In my ongoing quest to read forgotten books from my shelves, I turned to Zazoo, by Richard Mosher. It was published in 2001, so I must have gotten it not too long after. I know my mother gave it to me for Christmas. Though she has excellent taste, I delayed cracking open the beautiful little book. I think at that point in my reading habits I was reading multiple books by an author all at once, and this didn’t quite fit the pattern.

zazooThe story takes place in France and is narrated by a 13-year-old girl who was brought from Vietnam as a toddler by her adoptive French grandfather (making this set in the early 1980’s, I believe). They live together in a small village, and operate the locks on the canal. Zazoo dotes on Grand-Pierre, and the little life they have built together, especially the love of poetry that they share. She also feels right at home on the river, always swimming or sailing or skating.

Slowly, however, things begin to change for Zazoo. A smiling boy comes to town, asks about the pharmacist, and leaves again, promising to send a postcard. Grand-Pierre is slowly developing Alzheimer’s, and Zazoo feels he is slipping away from her. She also starts to notice that he never goes into the village or interacts with anyone in it, even sending her to pick up his medicine from the pharmacist.When she presses him for information, however, she realizes she is not sure she wants to know the truth, dating back to when he was a young man and the village was occupied by Nazi’s.

Even at first glance, the book hits all the right notes for me: France, WWII, love stories, and secrets from the past. It is more than that, however. The writing is slow and sweet and beautiful, like the poetry that Zazoo writes. I fell in love with the characters, perhaps Felix most of all, and could clearly picture everything through the lovely imagery. It is a story of healing, and of relationships that can overcome the circumstances.

If you can find a copy, please read it. It does not feel at all like a “typical” young adult book, and Zazoo is old beyond her years. This is definitely one of my favorite books for 2012.

Published in: on December 3, 2012 at 11:43 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Eyre Affair

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that a good high school friend and I first bonded over books our freshman year, and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde was one of them. In fact, she made me first read Jane Eyre itself so that I would fully appreciate it.

I never read the fifth and sixth of the series, and since it’s been awhile the year of the reread seemed the perfect time to start at the beginning again.  Now with the perspective of looking back, I can see the seeds of things in later books and almost appreciate the humor even more.

I’m never quite sure how to describe this series to anyone I recommend it to, let alone on here. Literary sci-fi doesn’t quite do it justice. Basically it’s set in an alternate universe where the Crimean War is still going on in the 1980s, cloned dodos exist as pets, Shakespeare is the equivalent of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the different divisions of an organization called Spec-Ops keep everything running smoothly.

the eyre affairCrimean veteran Thursday Next is a member of SO-27, literary detection. Most of the time her job involves tracking forgers, and she doesn’t mind the quiet, especially after a failed attempt to bring notorious criminal Acheron Hades to justice. (Hades, by the way, maintains that he is not mad, just “differently moraled,” and feels required to live up to his name.) Something more sinister is brewing, however, beginning with the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit and the appearance of what seems to be the corpse of one of its characters. Thursday’s inventor uncle Mycroft has developed a machine that allows one to jump into the pages of any literary work. Unfortunately, the machine is stolen, and someone is now holding Jane Eyre hostage. It’s up to Thursday to rescue her, in between dealing with her time-traveling father and her ex-fiance’s upcoming nuptials.

There are so many inside jokes in the book, some I remember and some I didn’t pick up on until now. The official website is an essential enhancement of the experience that I spent a lot of time exploring when I first read the books. Here are some of my favorite things I noticed this time around:

  • The airship Thursday recalls traveling on is called the Ruritania. Ten years ago I would not have known what that referred to, but I’ve been meaning to read The Prisoner of Zenda for a while now.
  • The Will-Speak machines are still one of my favorite quirks. They are left-overs from the 20s and 30s, featuring a mannequin that will recite a snippet of Shakespeare when you insert a coin. Few remain in operation, due to disrepair and vandalism by fans of Bacon.
  • Spike, the operative from SO-17 (Vampire and Werewolf Disposal Operations) has the last name Stoker. Thankfully Twilight was not around in 1985 (or when this was published, 2001).
  • Thursday’s mother is convinced that her husband, a time-traveling fugitive who can only remain in the present momentarily, is having an affair with Emma Hamilton.
  • Each chapter begins with a fictitious quotation, usually from a fictitious book. Some are from the Thursday Next biographies, written by Millon De Floss (as in the George Eliot book) looking back on the events happening now. We will actually meet him later on in the series.

There’s so much more, but as I got further in the book I kept forgetting to bookmark things. Basically, if you like books and humor, and can accept things that are a bit out of the ordinary, then this is worth reading.

Published in: on July 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thursday Throwback: The Westing Game

“Today I have gathered together my nearest and dearest, my sixteen nieces and nephews, to view the body of your Uncle Sam for the last time. Tomorrow its ashes will be scattered to the four winds.
I, Samuel Westing, hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from me–by one of you!”

At my youngest cousin’s recent birthday party, he mentioned to me that he had just read The Westing Game and really enjoyed it. I replied that Ellen Raskin’s book was pretty much the best ever. Another cousin overheard us and chimed in her own praise. Thinking about it on the way home, however, I realized that despite it’s being one one of my all-time favorite Newbery winners, I had only read it once. Was it really as good as I remembered? Happily, the answer is yes.

Six families, seemingly unrelated, are all pursued by a mysterious realtor to take an apartment in the prestigious, newly-built Sunset Towers in Westingtown. A few months later, sixteen of these individuals are named as heirs in Sam Westing’s will. He was the founder of the extremely successful Westing Paper Products, for which the factory was named, and earned millions of dollars, but his life was a lonely one in his later years and he had no direct descendants.

There is a catch, however. Westing’s bizarre but legal will claims that one of those same sixteen heirs was responsible for his death, and the one who figures it out will win a million dollars. The heirs are divided into pairs, each given $10,000 and five one-word clues. The participants on the surface have little in common–a high school track star, a judge, a cleaning woman, a dressmaker, a doctor, a beautiful fiancée, a precocious thirteen-year-old, named Turtle. However, they will have to put aside their differences and work together if they want to play the Westing game. Sam Westing may have seemed mad, but perhaps there is a method to it after all.

I don’t want to say anything else for fear of giving something away, but I loved the book just as much this time around. In fact, knowing the outcomes of different plot lines, I was able to pick up many of the clues scattered throughout that I would have overlooked on a first read. It might be the mathematician in me, but I absolutely adore puzzle-type plots, and even as an adult I still find this book intellectually engaging. The correct solution makes complete and total sense, but so do all the incorrect solutions that everyone else comes up with,especially given our knowledge of the characters. Raskin treats all the clues and plot elements like pieces of colored paper in a kaleidoscope, rather than red herrings to simply display and discard.

The book is written in a third-person omniscient that jumps around among all the different characters. The only element that distinguishes this as a children’s book is that Turtle receives more time than the other characters–but no more so than in, say, a Flavia de Luce mystery. Ellen Raskin also has a wonderfully ironic sense of humor. For example, at one point the elevator becomes an unofficial bulletin board, and some of the postings are just hilarious.

My first experience with Ellen Raskin was actually her Newbery Honor book, Figgs and Phantoms. I remember being underwhelmed and thinking it was pretty weird. I almost didn’t readThe Westing Game because of it. At least I am not alone; of her four main books listed on Amazon, this one had the lowest reviews, and many agreed it was bizarre. At least the other two look promising.

Fun fact: Ellen Raskin was also a graphic artist, and actually designed the first cover of A Wrinkle in Time.

Published in: on June 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Moonstone

I think The Moonstone may win as the longest book I’ve ever reread, as 482 pages (I’ll have to compare it to Goblet of Fire). As with most of the books I’m revisiting, I first read it in high school about ten years ago. I wanted a long, engaging book to keep with me during the long Saturday sessions of the club I volunteer with, and though I initially reached for The Woman in White, I decided this small pocket-sized book was a better choice. As it turns out, the only elements of the plot I remembered were the Indians and the quicksand, and of course the diamond.

the moonstoneThe Moonstone is the story of a large Yellow Diamond, first taken from a temple in India by a greedy British officer, and generations later stolen the very night it is removed from safekeeping and presented to Rachel Verinder on her birthday. It has everything you could want in a Victorian novel: a strong-willed heroine, a love triangle, large inheritances, good characters down on their luck, crime, intrigue, a quiet but persistent detective, ridiculous characters, suicide, disguises, marriage plans with secret motives, and hypnosis. I forgot how much I love this book!

In some ways, having now read Bleak House, I can see how Collins and Dickens may have influenced each other’s work. Two characters in particular reminded me of Dicken’s deft caricatures. The steward Gabriel Betteredge treats Robinson Crusoe with a reverence usually reserved for the Bible, reading passages from it daily to glean what prophecies they may hold. Miss Clack is perfect as a sacrificially self-righteous gentlewoman, who sees it as her duty in life to push moral pamphlets and propaganda on others with missionary zeal. She takes herself so seriously that you can’t help but laugh at her. Inspector Bucket may or may not have been modeled after the good Sergeant Cuff, a patient, sympathetic, and intelligent investigator, depending on who first appeared in print.

One of the other main characters, Franklin Blake, is a distant cousin of Rachel’s and also a potential suitor. He is described as having a mixed heritage and upbringing, so that at different times his thought process will switch between “French” and “German” characteristics. It’s funny, in a way. Having studied literature and music a bit in college, I can identify distinguishing traits between different movements, little pockets of style and philosophy in past works, but it never seems to be something talked about in a modern perspective. We don’t compare current English literature to Italian output. Perhaps it’s because our society today is more global, or because we need a lens of history in order to properly analyze.

The book is structured as a series of first-person narratives passing from person to person as they are charged with chronicling the events surrounding the theft and recovery of the diamond. This makes the story simultaneously crisp and immediate in the action presented, and broad in time and scope.

I’m sure that I will read this a third time and some point in my life. With a book this long, it was wonderful to have forgotten many of the details and discover them again this time around. I have a nice hardcover copy, but I much prefer my beat-up library discard for carrying around with me. It looks like a book that is loved.

Published in: on February 21, 2012 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Bleak House

The mathematician in me believes that there is an inverse relationship between the number of pages a book has and the ease with which I can write a review. With Bleak House
clocking in at over 800 pages, you can be sure that post has been a long time in the making. There is so much in this book that I fear I cannot do it all justice! I really do love Charles Dickens, and this may my favorite of his, even more than A Tale of Two Cities.

I’ve given up hope on presenting a coherent and comprehensive summary, so here are the bare bones. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a financial dispute, has been in progress in the High Court of Chancery for so long that it is practically treated as a joke. The bachelor Mr. John Jarndyce takes into his home at Bleak House the two young adult wards of the case, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. He also engages orphaned Esther Summerson to be a companion for Ada, and it is through her interspersed narrative that we see some of the action of the book.

The group has a lot of friends and acquaintances: Harold Skimpole, a middle-aged man with a wife and three daughters who is intentionally childlike because it makes his life easier; Caddy Jellyby, whose younger siblings run amok because her mother is too concerned with the plights of those in Africa; and Miss Flite, a muddled old woman whose entire life revolves around futile hopes for a small case in Chancery.

There is another entire cast of characters in the legal sector, including the odd Guppy who assists sometimes on the Jarndyce case. When a mysterious boarder dies alone in an apartment above a copy shop, he takes it upon himself to investigate with the help of his friends. After other events later in the story (including a spontaneous combustion!) the case is handed in a more official manner by Inspector Bucket. In another part of London we learn of the beautiful and celebrated Lady Deadlock, who has everything a woman could want and yet remains restless and unhappy. For some reason her husband’s solicitor Mr. Tulkinghorn is making her uneasy. Finally, we see glimpses of the poorer side of town through Jo, the sweeper boy who knows nothing about himself or any other subject.

Richard and Ada have fallen in love, but John advises them to wait until the case is resolved and they hopefully come into a little money. Unfortunately, this path is not an easy one to take. Esther, meanwhile, does her best to make everyone around her happy, and ease the prevailing gloom….I’m really failing at describing this plot, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it is excellent.If I had written more frequent reviews throughout (the book has sixty-seven chapters divided into nineteen sections), maybe I would have done a better job conveying this. I just love literature than has the potential to be dissected.

Charles Dickens is an absolute master as world building; I feel like I intimately know 1850s London because of him. The book has a monstrous cast of at least 100 characters, and yet each of them is distinctly defined, so that I could easily keep track of who was who over the long span in which I read this. Everyone has a name and identity, down to the women who comment in the streets of the law neighborhood after each shocking turn of events. I also absolutely loved how all of the characters are connected somehow in the wide web has created. Pick any two characters, and there are at most three degrees of separation. It’s remarkable, really, especially considering that the novel was originally serialized. Did Dickens write it all in advance, or just do an awful lot of planning?

There are two main branches of the story, as sprawling as the cast and plot may sound, and though Esther only narrates what she has first-hand knowledge of, she still stands out to me in this book. She is such a sweetheart! She reminds me of Beth from Little Women, who is actually my favorite March sister. For some reason she is more palatable than Fanny Price in terms of goodness, or Little Dorrit. Perhaps the difference is that we get to see Esther through first person, so she honestly tries to downplay her actions, and she has a believable motive for being so selfless. Esther knows nothing about her parents except that her mother was a sinner because she was born out of wedlock. Beginning at an early age, she was told by the woman who raised her that she could never be a good person, so she did her best to try. It’s also nice that the other characters appreciate her, even the other characters who are themselves emblems of kindness and generosity.

Dickens uses the book for a lot of social commentary, some of which are themes carried over from other works. He seems to have a confirmed distaste for institutions; in Little Dorrit it was big business, and here it is Chancery and the high court system. He also exposes the plight of poor, especially children like Jo who had no say over a situation they were born into. He ridicules those who are oblivious to the duties or sufferings around them, while praising those who are industrious and compassionate (like the marvelous Mrs. Bagnet). He is also able to pack an emotional punch, though. The chapter where Sir Leicester Deadlock is waiting on his deathbed for certain news was simultaneously one of the most moving and suspenseful scenes in the book.

“Now Miss Summerson,” said he, beating his finger on the apron, don’t you be disappointed at what I’m a-going to do. You know me. I’m Inspector Bucket, and you can trust me.”

As an additional element, Bleak House is also considered the first appearance of a detective in an English detective novel. I saw that website shortly before beginning the book and was surprised, even with the mention of a trio of sleuths on the back of my edition. As the mystery element developed and Mr. Bucket grew in importance, I realized that he really is a wonder. There is nothing of the cynic about this inspector! He is meticulously thorough in his quest for justice, but has a remarkable instinct for truth and uncanny ability to put good people at ease and nasty people in their place. Plus, he occasionally enlists his wife’s help on cases. I was surprised at how suspenseful the mystery was, even by today’s standards, though it did have a decidedly sensationalist bent. I wonder if Dickens wrote this before or after he became friends with Wilkie Collins?

I kept this book in my car over the summer, so that whenever I was on a lunch break or had time to kill I could squeeze a a little bit in. Though not a fast read, it’s definitely very readable (other than the Chancery chapters), and every little bit helps. I was surprised to be almost a little sad to reach the ending and bit Esther and her friends goodbye, even though it felt like it was time.

I make myself wait until after I’ve written a review to look at any literary criticism. I’m off now to finally read the introduction. I’m sure there is plenty of information online about the book, too. I could easily see myself reading this again someday.

Bleak House is on the 1001 Books List, and also the Guardian List (State of the Nation).

Published in: on August 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Mysterious Benedict Society

I think I’ve tried to write this review multiple times and keep getting stuck, so I’m going to try the short version:

I absolutely loved The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. It’s like a mash-up of Roald Dahl and The View From Saturday, with little bits of Harry Potter and The Westing Game thrown in. It has courageous orphans, puzzles,  useless details that turn out to be important, and mysterious characters with secret pasts. It has four unique children who are thrown into an adventure, become friends, rise to the challenge, and triumph over evil.

mysterious benedict societyReynie, Kate, Sticky, and Constance all have their own strengths, and different types of intelligence. Reynie is good at puzzles, Kate is athletic and thinks outside the box, Sticky has the book smarts, and Constance…is Constance. At various points all their skills come into play, so that they are not able to succeed except as a team. They are also, despite their occasional squabbles, really nice kids. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, but even as an adult, I found myself thinking that these were characters I would trust and look up to. Reynie especially seemed to have a wisdom beyond his years.

The plot was clever and engaging. Despite the length of the book, I couldn’t put it down, barely even for meals. I was never disappointed along the way; even when I finished, I discovered that the back cover had a secret message in Morse code that I had to look up the alphabet online to decipher.

I’ve already added the next two to my Bookmooch wishlist, and may break down and buy them new if they don’t turn up after a while. This is definitely a keeper.

The back flyleaf has

Published in: on July 10, 2011 at 8:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Splendid Hazard

In a twist this year I didn’t really ask for books, mostly because I buy so many at book sales that the only ones I seek out brand new are Nancy Drews. My mom knows my tastes, however, and picked out a few treasures for me at the Bookbarn: two Mary Roberts Rineharts (Tish and The Red Lamp), and a book called A Splendid Hazard. I also just received a few mooches (on the right): a Honey Bunch book, and the first two in the Polly Brewster series (the third is still on its way). And, as evidenced by the inclusion of a picture, I finally got a new camera!

With older books you never know what you’re going to get, and I started A Splendid Hazard with no hint as to plot save the cover illustration by Howard Chandler Christy. As charming as it is (and from an actual scene), it doesn’t tell the half. Harold MacGrath spins a wonderful yarn that I quickly found myself unable to put down. I had been reading it while we were on vacation, and on the ride home was cursing myself for my inability to read in a moving vehicle.

“There would be something more than treasure-hunting here; an intricate comedy-drama, with as many well-defined sides as a diamond.”

It begins with a chance meeting at Napoleon’s tomb between a young American war correspondant, a German man down on his luck, and a retired American admiral and his daughter. None of them really knows who the others are, and they go their separate ways untouched.

A year later Fitzgerald, the journalist home in New York between assignments, is mysteriously summoned to the house of Admiral Killigrew and his daughter Laura. Meanwhile Karl Brietmann has applied to be the admiral’s private secretary, a post below his station and abilities, with some seeming ulterior purpose. Perhaps, Fitzgerald suspects, it is related to the mysterious noises in the chimney. When an old letter is found telling of a secret treasure buried on Corsica, the group and several friends with whose pasts also intertwine with the story set sail for the island, never dreaming that danger awaits them. The only one who knows the truth is renown butterfly collector M. Ferraud, a French secret agent, but he is reluctant to show his hand in the hopes of saving someone from destruction.

MacGrath is fantastic at building character and suspense. Breitmann is a man of many mysteries. He is proud, noble, and desparate, and the reader is unsure as to what his purpose really is. As another character remarks, he is either “a great rascal or a great hero.” Even the romantic entanglements of the characters are left unresolved until the end of the novel.

You can almost feel the hand of fate at work here, for every character has some prior connection to the others.  In fact, the entire book seems to take place on a grand scale. People live nobly, and love passionately, and all seem tinged somehow with something larger than life. Everything feels grand and important, but in a good way. I’m not sure I can quite explain it. I do think these characters would be fascinating to know. And, yet again, one of the heroes is a journalist. For some reason, to me it always seems the most romantic profession, other than the navy, because of the sheer amount of experience, wits, and personality that it entails.

I loved this book so much, and not just for the plot and characters. MaGrath has real skill as a writer. A Splendid Hazard has no pretentions at being great literature, and yet he often has an elegant turn of phrase that brings people and situations to life with a vibrancy. It almost reminds me of A Room With a View. For example, take this description of Laura:

She was one of those happy beings in either sex who can amuse themselves, who can hold pleasant conversation with the inner self, who can find romance in old houses, and yet love books, who prefer sunrises and sunsets at first hand, still loving a good painting.

Technically I finished this on January 1, and it feels a little silly to say I’ve found one of my favorites of the year, but I honestly could sit down and reread this from cover to cover. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more from Harold MacGrath. It seems he had several bestsellers in the early twentieth century (this is from 1910), many of which are available on Project Gutenberg.

Published in: on January 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Sherwood Ring

I can’t quite recall what first drew me to The Sherwood Ring when I was at the October book sale. The title seemed to promise adventure, while the cover featured colonial costumes, and I recognized Elizabeth Marie Pope as the author of Newbery Honor book The Perilous Gard. Then I read the description, and immediately knew I would love this book.

Newly orphaned Peggy Grahame is caught off-guard when she first arrives at her family’s ancestral estate. Her eccentric uncle Enos drives away her only new acquaintance, Pat, a handsome British scholar, then leaves Peggy to fend for herself. But she is not alone. The house is full of mysteries–and ghosts. Soon Peggy becomes involved with the spirits of her own Colonial ancestors and witnesses the unfolding of a centuries-old romance against a backdrop of spies and intrigue and of battles plotted and foiled. History has never been so exciting!

Ghosts, the Revolutionary War, and an old-fashioned romance? Those are three of my favorite fictional elements, and the mystery/espionage mixed in only made a great book better. I think I was smiling the entire time while I was reading. I enjoyed this book so much, and if I had known about it at a younger age it probably would have been read several times by now.

Technically this is a children’s book, but it doesn’t read like one. Though Peggy is referred to by her uncle as a child, she seems to be at least 16, and the eighteenth-century characters are certainly old enough to be in the army and get engaged. I would put the intended audience as about on par with Mabel Esther Allan’s young adult books, in that the plots are basically romantic suspense but the characters are young enough to be interesting to a teen audience.

The book was originally written in 1958, and even the modern-day scenes have a sort of wholesomeness about them that you don’t always seem to find in current books; I could sense it even before I looked back at the copyright page. My only complaint is that we didn’t seem to see enough of the contemporary side of the story until the end. I was definitely caught up in the escapades of Peaceable Sherwood, but I wished Peggy had been less of a frame tale. For a while she seems to function mainly as a response and reflection of events in the past. For example, all her actual visits to Mrs. Dykemann’s boarding house are pretty much skipped over except for a mention, but could have helped round out the story a bit more.

I’m a little ashamed to say that I never actually read The Perilous Gard; I had acquired several used Newbery books all at once but was already starting to move to adult books. I believe it’s set a little earlier, during 16th-century England, but still seems to promise adventure and fantastic elements.  I’ll be keeping it in mind for next time I’m in the mood for good historical fiction.

Published in: on December 1, 2010 at 4:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society

[This is an older draft I’m polishing up and publishing. Exhibit Q of how the more I love a book, the harder it is to write the review, because I don’t think I’ll do it justice without slipping into mush. Also, I wrote this whole post and lost it, and am now really frustrated.]

I think most people have by this point heard of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Sometimes I think I put off reading oft-mentioned books because I’m afraid to be disappointed by the build-up, but this one lives up to the hype 110%.

guernsey literary and potato peel pie societyI’ve tried a few times unsuccessfully to write this review, and usually end up just rereading parts of the book instead, so I’m going to do things a bit differently. Here is a list of things I liked about the book and why.

  • WWII setting: I’ve always been fascinated by this time period as a backdrop, perhaps because all the terrible things happening still allow the true strength of humanity to shine through. In this case, I had no idea about the German occupation of Guernsey. (To be honest, I don’t think I could have even told you that it was an island. Despite a lot of reading, my knowledge of British geography remains shamefully jumbled.) It’s amazing to think that they were cut off from the rest of England during the war.
  • epistolary format: When a book written in letters is well done, it changes my attitude towards first-person from tolerance to delight. The letters allow glimpses into the characters as they reveal their thoughts and dreams, and the nuances of their different relationships with each other. They vary from careful reflection to the heat of emotions in the moment. I wish that written correspondence with more than 140 characters was still popular today.
  • tone: As one would expect from being set immediately after the war looking back, the book has it’s fair share of tragedy; however, the overall impression is that the characters all exhibit remarkable irrepressibility and hope. I would love to be friends with Juliet and Sidney. It’s also easy to see why Elizabeth with cheerful determination was the center of the little circle on Guernsey. The book also has a gentle humor, from Juliet’s witty charm to the zany Isola. It’s one of those special books that just makes you smile, despite the sections that might bring tears to your eyes.
  • research: Part of the plot and structure of the book relies on anecdotal incidents, and I’m left wondering how much is based in fact. Mary Ann Shaffer mentions in the afterword that she spent years researching the occupation of the Channel islands after learning about it on a visit to Guernsey. I’m tempted to look into historical resources more myself; this site seems to have some good options. I’m sure the real island residents were just as resilient as those described here. It might be fun to try to make potato peel pie as well.
  • bookishness: As the title would suggest, books are woven throughout the narrative: central in that Juliet is a writer, and that a common love for Charles Lamb is the reason she and Dawsey first correspond, but also in more subtle ways. Fiction and non-fiction alike allow characters to retain their humanity in troubling times, and also provide a lens through which they view themselves and the world.

I must have reread almost the entire book by this point, and I’m sure that this is one I will treasure and reach for again throughout my life.

Published in: on September 30, 2010 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Thursday Throwback: The Family Tree

“‘When you look at their pictures,’ she said slowly, her eyes on Katy Anne with the parasol, ‘they don’t seem dead. If only we could get to their time they’d be alive. It’s only time that’s wrong. They’re only dead now, for us. They’re not dead then.'”

I often use the term “love” generously with books to mean “look on with fondness,” but The Family Tree by Margaret Storey is definitely on my list of top twenty books from my childhood. I can’t tell you how many times I read and reread it, but it’s been several years and when I wanted a comfort read this suddenly sprang to mind.

Image from Goodreads

Kate, an orphan, has spent much of her young life sharing a bedroom with cousins up until her aunt becomes pregnant again. Then she is shipped off to the country home of her father’s cousin. Cousin Lawrence is a distant old man, unused to children, and gives Kate free reign to explore the house and grounds. She discovers an attic full of belongings from her grandmother and her siblings, with whom Cousin Lawrence grew up, and becomes fascinated with piecing together their story. Her attention is focused on the youngest, Katy Anne, with whom she feels a particular affinity, despite the sometimes painful memories that the past conjures for others. Kate also befriends a boy she meets on the property, who turns out to have an interest in the family’s past as well.

I could clearly recall the premise and the ending, but while rereading every single event became all at once familiar again. Everything I loved about it before is still true–finding a sense of belonging by learning about the past while cultivating relationships in the present. It sounds a bit odd, but I’d describe the book as a cross between The Secret Garden and Tom’s Midnight Garden, even if there’s not that much of a garden in this story.

The genealogy aspect plays a large role in my love of the book. I think family history is fascinating because the stories have the finite nature of fiction but concern real people, who lived through the events we always read about, and their blood runs in our veins. When you know their daily routines, their likes and dislikes, listen to their music, hold their possessions, they seem so much closer. My mom’s father died before I was born, but from hearing stories and reading his letters and seeing newspaper articles about him, I still feel like I know him.

I was curious afterward to know what else Margaret Storey wrote. It’s hard to find information, because there is another author with the same name. Apparently, however, she also wrote a series featuring a witch that was a big inspiration for Neil Gaiman.

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 10:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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