So. I am a longtime Madeleine L'Engle devotee. It started back when I was 10 with A Wrinkle in Time and it has stretched out over the years into a lifelong love affair. One of the more treasured and personal ones in my life. And while I love all her worlds, this little series, this family, holds a couple of my most beloved. This is actually the third full-length novel in the series, and it's something of a dark sheep, if you will. It's the departure novel, for lack of a better term, the one in which dark things happen and you question whether or not these young characters whom you love will be able to rebound after the fallout. It surprised me when I first read it, coming as it did after the gentler and more staid introductory installments. But the setting, the language, the new characters all wove their spell around me and I always return to it when I am in the mood for whistling in the dark.
The Austins have up and moved to New York City. Dr. Austin is working on a research project which requires his residence in the city, and so the family has uprooted itself and settled in Manhattan, not far from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It is there that Vicky, Suzy, and Rob meet a young girl named Emily Gregory. Emily is a piano prodigy studying with the brilliant and temperamental Mr. Theotocopulous (Mr. Theo for short). Emily is generally accompanied by an outsider boy named Dave whose job it seems to be to look out for her and be suspicious of things in general. Vicky is sure there's something in Dave's past he's hiding. But the rag-taggle group quickly become fast friends, and the Austins are willing to let Dave tell them his story when he is good and ready. It isn't until Rob, on one of his many rambles through the neighborhood, makes the acquaintance of a genie that danger strikes. This encounter with the genie (complete with magic lamp) leads the children on a journey through the darker underworld of their new home. A gang called the Alphabats dog their heels, with a particular emphasis on Dave. A strange man by the name of Canon Tallis has taken up residence at the Cathedral and appears intent on following the children as well. Everyone's motives are unclear, and soon events are spiraling out of control as the Austins and Co. race to uncover the thread connecting them all.
Just to whet your appetite, here's a favorite scene from the first couple of pages of the book:
The man in the fur hat left the shadows of the doorway and followed the oddly assorted trio: the dark, shabby boy; the definitely younger and rather elegant girl; and the fair little boy who couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old.
They reached the corner and turned down Broadway. The bitter wind whipped a few brown leaves and bits of soiled newspaper across the sidewalk. Strands of Emily's fine, dark hair blew across her face and she pushed it back impatiently. As they passed a shabby little antique shop with a gloomy bit of oddments on the sidewalk in front of the dusty windows, Dave paused.
"It was here," Rob said. "Right here."
Emily pulled impatiently at Dave's arm, but the older boy stood, looking at the shop window, at the door with the sign PHOOKA'S ANTIQUES, then moved on, more slowly.
Shortly before they reached 110th Street the man with the fur hat pulled ahead of them and merged with a group of people clustered about a newsstand. He held a paper so that he could look past it at the children as they came by.
The little boy, who had made friends with the crippled man who owned the newsstand, looked up to wave hello. His mouth opened in startled recognition as his eyes met those of their follower. He didn't hear the news vendor call out, "Hi, Robby, what's up?"
The man in the fur hat smiled at the small boy, nodded briefly, rolled up his newspaper, and turned back in the direction of the Cathedral.
Dave and Emily had gone on ahead. Rob ran after them, calling, "Dave! He's the one!" He tugged at the older boy's sleeve.
"Who's what one?" Dave pulled impatiently away from the scarlet mitten.
"The man we saw yesterday, the one who talked to Emily!"
Dave stopped. "Where?"
Rob pointed towards the Cathedral.
"Wait!" Dave ran back around the corner.
"Emily, he was the one," Rob said. "I'm sorry, but I know he was."
"I don't want to talk about it." Emily's face looked pale and old beyond her years. She was just moving into adolescence, but her expression had nothing childlike about it. "It couldn't have been the same one," she whispered.
"But it was real," Rob persisted. "It did happen."
Dave returned. "I didn't see anybody. Anyway, how do you know he was the one?"
"Because he had no eyebrows."
Emily gave a shudder that had nothing to do with the cold.
What an opener. This book reminds me in many ways of Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart series. Mysterious. Dark. A sense of impending doom drooping over the whole thing. I eat this stuff up with a spoon. I love THE YOUNG UNICORNS because it branches out so ambitiously. Dave, Emily, and Mr. Theo burst onto the scene and into the reader's heart without even a by your leave, and the Austins almost take a back seat to their new friends, their new neighborhood, their new life. I love L'Engle's New York City. I love the way she just plops her quiet family down in the middle of a boiling and boisterous city and allows them to explore and be worked upon and changed by its life and color and variety. The cathedral itself is essentially a character in its own right, serving as the perfect backdrop for the secret plots and underhanded machinations that take place within the pages of this story. Ms. L'Engle was writer-in-residence at this very cathedral for many years, and her knowledge of (and love for) its halls and corners and denizens is evident here. To say nothing of the crossover characters with which she graces the tale. Canon Tallis is a particular favorite and one I am always relieved to see show up, both for his keen intelligence and his checkered background. I knew the children would be safer with him at their backs. But things do get decidedly bleak (and a fair bit deranged) before they get better. But if a love of mystery lurks anywhere in your heart, you do not want to pass this one up. L'Engle's lovely words wrap around these precocious children and see them through to the very end. I think I've been in love with Dave ever since I first read this book, and it is his journey that is the most compelling to me. A true standout in the middle of an excellent series.(less)
I first read A WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE for an assignment in my 7th grade English class in San Antonio as part of our Texas literature unit. I loved it the...moreI first read A WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE for an assignment in my 7th grade English class in San Antonio as part of our Texas literature unit. I loved it then. I really did. And I wasn't expecting to. I had recently moved to the Lone Star state from the island of Sicily and things were . . . a little different. Which is a really understated way of saying I was hopelessly unequal to the task of handling the differences between living in Italy and living in Texas. On top of that it was 7th grade, and 7th grade, as you know, is hell. I wasn't comfortable in my own skin. I wasn't comfortable back in the states. And I certainly wasn't comfortable at the middle school with its walls that felt as though they were closing in on me a little closer and a little tighter every day. So a book set on the Texas frontier didn't exactly have my engines racing, you know? Fortunately, I started it anyway. And that was all it took. Just starting it. I've re-read it a couple of times over the years since. For awhile there at work, I was conducting quite a bit of research on the history of Native American tribes and their interactions with early settlers. That research reminded me of this book and I discovered my old copy had gone walkabout. But I couldn't shake the urge to pick it up again, so I managed to find a copy to reread. It was as wonderful and heartbreaking as I remember it being. I feel like I say this more than I'd like, but I don't think I've talked to a single soul (outside of that 7th grade class) who's read this book and that's a shame. It deserves a wider readership than a handful of reluctant 7th graders.
Helen Morrison is nine years old and her little sister Katy is five. Living with their parents and their older brother George near the Brazos River on the Texas frontier, Helen and Katy's lives are practical but airy. They play and work and dream, and when Helen can't sleep at night she keeps herself up with stories of the scariest thing she can imagine--the Comanches. But while she believes they're real (even though she's never seen one), her young mind cannot really conceive of the terrible warriors her Aunt Melinda whispers of so threateningly. Then one fall day the Comanches come. The tribesmen destroy the Morrison homestead, killing the parents and older brother and carrying the two young girls off captive. In shock, angry, and determined to escape and return back home, Helen puts all her energy into taking care of Katy and not giving an inch to the people who have shattered her life. She soon becomes known among the tribe as Tehanita, or Little Girl Texan, and over the course of the next fourteen years she slowly (almost unbeknownst to herself) becomes assimilated into the Comanche tribe, finding family, companionship, and love among the people she once feared and distrusted.
I love Helen's story. I think my 12-year-old self, struggling to bridge two different cultures, found a lot to resonate with in her anger, fear, and uncertainty. I had read several traditional captivity tales around that time (Calico Captive comes to mind), and this one held the allure of being based on a true story. Interestingly, re-reading it as an adult, I relate to the story just as well as I did then, albeit this time more along the lines of the pain associated with actually being a grown up, leaving the world of childhood and home behind, and the wonder and joy of finding family where you didn't expect to and people who take you in and love you when they don't have to. I especially appreciated the emphasis on transformation and the many different roles we fill over the course of our lives, whether we go in willingly or not. Helen goes from scared young girl to Tehanita to a woman of the people, but her final role as Story Teller for her people may be my favorite. And I will always love the ways in which she is loved and taught by her adopted family Lance Returner and Come Home Early, Old Woman and Blessed. And of course by one unusual young man who falls in love with the outsider and the grand gesture he makes. I was and remain enchanted by the beautiful chapter titles: Mountains That Wander Away, The Winter of Living in Graves, and West Toward the Setting Sun. Strong and bittersweet, A WOMAN OF THE PEOPLE is a beautiful narrative and one that should not be forgotten.(less)
Did any of you ever struggle with American literature in high school? I did. In fact, I developed a strong British bias earl...moreOriginally published here.
Did any of you ever struggle with American literature in high school? I did. In fact, I developed a strong British bias early on as a result of being forced to read the slogging, long American works before any of the mind-blowingly awesome ones. I continue to feel this was a failed strategy. I mean, I still cringe whenever I think about The Grapes of Wrath, and it took all the way till college to discover that Steinbeck was actually awesome, when my professor slapped a copy of "The Chysanthemums" in my lap. Same goes for Hemingway. Who knew his short stories were incredible? When it came to high school, it wasn't until they handed us The Catcher in the Rye and A SEPARATE PEACE that things got interesting. And then Fitzgerald came along and it was like, where have you been all my life F. Scott? We read A SEPARATE PEACE in 10th grade, and I had a copy with the middle cover above. I still do, and to this day that is how I picture Gene. At least, I've always assumed it was Gene. Finny somehow seemed to me too large, too dark, too chaotic a personality to try to represent on a mere cover. I do love this cover, though, because it is both beautiful and menacing at the same time. Those of you who've read it will know what I mean.
Gene Forrester attends the prestigious Devon prep school in New England. During the period leading up to World War II, Gene shares a dorm room with a young man by the name of Phineas. Finny. Finny is everything Gene is not. Popular, handsome, athletic, and happy. Gene envies his roommate his easy manner and way with life. The two become close friends, and Gene's feelings come to torment him, particularly as Finny is as nice as he is talented. He seems to care little for his reputation or status and so Gene lives under the shadow of both his friend's prowess and the crushing guilt of his own emotions. Then one day Gene's actions (as nebulous as they may be) cause a disastrous event. And the relationship between the two boys will never be the same again. As the war draws ever closer, the boys of Devon prepare to be drafted and boast of how well they will match up to the requirements of war. Meanwhile, Gene and Finny wage their own war of sorts, between reality and memory, shaking the ground their friendship is built upon. It is this silent war that will determine the remains of their lives, far more definitively than the one taking place across an ocean.
A SEPARATE PEACE is one of those books that, once I start reading it, becomes immediately impossible for me to stop. Every passage is memorable, and every one of Gene's remembrances is weighty with meaning. The entire story is told from Gene's perspective, looking back on the experiences of that summer, several years after they took place. The opening unforgettable lines:
I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn't as well kept up in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.
I didn't entirly like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that's exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.
Now here it was after all, preserved by some considerate hand with varnish and wax. Prserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.
How is it possible for one opening passage to induce smiles, tears, and a deep sense of foreboding all at once? A lot of it has to do with remembering how utterly without abandon I fell into this story the first time I read it, when I, too, was fifteen. Just like Gene. And part of it is, like Gene, knowing what's coming and being so afraid of getting there and so helpless to turn back. But most of it is simply the mild, thoughtful writing, the mingled fear and nostalgia, and the wonderful, wonderful characters. If you've never had the chance to pick this one up, I envy you the experience of meeting Finny for the first time. You won't meet his like again. Like Gene, you'll be drawn to this magnetic young man who has everything going for him, who loves sport more than anything on this earth, and who is all set to become the most stellar soldier there ever was. With his personal set of commandments, his Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, and his linvention of blitzball, Finny is the world. For himself, for Gene, and most certainly for the reader. Which is, of course, why the events of the story have such a strong impact. I think these two have been in the back of my mind ever since I read this book for the first time sophomore year in high school. And I'm not sure I've passed judgement on either of them yet. What I do know is I've loved the name Finny ever since, and when we had our little boy earlier this year, Finn was at the top of the list of names. Though I hope my boy doesn't share all of the same qualities with this character, we call him Finny every day. And it always makes me smile.(less)
This cover. This cover remains one of my favorite covers ever! I had never heard of Paula Volsky before or read much histori...moreOriginally published here.
This cover. This cover remains one of my favorite covers ever! I had never heard of Paula Volsky before or read much historical fantasy at all when a copy of ILLUSION arrived at my house. I was fifteen and my Aunt Claudia sent it to me for my birthday. She's a great reader, my aunt, and she has flawless taste. When they were kids, she and my dad would ride their bikes to the library and each check out a stack of Nancy Drews and Hardy Boys, go home, read them, switch, read, return, and repeat. She loves Dickens and Georgette Heyer and all manner of good ones. So I knew this one would be good. And I loved how reassuringly thick the mass market copy was. Slick gray pages and 674 of them in all--absolute bliss. I ended up reading the majority of it during a couple of late night babysitting stints. After the kids brushed their teeth and went to bed, I curled up in an oversize chair in the living room and lost myself in the crazy elaborate world Ms. Volsky created. I had honestly never read anything like it, and sadly, I have yet to actually talk to anyone else (besides my aunt) who has read it.
Eliste vo Derrivale (wow, did I love her name when I was 15 . . . oh, who are we kidding? I still do) is a member of the ultra-privileged Exalted class in the land of Vonahr. Having grown up on a rather idyllic estate in the countryside, she can hardly focus on anything else when the summons comes to move to the capital city of Sherreen and become a lady-in-waiting to Queen Lallazay herself. And so she packs her bags and trips off to make her debut at court without a backward glance. Unfortunately for Eliste, her timing is catastrophic. While she is primped, prodded, and ruthlessly trained in the intricate ways of court life, the nation's serfs are rising up. Sick of centuries of subservience to the Exalted class, whose rule is based on their much-lauded but rarely-seen magical abilities, the peasants have united. Before she has fully adapted to her new life, violence breaks out in the city and the life she longed to lead is ripped from her grasp. Forced out onto the streets, Eliste comes to grim terms with a very different way of life. And a past uncharacteristic and seemingly insignificant action comes back to haunt her, as one of the key members of the rebellion is none other than Dref Zeenosen--a serf she once freed from her father's tyranny in a fit of momentary pity a long time ago. If she is to survive, Eliste must develop a whole new set of skills and avoid the dreaded Kokette--the death machine that awaits any Exalted the rebels can get their hands on.
Just thinking about this gorgeous epic sends pleasant little sparks to the tips of my fingers. And I do mean epic in the long and drawn out sense of the word. Densely written, ILLUSION is expansive and filled with exquisite, minute descriptions of everything from the lace in Eliste's hair to the bloody spikes on the horrific, possibly sentient Kokette. Based on the events of the French Revolution, Eliste's world is richly evocative of that period in history and, while some of the events in the story may not surprise you as a result, the elaborate and sympathetic characterization and the delicious magical overtones will reel you in. I love that Eliste is such a spoiled brat at the beginning. She's the epitome of snobby upper crust debutante with a disdain for anything she deems beneath her--which is pretty much everything. She's young and thoughtless and incredibly annoying. But. She is often a keen judge of character. She is always a survivor. And she's unwittingly in for a real nightmare. The joy is in the transformation that is wrought and the growth she achieves as a result of having front row seats for the devastation of her world. I very much like who she becomes. Everything about this book takes its time, from the main character's evolution, to the extremely subtle and slow-building romance, to the final quiet and bittersweet conclusion. It could get tiresome, but to me it felt earned. If historical fiction is not your thing, you might find it difficult to sink into the slightly affected vocabulary and speech mannerisms of the principle characters. For me, the unusual blend of historical tapestry, magic, and early steampunk (in the form of crazily creepy machinery used as part of the revolution) worked like a charm. I would love to hear what fans of any or all of those genres think of it as it has long been a favorite.(less)
I've been dreaming of Greece. I've never been there myself, much to my continual dismay, and so it remains at the very top o...moreOriginally published here.
I've been dreaming of Greece. I've never been there myself, much to my continual dismay, and so it remains at the very top of my list when it comes to countries I need to visit next. Lately, I've been doing some research on the country for work. Hence the dreams. And whenever I dream of Greece, I remember my original copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology that I read cover to cover several times over. And I remember Mary Stewart and the wonderful mysteries she set there. From The Moon-Spinners to This Rough Magic to MY BROTHER MICHAEL, I read them and drift from Crete to Corfu to Delphi in a haze of lemon trees, windswept isles, and footprints of the gods. I've been in love with this place for a long time, and I fervently hope I get to travel there someday. But for now I shall have to be content with my battered copies of Mary Stewart's novels and the adventures her heroines take in this place I long to see. It's so hard for me to choose which of her three Greek books I prefer. They're all splendid and it most likely depends on my mood at the time. The Moon-Spinners has, perhaps, the best mystery, This Rough Magic the swooniest male lead (and all that Shakespeare), and MY BROTHER MICHAEL my favorite title and lady. And, of course, Delphi. So today, you get Delphi, Michael, and Miss Camilla Haven. Not necessarily in that order.
Camilla Haven is sitting alone in a cafe in Athens, bemoaning the lack of action in her life. Having recently broken off her engagement to larger-than-life Phillip, she goes ahead on holiday to Greece all by her lonesome hoping it will be good for her. All that sun and history and good food. But it turns out it's just lonely, albeit in a spectacular setting. Until a stranger approaches her with a set of car keys and a whispered message of urgency. Someone named Simon is in Delphi in need of the car. It is, the man assures her, a matter of life and death. She must take it to him. Several rounds of language-stilted protests ensue. And before she knows it, Camilla is behind the wheel of the big black car and on the road to Delphi. On her way there, she does, in fact, meet a man named Simon, who is in Delphi trying to decipher the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his brother Michael more than a decade earlier during World War II. Armed with Michael's last letter and three gold sovereigns, Camilla and Simon set out for the site of his brother's death. Simon is convinced Michael was on the track of something important, and before long they begin to realize they're not the only ones who are still looking for whatever Michael found.
Lady Stewart is so great at first lines and openings. The first passage of MY BROTHER MICHAEL:
"Nothing ever happens to me."
I wrote the words slowly, looked at them for a moment with a little sigh, then put my ballpoint pen down on the cafe table and rummaged in my handbag for a cigarette.
As I breathed the smoke in I looked about me. It occurred to me, thinking of that last depressed sentence in my letter to Elizabeth, that enough was happening at the moment to satisfy all by the most adventure-hungry. That is the impression Athens gives you. Everyone is moving, talking, gesticulating--but particularly talking. The second one remembers in Athens is not the clamour of pneumatic drill or even the age-old sound of chisels chipping away at the Pentelic marble which is still the cheapest stone for building . . . what one remembers about Athens is the roar of talking. Up to your high hotel window, above the smell of dust and the blare of traffic it comes, surging like the sea below the temple at Sunium--the sound of Athenian voices arguing, laughing, talk-talk-talking, as once they talked the world into shape in the busy colonnades of the Agora, not so very far from where I sat.
Within the space of two paragraphs I not only feel for the main character, but I feel as though I'm sitting there with her. I can hear it and smell it and taste it. I'm in Athens wondering how in the world I got there. This is one of Ms. Stewart's most atmospheric and action-packed novels. From negotiating the hairpin turns to Delphi, to wandering through ancient amphitheaters with handsome Classics teachers, to scrambling through caves, enough happens to Camilla within the space of these 240 pages to last a lifetime, let alone one brief holiday. I love Camilla's audacity. She's always lived in other people's shadows. And yet she goes on the trip to Greece. She takes the car keys. She cares about this Simon she does not know. And speaking of Simon? I'm excessively fond of him. For his part, he never casts Camilla in shadow, his or anything else's. He quotes Euripides and courts death in the name of his brother, and he accepts Camilla's strange story at face value and the two of them are off like a shot in no time. So much about this novel is based on mistaken identities, years of subterfuge, and bad blood. And I eat it up with a spoon every time I re-read it. I am fairly swept away at the richness of it all. And, as I return to it, the romance in this one appeals more and more. Hints of it are established from glance one. But hints is all they are at first. This is a relationship that builds slowly and surely and to great effect. Truly all of Mary Stewart's strengths, from intrepid women to mouth-watering locales to heart-pounding suspense, come together in this exciting tale. Withe one crazy, climactic ending to top it off. Whenever I return to MY BROTHER MICHAEL, it almost comes as a bit of a shock that I've never actually been to Delphi, that I'm not returning to a place I know so well and people whose hands I've held in mine. A classy, perennial favorite.(less)
I'll just go ahead and start by saying this review is a hard one for me to write. My emotions become tied up in all of the books I have loved over the...moreI'll just go ahead and start by saying this review is a hard one for me to write. My emotions become tied up in all of the books I have loved over the years, and it matters very little what genre they are or what the writing style is or when they were written and by whom. Those books that I really love, I tend to love with wild abandon and, once given, that devotion is rarely retracted. My friend Janicu recently commented that I am "the queen of re-reading." And this is true. I love nothing better than a cozy sit down with an old friend, and I don't hesitate to put off the shiny new tome I've got in my hand if the battered old one is the one that's calling my name. But there is one book that I can't let myself reread too often. In fact, I've only read it twice in my life. I joke (but, of course, I'm not really joking at all) that I can only read it once every decade, because the contents are too beautiful and too painful for everyday wear. That book is HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY by Richard Llewellyn. It sat in my house the entire time I was growing up, and I vaguely knew that it was a favorite of my mother's because of her Welsh ancestry. It was the title that drew me to it. What a wonderful title. I would go over and stroke the spine, but I never pulled it out. I think because I was worried it might not live up to its beautiful title. Finally, one summer I got the courage up to give it a shot. I've never been the same.
I am going to pack my two shirts with my other socks and my best suit in the little blue cloth my mother used to tie round her hair when she did the house, and I am going from the Valley.
Those are the the first words the reader encounters in this impressive volume. And they're the ones that made me certain this book and I would have a relationship. Growing up in a small coal mining town in South Wales, the youngest of a raft of five brothers and three sisters, Huw Morgan believed life would always be the same. From helping his mother cook her bottomless, delicious meals in the family kitchen, to taking his weekly penny down to the taffy pullers for a length of homemade taffy, to watching his larger-than-life father and stout older brothers make the daily trek down the hill and home from the mines, Huw's life is filled to the brim with the sights and sounds and people of home. In love with his oldest brother's wife from a very young age, and well aware of his lowly status within the family hierarchy, Huw knows what is his and what is not. But his is a heart that knows how to love and he watches closely over the members of his family as they encounter the myriad trials and heartaches of life and as he himself is put through the painful process of growing up and becoming a man. Along the way, almost everything about his humble life is altered, through strikes, schooling, marriage, betrayal, passion, death, and even boxing. Through it all, Huw struggles to reconcile the life that he knew with the life that is and to remember the good and the beautiful along with the bad and the ugly.
Written in 1939, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY is a tribute to the Welsh people and culture. Prior to reading this book, I don't think I'd ever felt as immersed in a version of our own world as I did in this one. Many a fantasy novel captured my imagination, but a work of historical fiction set only a few decades in the past? That was a first. Llewellyn's storytelling is second to none. To this day I'm in awe of the compassion and loving attention to detail that went into the telling. A very favorite passage (from so many it's impossible to count):
Bronwen came over plenty of Saturdays after that, but I was always shy of her. I think I must have fallen in love with Bronwen even then and I must have been in love with her all my life since. It is silly to think a child could fall in love. If you think about it like that, mind. But I am the child that was, and nobody knows how I feel, except only me. And I think I fell in love with Bronwen that Saturday on the hill.
I fell in love with Bronwen (and Huw) that day on the hill as well. And I have been in love with them both ever since. That simple, measured, and certain way Huw has of narrating his story sort of swallowed me from page one. Told in alternating passages between the present and the past, the man and the boy, the narrative incorporates the reader in such a way that it becomes almost immediately painful to contemplate your inevitable extraction from it all at the end. This is one of those ones where you dread the turning of the final pages. And, if you're me, you're having trouble seeing them because the tears are welling up so quickly and so close together. Yes, an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and loss pervades all 600+ pages, but somehow it stops well short of being trite or cloying. So much of it is the beautiful, beautiful language. I would love this book for the language alone, if for nothing and no one else. It is unmatched. It haunts me, tripping after me out of nowhere sometimes. The sing-song sentences, the inverted wording, and the lovely names come back to me over and over again, and I'm once again in the Valley with Huw and Bronwen, Ianto and Angharad, Gwilym and Dai Bando. I read this aloud with my husband (then-boyfriend) and I really can't overstate how beautiful it is read aloud. And shared with someone else who appreciates the endless nuance and the inviting whisper of a language used to its fullest capacity, wrapped in and around characters who wring you out and own a piece of your soul by the time it is through. Truly the most lyrical and beautiful book I have ever read, I'll be all set to pick it up again in another ten years or so. (less)
You'll forgive me for indulging in what is essentially pure nostalgia and reviewing a book I hadn't thought of in years, but which had a profound impa...moreYou'll forgive me for indulging in what is essentially pure nostalgia and reviewing a book I hadn't thought of in years, but which had a profound impact on me as a young girl. I was remembering the school I attended in fifth grade the other night and mentally wandering the halls and rooms. I remembered the wonderful library it had and the kind librarian there who listened to me talk about how much I loved Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper and, smiling, led me over to wonderful, new authors such as Madeleine L'Engle. It was in this library that I was perusing one day when I came across GOOD-BYE PINK PIG by C.S. Adler. I know. Can you believe that title? And the picture to go with it. I mean, look at the sadness in that little girl's eyes. They almost look without hope completely. I hadn't even entered my hopeless junior high years yet, but for some reason it called out to me. I'd read a fair amount of children's and young adult fantasy by this point, but I'd never really read a contemporary fantasy, let alone one that might actually have just been the sad dreamings in a little girl's head and not real at all. That ambiguity intrigued me and I fell utterly under this relatively unknown, wistful little novel's spell.
Ten-year-old Amanda walks around feeling like the world's biggest disappointment. Her beautiful, cultured mother doesn't know what to do with her shy and unremarkable daughter. Her big brother Dale is kind to her and watches out for her, but their relationship is all but eclipsed by their mother's expectations for Dale regarding going to an Ivy League school and putting that special shine to the family name. Her best friend Libby has always been a source of comfort, but things begin to shift when Amanda discovers a tiny, glass pink pig to add to her collection of miniatures. Pink Pig is different from her other toys. He's real. When she plays with pink pig, she's transported from her dull daily life to a world where all her miniatures live and are real. It's during these times, and only during these times, that Amanda feels alive and loved. But no one will believe her when she tells them about Pink Pig. No one but her grandmother Pearly, who works as a janitor at the school Amanda attends, and who her mother tries to keep her from seeing as a rule. Embarrassed by her ex-husband's working class mother, Amanda's mother does everything in her power to keep the two separate. But when Pink Pig is lost, Pearly is the only one Amanda can turn to to fend off the bone crushing loneliness that threatens to engulf her.
Even now, years later, I get a little thrill of happiness thinking about this sweet, sad story and how much I understood (despite not sharing Amanda's bleak circumstances) the loneliness she felt and the longing for beauty and magic to balance the grim. It's a beautiful book and it made me both long for an older brother like Dale and feel profoundly grateful to have two loving parents in the place of one high strung and completely clueless mother. It reminded me very much of watching The Neverending Story. As I said, this book resides somewhere between fantasy and contemporary fiction and I remember thoughtfully trying to decide which I really wanted it to be. I was 10 myself when I read it and, like Amanda, I felt caught between the two worlds, wondering if it would be so bad if the magic were all in her head, reluctant to let it slip out of my fingers, and curious at how well she would handle moving on with her life. I was very proud of her in the end. And thoroughly pleased with the result. Curiously, I believe C.S. Adler actually wrote a sequel to this book, but I never felt the urge to read it as this one just didn't need a coda of any kind as far as I was concerned. I'd love to talk to someone else who's read it more recently and hear how it holds up over time. In my memory, it's preserved perfect and clear, like the glass of each little figurine on Amanda's shelf.(less)
All right. We're stretching back a ways this time around and featuring a book written by a very well-known author but oft overlooked in favor of its f...moreAll right. We're stretching back a ways this time around and featuring a book written by a very well-known author but oft overlooked in favor of its famous big sib. I know there are plenty of you The Witch of Blackbird Pond fans out there. I am one of you. How could you not love wonderful, brash Kit Tyler? And Hannah and Nat and Mercy? I loved it back when I was a little girl and my mom read it to me and I love it now when I re-read it for myself. In fact, after I finished it the first time, I immediately ran out to find what else Elizabeth George Speare had written and the first one I came across was CALICO CAPTIVE. I immediately liked the cover and the bright yellow spine. I read the back (back when I used to engage in that dangerous activity) and hoped that this Miriam would be as endearing and interesting as Kit. Her adventures seemed to be even more wild and that gave me an additional dose of hope. I'm always in favor of a good swashbuckle or two. I own the above middle copy and I actually think it represents the story quite well, early nineties styling and all. In many ways, CALICO CAPTIVE echoes the richness and beauty of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and at the same time it is quite a different story. First published back in 1957, CALICO CAPTIVE is based on a true story and was actually Speare's first novel. At times it is even more fraught with danger and the two heroines are very different girls, in search of awfully different things in life. Once again, however, Speare just hits it out of the park when it comes to the atmosphere of the times and her portrayal of women and the lives they led.
Sixteen-year-old Miriam Willard lives with her family in the New Hampshire colony. And on the night in 1754 in which our story begins, she is experiencing her first real party. The soldiers from the nearby fort have come out for the occasion and everywhere there are candles and music and dancing. It proves to be everything she hoped it would be down to the lingering conversation at the end with quiet and handsome Phineas Whitney. Phineas is off to Harvard within a couple of weeks to study medicine and, with the French and Indian war still raging, he is not sure when he will see Miriam again. They would both very much like to continue their acquaintance and Miriam sends him off that night with high hopes they will get to know each other better over the next few weeks. Then, disaster strikes. In the middle of the night their homestead is attacked by Indians bent on capturing the family and marching them all the way to Montreal to be sold into slavery. The journey is harsh and dangerous and Miriam is terrified for herself and for her sister and her young children who are forced to make the march together. Separated in Montreal, Miriam fear she will never see her family again. Sold to an opulent and well-to-do French Canadien family, Miriam's life takes a bizarre and jarring twist as she serves as a ladies maid to the Du Quesne family. There she encounters a level of refinement and lust for life that she has never before fathomed. She also meets the coureur du bois Pierre Laroche and with such an acquaintance, it seems that many more cords slip around her, tying her to solitude and this strange land.
Miriam is a survivor and that is what I like best about her. She never gives up on her family--her sister, brother-in-law, nieces and nephews. She is many times overwhelmed, threatened, angry, and frightened. Yet she never gives in to despair or hatred. I loved her time in Montreal because she was able to embrace the new culture, despite her appalling situation. She made friends with her captors and employers and she saw a different view of the world. I had no idea which way the wind would blow for Miriam in the end and, though I appreciated the fine attributes of both faraway Phineas and very-much-in-the-flesh Pierre, I was pleased with the denouement and the decisions borne of hope that Miriam made in the end. Ms. Speare excels at presenting both sides of every story, at showing every group from the Indians to the French nobility, to the stiff Puritan stock of New Hampshire, in both light and shadow so that the reader gets a feel for just why these wildly diverse groups were fighting. Through Miriam's eyes we are allowed to experience the world at that wild and significant point in time and I have never forgotten what I saw the first time I read it. The harsh reality of her place in the world and the grim and often unbearable truth of those around her haunt Miriam throughout the novel. She does not forget easily, yet she is also one of the only characters to push back against the dizzying tide. By the end, I believed she could do what she said she would because I had watched her adapt time and time again. A truly fascinating read and definitely recommended for Speare fans, as well as those interested in captivity narratives or the early days of North American settlement. (less)
I have several aunts who are readers. And they have always looked after me when it comes to sending books they think I'd like my way. Particularly dur...moreI have several aunts who are readers. And they have always looked after me when it comes to sending books they think I'd like my way. Particularly during my formative reading years. To this day, many of the books nearest and dearest to my heart came to me in the mail from one of my aunts. When I was twelve or so, my Aunt Becky sent me a lesser known book (which I had never heard of) by a very well known author (which I had). The book was ROSE IN BLOOM and it was actually the first book I ever read by Louisa May Alcott. It is also actually a sequel to her earlier book Eight Cousins. I didn't know this at the time, though, and so I cracked it open completely unaware of what to expect in the way of the writing, the style, or the characters. I've since gone back and read Eight Cousins, but, perhaps simply because I read it first, or perhaps because it feels like a slightly more mature and focused character-driven story, ROSE IN BLOOM has always been my favorite. I've read it many times, though I realized it's been quite a few years since I picked it up last. But Rose's coming of age story, her love for her family, and the important dilemmas she faces never fail to make me feel nostalgic and want to return to spend more time with her.
Rose Campbell has been traveling abroad with her Uncle Alec and her maid, friend, and companion Phebe for the last several years. Now she has come of age, come into her inheritance, and come home to Aunt Hill--the family stronghold--to reacquaint herself with her seven male cousins as well as her family's expectations that she settle down and marry one of them at once. But Rose has grown up quite a bit in the intervening years and is not at all sure she's ready for matrimony. Surprising the whole clan by insisting upon establishing herself as an independent woman before choosing a husband, she holds their uneasiness and disapproval at bay and takes her own time evaluating her options and settling on a course of action. Meanwhile, the various aunts are in various states of uproar and decline. Her former maid and now friend Phebe is caught uncomfortably between two worlds as she is forced to determine what she will do with her life now that Rose has no official need of her and she has little money of her own. And then there are the boys. The seven boys who've unexpectedly grown into men and who are each so very different and each have their own unique relationship with their cousin Rose. Their wildly different personalities, habits, and desires at times clash with their parents' wishes and their choices, along with Rose's, dramatically affect every member of the Campbell family over the course of the novel.
I'm always amazed at how few people I know have actually read (or even heard of) this book. I realize it will always be overshadowed by Little Women, but ROSE IN BLOOM is a perfectly lovely, sweet read about a kind, thoughtful, and forward-thinking young woman and how she comes of age and learns several important things about herself and the world around her and is a force for good in binding the wayward members of her family together. The opening passage, to give you a feel for what's in store:
Three young men stood together on a wharf one bright October day awaiting the arrival of an ocean steamer with an impatience which found a vent in lively skirmishes with a small lad, who pervaded the premises like a will-o'-the-wisp and afforded much amusement to the other groups assembled there.
"They are the Campbells, waiting for their cousin, who has been abroad several years with her uncle, the doctor," whispered one lady to another as the handsomest of the young men touched his hat to her as he passed, lugging the boy, whom he had just rescued from a little expedition down among the piles.
"Which is that?" asked the stranger.
"Prince Charlie, as he's called--a fine fellow, the most promising of the seven, but a little fast, people say," answered the first speaker with a shake of the head.
"Are the others his brothers?"
'No, cousins. The elder is Archie, a most exemplary young man. He has just gone into business with the merchant uncle and bids fair to be an honor to his family. The other, with the eyeglasses and no gloves, is Mac, the odd one, just out of college."
"And the boy?"
"Oh, he is Jamie, the youngest brother of Archibald, and the pet of the whole family. Mercy on us--he'll be in if they don't hold on to him!"
I do love those boys. Upstanding Archie, quiet Mac, princely Charlie, the beanpole brothers Will and Geordie, dandy Steve, and impish Jamie. When I first read it, this book reminded me quite a bit of Anne of Green Gables and, though overall a less complicated and somewhat rosier tale, it is not without its heart-wrenching moments and instances of tragedy. I appreciated the way Alcott addressed the many vices and challenges young men and women in their early twenties face and it never fails to surprise me how those hurdles have not changed so very much since this book was first published in 1876. It's interesting to me that it is so often billed as a children's book, as the themes it explores seem much older to me. Particularly as Rose does, in the end, come to an informed (if painful and complicated) decision as to where her heart lies. But then I read it first when I was twelve, and again every couple of years after that, and gained something new every time I did. How sad it must be to never re-read good books and never experience that unforgettable moment of realization that both you and the book have brought more to the table than was there the last time you met. Recommended, unsurprisingly, for fans of Alcott, Montgomery, and Eva Ibbotson.(less)
I think this may have been the last Madeleine L'Engle book I read (for the first time) as a teenager. And for some reason it holds a sort of distincti...moreI think this may have been the last Madeleine L'Engle book I read (for the first time) as a teenager. And for some reason it holds a sort of distinction in my head because of that fact. I, like most other readers I know who love her books, got in on the whole thing with A Wrinkle in Time, moving on to the other Murry and O'Keefe family books and then the Austin family series and so on from there. I must have been somewhere around ten or so when I first read the Time series and by the time I got through all the others and worked my way around to her standalones I was a bit older. Although one of my very favorite things about her body of young adult work is that there are so many connections between them. And while AND BOTH WERE YOUNG is probably one of the most standalone of them all, for the discerning reader there is a very lovely, very oblique reference to its main character in L'Engle's much later novel A Severed Wasp. Interestingly, I don't think I ever realized just how old this book is. Originally published in 1949, it was actually her first young adult novel. Incidentally, my copy features the old 1983 cover. But a lovely new hardback edition was just released on Tuesday and, as it is one of my very favorite of L'Engle's books, I wanted to highlight it here while I convince my local bookshop to order a copy into the store.
Phillipa Hunter, better known as Flip (oh, how much I love this), never wanted to leave her father and her Connecticut home to come to a Swiss boarding school. That was her father's new "friend" Eunice's bright idea. Since her mother passed away, Flip has grown even closer to her artist father and the idea of leaving him and attending a foreign school among a host of strange other girls terrifies her. But her father is bound for China to draw and Eunice is traveling with him instead of Flip. And so Flip tries to hide her trembling and put on a brave face for her father's sake. But boarding school is just as alien and difficult as she feared. Though the girls hail from all over the globe, Flip finds it hard to fit in. Long-limbed and lacking in coordination, she watches her fellow students from the sidelines and prays for the year to be up soon. The one bright spot in the gloom is her art teacher Percy--a young woman who seems to understand Flip's solitude and need to filter her kaleidoscopic emotions through some sort of creative act. Then one day out exploring further than she ought to be above the school grounds, Flip runs into a young man named Paul. Paul lives with his father in a small cottage not far from the school. These two dispossessed young teenagers form a friendship and, in the process, find the kind of acceptance and understanding in each other that they've been searching for.
Flip is the kind of foot-in-her-mouth, arms-and-legs-everywhere protagonist that I connected with instantly as a teen reader. I loved her for her haplessness and the way that she just kept on stumbling through her outer coating of awkward to a place where she could voice her thoughts and experiences so that someone else could see them and appreciate her for who she was. In my eyes, that made her admirable--that drive to keep going despite the many misconceptions and deliberate slights of those around her. That was what was so hard for me at that age, and I like to think I drew a little strength from watching her try and fail and try again and succeed. It helped that her interactions with Percy were so poignant, particularly in the wake of having lost her mother and being without her father. The other girls at the school were especially well done as well. At first you think they will be mere stereotypical characterizations, the way Flip almost expects them to be, but they each emerge from their initial roles to play an important part in Flip's development. And then there's Paul. Lovely Paul. He has long reminded me of Jeff Greene from A Solitary Blue and a kinder, less destructive Zachary Grey. Yes. You will fall in love with Paul just as much as Flip does. And the even more gratifying thing is that the story is not just about Flip's journey to self-discovery, but Paul's as well. It's not all the way he fills her needs, but how she fills his as he has an unusually dark past that he is rather successfully steadfastly refusing to deal with until Flip comes along. This is an eternally sweet and moving book. Like so many of L'Engle's books, I turn to this one when I want to be reminded that the world and the people in it can be beautiful despite the darkness. (less)
I enjoyed The Prince of Ill Luck--the first book in The Warhorse of Esdragon trilogy immensely. Even better, the second book--THE WIND-WITCH--was alre...moreI enjoyed The Prince of Ill Luck--the first book in The Warhorse of Esdragon trilogy immensely. Even better, the second book--THE WIND-WITCH--was already out at the time and, when I went back to purchase it, I was surprised to find that it took place several generations later in the same country and the characters from the first tale were the stuff of almost legend in their country now. Many years had passed since Leith followed his princess through hell and high water to make her honor her word to break his curse, and this second book followed a very different heroine. Though the black warhorse Valadin was there having seemingly not aged a day and that made me feel good and like everything would be all right. It's always hard to let go of those characters and friendships that first captured your attention. But, in this case, Susan Dexter's choice was a good one and THE WIND-WITCH is actually my favorite of the three books in the trilogy. Though they are all excellent, this one is the one I re-read regularly. First published in 1994, this series, as is so often the case with these great under-the-radar fantasy titles, this series is now out of print. But used copies are available very inexpensively.
Druyan has just buried her husband. And she's not exactly the picture of a grieving widow, though she does find herself at quite a few loose ends. It was an arranged marriage and, though he was much older than she and they had little in common, she finds she misses the company and what conversation they shared. Much of this is swallowed up, though, by her realization that her farm, her land, the only place she's ever felt truly at home will assuredly be taken from her if she cannot hold the farm and keep it producing for a year and a day from the moment her husband Travic died. And so, with a stubborn sense of defiance and nothing but a couple of young girls and an elderly, arthritic cook by her side, Druyan sets out to defend her home and use the laws of the land to her advantage. Then, within the span of a few days, she becomes the unsuspecting owner of an unusually beautiful and mysterious black horse, and she discovers a prisoner named Kellis trussed up in the celler, where her husband must have stashed him without telling her when the sea-faring Errol invaders reached their land last fall. Druyan weighs his threat against her need and decides to force the obviously dazed foreigner into service to help bring in the harvest and, in the process, lets loose a force she has no inkling of. But Druyan herself is not precisely what she seems. And her own powers with the weather, combined with the marvelous horse and the mysterious Kellis, will all be necessary when invasion threatens Esdragon's coast once more.
Right away I could tell this book was special. I connected with Druyan immediately and her quiet, strong personality was honestly a relief after the constant stream of vitriol and fire that was Kess in the previous book. Druyan is a weaver of some skill and, at night after working her hands to the point where they're raw, she relaxes in front of the fire and weaves cloaks and blankets and scarves of wonderful color and quality and texture. I, along with Kellis (once he's allowed in the house), watched her in wonder and appreciation at this talent I have little knowledge of or experience with. She reminds me a fair bit of Sorcha in Daughter of the Forest and Claire in Garden Spells because of the determined way she pursues her goals, the way she creates something lovely from such simple ingredients, and the way she is so hesitant--almost afraid--to grasp at the few instances of beauty in her life. I liked getting to know Kellis as well, as Druyan slowly let down her guard around him. He's a disarming beta hero and about as clumsy as a bull in a china shop. He knows nothing of farming or manual labor and Druyan has to teach him everything and bite her tongue when he displays an unusual aversion to cold iron. And it's a good thing she keeps him around despite her numerous misgivings for Kellis does have one ability she does not. And it comes in handy in a most opportune moment, when it seems everything she's worked so hard for will be lost in a moment's thoughtlessness. I love this story. I love the characters and I love the not knowing up to the last page what will happen ending. THE WIND-WITCH is good, solid traditional fantasy in the vein of the early Patricia McKillip books, some of Mercedes Lackey's early stuff, and Jennifer Roberson.
When I was in sixth grade I had a teacher who was a real fantasy reader. And the man could do the most excellent voices for every character. We sat en...moreWhen I was in sixth grade I had a teacher who was a real fantasy reader. And the man could do the most excellent voices for every character. We sat enthralled at his feet as he read aloud to the entire class each day. No mean feat to keep a mess of eleven and twelve year olds' attention like that day after day. He's a huge part of the reason I love the genre and he is responsible for introducing me to so many of my all-time favorites, including (and perhaps most memorably) the incomparable Lloyd Alexander and Susan Cooper. Not long after we, as a class, inhaled Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence, I struck out on my own looking for anything else I could find by the woman. A kind school librarian handed me a copy of SEAWARD. It was instant love, you guys. I've re-read my copy so many times over the years and I guess I thought all other Dark is Rising fans must have sought it out as well and I found myself frequently surprised at how rarely that was the case. I was dismayed to discover it is actually out of print now. What a shame because SEAWARD is that all-too-common breed of book--an absolute gem forever overshadowed by its famous big sib.
Westerly knows he has very little time. Traveling alone and on foot through a strange land, he's constantly looking over his shoulder, only able to rest for moments at a time as he flees an unnamed danger that is never far behind. Filled with visions of the violence done to his family before he was ripped away, West only knows he must be on his guard and he must head toward the sea. Cally knows something is wrong when her father falls suddenly ill and is taken away to the seaside in a last-ditch attempt to regain his health. When her mother follows shortly after, Cally is left alone in their empty house until one day she hears a voice singing snatches of a song her mother used to sing and finds a mirror into another time and place. Coming from different directions but both headed to the sea, West and Cally meet up and form a cautious friendship built on the one quality they have in common--they're the things that don't belong. As they attempt to learn why they are in this strange land and how they will survive, they encounter primal, mighty, and terrifying forces who control the land and who will do anything within their power to turn these two young people to their own purposes.
In some ways SEAWARD resembles the Dark is Rising sequence, with the feeling of an almost alien world existing side by side with our own. A world almost drenched in magic and characters who come to form the unshakable conviction that the tiniest of actions can have massive and far-reaching consequences, stretching across both time and space. Certain prophecies come into play as well.
A man with eyes like an owl, a girl with selkie hands, a creature in a high place.
But SEAWARD is a much shorter, much sweeter story, filled with the themes of love and loss, what happens once one has lost everything, and how or whether it is possible to go on in the face of the vastness of the universe and the seemingly inconsequential place one person occupies in it. What I love about this book, and what is one of my strongest memories from reading it for the first time, is that the reader is dropped into the midst of the action without so much as an apology. It makes it feel real and large and whole and it doesn't detract from the movement of the story because the two main characters are filled with questions themselves. Finding out piece by piece along with them only helps to highlight the mounting tension. And by the end of this sucker that tension level is high. West and Cally are quite different but both extremely likable and interesting people. If West is a bit more suspicious of everything, his past (as Cally comes to find out) didn't really give him a choice in the matter. Cally is strong and has a good heart, as West comes to find out as he spends more time in her company. The end is almost achingly bittersweet and every time I read it, as it draws closer, I find myself turning the pages slower to prolong what time is left. These two have been my friends for a long time now. I find myself thinking about them when I'm not with them and I know, despite the ending, we will always be finding each other again throughout the years to come. Recommended for fans of Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, and Guy Gavriel Kay.(less)
It's coming on Valentine's Day and I felt like something old and sappy and sweet and a favorite. And it didn't take long at all before my mind alighte...moreIt's coming on Valentine's Day and I felt like something old and sappy and sweet and a favorite. And it didn't take long at all before my mind alighted on a title I am almost sure you have never heard of--ROMANCE IS A WONDERFUL THING by Ellen Emerson White. Now, I regularly fly my White fangirl flag as you know, but I don't know if I've ever talked about this early, lesser known book. I'd been a devoted White reader for years before I ever heard of it and then it was only thanks to my friend Nan (a devoted EEW fangirl herself) who clued me in to its existence. So I ordered a copy off Half.com because, naturally, it was out of print. And when it arrived in the mail I devoured this trim little 188-page treat that night. First though, before we even get to the improbable title, how about that cover?! It's hard to really take it in, isn't it? Just that awesome. I mean, I dare you to look at it and not burst into the theme song from The Facts of Life. Or Family Ties. I still haven't been able to wipe the grin off my face. As for the title, I don't know what to say except you're simply going to have to overlook it.
Patricia (Trish) Masters is your basic good girl. The oldest of two, blond and pretty, she's an honors student, plays on the tennis team, and is everybody's friend. Colin (Mac) McNamara is your basic screw up. The only child of a cop and a nervous stay-at-home-mom, dark and lean, he's flunking out of school, has the worst reputation of any kid in school, and is nobody's friend. But Colin likes watching girl's tennis. And one day he runs into Trish after school and, even though he makes her nervous, she finds herself wanting to get to know him better. Over the next several weeks they find reasons to run into each other again and again and both of them are surprised to find they're neither of them exactly what their reputations would have you believe. Trish is a lot less confident than she appears and she longs for someone to talk to about the changes coming into her life. Colin has a past, and even though it's not the one people attribute to him, he's its prisoner just the same. The question is can these two very different young kids overlook their differences and stick together long enough to help each other deal with their fears?
Even now it's hard for me to believe Ellen Emerson White wrote such a sweet teen romance. She generally deals in much more painfully conflicted fare than this. But I'm ever so glad that she did. That's not to say that the characters in this one, particularly Colin, don't have their fair share of trauma. And the classic White dialogue is present and accounted for in the wonderfully dry exchanges between characters. Here's a typical exchange early on:
Trish meandered through the Boston Public Library. She didn't like using the little memory-bank computers the library had instead of a card catalog, so she usually just wandered around, picking up books that looked interesting. For a minute, she watched a man reading a book upside down; then, realizing it was probably getting late, she walked toward the main staircase. Hurrying, she almost bumped into someone. "Excuse me--" She stopped and stared, recognizing Colin. As he saw her, he stiffened. "What are you doing here?" he demanded. "Uh, well." Trish frowned at her books. "The same thing you are, I guess." He ran his free hand through his hair, unmistakably rattled. "Sports," he said. "I like to read about sports." "Which ones?" "I don't know. You know." He backed up toward the stone railing, dropping two of the books when he hit it sooner than he expected. "The Old Man and the Sea?" Trish asked, bending to pick one up. He got to it first. "Fishing." "How about Richard the Second?" She picked up the other one. "Uh, murder." She gave it to him. "What are you, a brain?" "I gotta go, I'm late." He turned, walking swiftly down the stairs. Trish watched him go, confused. "Hey!" He was suddenly back. "Hey, woman!" She looked at him uncertainly. "It's getting dark outside." His voice was accusing. "Oh?" She tilted her head, not sure what he meant. "You walk around in the dark every night?" "I only live a couple of blocks away." "So you walk around in the dark? You know how stupid that is?" "No," she said, grinning. "I'm not a brain." "Yeah, well, how long you gonna be in here?" "I don't know, I guess--" "Well, I'll wait," he grumbled. "Don't feel like reading about you in The Globe tomorrow." "You don't have to--" "I said I was waiting already." "Um, I guess I can go now." Trish started down the stairs. He nodded, indicating that he'd be by the door. "You really don't have to do this," Trish said once they were outside. "I can walk by myself; I do it all the time." "Terrific, you do it all the time." He shook his head.
And, in the end, it's a love story. And an incredibly genuine and endearing one at that. Colin and Trish are easy to like and they certainly stand out as being two of the least acerbic of White's protagonists. It's impossible not to fall for Colin, with his smart mouth and terminal self-deprecation. He hides his true self exceedingly well, only letting his guard down when he's at home talking to his cat Ophelia. Or, increasingly more often, when he's with Trish. I know this is another out of print book I'm recommending, but used copies are available very inexpensively. And if, like me, you're in the mood for a cozy, utterly disarming read during this dreary season, ROMANCE IS A WONDERFUL THING is just the thing.(less)
I guess mysteries have always been a part of my life. Ever since my mom handed me that first Nancy Drew--The Hidden Staircase--that thirst for the clu...moreI guess mysteries have always been a part of my life. Ever since my mom handed me that first Nancy Drew--The Hidden Staircase--that thirst for the clues, the search, the not knowing has stuck with me. That, combined with the fact that they are very nostalgic for me, and you get to read about a lot of them. Mary Stewart is my very favorite when it comes to romantic suspense and her many mysteries are serial re-reads for me. In the best of times and the worst of times, she comes through with an unrivaled spirit of adventure, panache, and wanderlust. I will forever have my mom to thank for finding her first Mary Stewart in a small town library when she was in high school, painstakingly collecting lovely used copies over the years, and reading them over and over again so that one day I would grow up and want to do the same. If you ask my mom which one is her favorite she'll probably tell you Airs Above the Ground. It takes place in her beloved Austrian Alps and features a dangerous fire, a missing husband, and a legendary horse. It's definitely the one I saw her re-reading most often. If you ask me, I get "that look" on my face and dither around about the virtues of this one and that one. Which is exactly what I did trying to decide which one to post on today. I ended up with NINE COACHES WAITING because it may be the most potent combination of every element I love about Ms. Stewart's novels. It's certainly one of the ones I re-read most often.
Belinda Martin (Linda for short--or for pretty, as her mother used to say) lands in Paris on a cold, gray, and rainy day. She is on her way to her brand new post as a governess to the young Count Philippe de Valmy. Having lost both his parents in a tragic accident, the nine-year-old little boy lives with his aunt and uncle in the vast and ornate Château Valmy in the French countryside. Léon de Valmy, Philippe's uncle, runs the estate on behalf of his underage nephew until he comes of age and arranged for a proper English governess for his charge. When Linda arrives at the imposing manor, she is at once enchanted by its beauty and history, but is also immediately struck by the sense of menace and doom surrounding the land and its inhabitants. Léon is a charismatic force of nature and quite charming with it, and when Linda meets his reckless and rakishly handsome son Raoul, she understands a bit more about the Valmy heritage and what makes this family tick. As she becomes closer to Philippe and Raoul, Linda draws ever nearer to putting her finger on the source of the threat. But the layers of danger and darkness run deeper than any of them guessed and she may not be able to trust those she wants to, no matter how innocent or attractive they may seem. Soon it is up to the shy young governess to beat the clock in order to save Philippe's life as well as her own.
This is the kind of heady, romantic, foreboding tale that wraps you up in its elegant wings and carries you off for parts unknown. Linda is immediately sympathetic, with her loneliness wrapped around her like a threadbare cloak, her fierce protectiveness of Philippe, and the way she verbally spars with Léon de Valmy and manages to emerge unscathed. She is what this darkly glorious place needs and there are wonderful little touches here and there of the Jane Eyre and Rebecca about this novel. A favorite passage early on:
I heard nothing. I turned quickly. Even then it was a second or so before I saw the shadow detach itself from the other shadows and slide forward.
Though I had known what to expect, instinctively my eye went too high, and then fell--again by instinct, shrinkingly--to the squat shape that shot forward, uncannily without sound, to a smooth halt six feet away.
Pity, repulsion, curiosity, the determination to show none of these . . . whatever feelings struggled in me as I turned were swept aside like leaves before a blast of wind. The slightly dramatic quality of his entrance may have contributed to the effect; one moment a shadow, and the next moment silently there . . . But, once there, Léon de Valmy was an object for no one's pity; one saw simply a big, handsome, powerful man who from his wheel chair managed without speaking a word to obliterate everyone else in the hall--this literally, for almost before the wheel chair stopped, the servants had melted unobtrusively away. Only Mrs. Seddon was still audible, steaming steadily up the right-hand branch of the staircase toward the gallery.
It was a tribute to Léon de Valmy's rather overwhelming personality that my own first impression had nothing to do with his crippled state; it was merely that this was the handsomest man I had ever seen. My experience, admittedly, had not been large, but in any company he would have been conspicuous. The years had only added to his extraordinary good looks, giving him the slightly haggard distinction of lined cheeks and white hair that contrasted strikingly with dark eyes and black, strongly-marked brows. The beautifully shaped mouth had that thin, almost cruel set to it that is sometimes placed there by pain. His hands looked soft, as if they were not used enough, and he was too pale. But for all that, this was no invalid; this was the master of the house, and the half of his body that was still alive was just twice as much so as anybody else's . . . .
He was smiling now as he greeted his wife and turned to me and the smile lit his face attractively. There was no earthly reason why I should feel suddenly nervous, or why I should imagine that Héloise de Valmy's voice as she introduced us was too taut and high, like an overtight string.
I thought, watching her, she's afraid of him. . . . Then I told myself sharply not to be a fool. This was the result of Daddy's intriguing build-up and my own damned romantic imagination. Just because the man looked like Milton's ruined archangel and chose to appear in the hall like the Demon King through a trap door, it didn't necessarily mean that I had to smell sulphur.
And the entire story winds on in that delicious vein. The exquisite suspense lingers to the very last and the relationships between the characters are real, romantic, and wholly delightful. Every time I read it I fall in love all over again with lovely Linda, dangerous Raoul, adorable Philippe, and beautiful, haunting Valmy. And I get chills at the same parts every time single time. NINE COACHES WAITING showcases a master storyteller at her very best. Highly recommended.(less)
So I've talked about my Joan Lowery Nixon phase before. I actually think I discovered Lois Duncan right before Nixon, but the two will always go hand...moreSo I've talked about my Joan Lowery Nixon phase before. I actually think I discovered Lois Duncan right before Nixon, but the two will always go hand and hand in my mind. Together they perfectly satisfied my twelve-year-old thirst for a light blending of suspense and the macabre. And no Duncan book did that better than the deliciously creepy LOCKED IN TIME. I enjoyed all of her books and they all succeeded in giving me the chills at one point or another. My old copy of I Know What You Did Last Summer is definitely showing its age and my love, as I loved revisiting those characters the most. But LOCKED IN TIME is the one that truly scared me. Not just chills, not just anxious anticipation, but the real deal, had me setting the book down long enough to calm my racing heart kind of scared.
Seventeen-year-old Nore has been away at boarding school since her mother died a year ago. Now she's on her way to Louisiana to visit her father and his new wife and her two children. When she arrives at Shadow Grove, several things are clear. Her father is happy with his new life. Her stepmother Lisette, stepbrother Gabe, and stepsister Josie are perfectly well-mannered and perfectly beautiful. And something is very, very wrong with them. Through conversations she has with elderly neighbors and residents of the town, Nore's seemingly crazy suspicions about Lisette, Gabe, and the entire Berge family start to grow. These vaguely horrific suspicions grow stronger as she overhears them discuss events from decades ago as though they were there when they happened. Nore finds herself torn between her distrust of Lisette and her growing friendship with Gabe. Determined to make her father come to his senses and see the truth, Nore rushes to solve the mystery of her new family before her time at Shadow Grove runs out.
When I think about this story now, years since I last re-read it, I am still instantly filled with the same overwhelming emotions--an appreciation for the heady beauties of the Deep South mixed with a sense of impending doom. Ms. Duncan struck the perfect chord with the impossibly lovely Berges and the simultaneous fear and longing Nore feels when in the presence of a "real" family again. The truth to the mystery unfolds smoothly and slowly, like warm molasses, creeping up behind you to tap you on the shoulder. In some ways it reminded me of a younger, simpler Mary Stewart novel, with its lovely heroine and its beautiful atmosphere. I remember thinking Nore was brave and being desperate for someone to believe her, for Gabe not to really be trying to kill her, for her father, in his grief, not to have ruined them both so thoroughly. It's the same emotional connection I seek out today when I'm in the mood for something slightly dangerous, slightly haunting, slightly bittersweet. It was these early young adult mysteries that led me to the Mary Stewarts, the Laurie Kings, the Deanna Raybourns I discovered later on. I will always love them for being the beginning. (less)
Time to start in on my favorite Arthurian novels. Somehow Robin Hood and King Arthur--the best of the best when it came to British mythology and lore-...moreTime to start in on my favorite Arthurian novels. Somehow Robin Hood and King Arthur--the best of the best when it came to British mythology and lore--have always gone together in my mind. Truth be told, I've been mildly obsessed with both ever since I was a girl and I have a soft spot in my heart for the first encounter I had with each in novelized form. As far as Robin Hood goes, that was Robin McKinley's The Outlaws of Sherwood. With Arthurian lore, it was Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence. The sequence is actually a five-book series following two groups of people embroiled in the centuries-old conflict between the Light and the Dark. The first group are the three Drew children--Simon, Jane, and Barney--who become involved through their connections with their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. The second is a long line of warriors for the Light known as the Old Ones. They culminate in the last (and youngest) of the Old Ones--a deceptively ordinary boy by the name of Will Stanton. The books weave back and forth between these two groups, sometimes crossing paths, sometimes flying solo, until they all join forces in the final volume. The fourth (and my favorite) book is THE GREY KING.
THE GREY KING opens with Will Stanton delirious with fever. He is certain he has forgotten something vitally important, but cannot for the life of him remember what it was. Having contracted hepatitis, he is sent to stay with his aunt and uncle in Wales for his convalescence. Slowly, as he begins to regain his strength, his memory returns and it becomes clear why he has been sent to an all-but-forgotten valley in Wales at this particular moment in time. The key is in these lines from prophecy:
On the day of the dead, when the year too dies, Must the youngest open the oldest hills Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks. There fire shall fly from the raven boy, And the silver eyes that see the wind, And the Light shall have the harp of gold.
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie, On Cadfan's Way where the kestrels call; Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall, Yet singing the golden harp shall guide To break their sleep and bid them ride.
When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn, And where the midsummer tree grows tall By Pendragon's sword the Dark shall fall.
Y maent yr mynyddoedd yn canu, ac y mae'r arglwyddes yn dod.
Will soon encounters an unhappy young boy named Bran who lives with his father on a neighboring farm. With his white dog Cafall at his side, Bran introduces Will to the mist-shrouded land he calls home and, bit by bit, the lines of the prophecy begin to take shape. Together these two lost boys must join forces to defeat the Dark that is on the rise.
This book is hauntingly beautiful and redolent with the lyrical Welsh language and an atmosphere as thick and rich as the fog surrounding the peak of Cader Idris. I love this entire series, but THE GREY KING is where it all comes together for me. And the character of Bran Davies is one of the main reasons why. What a compulsively sympathetic character Cooper created in Bran! Somehow she crafted a young boy with a heart full of pain and confusion, slammed on his head a powerful legacy, and managed to keep him so real it's breathtaking. My heart went out to him when I met him at 11 years old and it does the same today so many years later. The friendship between the two boys is tenuous and riveting to watch unfold as they both embody that incongruous and contradictory blend of youthful anguish and wisdom beyond their years. The supporting cast of characters is just as wonderful and varied, none of them fully good or evil, but inhabiting the many margins in between those absolutes. This is the most moving and heart wrenching of the books in the series and it is where the Arthurian legend comes into play most strongly as the identities of the raven boy, the eyes that see the wind, and the Sleepers themselves are revealed. The results are stunning and spur the reader on to read the next and final volume in the sequence. This, my friends, is a book of the finest kind. Winner of the 1976 Newbery Medal, and fully deserving of that honor, I recommend it (and the whole series) for fans of Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, and anyone with a penchant for Arthurian tales.
I remember buying my copy of THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE at a B. Dalton bookstore in San Antonio, Texas. I liked the cover with the young girl in the cape h...moreI remember buying my copy of THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE at a B. Dalton bookstore in San Antonio, Texas. I liked the cover with the young girl in the cape holding something mysterious in a white handkerchief for a slightly creepy old woman to inspect. But, in the end, this was yet another example of a book I bought for the opening lines alone.
On a cold, fretful afternoon in early October, 1872, a hansom cab drew up outside the offices of Lockhart and Selby, Shipping Agents, in the financial heart of London, and a young girl got out and paid the driver. She was a person of sixteen or so--alone, and uncommonly pretty. She was slender and pale, and dressed in mourning, with a black bonnet under which she tucked back a straying twist of blond hair that the wind had teased loose. She had unusually dark brown eyes for one so fair. Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man.
Yeah, there was sort of no way my 12-year-old self wasn't going to make a beeline to the cash register with that one. All I knew was that it was set in Victorian London, it was a mystery, and it clearly featured a girl I wanted to get to know better. I had no idea it was the first in a trilogy, or how involved I would become in the incredibly intricate plot that stretches out over all three books. It should be noted that Pullman published a fourth volume almost ten years after THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE, but it is less of a direct sequel and more a companion novel to the original trilogy.
Sally Lockhart is so very far from your average 16-year-old. Even your average 16-year-old in 19th century London. Her father has recently been murdered and she is intent on uncovering the identity of his killer and bringing the villain to justice. As such, she comes to his offices in London to meet with his partner and find out if he knows anything about Mr. Lockhart's demise or the phrase, "Beware the seven blessings," which she came across in a fragment of a letter sent to her from Singapore. Shortly after her arrival she becomes embroiled in another murder, the vagaries of the opium trade, and the mystery of the disappearance of the fabled Ruby of Agrapur. Along the way she encounters a few associates who become true friends, including a young scarecrow of an errand boy named Jim Taylor and an amiable photographer by the name of Frederick Garland. She will have need of her friends before the game is played out and she races against the clock to make sense of her convoluted past and discover just who is behind the strange web of betrayal and deceit that has taken over her life.
Everyone is familiar with Philip Pullman's much more famous His Dark Materials trilogy. I snatched up the first book when it came out because I was already a huge Pullman fan because of the Sally Lockhart books. And I enjoyed The Golden Compass just fine. But I got halfway through The Subtle Knife and the whole thing just...petered out for me. I'm still not exactly sure what happened except that I kept wishing the entire time I was reading about Sally instead. But in my experience few people have read this set of excellent mysteries. They are dark, dire, and grim, to be sure. But they are also absolutely delightful. And bite-your-nails-to-the-quick intense. Sally herself is such a strong character--a perfect blend of independence, diffidence, integrity, and intelligence. Following her growth and development over the course of the trilogy is an absolutely moving experience. Each book matures in both subject matter and length. THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE reads like Dickens meets Arthur Conan Doyle meets Lloyd Alexander and that combination proved too charming for me to resist. I could not put it down until I finished it and I immediately went out and bought the next two books. They did not disappoint, but rather ratcheted up the stakes with each passing page. Pullman somehow manages to create the atmosphere of a vintage penny dreadful, while peopling it with fully fleshed out characters who work their way seamlessly into the reader's heart and affections. In fact, I vividly remember breaking down sobbing while reading a certain scene in the second book--The Shadow in the North. It is one of my very first memories of connecting with a set of characters so much it was physically painful to me to watch them suffer. An engrossing series highly recommended, particularly for fans of Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy and Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series. Reading order: THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE, The Shadow in the North, and The Tiger in the Well. Companion novel: The Tin Princess.(less)
I read THE OUTSIDERS for the first time when I was a teen myself, just a little bit younger than Ponyboy and Johnny. This book had a huge impact on me...moreI read THE OUTSIDERS for the first time when I was a teen myself, just a little bit younger than Ponyboy and Johnny. This book had a huge impact on me at that age. I fell so deeply in love with Hinton's simple, vivid writing style. Never had teenagers like me felt so real and present on the page. I couldn't stop telling my mom about it and how good it was and why. I'm sure she still remembers those nights. It is an oft-challenged book, unfortunately, and thinking about it now, I would have been devastated if someone had told me I couldn't read it or had come and taken it out of my library. I can't imagine not having read it then and I have read it so many times since. It's truly a classic and deserves the praise it's gotten over the years.
Ponyboy Curtis is a Greaser. He lives on the wrong side of town. He acts tough, dresses tough, and lets his hair grow long to look tough. He lives with his two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, and they barely make ends meet. Darry and Soda work hard to support themselves and let Ponyboy stay in school so that at least one person in the family can graduate high school. Pony's best friend is a sad boy named Johnny Cade who's been beaten around one too many times and spends a lot of time looking over his shoulder, anticipating the next blow. The only family these boys have are each other. Pony, his brothers, and their motley group of Greaser friends watch each other's backs and defend each other when necessary. Particularly when the Socs (rich kids from the other side of town) come looking for trouble. Dangerous Dally, funny Two-bit, somber Steve. Through Ponyboy's eyes we catch a brief, eloquent glimpse into the life of a group of teenagers the world seems to have forgotten, who take life's knocks on the chin and somehow keep going.
I picked a small, worn copy of THE OUTSIDERS up off the shelf of a tiny used bookstore in Texas and took it home with me because I felt like the kids on the cover might be worth knowing. How right I was. This story of small-town prejudice and class warfare set in the 1960s has never really aged. The first time I cracked it open I was immediately enchanted by the magical language these kids seemed to speak, a language full of "greasers" and "Socs," "savvys" and "tuffs." I couldn't tear my eyes away. It is a coming of age story and a commentary on the dangers of going through life with blinders on, of judging people who are different from you before you know them. Of not wanting or caring to know them. Every character in this story is backed up against the wall, struggling to survive, and I cried more than once at the injustice of it all. And yet, when you come to the end, you feel the indomitableness of hope, the possibility of change, and the beauty of the human spirit. THE OUTSIDERS has been challenged several times on the grounds that it includes rough language, violence, references to cigarettes, alcohol, and for depicting broken families. And we would never want young adults to know that such things exist or, heaven forbid, that they may encounter them in their own lives. *eye roll* I get so angry when I hear hogwash like that. Never mind that it's beautiful, and real, and good. That it will teach its readers about how to treat their fellow human beings, how hatred and fear do nothing but destroy, and how the sunset looks the same no matter which side of the tracks you're from. That's the kind of book I want to read. That's the kind of book I want my children to read. And no one is allowed to tell me no.(less)
I went through a pretty good Joan Lowery Nixon phase when I was about twelve or thereabouts. Along with Lois Duncan, Ms. Nixon kept me well supplied w...moreI went through a pretty good Joan Lowery Nixon phase when I was about twelve or thereabouts. Along with Lois Duncan, Ms. Nixon kept me well supplied with tense, easily digested mysteries about young girls who encountered the horrifying and the deadly on a regular basis. As I was in the process of expanding a bit on my Nancy Drew addiction, I basically ate them up with a spoon. I collected used copies of most of Nixon's books and, at one point, had quite a group of them on my shelf; now they've been whittled down to the most memorable, sentimental few. Of her mysteries I held on to Secret Silent Screams, The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore, and THE DARK AND DEADLY POOL. And while the first two are probably better crafted, more complicated tales, THE DARK AND DEADLY POOL is my favorite because of its offbeat and lovable main characters--Mary Elizabeth Rafferty and her friend Fran or, as I like to call him--ManFran.
Mary Elizabeth takes a summer job at the super ritzy Ridley Hotel health club. Initially she thinks it will be the perfect place to spend those hot summer days. She's tall for her age, something of a klutz, and known to trip over or destroy the various objects in her path. Life has just gone that way for her over the past sixteen years. Secretly she dreams of becoming an orchestra conductor and when she's particularly zoned out she'll practice conducting in her head. Never mind the fact that she can't play an instrument to save her life and, at this point in time, she has all the confidence of an agoraphobic in a shopping mall. To make matters worse, the jittery Mary Elizabeth is closing up one night and sees a body rise up out of the pool, gape at her, and disappear once more under the surface of the water. No one will believe her, of course. Not Lamar the chief of security, not Art Mart the health club director, and not Tina her tough but friendly co-worker. Fortunately, she runs into (literally) another member of the staff who does believe her. A boy named Fran (short for Francis Liverpool III) who is shorter than her but makes up for it with an abundance of charm and determination. Together Liz and Fran attempt to solve the mystery of the dark and deadly pool...
Somehow this cozy little mystery has worn fairly well over the years. I loved it when I was twelve for its quirky main duo and for its slightly campy-creepy feel. And I still love it for those same reasons. There's something about the taller, stronger girl being courted by the smaller, Puckish boy that appeals to me. Throw in the fact that they run around rather ineptly fighting crime together and you've got yourself a winning combination, my friend. Nothing in the way of surprising or truly deep (except the, uh, pool), but everything in the way of endearing and charming. Every now and then I still pull out my old copy and settle in for a couple hours with Mary Elizabeth and ManFran. And you know what? They're still good company.(less)
When I was a kid and my father was out of town for work, my mom and I got to have sleepovers in the big bed. We would curl up with our pillows stacked...moreWhen I was a kid and my father was out of town for work, my mom and I got to have sleepovers in the big bed. We would curl up with our pillows stacked behind our backs and read books and eat ice cream and fall asleep whenever we wanted to. I loved it. And, unsurprisingly, the tradition continued on until I left home. One particular time I remember it was a Friday night and I was fourteen and my mom and I went to the base library to see what we could find. I wandered down the aisles and stopped when my eye caught on a pink and purple spine in the fantasy/scifi section. It seemed a bit...girly...for me and when I saw the pretty much opalescent horse on the cover I almost put it back on the shelf. But I liked the title. And the girl on the horse looked pale and sad and interesting with her short hair and her threadbare scarf. So I checked it out and that night curled up with my mom and a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream and fell in love.
Talia is an orphan. Raised in a very claustrophobic, incredibly closed off family hold that her uncle runs with an iron fist, she longs for a kinder, more stimulating world in which "family" refers to people who love you and not people who revile and shame you. When a white horse straight out of her dreams appears one day, Talia climbs into his saddle and never looks back. The horse is clearly no ordinary horse. He can sense emotions and share his own with Talia. He takes her to Haven, the capital city of Valdemar, where her hidden talents are recognized and she is enrolled in the Collegium--a school for heralds-in-training. The heralds are an elite force who are trained to protect the Queen and the realm from threat or harm. There at the Collegium Talia makes the first friends of her life (and a few enemies as well). When she stumbles across a plot to destroy the Queen, she is forced to harness her wayward abilities and use the connections she's made to convince the Queen and her council that there is a traitor in their midst.
This series is a very dear one to me. My fourteen-year-old self completely empathized with Talia and her insecurities and longings. She has to be one of the most passive heroines of any I've read, which makes her unique as I generally find myself drawn to stronger, more forceful personalities. But Talia matures, both chronologically and emotionally in this series, particularly in book two, Arrow's Flight, when she gets shoved through the refiner's fire as she completes her Heraldic training and emerges prepared to defend her Queen. And yet, she retains that innocence and inherent sweetness which somehow captured my heart more than a decade ago and has not let it go. Each book in this trilogy gets better and better and you only grow fonder of this family of characters Lackey has pieced together. Among Talia's inner circle, there is a not-so-ex-thief, a spoiled princess, a gruff and intimidating armsmaster, a crippled harpist, and Rolan--her horse and Companion. Mercedes Lackey's strength lies in these characters and how she is able to make you want so much for them. If you fall in love with the world you're also in luck as Ms. Lackey has written a whole host of books that take place in Valdemar, though this trilogy is by far the best, IMO, and definitely the place to start. Reading order: ARROWS OF THE QUEEN, Arrow's Flight, and Arrow's Fall.(less)
Lloyd Alexander is one of a handful of authors who had a hand in forming who I am today. At the beginning of sixth grade my teacher pulled out The Boo...moreLloyd Alexander is one of a handful of authors who had a hand in forming who I am today. At the beginning of sixth grade my teacher pulled out The Book of Three, the first in Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, and began reading. He did all the voices, from opinionated Eilonwy to noble Gwydion to humble Gurgi with his poor, tender head. We sat there enchanted as he read the entire five-book series aloud to the class. We were living overseas at the time and, unfortunately, we had limited access to books. When we moved back to the states, we stopped in at the local library and I immediately went to the A section to see if they had any other Alexander books. I was in luck. I picked up WESTMARK first because of the cover and because I read the first line and was completely sold.
"Theo, by occupation, was a devil."
When the librarian informed me it was the first in a trilogy, I quickly grabbed the other two and made for the door. They were utterly different from the Chronicles of Prydain--darker, and not really fantasy at all, though they are set in a fictional kingdom. Alexander is so well-known for the Chronicles of Prydain and it seems to me this little gem of a trilogy hasn't gotten quite the same reception, though WESTMARK actually won the National Book Award in 1982. I have re-read them many times since the first time and I love them more with every encounter.
Main character Theo is, in fact, a devil. Though not the kind you might be expecting. Theo is a printer's devil--an apprentice to the printer Anton in the small town of Dorning in the kingdom of Westmark. After printing a pamphlet by Dr. Absalom, Theo and his master are forced to flee into the night as guards break into the printing press and burn the shop to the ground. Ever since Chief Minister Cabbarus took over the running of the kingdom from their grieving king, he has been systematically curtailing the freedoms of the people. On the run from the law, Theo finds himself in league with the mysterious Dr. Absalom, also known as Count Las Bombas, the trusty dwarf Musket, and the bright but haunted girl Mickle--a former pickpocket and street urchin. But when the demands of his conscience prove to much to bear, Theo strikes out on his own and takes a job as scribe for a small group of revolutionaries led by the charismatic Florian. As the story builds to its heart-palpitating climax, these two bands find themselves inexplicably drawn to the capitol city of Marianstat and into the grasping hands of the sinister Cabbarus.
I love how perfectly paced Lloyd Alexander's writing always is. He truly was a master at constructing the ebb and flow necessary to a genuinely riveting storyline, the heights and depths in which to lead his characters, and the clever and crafty words to put in their mouths. His main characters are so far from perfect and they are often painfully aware of it. They want so badly to do the right thing and yet they are constantly faced with how difficult and conflicting a desire that is. Theo is no exception. He is a simple young man hurled into a complex web of secrets and plotting not of his making. The world and conflict is based on the French Revolution and the pain and ambiguity of that conflict is not spared in Alexander's fictional version, particularly in the sequel, The Kestrel, where Theo and his companions are caught up in bloody battle as the nation tears itself apart in the name of freedom. But that trademark humor and overwhelming compassion are still there. It's a beautiful series filled with a host of fine characters (some delightful, some dreadful) who spend their lives wrestling with questions of morality, purpose, and honor, and leavened by roguish wit, high adventure, and a sweet romance. Highly recommended for fans of Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series.
In the spirit of summer reading lists of yore, I thought I'd focus on another book that was on one of the many lists I went through. Or rather the seq...moreIn the spirit of summer reading lists of yore, I thought I'd focus on another book that was on one of the many lists I went through. Or rather the sequel to one of those books--MORNING IS A LONG TIME COMING--the sequel to Summer of My German Soldier. Reading Summer of My German Soldier kind of wrecked my twelve-year-old self. I loved it, but man did it hurt. I was on Patty's side from the beginning and I was frankly horrified at the way her family treated her. Particularly her atrocious mother. In fact, it was probably the pains she suffered at the hands of her parents that lingered in my heart far longer than the loss of her sweet friend. I remember being outraged and bereft at the end of it, having come up hard against Patty's many injustices, both social and personal. It's a beautiful book, but man does it hurt. Fortunately, this lovely sequel went a long way toward healing that hurt. Just as it did for Patty. And every time I read it it makes me want to go to sleep and wake up in Paris.
MORNING IS A LONG TIME COMING opens six years after the events of Summer of My German Soldier. Patty is graduating from Jenkinsville High and heading to visit her grandparents in Memphis to celebrate. While there, they present her with a check for college and she begins entertaining the possibility of fulfilling her dream and traveling to Europe to find Anton's mother. Unable to set the circumstances of his death behind her, Patty longs to meet his family and explain her story to the mother of her friend. Against the wishes of her family (and the entire closeminded population of Jenkinsville), she sets sail for Europe, making a few friends on the voyage who help her come out of her shell a little and who remind her there is so much more to the world than Arkansas. In Paris, Patty meets a young photographer and English instructor name Roger who opens up another view of the world to Patty. And even as she experiences a happiness and freedom she has never known before, her obsession with Anton's death and with finding and meeting his mother rears its head, lurks in the back of her mind, pressing on her, prodding her to leave Paris and Roger for Germany and the possibilities it represents.
I love this book. It is such a simple, sweet story. And I love it as a sequel because, even set six years later, it addresses the implications of its predecessor with just as much gravity and attention as they deserve. Patty was just twelve years old when she met Anton. The fact that she has reached the legal age of adulthood has nothing on the power of the impressions that were made at that tender age. At the same time, I was proud of how strong she'd gotten in the interim. She stood up to her mother and father, she defied everyone who ever told her she was dirt and she left them in the dust and traveled to the Old World, which for her was so breathtakingly new. It's a fine line presenting a protagonist with a true obsession. And Patty was a slave to hers. But she was cognizant of it. That fact is what always strikes me about her. She knows it's killing her, dragging her under with its constant emotional assault. And yet she moves through it, trying to keep her head above water and do the right thing and accomplish what it takes to lay her ghosts to rest and move on with her life. I love her for her doggedness and her earnestness. And I love Roger for his quintessential Frenchness and for the wholehearted and compassionate way he embraces life and Patty.
To really get to the root of my Ellen Emerson White love we're gonna need to go back to the beginning. I must have been fourteen. I saw LIFE WITHOUT F...moreTo really get to the root of my Ellen Emerson White love we're gonna need to go back to the beginning. I must have been fourteen. I saw LIFE WITHOUT FRIENDS sitting faced out on the bookstore shelf and thank goodness for whichever prescient bookseller it was that faced it out because it was the cover that sold me. I would never have picked it up if all I'd seen was the spine. The title is, as my husband would (and has!) said, possibly the most depressing book title of all time. But the cover. I love it. Because the girl doesn't look depressed. Thoughtful? Yes. Lonely? Most definitely. But something in her face told me she was tough. Then there's the park bench, the leaf in her hand, the ivy-covered tree, the Boston Red Sox cap awkwardly perched on her head, and the city skyline in the distance. SOLD.
Beverly has had a bad year. She was involved in a series of murders that took place at her high school during junior year. Involved in a The Murderer Was Her Boyfriend kind of way. The story opens as she is returning home from the trial with her father and stepmother. Things are understandably tense in the Johnson household these days. But it's been that way for years now. When her mother died, Beverly came to live with her father the stodgy Harvard professor, his young and quirky wife Maryanne, and their happy-go-lucky five-year-old Oliver. Shortly after she got involved with what could delicately be termed "the wrong crowd" and things spiralled downward from there. Now she spends her days trying to ghost through the rest of her senior year, avoid contact with anyone including the psychiatrist her father makes her see, and not wake up screaming from her increasingly disturbing nightmares. One day on a walk through the Public Gardens, Beverly meets Derek--a boy who works landscaping for the city--and an uneasy friendship is born.
This book kind of ate me alive at fourteen and I have re-read it pretty much every year since. It's become what you might call a Monster Comfort Read. The ones you practically have memorized, yet you still get that tingle down your spine as you turn the page, just knowing what delights are on the other side. Much of the storyline revolves around Beverly trying to come to grips with her role in the crimes and whether or not she could have stopped things before they really got out of control. This lion's share of guilt is compounded when she dares to make a friend who doesn't know who she is or what happened last year. Beverly is caught in an agony of uncertainty over whether or not to tell him and lose someone who has somehow become important or hide her past and retain a friendship based on lies. This book is a companion novel to White's first book, Friends for Life, which focuses on the actual murder story itself. Beverly is a minor character in that book and I have to give it up for White's audacity at making the character you previously despised the protagonist in a follow-up book. But she pulls it off flawlessly. The entire cast of characters gets under your skin and you realize, just as Beverly is not the bad girl you first took her to be, none of the other characters are any kind, shape, or form of black or white. While the wonderfully stilted and layered interactions between Beverly and Derek steal the show, all of the characters sparkle and resonate with me. I am particularly fond of the weekly psychiatric sessions, which are like a minefield for Beverly, as well as pretty much any conversation between Beverly and Maryanne.
So. While I sit here with a big, dumb grin on my face, you go see if you can rustle up a copy at your local library. Used copies are also available pretty cheap right now. I'm just sayin'...(less)
I ran across a copy of THE PRINCE OF ILL LUCK in a southern California bookstore I'd never been to before. The year was 1994. I went in in an attempt...moreI ran across a copy of THE PRINCE OF ILL LUCK in a southern California bookstore I'd never been to before. The year was 1994. I went in in an attempt to prove to a skeptical friend that the smell upon first entering a bookstore is one of the true pleasures of life. That you have to pause just after walking in and savor it. Pressed pages and promise. It's a heady combination, my friends. The book had just come out and was faced out on the shelf. I bought it because I liked the boy on the cover and the blurb on the front declaring it to be a delightfully funny book. I was in the mood for some laughter. As luck would have it it turned out to be a two birds with one stone scenario as I was not only rewarded for my impulse buy but managed to prove my point to my friend. He closed his eyes and let out that happy sigh. You know the one. All in all, an incredibly satisfying outing.
Leith is a prince. But that's where the blessings stop. He is also cursed with ill luck. The kind of ill luck that not only affects him on a minute by minute basis, but bleeds over onto any companions or random strangers in his general vicinity. After singlehandedly destroying a temple (well, it was actually an earthquake but the villagers were certain he caused it) and getting himself shipwrecked off the coast of Esdragon, Leith finds himself the unexpected owner of a rather singular stallion called Valadan. The stallion does not seem to mind Leith's deplorable luck and, what's more, he seems to be able to communicate his thoughts to Leith via some sort of spiritual connection. In an effort to hang onto the remarkable warhorse, Leith climbs to the top of a glass mountain retrieving the gold ring at the top. But in true Leith fashion this single act rains down what is undoubtedly the worst his curse has to offer. By retrieving the ring Leith finds himself betrothed to the most displeased of princesses--Kessalia. She had set the task certain no one would ever be able to complete it and she would never have to marry. Leith cannot fathom wanting to marry the beautiful harpy and agrees to release her from their engagement if she allows him to accompany her on her search for her witch mother. You see Leith is harboring the secret hope that the witch will be able to relieve him of his curse.
This book is, first and foremost, delightfully funny. It's humor is its most endearing quality. The reader's sympathies entirely belong to the hapless and loyal Leith. And Valadan the warhorse is wonderfully mystical and powerful. Kess is another matter entirely. I have to say I loved how prickly she was. I mean I hated her, really despised her at times. But I loved hating her, you know? And Susan Dexter writes her characters so skillfully that you absorb their background, their motivations, their hopes and fears in such a slow and seamless way that it's a delight and not a burden accompanying the spiteful Kess and the dogged Leith on their journey. There are no clear heroes and heroines here. Leith is not particularly powerful or strong. Kess is certainly no bed of roses. But she's so magnificent in her heinousness that it's pure entertainment watching her scratch and claw her way to what she wants, even if it means sabotaging or attempting to poison Leith. Poor guy. As I said, you feel an affinity for him from the start. The magic is mysterious, the world is interesting, and the romance is...not what you'd expect. In a good way. These two are good and truly opposites. They don't belong alongside the more predictable bicker-and-smolder set. Theirs is a relationship that has to be bought and you will have to be the judge of whether, in the end, the price is too high. This book is the first in the Warhorse of Esdragon Trilogy. Reading order: THE PRINCE OF ILL LUCK, The Wind-Witch, and The True Knight. All three are out of print but availabe used quite cheap. I recommend all three.(less)