After reading The Professor and the Madman, Pip Williams got interested in the ways that gender affected the original edition of the OED. She wrote The Dictionary of Lost Words to honor the women who helped produce the dictionary.
As a little girl, Esme becomes fascinated with the strips of paper used to keep track of different uses of words. Her father is the assistant to Dr. Murray, who is in charge of the OED project, and she spends a lot of time sitting under her father’s desk at the Scriptorium. One day, she finds the strip for the word “bondwoman” and puts it in her pocket. She begins collecting duplicate strips or words that will not be included in the dictionary and puts them in a trunk.
As a young woman, she begins working in the Scriptorium. She becomes fascinated with the idea that some words are not allowed in the dictionary because they don’t have a written source. Many of these words, she notices, are related to the poor and to women—words for women’s body parts, professions, epithets for women. She begins collecting her own words from Lizzie, the Murray’s maid, and from common people in the market.
This novel not only reflects the love of words but also the events of the time—the battle for women’s suffrage and eventually World War I. At first, I had difficulty getting into it, but that may in part have had to do with my problems with eBooks. Eventually, I was sucked in and found the novel touching, even though a few plot points are predictable.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review. I had this review already scheduled for posting when I learned that the book made it to the shortlist for the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.
Charlotte and Emily
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style
I am sure I previously read one of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries and was not impressed, but lately several bloggers I enjoy have recommended The Moving Toyshop. So, I decided to try him again.
Richard Cadogen has decided to give himself a holiday in Oxford. When he ends up stranded partway because of the cancellation of a train, he decides to hitchhike the rest of the way. So, he arrives in the outskirts of Oxford at 1 AM.
Curiosity makes him investigate a toy shop that he finds unlocked. Upstairs in the living quarters, he discovers the dead body of an older woman, strangled. Then someone hits him on the head.
When he awakens, he is locked in a closet. He gets out by the window and reports the crime to the police. However, when they arrive at the store, it’s a grocery. The apartment is different than the one he remembers and there is no body. The police think he is crazy.
Cadogen turns to his friend, the eccentric Oxford don, Gervase Fen. Their inquiries begin to turn up a plot to defraud the victim of her inheritance. The problem is, first they have too many suspects and later too few.
This novel has a complicated, fairly unbelievable plot, but it is characterized by a wacky sense of humor, as Gervase and his pals chase bad guys all over town. At one point, he is assisted by a hoard of undergraduates, and the novel ends with an exciting chase on a fast-moving carousel, a la The Third Man. I found the novel fun to read and the characters engaging.
The Iron Clew
4:50 from Paddington
Kate Parker has lived the last five years in fear, not of something specific but of harm to herself or her son Jack. She believes she is cursed. First, her parents were killed in a freak accident on the night of her wedding, and then a few years later her beloved husband Hugo was viciously murdered by a gang of men who were trying to steal his car.
Since then, Kate has been obsessed with numbers, the odds of this or that happening that could hurt her or her son. She has gotten so fearful that her in-laws are threatening to sue for custody of her son, claiming she is harming his mental well-being.
Kate is not just being paranoid, though. Fairly early on, we learn that someone is regularly breaking into her house from the student rooming house that shares a wall.
Kate meets Jago Martin, a professor at Edinburg University who is visiting at Oxford. He has written a book that fascinates her on the statistics of events. Once he finds out her problem, he begins a series of unorthodox experiments with her to try to draw her out of her fears. Soon, she seems to be improving, and she is becoming attracted to Jago.
This novel does a fairly good job of building suspense. However, I feel the whole “treatment” idea to be unlikely, first that Kate would agree to do some of the experiments–actually any of them given how she was behaving before–and second that they would help her improve so quickly. There are other plot points I find unlikely, but I can’t discuss them without giving too much away. Let me just say that although the motivation for some actions may not be completely absurd, the chosen target makes no sense at all. Finally, after a villain comes into the open, given the time and effort expended on the tortuous plot, the manner of resolution seems too easy. With these mysterious comments, I will leave you to decide for yourself whether to read the book!
Charlie Flint is a profiler who is on probation because her testimony freed a man who went on to murder four women. She is asked by Corinna Newsam, her old tutor, to investigate the lesbian lover of the tutor’s daughter, Magda. Corinna Newsam thinks that this lover, Jay Stewart, may be a serial killer, because several people who were in her way conveniently died, including Magda Newsam’s husband on the night of their wedding.
Charlie finds herself attracted to a woman she meets in a seminar. (Spoilers follow in this paragraph and the next. I usually don’t include spoilers, but these are integral to my criticism.) This woman is clearly manipulating her from day one, and in the course of her investigation, Charlie violates the confidentiality of the people she is investigating by confiding in her. Of course, without this happening, there wouldn’t be a plot, but it is still the crux of my problem. I don’t think it would be likely that a person in her position would make the mistake of confiding information on a sensitive case to a new acquaintance, even if she is dating her.
It is the nature of this violation that bothers me most, as it is extremely unprofessional and I felt it unlikely from a profiler. Of course, the woman actually turns out to be connected to the murders, and this coincidence also bothered me.
Finally, I am reluctant to say this for fear it will be misconstrued, but at least five characters are fretting about their sexuality. These characters are lesbians, but I don’t enjoy this kind of emphasis in heterosexual literature either.
I am a big fan of the Tony Hill/Carol Jordan books, and I also like the Kate Brannigan series by McDermid. I know she has a Lindsay Gordon series, but I don’t think I have read any of those. McDermid has written some of the best stand-alone thrillers I have ever read, particularly A Place of Execution. I was disappointed not to enjoy this novel as much.