Mariel of Redwall

I’m back again to the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques. I don’t think I actually read Mariel of Redwall the first time around, maybe just started it. I remember the beginning and nothing else.

redwall

Chronologically, this is set when the building of Redwall Abbey was almost complete. All of the characters are new, though Dandin is the great-grandson of Gonff. Joseph the bell-maker is set to deliver a great bell to the badger Rawnblade, Lord of Salamandastron, when the ship is captured by pirate rats. Joseph and his daughter Mariel are imprisoned in the sea fortress of Gabool the Wild. Mariel escapes but loses her memory in the process, eventually finding her way to Redwall. When she finally recall what happened, triggered by a prophetic poem, she sets out first to Salamandastron to enlist the badger’s help, and then on to face Gabool at Terramort. She is accompanied by Dandin, the hedgehog Durry, and Tarquin the lovelorn hare, who spends half his time composing ballads to the fair Rosie. (At this point you may be able to tell that the series is a bit formulaic, but it’s a good formula. They are difficult books to put down.)

One of the series’ strengths is that it does not rely on stereotypical gender roles. Mariel is clearly the heroine here, a fierce warrior mouse who will let nothing stand in the way of her goal and is not afraid to use a weapon well. In fact, all of the books have included female fighters, like the squirrels Jess and Lady Amber, the Sparra Queen, and the badger mothers. There are also plenty of males who are quiet and peace-loving. My own nature is far from that of a warrior, unless I were in danger, but it’s nice to see a wide spectrum of attitudes represented here.

Published in: on June 30, 2010 at 2:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What’s in a Name? 3 Challenge

I like challenges that allow creativity while also providing motivation, and am glad to see that after Annie the What’s in a Name? challenge has found a new host. Last year I enjoyed several books I would have put off reading otherwise.

What’s in a Name? 3 Challenge

hosted by Beth of Beth Fish Reads

So here’s how it works: Between January 1 and December 31, 2010, read one book in each of the following categories:

  1. A book with a food in the title: Clockwork Orange, Grapes of Wrath, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
  2. A book with a body of water in the title: A River Runs through It, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Lake House
  3. A book with a title (queen, president) in the title: The Murder of King Tut, The Count of Monte Cristo, Lady Susan
  4. A book with a plant in the title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wind in the Willows, The Name of the Rose
  5. A book with a place name (city, country) in the title: Out of Africa; London; Between, Georgia
  6. A book with a music term in the title: Song of Solomon, Ragtime, The Piano Teacher

The book titles are just suggestions, you can read whatever book you want to fit the category.

Here’s my tentative list–subject to change, of course.

  1. Food: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, or Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
  2. Water: Children of the Sea, by Elizabeth Goudge, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, or The Mystery of the Haunted Swimming Pool by Phyllis Whitney
  3. Title: The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier or The Princess of Cleves by Ladame de Lafayette
  4. Plant: Queen Anne’s Lace by Frances Parkinson Keyes or The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge
  5. Place: Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery or Love Over Scotland, by Alexander McCall Smith
  6. Music: Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

I couldn’t narrow it down  to just one possibility for each category, so I’ll have to see where my reading moods take me!

Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 3:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Deja-lu

Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve read a book before? Perhaps a character seems suspiciously familiar, or a plot device is not the surprise it should have been.

Right now I’m in the middle of John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which I would have sworn I’d never read. I chalked up the feeling initially to a matter of style, and the outward similarities to An Abundance of Katherines. All of a sudden, however, a scene between the main character and his girlfriend seemed reminiscent of…something. I tend to have a very good memory for what I’ve read, and all of a sudden began doubting it. Perhaps I picked this up during the year I didn’t write books, or read an excerpt online.

The same thing happened a while ago when I read the YA Civil War book Annie Between the States, by L.M. Elliot. I had occasional nagging feelings of familiarity, especially about the fate of Annie’s horse. Again, however, I had no record or memory of reading it before.

Has anyone else ever noticed this phenomenon?

Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cozy Mystery Challenge

I’ve been trying to plan my reading for the summer, and decided to pick out a few challenges to use as guidelines in addition to my list from January.

One of my goals was to get through a lot of the unread titles on my shelves, especially several mysteries series I’ve lost track of or not gotten around to starting. As a result, however, the Cozy Mystery Challenge seemed a perfect fit.

The Cozy Mystery Challenge

hosted by Kris, at Not Enough Books

1. The challenge runs April 1st, 2010 through September 30, 2010.
2. The goal is to read at least 6 cozy mysteries, one for each month.  You can choose to read more, but you must read 6 in order to complete this challenge. You don’t have to read 1 each month, you can read them whenever you like, you just have to read at least six.
3. While you can overlap with other challenges, please try to have at least 2 of the books only count towards this challenge.
4. Prizes you ask?  Everyone loves a prize! Everyone who completes this challenge will get a bookmark made by yours truly (even if I don’t mail them in a timely manner – I will mail them.)
5. Sign-up using the dedicated form.  The form can be found in another post or here’s a direct link.  While it would be great if you signed up before April 1st, last year I had several people who wanted to join but didn’t learn about the challenge until after it had started. Therefore you can sign up anytime between now and September 1st.

I’m not setting a list, but contenders include the Death on Demand series by Carolyn Hart (how many times have I said that?), Ann Purser’s Lois Meade mysteries, Teashop and Scrapbooking mysteries by Laura Childs (I’m several behind in both), and books by Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer.

Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 3:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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An Accomplished Woman

“The Allegro was in B flat major, with a subsidiary theme is the relative dominant. Because I know this, does it mean I don’t enjoy it? Head not heart. Listening to those shimmering complex sounds it seemed to her that both were present. Surely that was the ideal. Surely one should not have to sacrifice one for the other.”

When I attended the talk on the Regency template last fall, one of the books mentioned was An Accomplished Woman, by Jude Morgan. I must say it fits the pattern very well.

image from macmillan.com

At thirty years of age Lydia Templeton is quite happy in her single state. It allows her independence and the ability to revel in her reputation as a most intelligent woman, as well as the pleasure of sparring with her friend and former suitor Lewis Durrant. She is still surprised however, to be deemed an eligible chaperon for her godmother’s niece in insipid Bath. Charming, sheltered Phoebe Rae has managed to fall in love with both Mr. Allardyce and Mr. Beck and must decide which, if either, is the man of her heart. Meanwhile, Mr. Durrant descends upon Bath seeking a wife to cut out his spendthrift nephew and heir Hugh Hanley. Lydia soon realizes that despite all her accomplishments, she may not be as sage in matchmaking as she had hoped.

The outcome may not be much of a surprise, but it plays out at a believable pace with sufficient development throughout. Mr. Morgan also has a well-rounded cast and creates suspense in the secondary romances. We are treated to no less than three deliciously obnoxious characters, as well as a rogue. An Accomplished Woman is far from a retelling but at times feels like a nod to Austen, as if he blended Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion with fresh ingredients. The first scene alone is delightful and sets the stage for the novel in many ways. The tone, however, is a bit more modern despite accurate references and slang. We are often privy to Lydia’s private thoughts and internal dialogue, and her famed wit is usually at the expense of others:

“However, Mrs. Allardyce was now commander of the expedition, and there was nothing for it but to troop after her, listen to her being strong-minded and incorrigible, and perhaps, if you were Lydia, reflect on what a fine target she would present for a marksman with a reliable gun and a sense of philanthropy.”

I love the Regency era, I really do, but so often it seems that if a woman is intelligent and sharp-witted she must as a necessity reject marriage or forfeit her mind. Lydia frequently professes against it, while Phoebe’s tendency for sentiment rather than sense makes her a prime candidate. Perhaps Juliet Allardyce is the only character who represents a happy medium. I consider myself much more of a romantic than a feminist, but I cannot deny that there is likely a grain of truth, for Jane Austen herself remained single. The distinction seems to be marriage as meeting of hearts and minds, opposed to marriage as setting up a household. The real toll on women of the time seems to be the presumption that they are best fit for raising children, a future which I can’t imagine for Lydia. It all depends on the sources in which one finds fulfillment. I was actually surprised after all this reflection to find that Jude Morgan is definitely a male author.

He is not quite Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer, but An Accomplished Woman is an enjoyable read for those who have exhausted the canon of the former two and are looking for more.

Published in: on June 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Meg and the Disappearing Diamonds

“Ma’am Carmody said soothingly, ‘Let’s not get excited. Someone has the jewels. She will put them back.’

Neighbor looked at neighbor. Not one person stepped forward. Meg gulped.

‘I feel like a thief,’ Kerry whispered.

‘Me too,’ Meg said. Meg loved a mystery. But now that she found herself in the middle of one, she could only stare at Mrs. Partlow’s worried face.”

For some reason I’ve been in the mood for vintage series books lately, and when I wanted a quick read last night I settled for Meg and the Disappearing Diamonds, first in the series by Holly Beth Walker.

Meg Duncan lives in a small Virginia town, and since her father is often in Washington D.C. for government business she regards the housekeeper and her husband as surrogate parents. She looks forward to spending the summer practicing ballet and spending time with her best friend Kerry Carmody, until an unsuccessful break-in at Mrs. Partlow’s puts everyone on edge. A garden party the next day, where Mrs. Partlow plans to show off the tempting diamonds, is ruined by rude Mrs. Glynn and her spoiled poodles. It becomes more disastrous, however, when the diamonds disappear. Meg and Kerry suspect Kerry’s small sticky-fingered cousin Cissie, who was found at the scene of the crime. They resolve to find and return the diamonds before the police get involved, but Meg’s resolve is torn when her beloved cat Thunder disappears as well. Is it Cissie again, or a more sinister hand?

Perhaps the shorter length played a factor, but the book felt much more juvenile than other series. Even the writing style is relatively simple. I would place Meg’s age at about eleven, as the girls treat Kerry’s nine-year-old brother Mike as a relative equal. I was shocked to see that the back page of the book advertised the Donna Parker series, which is decidedly malt-shop.

The southern setting is a nice touch, as most series seem to take place in the Northeast or Midwest, and the author does a nice job creating a cozy small-town feel. It’s different to have the boisterous family belonging to the best friend instead of the heroine. The pacing is slow up until the climax, however, and for me the solution of the mystery was painfully obvious early on. My other complaint is minor. Mrs. Glynn’s French poodles are named Enfant, Petite, and Jouet, but the author refers to them primarily by the English translations. Apparently she felt her audience was not capable of remembering foreign names.

I have the second book and will probably read it as some point to compare (at the very least it will be a quick), but I much prefer other Whitman mystery series like Trixie Belden or Robin Kane.

*UPDATE*

According to the Trixie Belden website, the one of the Whitman ghostwriters responsible for the Meg Mysteries, Gladys Baker Bond, also wrote volumes for The Tuckers. If she did this one it might explain why the intended audience seems so young. I also found that Polly Curren ghostwrote Meg and the Mystery in Williamsburg; her library collection actually has the outlines and drafts for the book.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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Still Life

“Every day for Lucy’s entire dog life Jane had sliced a banana for breakfast and had miraculously dropped one of the perfect disks on to the floor where it had sat for an entire instant before being gobbled up. Every morning Lucy’s prayers were answered, confirming that God was old and clumsy and smelt like roses and lived in the kitchen.

But no more. Lucy knew her God was dead. And she now knew the miracle wasn’t the banana, it was the hand that offered the banana.”

I’m trying to get better about reading the unopened books on my shelves, and Still Life, by Louise Penny, was the perfect size to come along in my purse the other day. I received this mystery for Christmas; it’s sad to say that seven months is a pretty quick turn-around in my world.

image from macmillan.com

In the small village of Three Pines, Montreal, where all the residents are in close contact with each other, the death of Jane Neal comes as an emotional shock. That feeling deepens upon learning that the hunting arrow responsible for killing the kindly spinster may very well have been aimed. Jane made some bold moves before her death, one of which was apparently perceived as a threat. It’s up to Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec to sift to the bottom of the mystery.

Still Life works because it blends the figure of the wise investigator with the atmosphere and cast expected of a cozy mystery. Many parts of the story are told through the perspective of Clara Morrow, an artist who is Jane’s neighbor and surrogate neice. Clara and the other villagers add a sense of pathos to the story rather than humor or suspense; some are certainly typecast, but the overall effect is not comic. In addition, Louise Penny captures the feel of a remote community in the Canadian woods, close-knot and steeped in tradition.

Inspector Gamache is calm and level-headed without being enigmatic; he collaborates frequently with his team and asks for the input of the villagers. This approach makes him generally likable but seems to antagonize his assistant Agent Nichols, a young recruit who is too cocky for her own good. Eventually Gamache will have to make difficult decisions when his personal convictions don’t agree with the public one.

The mystery itself is in satisfying, a relatively good blend of plausibility and suspense. I managed to correctly predict the culprit but second-guessed myself the rest of the book based on how the plot played out. My biggest complaint is that the climax was way too climactic. Agatha Christie never needed to rely on hurricane-like storms and several broken bones to get a point across, and for me it turned the scene into a farce. Also some comments were made about relationships merely to serve as a momentary blind for the reader.

To end on a positive, I love when a title works on several levels. Ms. Penny is up to the sixth book in the series now, and a few seem to be bargain books at Barnes and Noble (a dangerous temptation). My only qualm is that the series seems to be billed as both Inspector Gamache and Three Pines mysteries. I can understand her wanting to include the characters and setting she has developed, but I can’t expect another murder in the village and it takes away from the plausibility of a supposed procedural.

I wasn’t blown away by the book, but I did enjoy it. Louise Penny has won several awards, and apparently Still Life is also nominated for an award for Mystery of the Decade. It does seem like this is a series worth following.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Shape of Sand

Apologies that I can’t recall what review made me put Marjorie Eccles on my TBR list, but it did mention that as a stand-alone The Shape of Sand was an excellent place to start.

image from us.macmillan.com

The Jardine family lived a life of luxury at leisure at their country estate of Charnley, centered around the beautiful and flirtatious hostess Beatrice Jardine. In the summer of 1910, however, scandal rocked the family and nothing was ever again the same. Forty years later, when a body is discovered at the house as well as Beatrice’s journal of her pivotal trip to Egypt, Harriet Jardine believes this may be the opportunity to piece together the events of long ago.

It took me a relatively long time to get into the book, up until halfway through when the body is identified ( it is found in the first chapter).  The story jumps around too much, beginning in the “present” (1946) to catch our interest and returning to 1910 to tell of that fateful summer, with narrative of the Egypt trip interspersed. This structure creates some suspense, but primarily confusion. Even after returning to Harriet and other present viewpoints, the novel seems torn as to whether it is actually a mystery, or just a historical drama. The investigator seems almost superfluous, while half the evidence seems to be characters finally propelled to share what they witnessed that night.

Harriet did not seem enough like a main character, but I did feel like I had a good understanding of Beatrice and all three of her daughters. In addition, Ms. Eccles provides a nostalgic view of Edwardian England, at the time as well as looking back after two wars. The story focuses on a relatively small circle of people, and at one point in the story she details how much everyone was effected not only by the plot events but also WWI especially. On top of Maisie Dobbs it was quite heart-wrenching. She captures the rations and ruins of post-WWII London just as well. I mean in no way to belittle the American cost of war, but sometimes it seems as if we got off easy compared to England because of our shorter involvement.

Overall The Shape of Sand was good, with evocative descriptions and enough suspense to make me want to try one of her other mysteries, but I think it could have been great had it been more cohesive and less jumpy.

Published in: on June 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Fifteen

“All day Sunday Jane drifted around the house in a happy glow, humming Love Me on Monday and hovering near the telephone, because she was sure Stan would call. Monday she stopped humming and hated the telephone, because she was sure he would never, never call. Tuesday he called.

When most of us (me included) hear the name Beverly Cleary, we think of her wonderful children’s series like Ramona, Henry Huggins, or the Mouse and the Motorcycle. She also, however, wrote several YA novels. My copy of Fifteen is marketed as a “Young Love” imprint of Dell, and I have a Madeleine L’Engle book like this as well, but can’t seem to find any information about it.

Fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy believes that having a boyfriend will make her the kind of girl whom everyone likes and admires, who is interesting and self-assured. When Stan Crandall moves to town and makes friends with her, her dreams seem to be coming true. Even with her new-found confidence, however, she wonders whether Stan could want her as a girlfriend. More importantly, does she want to be liked by everyone else because she is Jane Purdy, or simply because she is Stan’s girl?

While reading this I was struck by a dual reaction. Jane is clearly a teen in the malt shop era (the book was written in 1956), when getting ready for a date means pin curls ad lipstick, and going steady means wearing a guy’s ID bracelet. On the other hand, her emotions and insecurities are not that different from those faced by girls today. She worries about her appearance and how she is perceived by the popular girls in school. She argues occasionally with her parents, and has to deal with tough babysitting charges. And like teens everywhere, she has to learn to accept herself for who she is.

I want to keep my eye out for more of these novels, and if anyone has any information on them please do share!

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 6:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Susan Sand

The Susan Sand books are a short-lived mystery series from the 1980s featuring a 19-year-old mystery author turned sleuth. Though originally published in the US, they seem surprisingly more available in Australia. Recently I was lucky enough to find the sixth one on Bookmooch, and once I started I could not put it down.

In The Password to Diamonddwarf Dale, Susan is mistaken for someone else and stumbles upon a ring of jewel theives stealing from diamond mogul Jasper Gregory. He enlists her help to discover if it’s an inside job, and also to determine what happened to his adult son with whom he lost contact years ago. Meanwhile, Susan is fascinated by a mysterious emblem on the keystone of the arched entrance.

I also went back to reread the third volume, The Clue in Witchwhistle Well. After a nighttime visitor swaps a souvenir statue, Susan learns it is a replica of a local well making mysterious whistling noises. Rumor says the the elderly owner pushed her husband down it, but she insists he is still alive after being lost at sea. Additionally, a young snake charmer at a nearby circus has her pets stolen. Is it possible that all the events tie in to the recent political trouble on Gilaway Island?

I think the greatest compliment I can pay the Susan Sand mysteries is that I can never quite tell whether Marilyn Ezzell is taking them seriously or not. I can tell from typing the plot descriptions that they sound a little ridiculous and over-the-top. At the same time, however, Susan has so much in common with Harriet Adams’ Nancy Drew. She is self-assured, well-mannered, and admired by peers and adults alike. She has doting best friends and boyfriend. She has a broad range of accomplishments, like swimming and ice-skating, and easily learns new ones (here, dancing with snakes). Not a volume goes by where she doesn’t using acting and disguise to somehow fool the criminals. Even her hair is no ordinary color, described instead as raven. The stories aren’t necessarily believable, but I really get the feel that they are more of a homage than a pastiche.

In addition to characteristics, entire plot elements could probably be traced to Nancy Drew stories–the coded statuettes from The Whispering Statue, the missing son from The Secret in the Old Attic, the circus impersonations from The Ringmaster’s Secret, and so on. Witchwhistle Well even begins with the girls having to stop at cabins overnight because a storm blew up while driving home. Clearly Ms. Ezzell had a love for the series, and I wish there were interviews with her to hear about Susan Sand’s inspiration.

I have one more book I’m holding out on reading until a rainy day, and need three more to complete the series. Hopefully they won’t be too hard to find!

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 6:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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