Tuesday, March 31, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A review

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books about World War II or set in that period do not usually land on my "to be read" list, but this book was highly recommended to me by someone who knows my reading habits and tastes and has a good idea of what I will enjoy. And that's how I ended up reading a book set mostly during World War II. Thank goodness I did.

All the Light We Cannot See is a lyrically written, hauntingly beautiful book about two young people, a German boy and a French girl, trapped in the maelstrom of war. The climactic action of the book takes place in August 1944, two months after D-Day, but Anthony Doerr gives us his main characters' background in flashbacks. Throughout much of the book, the brief but information-packed chapters alternate between telling the stories of the German boy, Werner, and the French girl, Marie-Laure. By the time we reach August 1944, we have observed the intricate web that, for one day, finally draws these two together. Boy meets girl, but that meeting comes about by an incredibly circuitous route.

Marie-Laure is a privileged child in many ways. She is born in the years before the war and lives in Paris with her father. (Her mother is dead.) They live near the Museum of Natural History where the father works. He is a gifted locksmith and he is the master of the thousands of locks which are a part of the museum. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind because of cataracts. To help her "see" her neighborhood and learn to navigate it, her father, who is a talented builder of models, makes a perfect miniature of the community where they live for her so that she can learn the streets by touch and memorization.

Marie-Laure lives a charmed life in which her days are spent at the museum with her father. She is a favorite of his co-workers there and they serve as her teachers. But when she is twelve years old, war comes to Paris. The Nazis occupy the city and Marie-Laure and her father are forced to flee. The father is entrusted with a treasure from the museum - a famous diamond. Or maybe not. It may be one of the duplicates that was made to fool the Nazis. He can't be sure.

The two refugees travel to the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo, where the father's uncle lives. They live in the house with the old man, Etienne, and his housekeeper, and the father begins building a miniature city of Saint-Malo for his daughter.

Werner's life could hardly have been more different. He grew up in a mining town in Germany, along with his younger sister, Jutta. They were orphaned at an early age and they live in an orphanage. Werner's life is all planned out for him by the state. When he is fifteen, he is expected to go to work in the mines. The mines which killed his father. He faces that prospect with horror.

But Werner is a prodigy. He has a genius for understanding electrical circuits and for building and repairing radios. News of his talent gets around and inevitably comes to the attention of the Nazis who run things. In 1939, a German officer shows up at the orphanage and requires Werner to accompany him to the house of a rich couple who own an expensive Philco radio. The radio has stopped working and Werner is asked to fix it. He does and is rewarded with all the cake he can eat.

That test of his abilities brought him an opportunity to try for an elite Nazi school which provides extreme military training. He aces the entrance exams. The authorities also measure his head with calipers and rate the color of his hair (which is white-blonde) and his eyes for their shade of blue.

The brutality of the school experience threatens to completely extinguish any humane instincts that have survived in Werner. It is a society where kill-or-be-killed is the rule of the day. Only one cadet has the moral courage to say "no" to this philosophy - Werner's friend Frederick. Frederick is brutalized for that courage and Werner does nothing to stop it.

Werner lives in a world where propaganda is force-fed as a daily diet, but he struggles to keep his memories of growing up with his sister and listening to the radio late at night with her. He remembers listening to a professor speaking on the radio about the brain's power to create light in darkness. He cherishes the memory of listening to that professor talk, the professor who it turns out was Marie-Laure's grandfather, just one of the many intersections on the circuitous route of the two characters' lives. In his darkest moments, he clings to a still small voice that tells him, "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."

As Saint-Malo finally is occupied by the Nazis and then bombarded by Allied bombers in August 1944, both Marie-Laure and Werner are in the city. How they finally come to meet and what proceeds from that meeting is the emotional peak of the novel, but there are years yet to transpire in the telling of this story. The ending was a bit anticlimactic, but it was Anthony Doerr's choice to write it in this manner. I can't criticize that choice.      

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Note: I'm linking this post to Carole Durbin's monthly "Books You Loved" meme, because this is truly a book that I loved! 

Monday, March 30, 2015

March's end

This is what the end of March looks like in my garden.

The bluebonnets are blooming.

American Goldfinches in their summer dress are passing through and stopping to have a snack at the nyger seed feeders.

Over the weekend, I saw my first Giant Swallowtail butterfly of the year. 

And my first Tiger Swallowtail of 2015. Just beautiful!

But the stars of the show these days are the azaleas. For most of the year, their shrubs are inconspicuous, but in early spring they put on a show for us. Mine have never been so full of blooms as they are this spring. This is an old plant in the backyard garden. 

This is one of the everblooming azaleas that I added to my front garden last fall. They had a few blooms all through the autumn and winter, but now, in spring, they are absolutely full of these bright blossoms.
Spring in Southeast Texas is typically a very brief season. Some years, we go from winter to summer in the blink of an eye. This time, our winter hardly even qualified as a winter and we've been in spring mode practically since the middle of February. Soon enough, summer will be rearing its fiery head. But for now, we luxuriate in mild, glorious days, enjoying the early blossoms and the spring migrant birds as they pass through, the first swallowtail butterflies of the season, and, especially, loving the feel of dirt on our hands once again. 

Note: I'm linking to the "End of Month View" post at The Patient Gardener's Weblog.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Today

We've had a string of perfect spring days recently. Nobody describes such days more eloquently than Billy Collins.


If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary's cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Redbud in bloom on March 28.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Amazing animals: Black Swans feeding koi

This is so incredible that I just have to share it - Black Swans feeding koi in a pond at a resort in Taiwan. How did this get started, I wonder? Were the swans feeding their cygnets and the koi took advantage and then when the little swans grew up the parents continued to feed the koi? I have no idea. Maybe some human trainer actually trained them to do this. Regardless of how it happened, I find it perfectly amazing!

Friday, March 27, 2015

This week in birds - #150

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

"My" American Goldfinches, the ones that spent the winter in my yard, are long gone now. The last of them left at least three weeks ago. But we have had some goldfinches visiting us this week. They are birds that spent the winter even farther south and are now passing through on their way to their nesting grounds. Many of the ones I've seen this week have already been fully dressed in their breeding colors of yellow, white, and black. This one had not quite made the transition yet but he's almost there. These are birds on a mission of reaching their nesting grounds and establishing their territories, so they do not linger. This one moved on within twenty-four hours of the time this picture was taken.


The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland has proved to be an anomaly in the record of warming trends on the planet. While Earth as a whole is heating up and last winter was the hottest on record, that particular area has actually cooled. Scientists are studying the reason for this. A recent study postulates that it is due to a weakening in the Gulf Stream System.


Habitat fragmentation is a serious problem for the wildlife within the habitat. This happens particularly with human development, especially the building of roads which can physically separate sections of the habitat, as well as facilitating further development which can additionally destroy ecosytems. 


Birders' reported sightings of Calliope Hummingbirds in migration have lent credence to the theory that the birds change their migration routes in response to the availability of food. Since birds' lives are spent in the hunt for food, I would think that this would be true of many species.


In news from the world of space this week, American astronaut Mark Kelly embarked on a trip to the International Space Station where he is scheduled to live for a full year. It will be the longest stay to date for an American in space.


The Swift Parrots of Tasmania are major pollinators of blue and black gum trees, but those trees are being steadily felled in logging operations that are a major part of the economy of the area. Things look bleak for the future of the birds as these trees are destroyed. A study finds that they may become extinct within sixteen years, if nothing changes.


I'm not sure if Los Angelenos will consider this good news, but a science project of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County has discovered 30 new species of flies there! 


Well, somehow this really doesn't surprise me, but studies have found that the most promiscuous male birds do not necessarily carry the best genes of their species. Randiness does not equate quality!


A Canadian conservationist blogs about the problem with programs to save the bees, pointing out that honeybees are not native species and the emphasis on saving them is misplaced. We should be worried about saving the many native bee species which are much more important to the ecosystem.


On the rare occasions when the California desert blooms, it is a glorious sight that attracts tourists. It also attracts butterflies of several species


Branch Brook Park in Newark, New Jersey, has the nation's largest collection of cherry trees. Soon that collection will be even bigger as plans are under way to add another 1,000 of the trees. Imagine the blooms!


A birder in Queens, New York, reports on having kept alive and well two Baltimore Orioles that chose to overwinter in his yard during the season just past. Considering the harsh winter with all the snow they've had in that part of the world, this seems a considerable achievement.


"The Rattling Crow" blogs about the territorial displays of Common Moorhens.


In hurricane country, one learns to "hide from the wind and run from the water," and, often, speed is of the essence in this survival technique. Things are a little different in lava country. In Hawaii, a mass of smoldering black lava has been inching toward the town of Pahoa since last June. It certainly presents a potential hazard, but it is a very slow motion hazard. 


Around the backyard:

Last week I told you about the first of the male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that had shown up in my yard. Well, this week, they were joined by the females. Today, I had one male and one female - observed - in the backyard. I don't think any of them are hanging around, but there is a steady stream of them.

Chipping Sparrows are still here in good numbers. I saw at least ten at my backyard feeder today. And the numbers in the Cedar Waxwing flocks are beginning to increase as more birds come in from farther south. I saw a flock of about fifty today, still not anywhere near the size of some of the big flocks we've had in past springs but considerably more than just a month ago.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead: A review

My Life in MiddlemarchMy Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having recently read Middlemarch for the first time and having loved the experience, I was intrigued by this title. I remembered having read a couple of positive reviews of the book when it first came out over a year ago and I decided that now was the time for me to read it, while Middlemarch is still fresh in my mind.

Rebecca Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, first read the book when she was seventeen. She has reread it numerous times in the decades since then and feels a strong connection with it. She sees connections between the text and her own life and between George Eliot's life and hers. This book is an exploration of all those connections. It is part biography of Eliot, part autobiography, part literary criticism and memoir of how the book came to be written. Some critics described it as a bibliomemoir and that seems apt.

I actually felt the title proved to be a bit misleading. The book was more about Eliot's life and times and the writing of the book than it was about the author's life. We learned some basic facts of her life and, indeed, she spent a considerable chunk of the book in detailing her research, her visits to museums and libraries to review original texts, her visits to the places where Eliot lived and wrote, but, in the end, I did not feel that the life of Rebecca was revealed to us by these descriptions.

We learn a great deal about the unconventional life that Eliot and her life partner, George Henry Lewes, lived. In Victorian England, divorce was virtually unheard of and unobtainable and Lewes was married to another woman with whom he had a family. But at some point, they grew apart, she took up with another man, and they started having children together. Lewes magnanimously allowed her to continue to use his name and gave his name to her children by the other man so that they would not be stigmatized by illegitimacy. Eliot had never married and when she met Lewes in her middle age, she could not legally marry him since he was already married. So, they simply lived together to the consternation of many of her friends and family, some of whom cut off all contact with her because of the scandal.

Eliot and Lewes, both described as physically unattractive people, had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances which seems to have included every famous Victorian you've ever heard of. They never had children of their own, but Eliot assisted in the upbringing of his three young sons from his marriage and she was apparently quite close to them. After Lewes died at age 61 and Eliot decided to marry, the eldest and only surviving Lewes son gave her away at her wedding.

The most interesting parts of the book for me were the parallels which Mead was able to draw between Eliot's life and the lives of her Middlemarch characters, especially her heroines Dorothea Brooke and Mary Garth. Surely, many of the characteristics which she gave to her book people were taken from her experiences, her own personality or what she observed in her family and friends. That could no doubt be said of most if not all fiction writers, but a truly inspired writer like Eliot is able to make those connections seamlessly.

It was a pleasure to spend time in this book and to experience the characters and events of the wonderful Middlemarch through the eyes and understanding of someone, who, unlike me, first met the book as a teenager and has returned to it many times over the years. I feel it has deepened my understanding of the classic and has made me want to read it again. While I'll never be the constant Middlemarch reader that Rebecca Mead is, maybe I will reread it again some day. I think I would appreciate it even more the second time around.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Forever young

It's my sweetie's birthday, and it's a big one this year. One of those with a zero. It's time to pause and be thankful for all those years, especially the forty spent with me!

So, another year older, but never mind. My heart's eyes will always see him as forever young.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday: Wild onion

It's Wildflower Wednesday once again, the meme hosted each month by Gail of clay and limestone. It's a chance to feature and recognize the wonderful native plants that live in our gardens and habitats, plants that are happily utilized by the wildlife that also share our living spaces.

Today, I'm featuring a plant that managed by some mysterious means to reseed itself into my yard a few years ago. I happened to notice it and liked the look of it, so I dug it and potted it up to see what would happen. The next year it came back and bloomed again and I decided to plant it in the corner of one of my beds in the garden. It has lived there happily ever since and it continues to multiply, getting bigger and providing more blooms every spring.

Wild onion, or Allium canadense to give it its proper name, is a member of the lily family. It has a long bloom cycle that can last from March until May. It is a low, upright clumped plant that grows from a small bulb and has no stem. It may grow from 8" to 24" high. Mine is on the lower end of that range. The flower color can vary from a very pale to a dark pink. Again, mine are of the darker variety. In Nature, it grows in various types of soils including prairies, brushlands, rocky slopes, stream banks and edges, and openings in woodlands. It is native in much of the eastern half of the country. Wild onions were traditionally used by Native Americans in cooking and have also been simmered into a syrup and used medicinally for colds, croup, and pneumonia. Some native peoples also reportedly crushed the plant and applied it to bee and wasp stings to relieve pain. 

As for me, I just use it to please my eye and for the benefit of several small butterfly species that seem to like it as well. This is a Funereal Duskywing enjoying its nectar on a spring day.

Happy Wildflower Wednesday and let's all resolve to plant more natives in our gardens this year.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Valley birds

I guess I've complained enough about my rain-spoiled birding vacation in the Rio Grande Valley. It was a week I had long looked forward to, since it is one of the birdiest places on the planet. I was hoping to see lots of new birds. That didn't quite work out, thanks to the weather, but, in fact, I did see quite a few birds. I even managed to get pictures of some of them.

This group of Roseate Spoonbills was resting at mid-day in the wetlands of the World Birding Center on South Padre Island. 

Also at South Padre was this Long-billed Curlew.

A pair of Mottled Ducks napping in the sun - the first sun we had seen in several days.

This was one of the two Red-breasted Mergansers I saw and was able to photograph at South Padre.

Green-winged Teal were quite common in the ponds at Estero Llano Grande State Park. Lovely ducks!

As were the very distinctive Northern Shovelers.

I wasn't able to photograph very many songbirds that I saw, but this little Savannah Sparrow was cooperative.

This Tri-colored Heron is well-dressed in his showy breeding plumage.

Black-necked Stilts are fairly common shorebirds at this time of year, but I never get tired of observing and photographing them. 

This was a small section of a very large flock - over 100 birds - of White Ibises in flight that we saw on South Padre island.

A male American Wigeon enjoying a swim.

This little Pied-billed Grebe was having a vigorous wash-up and seemed very happy about it.

A male Blue-winged Teal resting on a fallen tree at Estero LLano Grande State Park. 

Who knew that Orange-crowned Warblers enjoy oranges? I certainly didn't, but now that I do I will try to provide some when they come back to us next winter. 

Another very common shorebird, the Killdeer

The Great Blue Herons also were dressed in their showy breeding feathers. This one was resting from its labors.

The Plain Chachalaca, a large chicken-like bird, is a Valley specialty. They are more often seen on the ground but a pair of them were feeding on some sort of berries in the trees around the visitor's center at Estero Llano Grande State Park, and I managed to get a few pictures.

One of the highlights of my trip was being able to get several pictures of this little Sora at South Padre Island. I saw a King Rail, a Clapper Rail, and a couple of Soras in the wetlands, but this Sora was the only one who was cooperative enough to let me photograph it.  

It wasn't all about the birds, although it was mostly. This very large alligator, viewed from the boardwalk at the World Birding Center on South Padre Island, caught the eye and the camera lens of a lot of the birders on this day.
In the end, I didn't really add many new birds to my life list, but, fortunately, I'm not an obsessive lister. For me, it is mostly just about enjoying the experience and I never get tired of watching birds, even those that are familiar to me. Throw in a nice alligator or two and I'm one happy birder!

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd: A review

A Matter of Justice (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #11)A Matter of Justice by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A London financial advisor named Quarles is respected and admired by his compatriots in the City, but he lives a different life altogether in the small village where he maintains a second home where he can "rusticate" to get away from business. There, he is known as a man who pursues women against their wishes, often married women or very young girls. He is just about universally hated by his neighbors there and so when he turns up dead in rather appalling circumstances, most of them will freely admit that they are glad he is dead and would have been happy to kill him themselves. All of which does not make the work of the police investigating the crime any easier.

The man was very important in the business world and lived as the local squire in the village and so when he is murdered the local constable calls on Scotland Yard for assistance. If it means a trip to the provinces, it's another chance for his superior to get Inspector Ian Rutledge out of his hair and his sight for a while. Rutledge is therefore dispatched to deal with the crime.

There is a bit of a twist in the telling of this story. At the beginning of the book, we meet Quarles and his later business partner Penrith as they are serving in South Africa during the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century. Something happens at that time which will be the precipitant of later events. We also meet the brother of the lieutenant with whom Quarles and Penrith served. The lieutenant and all the others under his command, except for Quarles and Penrith, had died in a Boer ambush. Knowing all of these facts in advance, we are far ahead of Rutledge and the local police in determining motive for the murder and seeing how it was planned and executed.

We get to watch as Rutledge wades through all the false trails and possible suspects, including those who are all too willing to admit to the crime for reasons of their own. It's easy to feel his frustration as it becomes clear that no one is really telling him the whole story, including the obviously not grieving widow. It's hard for him to hold on to his temper as he has to deal with their obstructionism, as well as the lack of support from his superiors in London. But he is tenacious in his quest for the truth and for justice, even for a victim who was an odious example of humanity.

Once again, Rutledge is hounded and in some instances aided by the presence in his mind of the Scottish soldier Hamish whom he had had to execute during his time in the trenches in World War I. Hamish's voice is much more active in this book than in the most recent one of the series that I read, and he helps to explicate what Rutledge is thinking and why his mind works the way that it does.

All in all, this was an interesting and enjoyable read. There was one incident that seemed entirely anomalous and unnecessary to me and I never really figured out why it was a part of the story. During the investigation, Rutledge, lacking sleep, had made a late-night run from the village to London and he had an accident in which he received an almighty bump on the head and possible concussion. But it really played no part in the plot. What was the purpose? That part of the mystery remains a mystery to me.

This, by the way, was the eleventh entry in the series. I accidentally read it out of sequence. Now, at some point, I'll need to go back and pick up number ten, obsessive reader that I am.

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Lines Written in Early Spring

The changing of the seasons is another occasion for us to reflect upon the meaning of Nature and the place of humans in it. And while we glory in the beauties of early spring, it is also rather appalling to see "what man had made of made." That was obvious even long ago to William Wordsworth. The more things change, the more they remain the same. 

Lines Written in Early Spring

William Wordsworth1770 - 1850
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;                         
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played:
Their thoughts I cannot measure,
But the least motion which they made,
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.                              

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

This week in birds - #149

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

When we visited Estero Llano Grande State Park last week. the pond near the visitor's center was full of ducks, including all three species of teal. When I uploaded my pictures later, I realized I had captured all three of the species in this shot. The Green-winged Teal is on the far left and far right. A male Cinnamon Teal is second from the right and a male Blue-winged Teal is third from the right. The other two birds appear to be a female of one of the species and another Green-winged male - all beautiful birds.


The famous Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano in California traditionally returned to their nesting grounds on March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph. Through the years, the numbers of the birds that nest at the mission have declined. Few nest there today, but still many people turn their eyes to the skies over the mission on that date, watching and waiting for the birds' return

In our own area, the swallows are returning as well. The Purple Martins are here and when we were at Estero Llano Grande last week, the skies there were full of the birds. Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows are returning as well and will soon be building their nests if they haven't already started.


A lot of attention and publicity has been paid recently to the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides and the harm they can do to honeybees as well as to native insects. But the decline of honeybees, which has been of concern for a number of years now, is much more complicated than poisoning by pesticides. There appear to be a number of factors involved


Light pollution from our human-made light sources can upset the internal clocks of songbirds and influence the timing of their seasonal vocalizations.


This winter, scientists at Michigan's Isle Royale National Park tracked a wolf crossing an ice bridge to the island, which may explain how wolves and other animals came to be on the island in the first place.


Every week there seems to be another story in the news of Bald Eagles nesting in a place from which they had long been absent. This week it is the National Arboretum in Washington. It is thought that the eggs in the nest may have already hatched.


Native bees are actually much more important to the environment than are the imported honeybee. Here is an introduction to the many species of native bee endemic to North America.

And here's one of them on the redbud tree in my backyard today. There were several species of bee present today. Bees do love redbuds!


Peregrine Falcons love the high rise buildings in cities. They mimic the high cliffs that are their natural habitat and the birds have learned to adapt to these faux cliffs. That is true not just in this country but around the world, including in Ireland.


The University of Texas has a crowdfunding project under way to finance publication of the images of insects into the public domain. So far they have raised about half of the $8,000 needed. 


Avian cholera is rampaging its way through the flocks of geese wintering in Idaho. Thousands of the birds have already died.


Phoebes are charming flycatchers endemic to open country. They have the distinctive habit of pumping their tails while perched. Why do they do it? It may be a signal to predators that the bird knows they are there and is ready to flee. 


A species of Asian wasp that is an enemy of stink bugs has been found to be present in the United States.


The number of seabirds in North Pacific waters along the Alaska coast has dropped, in some cases drastically, over the past several years. The main cause of the decline is thought to be related to global warming and the heating up of the ocean's waters. 


American Coots are very common in the wetlands in our area. One can hardly visit a park without encountering them. I can't say that I have ever noticed them being particularly contentious, but perhaps their Eurasian cousins are different - at least so says the story in Scientific American entitled "Curious Complex Contentious Coots."


Around the backyard:

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have arrived! The males always precede the females in their spring migration. There were at least two of the pugnacious little critters vying over my feeders in the backyard today. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Five Bells and Bladebone by Martha Grimes: A review

The Five Bells and Bladebone (Richard Jury, #9)The Five Bells and Bladebone by Martha Grimes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, in a very, very long series such as Martha Grimes' Richard Jury, I guess we can't expect every entry to be a winner. This one was a bit of a letdown, which actually surprised me because it started out as if it would be very entertaining, but somewhere around the two-thirds mark, it seemed to lose its way and the last third really meandered around trying to find that way once again. But it never did. In the end, I would award it two-and-a-half stars, but since I can't do a half-star here, I'll be generous and make it three.

The story briefly is this: Richard Jury is finally getting some well-deserved vacation time. He plans to spend it in the little village of Long Piddleton with his good friend, the fabulously wealthy Melrose Plant. Things look promising as he arrives in town and we get to meet all the Long Piddleton characters we've come to know in earlier books, including the extremely obnoxious and clueless Aunt Agatha, Melrose's aunt, who is suing the local butcher over an accident that she herself caused.

Of course, we strongly suspect from the beginning that Jury's vacation plans will be interrupted by murder and so it happens, in a most unexpected way.

The local antique dealer, Marshall Trueblood, is proudly showing Jury and Plant one of his recent acquisitions, a secretary's desk. When he opens up the desk for their inspection, they discover a dead body.

The dead man is the nephew by marriage of a local extremely wealthy woman. His marriage to the woman's niece was troubled, to say the least, by his constant and varied infidelities. There seems to be a countless number of both local and London women with whom he had affairs. Did one of them kill him? Did the wife finally get fed up and decide to put a permanent end to it all? Would that the solution were that simple!

Jury, of course, as the Scotland Yard man on scene, is expected to head up the investigation, even though that is resented by the local coppers. At length, he makes a connection between the Long Piddleton murder and the murder of a woman called Sadie Diver in London. But is she really Sadie Diver or is she actually the wife of the man who was killed? Is the grieving widow in Long Piddleton actually an imposter? It all gets very complicated and this is where the plot began to lose some steam and some of my interest. It was all so convoluted that I just couldn't keep it straight and I found that even the ending did not really explain things and it left me with more questions than answers. Sigh.  

I enjoy this series so much that it's a real disappointment to read an entry where the plot and the characters don't scintillate. Plus, there were things about the writing that annoyed me. For example, the body in the secretary's desk was murdered by being stabbed. There was blood spilled. When Jury went to investigate the place the desk had come from, he found a big bloodstain on the carpet. The removal men who had taken the desk away had evidently never noticed that! Really?

In another place, the writer refers to a cup being "sat" in front of a character. One does not "sat" an object in place - one sets an object in place. I'm sure Martha Grimes knows that, but miscues like that have the capacity to annoy me no end.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

False Mirror by Charles Todd: A review

A False Mirror (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #9)A False Mirror by Charles Todd
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this ninth in the Inspector Ian Rutledge series a bit of rough going. It was hard to work up much interest in the plot or in the main characters. The whole premise of the story just seemed rather unbelievable.

As always, the plot is tied to the experiences of World War I. In this instance, the connection is through a man with whom Ian Rutledge had served in the war, a man who returned from the war to find the woman that he had been in love with now married to another older, richer man of a higher social class. When that man is severely beaten and left for dead, suspicion falls upon Rutledge's former comrade in arms.

When the police go to question the man, he goes a bit off the tracks and runs over the constable's foot with his car as he makes his escape. Instead of leaving the area, he makes his way to the house of the victim where, in a strange encounter with the man's wife, she gives him her husband's gun and essentially invites him to hold her and the housekeeper hostage!

When the police inevitably come calling, he tells them that he will not talk to anyone except Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard. Rutledge is involved in investigating another case at the time and is very reluctant to head out to the hinterlands to deal with this new crime, but his superiors do not give him a choice in the matter. He's instructed to go and sort it out.

As he goes, he is still accompanied by the presence of Hamish, the Scottish soldier whom he executed during the war for refusing to obey a command. Hamish is an ever-present reminder of the horrors of war, but his contribution to this story seems subdued at best.

After Rutledge arrives on the scene, things seem to go from bad to worse. The suspect, the grieving wife, and the housekeeper are still holed up in the house with the suspect brandishing his revolver. Soon another body is added to the death toll as the housekeeper is smothered in her bed. Then the victim, who had apparently been in a coma at the local doctor's surgery, mysteriously disappears. Did he leave on his own or was he spirited away?

In the contretemps caused by the missing patient, it isn't noticed at first that the doctor's wife has been bludgeoned to death, her body left behind a desk. So, the tally becomes three dead bodies and one missing, either dead or alive, body.

At this point, the tale seemed to be descending into parody. I could not work up any empathy or interest in the two main characters, the wife and the suspect. They both seemed utterly unsympathetic and undeserving of my time. I really didn't care what happened to either of them.

The list of possible suspects, once we had pretty well established that the man in the house was not guilty, was long and scattered. Moreover, the denouement, when it came, was particularly unsatisfying and didn't really wrap things up for me. Too many loose ends were left hanging.

In a long series like this, there are bound to be times when the writer(s) is/are not at his/their best. The mother and son duo that make up "Charles Todd" have maintained a high standard of quality and this book didn't meet that standard. It was not terrible and there were bits that were entertaining, but, overall, it certainly was not one of their best.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Buff-bellied Hummingbird

Truthfully, I do not have a Buff-bellied Hummingbird in my backyard, although some of these tropical hummingbirds do make it this far north in their wanderings. But in fact, seeing a Buff-bellied at the Estero Llano Grande State Park on one of the good days for birding last week was one of the highlights of my vacation.

The Buff-bellied is noticeably larger than the hummingbirds that I am most used to seeing - the Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous. It is 4.25" in length and has a wingspan of 5.75".

The most obvious thing about the bird, other than its size, is that bright red, slightly curved bill. That is a field mark that you just can't miss and you can see it with the naked eye from a good distance. It leaves no question about the identification, which is always a good thing. 

Here is a closer view of bird. They are uncommon within their limited range and are most frequently seen at feeders and flower gardens. This feeder was set out by the staff at the visitor's center at the park. The Buff-bellied is a resident bird there. While we were there, other birders were reporting seeing Ruby-throats and Black-chinneds in spring migration through the park. I didn't see them though. I had eyes only for the Buff-bellied.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Belated bloomers

Okay, I missed Bloom Day for reasons that I explained yesterday, but I came home from my vacation to find a few new, as well as some old, blooms happening in my yard, and today I thought I would share a belated personal Bloom Day with you. 

It's impossible to share blooms with you these days without also sharing pollen. Our air is yellow with the pollen of our many pine and oak trees. You'll be able to see a dusting of it on some of these blossoms.

The 'Mabel Bryan' camellia is in full bloom.

The 'Climax' blueberry is also full of its bell-shaped blossoms.

This little pink allium is just beginning to bloom.

The ancient azalea in my backyard has just begun to open its flowers to the world.

'Spring Bouquet' viburnum is blooming. 

The primrose has a very long blooming season.

Carolina Jessamine lights up the yard with sunshine even on cloudy days.

The little violas that have bloomed all winter continue blooming as spring approaches. 

This is 'Peggy Martin' rose. Isn't she pretty?

Finally, it is St. Patrick's Day, so let's end on a sort of shamrocky note. Well, faux shamrock anyway. This is the wild oxalis that invades flower beds all over my garden, but I tolerate it since it's such a pretty little invader.

Just a few more days and spring will officially arrive. We are going to finish our "winter" having had only one night of below freezing temperatures. I wonder what that will mean for all the insects and plant diseases that we count on getting knocked back by cold weather. We'll soon find out. 

Happy St. Patrick's Day, happy almost spring, and happy belated Bloom Day. I hope your garden is bringing you joy.