve always failed.

But.

Last year I started listening to The Silmarillion. In all my many years as a massive Tolkien geek, I never once made it very far into The Silm. But somewhere (and I honestly can’t remember where) I got my hands on a multi-part mp3 version, read by the rather wonderful (if apparently Aztec-influenced, going by his pronunciation of Taniquetil) Martin Shaw. (Seriously, I’ve tried to track down where it came from – I have no idea.) I also discovered The Prancing Pony Podcast, and with the two gentlemen of the PPP at my back I got about a third of the way through The Silm before I ran out of steam. I picked it up again a couple of weeks ago, and lo! I finished! I’m no expert, by any means – but it feels like an accomplishment, having read it. (If anyone would like access to the audiobook, which doesn’t seem to be available at all anywhere, email me at talavera1809 at hotmail etc, and I promise not to bring you down with me if the anti-piracy people confiscate my computer. Hey, it can’t be found legitimately. Can’t stop the signal.)

After The Silm, I listened to a series of lectures by Michael C. Drout, collectively called Tolkien and the West, and it was wonderful. Between listening to him speak – and I really need to talk more about that one day – and to The PPPodcast, I began to remember what it was like to discuss these beloved books with other people who loved them every bit as much as I do. And then … I threw caution – and my tentative reading list for the summer – to the winds, and started listening to FotR.

And there’s no pain this time. I’m able to rather fondly remember that first movie, and the things it did right – and there were a lot of those, in the first movie. I’m not haunted by the terrible things that happened on The Messageboard Which Shall Remain Nameless.

I’m enjoying it.

A lot.

I might make it this time.

I’ve said that before, of course…

In 2013, I wrote this:
Chapter 1 – https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/lord-of-the-rings-reread-here-we-go/
Chapter 2 – https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/lotr-reread-chapter-2-the-shadow-of-the-past/

The second go-round, in 2015, is here:
https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/lord-of-the-rings-reread-here-we-go-again/

Ha! In the latter, I said “And if I fail again … well, then, I’ll see you back here in 2019, perhaps.” I’m early!

I forgot there was a third try just a couple of months later:
https://agoldoffish.wordpress.com/2016/03/03/lotr-re-read-third-times-etc/

As I said, the baggage seems to have fallen away, and I’m having a wonderful time in Middle-earth (wish I were there). If I can finish The Silm, I can do this.

I’ll be back.

No, really – I will!

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Heading for Jeopardy: Take Three!

I remember March 6 being kind of a crappy day – but when I got home I decided to take the Jeopardy! test that night instead of waiting until the next night or the one after. And I was honestly shocked at how well it seemed to go. I’ve gotten in the habit of screencapping the test so that I can check my answers, and in the past few tests I’ve averaged I think 30-31 right out of 50. This time? 39. So I was hopeful that I’d get an invitation to an audition for the first time in several years.

I didn’t expect it to come exactly a month later. On Friday, I got the email:

I could wish that it was a little further off, money-wise and planning-wise and, yes, to give me a little more time to swot up on geography and all the usual subjects.

I actually planned to post this yesterday, Saturday, when there would have been a lot more exclamation points, but it turned out to be a rough day. It’s hardly worth mentioning, but I just find it funny (in an unamusing sort of way) that my least favorite person at work showed more interest and excitement over this than … my entire family, barring my mother. Mom has been telling everyone she sees, and said the reactions have been excited. Well, I mean, it’s not like I’m going to get a manicure or something. But it seems likely I’ll be headed to New York on my own. (Unless anyone wants to meet for dinner?)

And I’ll have fun, dammit.

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Murder on the Toy Town Express – Barbara Early

I think I start every review of a cozy mystery pretty much along the same lines: they’re either horrendous or wonderful, with very little in between. I’ve even started developing a list of Cozy Cardinal Sins and tropes. Such as – –

1) Heroine is a small business owner
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. This little shop sounds like it would be viable in real life; it’s run by family; it sells something that legitimately can be lucrative.

2) There’s a love triangle
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Normally this is a bad, bad idea – but it works here. The heroine has genuine affection for both men in her life, and it’s handled in a way that feels fairly realistic.

3) Heroine is surrounded by wise-cracking family, friends, and co-workers.
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because it’s funny. “‘You have a mind like an elephant’s.’ ‘Yeah, wrinkled, gray, and way too much junk in the trunk. But that’s totally irrelephant.’ I rolled my eyes and glared at him. Otherwise, he’d be making elephant jokes all day.” That took the joke and pushed it too far – and it’s so silly I had to smile.

4) Author thinks she’s skilled at sharp, clever, witty
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because she is. “Cathy’s fictional version was a little more embellished, containing spear guns, spies, bikinis, an occasional zombie, and a whole lot of steamy embraces. She insisted readers would need something spicier.” “But Dad had spun his words as adeptly as some cult leader, playing on my pride, my craving for his approval, my sense of justice, and that infernal inherited curiosity. I said nothing, but my next sip of coffee tasted an awful lot like Kool-Aid.” (It was Flavor Aid, but that’s just quibbling.)

5) Author thinks she’s skilled at metaphor and simile
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because she is. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a description of someone’s “stomach tied into a macramé plant hanger” before, and I like it. Oh, and this is lovely: “Jack’s mother was a riddle wrapped in a lemon inside a porcupine.” I want to use that in conversation. One more: “If he’d looked any more sheepish, he’d be eating grass in the fields and sprouting a thick wool coat.”

6) The plot is filled with red herrings and has elements that are over the top, far-fetched
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because Barbara Early can write. And she can plot. She can throw in a few left turns and wacky bits, and fold it into a story that hangs together and comes to a satisfying conclusion.

7) At least as important as the plot (if not more important) is the cast of characters
This book/series: check – but it’s okay. Because these characters have a depth that you don’t usually see in a light read. The family that runs the toy shop at the center of the series has a legitimate history, and it’s not all Norman Rockwell and jokes. These folks have been through stuff, and Barbara Early obviously feels a real warmth towards them. The beauty is that she writes them so well that I do too.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Perish from the Earth

I keep saying how uncomfortable I am with real people being used as characters in novels … but I keep reading novels in which real people are used as characters. I’m a masochist, I guess? But in this case I found it hard to resist a novel featuring Abraham Lincoln. Come on, I saw Ken Burns’s Civil War during my formative years – as much as any human being can be a hero, he’s always been it for me. By this point in my life I’ve become too jaded to really see anyone as a full-fledged hero (except maybe Janusz Korczak, or Noor Khan), but … still. Lincoln. Afraid as I was of mishandling, I wanted to see him run as a character (to go a bit D&D on you), depicted not as the president, not as the public figure, not as a hero, but as a man. I wanted a book by a really great writer who knows Abraham Lincoln inside and out and can channel his voice, make me learn more about him in all his roles.

Oddly, though, it didn’t feel like there was that much Lincoln in this book. Which I mean two ways: first, he wasn’t the central focus; his friend Speed was. I was interested in Speed – but a novel about his adventures wasn’t what I hoped for. Second … the Lincoln that did appear in the story felt like a cardboard cutout – a paper doll of Young Lincoln moved through the plot as necessary.

I just wasn’t entirely convinced by … any part of this, really. The courtroom scenes felt like something from primetime tv with a thin gloss of 19th century. The story was … fine; it kept me reading through to the end, and no part of it ever annoyed or offended me enough to make me quit. But I don’t feel any need to read more of the series.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Plum Tea Crazy – Laura Childs

In a book I read recently, someone’s “rules for writing and life” are cited – one of which was “don’t use more than two similes per page”. Laura Childs probably doesn’t actually exceed that … but her writing made me realize anew that it’s not the quantity of simile but the quality that counts. For example, Robin McKinley uses lots and lots of similes, and they almost invariably elicit a reaction – they make me smile, or put a lump in my throat, or make me laugh out loud, or make me feel that little click that comes when you see exactly what the author wanted you to see. They’re an art. The similes in this book are … not. They’re different, I’ll give them that (except when they’re clichéd), and they’re colorful (there are lots of monkeys, and even some castanets), but …

The writing just grated now and then. The ninth or tenth time the author resorted to Batman-style sound effects – all caps, exclamation points – and one character (included to be obnoxious) did something outrageously obnoxious (even for him), I closed the book and deleted it. I was at 87% – and a good part of what remained was recipes and an excerpt from the next book. A day or so later I went back to it; I hadn’t DNF’d a book yet this year, and I was close enough to finishing that I figured I might as well. But I didn’t enjoy it.

WHAP! BOOM! SMASH!

I mean – who stops in the middle of a supposedly frantic moment to describe the scenery? A man falls off a roof; intrepid amateur detective races down the stairs to check it out; the narrative pauses in the middle of her sprint to dwell on the décor in the garden.

BAM, BAM, BAM!

Cardinal sin of the cozy: when the main character tells bald-faced lies about what is obviously a hobby (or else there wouldn’t be a series of books) –

“Haley, we don’t [‘chase all over Charleston trying to solve the latest murder’],” Theodosia said. “And we certainly won’t get tangled up in this one.”

Pants on fire.

WAH-HOO!

Another cardinal sin of the cozy: Remarkably slipshod running of a small business.
“’Who’s minding the store?’ Drayton asked.
“Haley flapped a hand. ‘I was. But don’t worry, everything’s cool.'”

No, it’s not cool if you left the shop completely unattended.

BOOM! (Or, as the camera, er, says, “boom, boom, boom”.)

The characters are more caricatures than anything else. Two of them go from antipathy at first sight to practically weeping in each other’s arms, in the pace of a week. The young man is the very picture of a cliched young man. The gallery owner is the Platonic ideal of the gallery owner. The aforementioned obnoxious journalist fits the mold perfectly. There are few surprises.

BANG!

As usual, there are lots and lots of nits I could pick. Like … “‘Delicious,’ he said. Only it came out dulishush because his mouth was full.” Isn’t that pretty much how “delicious” is pronounced? Seriously. Dictionary.com: “[dih-lish-uh s]”. Say it a couple of times. Seriously. Oh, and like … why does Our Heroine’s sidekick have such a hard time saying the word “murder” when talking about the murder? And – like … Really? You expect me to swallow (no pun intended) the idea that someone not steeped (pun intended) in a world like this shop might consider a party ruined because you picked a funky tea? And … really? How do you not go directly to the police immediately on receiving a threatening note? (And how could you possibly confuse the smells of cooked onions and cooked potatoes? Have I been doing something wrong?)

EEEEEYOWWW!

In addition to the comic book sound effects – actual examples of which are scattered throughout this review (sorry) – there’s also this:
“Holy Hannah”
“Holy crap”
“Holy cats”
“Holy smokes”
“Holy butter beans”
“Holy buckets”
“Holy sweet potatoes”
“Sweet Fanny Adams”

Holy euphemisms, Batman.

One more Cozy Cardinal Sin: When any character puts on their Captain Obvious hat to remind the audience why a bad cozy mystery is a bad cozy mystery:
“The best thing Theo can do is let her boyfriend, Detective Riley, figure it out. That’s what the City of Charleston pays him for. That’s the smartest thing, the safest thing, to do at this point.”

YOWWWWWW!

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis, Chrissi Hart

I loved Narnia as a kid, of course (though never as much as Middle–earth). I never really revisited it after my teens, though – until now, when one of my Goodreads friends pointed me to the free Chrissi Hart podcast–format reading of the whole series, which I couldn’t resist.

The narration is not the best ever, with occasional (sometimes frequent) misplaced emphasis and eyebrow–raising pronunciation, but it is definitely fond and earnest, by a woman who clearly loves this world – and who has a great voice, an engaging accent, and a facility for character voices that don’t come off as cartoonish. I’m not sure I’d pay for it, but free? I’m not about to quibble.

OK. There’s an elephant in the room (are there elephants in Narnia? If there are lions it stands to reason there might be elephants and giraffes and things…), and I’m going to go blindly poke at it to try to figure out what it is. (Hello, my friend Mixed Metaphor.) A lot of people are turned off the books – or turned on by them – because of the heavy allegory of Aslan as a Christ figure. And I have to say that maybe I’m very obtuse – always possible – but I don’t quite get it. I mean, obviously I see the immortal and beneficent but sometimes terrifying guardian and sometimes leader with healing and other powers. (I’m not that obtuse.) My problem with the parallel is that – well, I don’t see Christ romping and frolicking with his followers, even in the joy of his resurrection.

More importantly, though, is the tenet that Christ suffered and died for all of his followers, present and future – he went to hell so we don’t have to. He did nothing criminal (well, beyond rabble–rousing), but allowed himself to suffer and die to break a pattern and preserve those who believe in him and follow him, accepting punishment on their behalf. Aslan, though – Aslan died for one person: Edmund. Edmund screwed up, and out of ignorance, greed, and pettiness betrayed Aslan (whom he’d never met, so he’s not much of a Judas figure) and his siblings and the cause of the good guys, and because of this by ancient tradition his life is forfeit. And instead of allowing his execution, Aslan takes his place. His death accomplished nothing but Edmund’s salvation; if anything, it was harmful to the anti–Witch cause, because his death and revival and romp meant a significant delay before getting to her home to de–statueify all the scores of creatures trapped in stone at the castle, who were significant in winning the war.

It’s all a bit muddled by the idea that Christmas exists in Narnia (though pretty much only embodied in a gift–giving Father Christmas; Christ has nothing to do with it here).

And really it’s not fair to Edmund. I mean, they’d all heard a bit of talk about Aslan, and the other three were impressed and interested, and even Edmund in his cranky self-absorption must have gotten an idea of what it was all about. But none of them really understood what was really up was until they met Aslan. And Ed never had the chance to do that until later – the Winter Queen got to him first, and punched every button he had. I don’t think any betrayal of Aslan can be held too much against him – he had no idea what he was betraying. There, at least… he certainly betrayed his family. But he honestly didn’t believe in the stakes – it could be argued that he still didn’t quite believe in this fantasy world, entirely.

I’m just glad that (spoiler!) Edmund gets more chances. When all’s said and done, C.S. Lewis’s voice is still very appealing after all these years, and I love these (astonishingly lucky) English children. I’d still rather go to Middle-earth – but Narnia is a lovely place to visit too.

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The Austen Escape – Katherine Reay

My request for this book was followed by immediate regret, but it was predictable: another story about a woman taking an Austen-themed vacation, with the lagniappe of amnesia in her friend? It’s like catnip. I was a bit sorry to be approved for it, but felt like something light and quick at the beginning of the year, so I cracked it open (so to speak).

And lo and behold, it was kind of wonderful. Actually, a couple of kinds of wonderful. I couldn’t be more surprised, I don’t think. It turned out to be the story of a woman rediscovering her path, finding a way to hit a reset button and go back to things that make her happy.

And of course it’s also a love story, and a good one. It’s the story of Mary Davies’s love for her father (and vice versa), and of a love that seems to have died out, and a love that just doesn’t seem to click. That’s a major part of it – but just about as important to the story and to Mary is the exploration of her love for her vocation, the profession she has carved out for herself with a lot of hard work, which has drifted from where it used to be and needs to be shunted back to that right path. A love of numbers.

And, naturally, it’s all about a love of Austen. Jane is vital to the book – but the book isn’t about her. She is like sunlight and water to a neglected garden, causing things to happen.

The Austen Escape has a number of points in common with a book I read a few years ago, Austenland. Both feature a semi-immersive Jane Austen experience, in which guests dress the part from head to toe, put away their cell phones, and participate in Regency-style activities. But the ethics and advisability of Austenland struck me as deeply questionable, and it all left me with a bad taste in my mouth. This book was entirely different. I loved just about every character’s arc, and found the whole thing very satisfying.

Life advice from The Austen Escape:
“He said that how people treat you is only 10 percent about you and 90 percent about them, so you need to be careful how you react and how you judge. You never know someone’s story.”

“My grandfather used to say that everything in the world could be solved at the cadence of a cast. Think about things, don’t rush them, get a feel for them, live organically. Live life like you cast.” He bent his arm again, and with fluid slow motion he shot the line straight across the pond into the slow-moving water near the far bank.

“Music is math, and once you understand that . . . How can anyone not be in awe? It’s the audible expression behind the laws of the universe. It feels like the only thing, apart from God, that lives outside time. Once released, it lives on and it can make you laugh and cry, rip you apart and heal you, all within a few discrete notes strung together. And while it follows rules, expression is limitless.”

And this made me laugh out loud:

“How did they do all this?”
“When you went up for your bath, I watched from a window.” I yanked at his hand. “Not you. This. I watched this.”

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Trolled – D.K. Bussell

Maybe the last thing I expected when I started this book was that one aspect of my review would include the word “humbling”. But here it is. I was pretty confident that I was pretty familiar with British slang. I’m not. I’m really not. And it was humbling to see how much not. I was fine with stuff like “bin bags” and suchlike – but I have to admit in the context I stupidly thought “well jells” meant pudgy: like Santa, with a belly like jelly and all that. Nope: jealous. Jelly. Jells. Well = Very. ‘K. “Chirpsing” was entirely new to me.

This is one of those Netgalley selections which is obviously self-published, and has the sort of slipshod editing that unfortunately so often goes along with that – but which has a level of writing that deserves better. It’s funny and fun and gritty and occasionally surprising; it made leaps between making me smile at a really lovely turn of phrase (‘ Eathon laughed. “If you loosed an arrow at me I’d whip out my blade and whittle it into an unflattering portrait of you before it hit the ground.”‘ or “The pregnant pause ran to its third trimester”) to making me snarl over some stupid mistake (like mention of a rider’s “reigns”).

This is, of course, separate from the intentional wordplay, like “Sting with his tantrum sex” – it’s pretty clear when someone is being a Dogberry and when there’s an error.

Obviously, I loved the geek cred the author shows throughout. There’s Middle-earth and Dragonlance and Monty Python and stops in between. This book does not take itself too seriously. There’s a very serious story going on – first the shocking reality that this handful of kids has been transported to another world, with no knowledge of how to get back and a deadly mission they’re supposed to pull off; then that mission, a legitimate war against horrifying monsters which seems all but impossible to survive, much less win. But the way the story is told is light, irreverent, funny. These aren’t Lawful Good characters eagerly taking up arms to fight for the good – oh, no, these are ordinary geeky teenagers who are as likely to see what they can steal from any given setting as to fight the bad guys. They’re pretty much unpredictable – which is kind of great.

Now (say it with me) if only someone would clean these books up.

One thing, though – you cant beat that cover. I adore that cover.

And remember:
“The Chosen One might be a special snowflake, but when the heat’s turned up, every snowflake melts.”

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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The Art of Vanishing – Cynthia Kuhn

I’m a little surprised I requested this book from Netgalley. That cover looks an awful lot like the style used on so many not-to-my-taste cozy mysteries – I really don’t like that style. It might have been the “Academic Mystery” that got me – and I’m glad it did, because I really enjoyed this. The main character, Professor Lila Maclean shares several of the characteristics cozy mystery authors often give to their characters – she’s klutzy, smart, and beleaguered by her boss for no reason that is sensible to a sensible person. She has a colorful (to put it mildly) mother, with a past that serves as a great basis for this and future stories. What differentiates this book from others I’ve seen is that it’s believable. It’s – what’s that really annoying adjective? Organic. Lila isn’t klutzy to further the plot, or to make her an Extra Quirky Cozy Heroine – she just is. In fact, it makes sense that there’s a psychological basis for it. Her boss’s antagonism is somewhat out of the blue, but there is a seed of “because” in there. He hasn’t taken against her randomly – and that antagonism feels really familiar. We’ve probably all known, and God help us worked for, people just like him. and beleaguered by her boss for no reason that is sensible to a sensible person.

The story is twisty and – yay! – unpredictable. At one point I was just waiting for one character to get knocked off – I was sure of who the next victim was going to be – and I was completely wrong. And the author did that on purpose. It was a great fakeout.

It was just a lot of fun. And I will absolutely read more by this author. This is Netgalley doing what Netgalley’s supposed to do.

“You should pat the gryphon too.”
“I’m not going to—”
“Pat the gryphon, Lil,” she commanded sternly.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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Mrs. Jeffries and the Three Wise Women – Emily Brightwell

I know that I came across a description of this series a while back, and I found it – the idea of a detective’s housekeeper doing the lion’s share of the work to help him achieve arrests – off-putting. Perhaps because of the covers I’ve seen for the series I thought it was all played for laughs; the artwork on most of the books makes Inspector Witherspoon look completely oblivious, with Mrs. Jeffries peering in from the side. I was never interested. So it’s odd that I requested this book from Netgalley.

But I did, and in the end it was much better than I expected it to be. It wasn’t great – I can’t imagine reading 35 more along the same lines, and I was startled to read a description of a couple of earlier books in the series that sounded a whole lot like this one; there was one in which it was important that a case be solved by Christmas, and at least one other in which a case was given to inferior Inspector Nivens and, of course, botched.

I did like the characters – Inspector Witherspoon is not a nincompoop, thank goodness, and that makes all the difference. And the author did a nice job at keeping a fairly large cast of characters distinct from each other and pretty consistently interesting … though I really wish the one American character wasn’t written in the dreadful manner of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie writing an American. Goldarnit. There are a few things the Golden Agers did not do perfectly, and in which they should not be emulated.

There was a bit too much repetition of the basic ideas of “we’ll never solve this old mystery” and “I goofed off today and I’m ashamed but I’ll probably do it again tomorrow because we’ll never solve this old mystery”, and much too much whining about having their holiday plans disrupted. In that they reminded me of my coworkers, who spend half the day talking about the news and the weather and their love lives and tv and a hundred other inane things, and then complain that they don’t have time to do their work. Shut up and buckle down, and maybe you’ll manage.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read it – but I’m in no rush to go read the rest of the (astonishingly long) series.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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