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The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer, besides authoring several Golden Age of detective fiction mysteries, also wrote romance novels and according to Wikipedia “essentially established the genre of Regency romance.” During her career,she published over thirty Regency novels, for a period of her life publishing one mystery/thriller and one romance per year.

The Grand Sophy, one of those Regency novels, was published in 1950. It’s the story of a rather indolent and somewhat impecunious family, Lord and Lady Ombersley and their several children, including the eldest, Charles, who has become something of a family tyrant in his quest to save the family from bankruptcy. When Lady Ombersley’s niece, Sophy, comes to stay for a while while her diplomat father goes on an ambassadorial trip to Brazil, the entire household is turned topsy-turvy by Sophy’s free and easy ways and her lack of female propriety, not to mention her monkey, Jacko.

Sophy is a grand character. She’s independent, intelligent, and spirited without being obnoxious. Sophy’s cousin Charles is less well-developed as a character. At first, he seems like a petty family dictator, ruling over his parents and his younger brothers and sisters in a rather arbitrary way while planning to marry an heiress to re-coup the family fortunes. As the story continues, Charles becomes more sympathetic as a character, but I was never sure why he was so high-handed and unbending at the beginning.

Jane Austen fans and Regency romance readers should definitely check out The Grand Sophy. Ms. Heyer’s novels, including this one, are not as subtle and deep as Jane Austen’s, but as far as straight light romance novels go Georgette’s Heyer’s books rise near to the top of the list.

Binny for Short by Hilary McKay

British author Hilary McKay specializes in stories of unsupervised, even neglected, children. Saffy’s Angel, Indigo’s Star, Caddie Ever After, Forever Rose, and Permanent Rose make up a series of books featuring one of the most dysfunctional functioning familes in children’s literature. The father, Bill, is absent most of the time, and the mom, Eve, is an artist who spends her days and most of her nights in a backyard shed where she paints and dozes and daydreams. The children run wild, free range as it were. The other book that I know by Hilary McKay is a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic, A Little Princess, called Wishing for Tomorrow. McKay’s follow-up features the poor little neglected girls of Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies.

And now there’s Binny for Short, Ms. McKay’s latest. Eleven year old Binny has a mom (dad’s deceased) and an older sister and a younger brother. However, mom is awfully busy working to support the family, and she’s a little lackadaisical about supervising Binny. Which is fine with Binny. Binny spends her time exploring the seaside town she lives in along with her favorite enemy, Gareth, the boy next door. Or she looks for Max, her long lost dog. Or she tries to convince herself that Aunty Violet has not come back from the dead to haunt the house she left to Binny in her will. Or she works on the excursion boat that takes tourists to see the seals. Binny is never bored.

Binny’s six year old brother, James, is even more unbored. He grows poisoned lettuce, chases chickens, entertains the old people at the nursing home, wears his purple and pink wetsuit to the beach, sprays the back fence, and generally acts like a creative, thoughtful, free range kid. I’m pretty much in favor of the free range kids philosophy myself, even if I do find it difficult to put into practice given my place of abode in Major Suburbia and my kids’ personalities, pretty much introverted homebodies. However, I believe in giving kids room to roam and explore and learn the world on their own terms. (It just so happens that my kids prefer a world mostly mediated by books and movies, kind of like their mom and dad.)

Anyway, if you’re OK with children in your books or in real life who explore the neighborhood freely and who are allowed to figure out their place in that world by themselves for the most part, you’ll like Binny for Short. In other words, if you’ve read the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, and you’re OK with those children, you’ll probably enjoy Binny for Short. If you’re a little nervous about the whole free range kid thing, you might want to let your children at least experience it vicariously through Binny and James (and the Cassons: Cadmium, Saffron, Indigo, and Rose).

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King

This Sherlock Holmes tribute starts off slowly, but the pace picks up about halfway through when the author has finished setting up the relationship between Holmes and his teenage, female apprentice, Mary Russell. Mary, a sharp-eyed, feminist mirror image of Holmes himself, is, from the beginning of their acquaintance, mach more actively involved in Sherlock Holmes’ experiments and detection than was the ever-admiring, but frequently dim-witted Watson. Russell, as Holmes calls her, becomes Sherlock Holmes’ protege, and eventually his equal partner in sleuthing as the two of them face off with an enemy even more subtle and diabolical than the deceased Moriarty.

I had a good friend in high school/college days who was a great fan of Sherlock Holmes. I preferred Nero Wolfe or Miss Marple. I wish I knew where Winona was. I would definitely recommend The Beekeeper’s Apprentice to her—and to any other Sherlockian mystery fans, at least those who aren’t offended by the non-canonical addition of a female genius apprentice who sometimes outdoes even the Great Sherlock Holmes himself in her deductions and observations.

I’m in the middle of the second book of the series, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, and the feminist themes are definitely predominating in this one. However, the plot and characters and the writing are all stellar, and I’m definitely in for the long haul, unless the quality goes down or the feminist* propaganda gets to be too much. I’m looking forward to getting to know Ms. King’s version of Sherlock Holmes and his (now) partner, Mary Russell, over the course of twelve books.

*I would never use the word “feminist” to describe myself because the term has way too many connotations and associations that are anti-Christian and anti-male. However, Mary Russell’s version of feminism, so far (only in the second book), has much to recommend it. Ms. Russell is an independent and highly intelligent young woman who is learning how to relate to and older male mentor in a way that is dignified and and at the same time grateful for the things that he is able to teach her. So far, I like Mary Russell very much.

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced.”

I like spy stories, especially true spy stories. Author Ben MacIntyre’s story of Eddie Chapman and his activities as the consummate double agent for Britain during World War II is particularly fascinating because it’s well-researched and full of details that were gleaned from recently declassified MI5 files.

So, first, I had to get straight the difference between MI5 and MI6:

“The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency. It is responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) operates world-wide and is responsible for gathering secret intelligence outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence and foreign and economic policies.”

Well, that’s clear, but I can see how during a war like WW II when the outside threats (of German infiltration and even invasion) were quickly becoming inside threats, the lines would get a little blurred. Anyway, Eddie Chapman worked for MI5 because he came to England as a Nazi spy and saboteur. When he reached Britain, parachuted in by his German employers, he immediately reported to MI5 about what the Germans had taught him and what they wanted him to do while he was “in the field.” (The Nazi wanted him to sabotage and blow up a factory where British warplanes called Mosquitos were being manufactured.)

Mr. Chapman is an interesting character, a very flawed hero. He was “a man who kept every option open, who seemed congenitally incapable of taking a bet without hedging it.” Terence young, the filmmaker, who had known Chapman before the war, wrote to MI5 officials about Chapman,”One could give him the most difficult of missions knowing that he would carry it out and that he would never betray the official who sent him, but that it was highly probable that he would, incidentally, rob the official who sent him out. . . . He would then carry out his [mission] and return to the official whom he had robbed to report.” Chapman had a girl in every port, or country, and he seduced each of them into thinking that she was the only one. But when none of his long-term partners was available, he found it necessary to visit prostitutes or find a new paramour. He performed some incredibly valuable missions of misinformation and spying for the British, but he was paid mostly by the Germans who believed that he had done great things for their side.

If you’re interested in World War II, British intelligence services, James Bond and the like, espionage, or just morally ambivalent characters, Agent Zigzag is a good read. MacIntyre does tell what happened to the major players in this episode of double and even triple cross after the war was over, and the index is useful for finding specific incidents and information if you’re studying the era and the subject.

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

This latest entry in the series about 11 year old Flavia deLuce, girl chemist and intrepid solver of mysteries, features a satisfying story and a surprising ending. These books should definitely be read in order:

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag
A Red Herring Without Mustard
I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Speaking From Among the Bones
The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches
(due out January, 2014)

However, I think I missed the fourth book somehow, and I still enjoyed this fifth one. In Speaking from Among the Bones, Flavia is determined to make her presence known when the authorities unearth the bones of Bishop Lacey’s resident saint, St. Tancred, who’s been dead for 500 years. But before the assembled company get to the bones of St. Tancred, there’s another, more modern, corpse to be disinterred. And Flavia is off on another investigation into chemistry and death in the 1950’s village near her ancestral home of Buckshaw where Flavia performs experiments in her great-uncle Tarquin DeLuce’s marvelous and well-stocked laboratory.

As the series continues, we realize more and more that our first impressions of Flavia’s family of her village friends, seen exclusively through Flavia’s own peculiar 11 year old filter, may not be entirely accurate. It’s a voyage of discovery, as Flavia realizes that perhaps her father has depths that are beyond her understanding and that perhaps her sisters Daffy and Feely do love her in their own ways, and that perhaps the other village people, both friends and enemies, are more multi-dimensional than she may have led us to believe initially. I really like this aspect of gradually opening up relationships and characters through the eyes of a very opinionated and somewhat precocious child. It’s a lovely way to show characters in all their messiness, especially with the added dimension of murder and mayhem to solve and resolve in each of the books.

Good series, and I was totally blindsided by the ending of this installment in the series–not the solution of the murder mystery, but rather an astonishing and unexpected development in Flavia’s own personal family life that sets us up for an interesting sixth book, due out in January 2014.

The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge

I have read very few authors with as much insight into the feelings and thought processes of men, women, and children as Elizabeth Goudge. The Rosemary Tree is remarkable in its treatment of characters who are all somewhat broken (as are we all), but who fall on a continuum from repentant to ineffectual to struggling to wise to completely evil. And the character who is represented as utterly irredeemable, because she doesn’t want to be forgiven or changed, might be the character you least suspect.

It all seems very true to life. (By the way that’s an awful cover, but the others I saw at Amazon weren’t any better. I don’t know why the people are wearing what looks like Elizabethan or Edwardian costumes. The story takes place in the twentieth century, after World War II.) The main characters in this little vignette of village life are:

John Wentworth, a bumbling and diffident country parson who sees himself as a weak man and a failure who can never get anything quite right.

“He took off his coat, rolled up his shirt-sleeves, lifted up to Almighty God the magnitude of his failure and the triviality of his task, and applied himself to the latter. The hot water warmed his cold hands and the pile of cleansed china grew satisfactorily on the draining-board. There was a pleasure in getting things clean. Small beauties slid one by one into his consciousness, quietly and unobtrusively, like growing light. The sinuous curves of Orlando the marmalade cat, washing himself on the window-sill, the comfortable sound of ash settling in the stove, a thrush singing somewhere, the scent of Daphne’s geraniums, the gold of the crocuses that were growing round the trunk of the apple tree outside the kitchen window.”

Others see him as Don Quixote, the Man of la Mancha.

Daphne Wentworth, John’s wife, is much more competent than her husband, but also full of pride and thwarted ambitions from her youth.

The couple have three children: Pat, who is like her mother, competent and intelligent and sharp, Margary, who is more like John, dreamy and vulnerable, and Winkle, who is the baby of the family, but wise with the innocence of childhood.

Harriet lives upstairs in the Wentworth parsonage, and she is wise with the wisdom of many years of experience, first as John’s nanny, then as the parsonage housekeeper, and now as a retired pray-er and watcher over the entire household.

“They all said they could not do without her. In the paradoxical nature of things if she could have believed them she would have been a much happier woman, but not the same woman whom they could not do without.”

Maria Wentworth, John’s great-aunt, lives in Belmaray Manor and keeps pigs.

Young Mary O’Hara, Irish and full of vitality, and Miss Giles, middle-aged, bitter, and full of frustrations, both teach school at the small private school that the Wentworth girls attend. Mary’s aunt, Mrs. Belling, “was a very sweet woman and had been a very beautiful one.” She is headmistress of the little school, where all three girls are quite unhappy, each in her own way.

Into this mix comes a stranger, Michael Stone, who is weighed down by many, many real failures and sins and who comes to Devonshire where the story takes place not so much for redemption as simply for a place to go, perhaps to hide from the world. Michael will find more than he’s looking for, and the other characters in this novel will change and grow as a result of Michael’s presence and the truth he brings into their lives.

Elizabeth Goudge really has written a lovely novel. Apparently, The Times criticized its “slight plot” and “sentimentally ecstatic” approach when the book was first published in 1956. I’ll admit the story is a bit short on action, but the descriptions of how and what people think and feel more than makes up for any deficiency in fictional exploits.

Sidenote/detour: While looking for more information about Elizabeth Goudge, I found this article about an Indian author, Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, who plagiarized from The Rosemary Tree in her 1993 Cranes’ Morning. In fact, aside from changing the setting to India, the names of the characters to Indian ones, and the religion to Hinduism, Ms. Aikath-Gyaltsen copied much of Goudge’s novel word-for-word. It took about a year for the plagiarism to be noticed and confirmed, and in the meantime Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen died, probably committing suicide. Sad story.

I wonder what Elizabeth Goudge, who died in 1984, would have thought about it all?

Not to end this review of and homage to Ms. Goudge’s agreeable novel on such a sad note, I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“The way God squandered Himself had always hurt her; and annoyed her, too. The sky full of wings and only the shepherds awake. That golden voice speaking and only a few fishermen there to hear; and perhaps some of the words He spoke carried away on the wind or lost in the sound of the waves lapping against the side of the boat. A thousand blossoms shimmering over the orchard, each a world of wonder all to itself, and then the whole thing blown away on a south-west gale as though the delicate little worlds were of no value at all. Well, of all the spendthrifts, she would think, and then pull herself up. It was not for her to criticize the ways of Almighty God; if He liked to go to all that trouble over the snowflakes, millions and millions of them, their intricate patterns too small to be seen by human eyes, and melting as soon as made, that was His affair and not hers.”

I like the idea of God as a spendthrift, creating beauty for the sheer joy of it all whether there’s anyone there to perceive it or not. Isn’t there a poem based on that idea? Maybe Emily Dickinson?

The Resurrection and the Life

I thought I’d post a few times today and tomorrow about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and what it means to me and to some of the authors and fictional and actual characters that I have on my bookshelves. I’m going to take turns blogging and house-cleaning and see how that goes.

I first read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when I was in ninth grade. Three of us—Christina, Teresa, and I— wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of the entire book, making our own little study guide to the novel as a school project. We did this before the age of personal computers and before any of us knew how to type. I can’t remember exactly what the finished product looked like, but it was a lot of work.

The themes of death, burial, imprisonment, rescue and resurrection are woven throughout Dickens’ tale set during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Doctor Manette is rescued from a living death inside the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” who digs up dead bodies to sell them. Charles Darnay is rescued and recalled to life twice during the novel, once when he is on trial in England and again when he is headed for guillotine in France.

But the most vivid representation of death and resurrection comes at the end of the novel when the reprobate Sydney Carton gives up his life to save Charles and Lucy Darnay and to ensure their future together. Carton is walking down the street when he remembers these words from Scripture read at his father’s funeral long ago:

“I am the resurrection, and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Now, that the streets were quiet, and the night wore on, the words were in the echoes of his feet, and were in the air. Perfectly calm and steady, he sometimes repeated them to himself as he walked; but, he heard them always.

The night wore out, and, as he stood upon the bridge listening to the water as it splashed the river-walls of the Island of Paris, where the picturesque confusion of houses and cathedral shone bright in the light of the moon, the day came coldly, looking like a dead face out of the sky. Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a little while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.

But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.

The strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain, was like a congenial friend, in the morning stillness He walked by the stream, far from the houses, and in the light and warmth of the sun fell asleep on the bank. When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.- “Like me!”

A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

On Good Friday, when we are in the midst of death and sin and darkness, it does sometimes seem a if “Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.” A blogging friend sent out a tweet earlier today saying that he had “difficulty ‘pretending’ on Good Friday that Jesus is dead.” Of course, Jesus isn’t dead, but as far as imagining the feeling of despair and “being delivered over to death”, I have no trouble whatsoever. Sometimes things in this world are very dark, and the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our eventual resurrection with Him is all that keeps from utter despair.

Thank God for Resurrection Sunday!

Two Thrillers with Punch and Pride

The Terrorist by Caroline B. Cooney.
Exciting, plot-driven young adult fiction with little or no sex or gory violence. Why can’t it all be written so well and so cleanly?

Laura and Billy are American ex-pats living in London with their working-in-the-UK parents and having the time of their young lives. Eleven year old Billy, especially, is outgoing, adventurous, and busy, charming everyone he meets as he explores the British culture and landscape in London. Laura is busy, too, mostly assessing the attractiveness of the boys in her international school. Then, Billy is handed a mysterious package in a London Underground station, and their lives are forever changed.

Ms. Cooney did an excellent job of sustaining the suspense in this mystery thriller and also showing us how an older teenage sister might react to terrorism that impinges on her world and her own family. Laura is so typically American, ignorant and oblivious to the danger and the politics swirling around her. I’m just like her in many ways, and certainly most of the teens I know are quite unaware of the political nuances of international enmities and alliances. The Terrorist demonstrates just how gullible we Americans can be, but it doesn’t show scorn for the United States or its people.

If We Survive by Andrew Klavan.
This YA novel, also about terrorism and American teens confronting the world of evil people who want to kill us, is a bit more violent, and there are a few plot holes. (Really, Will could learn to fire a machine gun from a moving truck within a few minutes when he had never even held a gun before?) In the book, high schooler Will Peterson and three friends, along with their youth director from church, go to some unspecified country in Central America to build a school. While they are there, a revolution takes place, and Will and his group are caught up in the violence and politics of the country.

One of the youth group characters, Jim, sympathizes with the socialist rebels who are intent on killing the Americans, and he believes that he can convince the rebels to let them go if he can just talk to them and show them how much he supports their cause. Again with the American naivete. A few bullets convince Jim that the rebels aren’t much interested in his revolutionary bona fides.

Klavan writes good fast-paced fiction for a hard-to-please audience—teen boys. Not that girls wouldn’t also enjoy If We Survive, especially since the real heroine of the story is Meredith, whose courage and faith in God sustain everyone through their ordeal. But boys will enjoy this one just like they did The Homelanders series. I’m looking forward to giving a copy of If We Survive to my fifteen year old, Karate Kid, and watching him rip through it.