Monday, May 13, 2024

It's MMGM with a review of The Swifts: A Dictionary of Scoundrels by Beth Lincoln, illustrations by Claire Powell

The Swifts:  A Dictionary of Scoundrels by Beth Lincoln, illustrations by Claire Powell
  Dutton Books
Format:  Paperback
Number of pages:   338 pages
Published:   February 7th, 2023
Source:  Purchased

Opening Line:  "Dull, adjective:  not exhilarating, not delightful, as, to make dictionaries is dull work."  

The authors introduction explains a little bit about languages and highlights the distinctions between British and American English. How dictionaries like Johnson's and Webster's were formed and the modifications that were made to some words used in the text, while others were left in their British form.

Chapter one opens with the family rehearsing for Arch Aunt Schadenfreude's impending funeral, a practice she insists they repeat over and over to ensure that everything is carried out perfectly.  Phenomena, Felicity and Shenanigan have grown weary of the entire affair.  They are much more excited about the upcoming family reunion, an event where the Swifts converge from all over the world on the family manor for a celebration and to search for their Grand-Uncle Vile's hidden treasure.  Which is rumored to be hidden somewhere within the manor and has remained undiscovered for centuries. 

Shenanigan was looking forward to meeting her extended family at the reunion, while also scheming to outsmart them and claim the treasure first.  However, the quest for treasure is abruptly interrupted when someone pushes their dear Aunt Schadenfreude down the stairs and the priority shifts to unmasking the culprit.  Shenanigan and her sisters begin to investigate the murder, gathering a list of suspects and looking for clues.  Meanwhile the culprit tries to evade capture and hide their tracks by destroying evidence and killing anyone who gets in their way.  Can the sisters unmask the culprit in time to save the family from further injury?  

Someone with a passion for languages, wordplay, and dictionaries would likely find The Swifts very fascinating.  It combines some of the character traits of Wednesday from the Addams Family, with the old mansion setting of Jessica Lawson's Nooks and Crannies, and the whimsical amusement found in Lemony Snicket's books.  I always seem to be drawn to books set in old mansions or manors, especially ones with hidden rooms, treasure and eccentric families.  Swift mansion is a treasure trove for any adventurous explorer, brimming with secret passages, false walls and even the occasional trap door.  However, the mansion is also fraught with danger, filled with booby traps, so it's important to be cautious and be familiar with the premises.   Shenanigan has explored every inch of the manor and has even crafted her own detailed map.  For the past few weeks, she's been examining every painting on the walls to find any hidden safes.  Her zeal and thoroughness in unraveling the mansion's mysteries are truly admirable.

The Swifts are a quirky family, that you won't soon forget.  Upon the birth of each Swift child, they are brought before the families sacred dictionary, where they receive both a name and its corresponding definition.  It is believed that each Swift's name reflects their personality and character.  This idea of names having a predetermination of who you are was very interesting.   Aunt Schadenfreude says that they're blessed to know themselves and their role from birth, while everyone else is trying to figure themselves out, but Shenanigan doesn't want her name to define her and what she's to become.  The story's exploration of the significance of names, and how sometimes the characters didn't embody their given meaning or match their definition was fascinating.  I liked that some characters wanted to change their name because they didn't like the process or felt that it didn't match with how they wanted to identify themselves.  Namely cousin Erf, who identified themself as nonbinary.  Or Cook, who wasn't born a Swift, but who still became a part of the family.  

Then there's the classic whodunit, unraveling the mystery behind the chaos and the perpetrators motives.  It kept me guessing till the very end.  The chapter titles and illustrations were exceptional, and I especially loved that the Barnes and Noble edition included a maze along the book's edge.  As a lover of words, I enjoyed the author's detailed descriptions, and my favorite quote was "they wound between the graves like black floss through crooked teeth."     Overall, the book was very entertaining, a delightful read, featuring a quirky family, a murder mystery, and intrigue.  I'm so glad that I read it before A Gallery of Rogues, which releases in August and is set in Paris.  I can't wait!  

I hope you'll check out all the other Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday posts at Greg Pattridge's blog HERE     


  1. I like books with quirky characters and a murder mystery to solve so I think I'd like this one. Thanks for recommending it this week.

  2. What an engaging story line. The endearing cast of characters won me over to give this one a try. Thanks for featuring The Swifts on this week's MMGM.

  3. I love books with plays on words!! This book sounds delightful.

  4. This sounds like a delightful read, Brenda! My first instinct is that it reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth, with characters that have humorous names that reflect how they behave—but maybe that's not as true if the book is also exploring how names sometimes don't reflect who we really are, and kind of box us in. The mystery and the mansion setting sound delightful as well—I actually read Nooks and Crannies a long time ago, so I appreciate that comparison. Thanks so much for your thoughtful review, and for bringing this series to my attention—enjoy your week!

  5. Gee, this sounds great. I'm a little surprised that there are murders -- plural -- in a middle grade, but maybe it works. Thanks for telling me about it.