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Murder by Death

I read cozy and historical mysteries, a bit of Paranormal/UF, and to mix it up, I read science and gardening books on occasion.

The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange

The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange - Anna Katharine Green

I read one of the Violet Strange short stories last year as part of an anthology (I can't remember which one); it was my first introduction to Anna Katherine Green's work and I liked it enough that I wanted to read more.  In that story, (The Intangible Clew), Strange showed a distinctive Sherlock Holmes flair, and I was intrigued.  


I've found and read a couple of her books and loved them, but it took longer to find a copy of this book - the one I most wanted to read - that was available and affordable.  I'd heard it wasn't her best work, and sadly, I have to agree; the first story in fact was just down right rubbish, the second one only a little bit better: more coherent but absurdly plotted.


But Anna Katherine Green did two things - one of them something I've personally not seen before, which accounts for my slightly high rating.  The first is that every story got better than the one before it - the improvement in the writing and plotting is obvious, and one of these days I'll sit down and do the google-fu necessary to find out if these stories were early efforts, and therefore show a natural progression in her writing, or if there's some other reason.  But as the book goes on the stories get exponentially better.


The second thing that elevated the book for me was that each story was a complete stand-alone short story (except the very last one).  Any of them could be read cold and the reader would miss nothing.  But when read together, there's a thin plot that holds them all together, and, it turns out, a romance; one that's hardly hinted at in any of the stories until the second-last.  The last story isn't really a story at all, but Violet's coda in the form of a letter, explaining her motives for taking on the cases.


This subtle dichotomy made the uneven collection feel more finely crafted than it really was, and in spite of its flaws it feels clever and fresh.  The writing is a little more florid than the other AKG books I've read so far, and she breaks the fourth wall constantly; something I didn't mind but occasionally felt a little condescending-ish.


So - not brilliant, not her best work by far, but interesting and worth experiencing and definitely worth the effort I made to read it.

May Reading

3 Thirds of a Ghost - Timothy Fuller Sleepyhead: Narcolepsy, Neuroscience and the Search for a Good Night - Henry Nicholls The Secret Library - Oliver Tearle Browse: The World in Bookshops - Henry Hitchings

14 books read this month.


This month's relatively low number is a direct reflection of RL distractions, stress and what I hope is a mini-slump.  Things are looking up; here at the house of feathers, fur, and fins we had some medical uncertainty last month, but now have names to hang on everything, and treatment plans in place, so I have high hopes that June will be more SOP, and I can get back to avoiding real life by hanging out in books.  Also, a trip to Uluru next weekend is MUCH anticipated.  There will be camel-riding, an art exhibit and if I'm really lucky, I'll get to see one of these little guys:


A thorny devil, and it drinks with its feet. It places them in a puddle and water moves up by capillary action along grooves to the corner of its mouth.  How cool is that??


Quick stats (no charts this month):


Four 4.5 star books, but no 5 star reads this month.

6 male authors

8 female authors


6 mystery

6 non-fiction

1 audiobook

2 re-reads




TBR Project


My experiment in TBR reduction:  I can only buy 1 new book for every 2 I read off my TBR piles, tallied monthly.


I bought 6 books this month out of my allotted 13.  So I carry 7 books over to add to my 7 books budgeted for June (50% of books read the previous month - May).  Total book buying budget for June:  14 books. 


Hope everyone is pleased with their reading for the month - and bring on June!

So not book related ... garden updates and new additions to the menagerie.

Note: This is a LONG and picture-heavy post that has nothing to do with books, and everything to do with gardening and critters.  If neither interests you, please do skip right over this post.  Thanks!


Updates and pics were requested for the newest additions to our menagerie - Aubry and Molly, our newest chickens, and our very newest members at Casa de los locos amantes de los animales - fish!  It turned out today was a reasonable sunny day, and I was out in the garden setting up some new pond plants, so I snapped some pics.


First the fish ... there's a story here.  Really, two stories that merged.  First, for my birthday MT 'bought' me a fountain for the garden.  The quotes are there because we had to a.) find one, that b.) we both agreed on.  That only took 3 months ... in the mean time, I found our old fire pit sitting disused; I hate stuff lying around the garden, but it's a pretty terracotta pit, and I had a water pump still in its box in the shed (the wrong pump was sent to me ages ago, but they didn't want it back when they sent the new one). I thought: why not make this into a tiny water garden?  In my enthusiasm I set it up straight away:



I was so pleased with myself ... zero dollar outlay, less crap sitting unused... WIN!  And then I went out and bought some fish for it, which I named Edith and Archie.  (pics are coming).  


I was also so enthusiastic that it didn't occur to me that terracotta needs to be sealed first.  Oops.  Researching, it turns out they're super easy to seal, but it takes 7 days to cure before it can be wet again.  Seriously, oops.  I lived with it awhile; it only lost about 1cm of water every few days, but I began to worry the thing would disintegrate out from under Edith and Archie.  So, they needed a temporary home while the pit cured.  I'm dedicated to not buying plastic if I can avoid it, so I found another bowl, which I was prepared to swear was the same size (it's not, it's about 50% bigger), and set it up.



Archie and Edith were relocated, and settled in.

Crap, fuzzy photo, because ... fish on the move. Edith in the yellow one.


Meanwhile I got the fire pit sealed, and set it back up but didn't have the heart to move poor Edith and Archie again, so MT and I went out and bought two more fish*, Smokey and Stimpy:


Stimpy is the top one with the giant black eyes; Smokey is a calico gold fish.


* Really, we bought 4 fish.  The Bandit and Ren both went MIA on separate occasions, leaving not a trace of their fates.  It's a touchy subject with all of us, but there's now more greenery in the bowl, thus more hiding places.  (We suspect a neighbourhood Pied Currawong, but lack proof.)


Meanwhile our fountain was found, agreed upon and ordered - that birthday present that indirectly started all this - and we needed to rip out and redo part of our garden for it, creating a path and laying down foundation stones for the fountain.  This was at the time MT started having health issues and couldn't do any manual labor... Ace!  As it turns out, I have muscles, who knew? and better, I can still use them!


The fountain:

And yes, there will be more fish for this pond at some point soon; I wanted to get the plants established first and make sure everything was running well before we added fishy residents.


And the new path:



The path is made of bluestone we found buried in the property when we bought it; each weighs about 15kg/30lbs - ish;  I don't have that many muscles, so a lot of rolling of the bluestones was going on for a week or so.  :)


The path at the top of the pic on the right is made of thin slate slabs, which I also laid myself, years ago, but they weigh hardly anything.


Finally, the chooks - er, chickens.  The good news is that Aubry is getting feathered boots, and Molly isn't - now we have a way to tell them apart.  The less great news is they are getting HUGE!  They were supposed to be 'medium' sized; they're well on their way to super-sized.


Aubry (you can just see her boots):

Their feathers are so gorgeous - this photo doesn't do them justice.  (Henrietta is the white chicken behind her.)


And this is Eggy, Molly and Aubry:


Am I the only one that thinks this would make a great album cover?


I'm pretty sure that's it for our menagerie, but I've learned to never say never.  I can't think of any other animals we could add that wouldn't turn me into a full-time zoo keeper (the chickens are surprisingly self-sufficient and fish are ... fish; the ponds are set up with plants that make them self-regulating/feeding/cleaning/oxygenating) so I'd like to think we've reached a place of stasis.  But I won't bet on it.  ;-)

Corvus: A Life with Birds

Corvus: A Life with Birds - Esther Woolfson

A memoir, of sorts, with threads of hard science, poetry, mythology and philosophy interwoven through tales of the corvids (and a couple of parrot-family birds) that have shared the author's life and home.


The book was both hard to put down; engrossing, and at times a tiny bit tedious as Woolfson would sometimes go eyeball deep into exposition or poetic descriptions.  The anecdotes about Chicken (a rook), Spike (a European magpie) and at the end, Ziki (a crow) are the best parts of the book; her love, care and concern for these birds is front and center and I found myself in total sympathy with her angst about her birds' welfare.  I understand and share her concerns about whether her birds lives are unfulfilled, if healthier, and I also know my choices would ultimate be the same choices she's made, for better or worse.


A few questions came immediately to my mind as I started reading, and she addresses them about mid-way through the book.  They all center around hygiene and the threatened lack of it when allowing birds, especially birds the size of corvids, to roam free.  Here she gains even more admiration from me, because no way could I do it.  The cleaning she does ... i can't stand the idea of birds in cages, but neither am I a domestic goddess, so all in all, it's best that I have restricted my avian feather-family to chickens, who are by all appearances happy and healthy in their outdoor (but secure) taj ma-chook.


Even so, corvids fascinate me; I wouldn't be at all averse to making friends with the ones that come through my garden now and again.  


A great book for bird lovers and really, anyone who can appreciate that emotive intelligence is not restricted to just primates.

Reading progress update: I've read 11 out of 368 pages.

Rain: A Natural and Cultural History - Cynthia Barnett

"Amid the worst drought in California history, the enormous concrete storm gutters of Los Angeles still shunt an estimated 520,000 acre-feet of rainfall to the Pacific Ocean each year–enough to supply water to half a million families."


Just when I think I've got a handle on all the ways we shaft ourselves, something like this comes across my reading radar.  I've never thought about it before, but city storm water sewers, while serving a valuable service, also waste enormous amounts of water, by simply throwing it all away.  


Taking nothing from the space programs, but why can we find the money to put people in space, and on the moon, and send rovers to Mars, but we can't find the funds to build thoughtful, efficient, environmentally sustaining infrastructure?

A Shattering Crime (Stained-glass mystery, #3)

A Shattering Crime - Jennifer McAndrews

It's getting harder for me to find good cozy mysteries that are well written, but I enjoyed the first two in this series well enough.  Not so much this one.  I don't know if the series continues on from here, but I don't think I will be.


Georgia's romance angst was over-the-top, unbelievable, and silly.  If you've had a string of relationships end in heartbreak, it would not be entirely irrational to be gun-shy about relationships (although probably not a bad idea to examine one's choices in mates, either), but to have one, ONE, relationship sour and then act like every man, every relationship is out to destroy your soul is ... sorry, I gotta be judgy here... stupid.  Childish.  And it wasn't just the men in her life Georgia was childish about; the whole sub plot with her mother and new 'stepdad' made my head ache from the eye rolling.  Grow up already.


On top of this, the plot was weaker than wet tissue.  There were so many things about the construct that were phoned-in it's not even worth enumerating them.


The setting is nice, and the animal love was awesome; even the characters were likeable enough, but none of it was enough to save this one.  

Virginia Woolf on reading

I found this quote in one of my books recently - don't ask me which one because I am not the person who makes notes, even when she knows she will need them and curse herself at a future date.  Internet to the rescue!


Few people ask from books what books can give us. Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice. If you hang back, and reserve and criticize at first, you are preventing yourself from getting the fullest possible value from what you read. But if you open your mind as widely as possible, then signs and hints of almost imperceptible fineness, from the twist and turn of the first sentences, will bring you into the presence of a human being unlike any other. Steep yourself in this, acquaint yourself with this and soon you will find that your author is giving you, or attempting to give you, something far more definite.


2 things came immediately to my mind when I read this:  The first is that this is how I read and possibly why I end up being 'soft' when I rate and review.  I open most books with few or no expectations and an abundance of optimism.  When I start a book irritated or cranky, it's a safe bet my review is going to be pretty critical and nit-picky.  There's also an element of pride, or maybe denial; if I finish a book and it's not all it could be, finding the high notes helps me rationalise the hours spent reading it.  As we all pretty much agree, reading books we don't like is time wasted; if I can find and focus on strengths in my reads, I haven't wasted my time.


The second thing that came to mind is, I need to hunt down this essay and read it in its entirety, and investigate Woolf's other non-fiction work.  I don't buy everything Woolf is selling in this quote, but it's just a small excerpt, and I want to read the whole thing before I make objections.


What do you guys think about Woolf's take on reading?

Browse: The World in Bookshops

Browse: The World in Bookshops - Henry Hitchings

An excellent collection of essays from writers all over the world, all centering on the bookshops that have most impacted their lives, shaped them, or are just plain favorites.


Writers from nearly every corner of the globe (no Aussies or Antarticans) tell their stories and of the entire collection, only one - Iam Sinclair - failed for me.  While all the others wrote odes to bookshops, Sinclair seemed more content to use bookshops as a front for his diatribe against politics.  His essay, his right, but in the company of the other authors in this book, it felt brash and strung-out.  I found his writing florid and at times incomprehensible too.  Having never read his other works, I have no idea if this is congruent with his style, or a one-off; either way, it was the only speck on an otherwise perfect collection.


Because I enjoyed the rest so thoroughly (ok, Dirda's essay was just ok) it's impossible to pick a labourite.  If you feel your soul sing when you walk into a bookshop, I think this collection is well worth investigating.  

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Since this is a re-read for me, and I stand by my original review/rating, this post will serve as my final reading update.  As such a few thoughts on the final three entires:



"[...] to ensure no ricin makes it into the castor oil it is heated to more than 80C at it is extracted; this denatures the protein, so inactivating it."


Something for the raw food movement to remember:  don't buy cold-pressed castor oil.  Sometimes, processed is better.



Oh dear god what a thoroughly hideous way to die.  The deciding factor for me, in a book full of thoroughly hideous ways to go, is that you're completely aware of what's going on the entire time it's happening.  Like Hemlock, only here there's zero chance of getting the "nice" kind (if a nice kind of hemlock actually does exist - let's nobody find out).  


I also had the weird and totally superfluous thought:  I wonder if anyone's ever tried spraying a victim down in solarcaine?  (Solarcaine is an aerosol form of lidocaine - topical anesthetic.)  Because, you know, it's a numbing agent, which would cut off nerve stimulation.  Although I can't imagine it would be very comforting to be in the throes of strychnine and hear: "Quick! Get the sunburn spray - this might feel a little cold..."


So, now you know where my mind goes when it's running from descriptions of horrific death.  Sunburn spray.


Moving on... Veronal.  

I had almost no thoughts about Veronal at all; probably because I was still musing over the sunburn spray ... not because of any deficiencies in Harkup's writing.


As I said at the start; I happily stand by my first assessment of the book at the 4.5 stars I gave it.  It's entertaining and accessible without sacrificing intellectual merit.


If you have a reading retention rate for details better than mine, you might find some of the sections she doesn't label as spoilers to be over-revealing.  Unlike others, the only one I found that will stick with me over time is the (to me) dead give away in the Veronal chapter for Lord Edgware Dies, although maybe it isn't. The way it's written it seems there's only one scene needed to identify the murderer, given what Harkup shares here.  Perhaps the scene is more complicated than she describes though.  Luckily, I need only read enough books between now and my next Christie to completely forget, confuse or conflate the details I've read here.  Silver linings...

Reading progress update: I've listened 460 out of 884 minutes.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails - Sarah Bakewell, Antonia Beamish

The stupid Audible app won't tell me how far into the audio I'm in, only just how many minutes I am into the chapter, so this is a rough estimate.


Not that it matters, this book is excellent; 90% of it is totally comprehensible, and very interesting.  But the narrator is even better.  She reads this material like she owns it and has the best voice.  I can't say enough about her narrative magnificence.

Reading progress update: I've read 221 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Phosphorus:  Of all the undignified ways to glow in the dark...  and almost, but not quite, as horrible a way to die as strychnine.

The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers' Journey Through Curiosities of History

The Secret Library - Oliver Tearle

This started off super-slow for me for the same reason any overview of history does:  it starts with ancient history.  I know it's important.  I know it influences just about everything today, but it's, forgive me, a bit dull.  


Once we got through The Classical World and the Middle Ages though, things picked up.  For each age, Tearle selects a few texts that can, or should, be considered significant.  Some of them are the no-brainers we've all heard of (Shakespeare) and some are names or titles that have unjustly fallen into oblivion (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, whom he argues might be the author of the first English detective novel. Trail of the Serpent).  Whether widely known or not, Tearle tries to focus on thoughts, ideas, or facts that aren't widely known so that there's something new here for likely anyone, no matter how well read.


Informative, readable, and once past the Middle ages, very enjoyable.

For Linda Hilton - NOT book related

(I've asked Linda Hilton about some of her rocks, and this post is so she can see pics of what I'm referring to in the PM.)


Per our PM, the pictures:


(The fountain out port is right in the centre there - I have it adjusted so it just bubbles out softly - and it's why I need something with holes in it preferably, although I can layer too)


This is so you can get an idea of the sloping shape of the bowl.


Hope you're back feels better soon - and there's absolutely NO RUSH btw.

Reading progress update: I've read 202 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Opium:  It seems no matter what form you take, all roads lead to morphine.

Reading progress update: I've read 156 out of 320 pages.

A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie - Kathryn Harkup

Nicotine.  Two Three thoughts come to mind after reading this chapter.  The first:  I have to wonder how many possible medical applications we could have found throughout the ages if we'd studied nicotine before we started smoking tobacco.  I can't help but think medicine has been set back by our own vices.


The second though is less virtuous.  It occurred to me while reading this chapter that the American Indians may have gotten their own back just a little bit by introducing Europe to tobacco.  It certainly doesn't come close to balancing the scales, but it does appeal to me that the exchange of devastating, life-altering diseases wasn't entirely one-sided.


The third thought pertains to the comment Harkup made towards the end, about cigarettes today containing less tobacco and more nicotine that cigarettes from the 30's.  Apparently today they use reconstituted tobacco and additives, which means that really, people today are pretty much smoking the tobacco equivalent of chicken mcnuggets.



Charmed Bones (Sarah Booth Delaney Mystery, #18)

Charmed Bones - Carolyn Haines

They can't all be winners, but man, this one was extra-disappointing.


I don't care for romance for the sake of romance, but I do enjoy a good sub-plot, if the characters have chemistry and it's well written.  Many books ago, Sarah Booth had an almost-romance with a character, and I was hooked on their dynamic, and bummed when it didn't work.  Then after many, many books and many other romantic interests, I finally got my wish; sadly the joy was dinged by one of the most badly edited stories I've seen on paper in a long time (not being a reader of self-published books).


This could have been an amazing story: witches, spells, poisonings, there's-something-in-the-woods, huge claw marks on doors, old houses with secret rooms and tunnels, and my favorite romantic interest back in the saddle.  But if this story wasn't rushed to press, it was definitely neglected by management; major re-writes took place and nobody followed up with proofing to check for continuity.  The results include characters who explicitly remain behind only to suddenly be participating in conversation, and Sarah Booth commenting on kicking the bad guy, giving him a limp, when she never actually kicked him.  Unfortunately, these are just the two I remember - there were others, including a scene where characters change mid-paragraph).


Continuity errors aside, the plotting was a little bit of a mess too: too much going on and not tightly enough written, so the reader really has no hope of following events.  To be fair, Sarah Booth struggled too, so maybe this was deliberate and I just don't care for the device.  I also don't care for the plot twist at the end; it's the second time in as many books where it's been used, and it leaves me feeling played.


If not for the characters, whom I love (although I'm over Tinky and her baby angst), and the familiar landscape of Zinnia, the rating for this would be so much lower.  It's obvious that Haines didn't phone this in: nobody just phones in a plot as convoluted as this, but her editors and Minotaur screwed her and her readers by printing this half-finished effort.  And that's tragic; Haines is worlds better than this and after 17 books, readers deserve better.


Here's hoping #19 reflects previous efforts, and 18 is just an aberration.