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Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Winston Mawdsley Graham was twentieth century British novelist best known for his series of Poldark novels, set in the late eighteenth century, just after end of the American Revolution or War for Independence. The series takes place in Cornwall, and the protagonist and eponymous hero is a former soldier in the British army in America who comes home to find the girl he left behind, Elizabeth, engaged to be married to his richer cousin, Francis. Ross returns to the land he has inherited from his deceased father and attempts to make a living and a life in the stark and poverty-stricken mines and fields of southern England.

After the first novel, Ross Poldark, published in 1945, there followed eleven more books in the series. The novels have been adapted for television at least twice by the BBC, once in the 1970’s and again (the first two novels with perhaps more to come?) in 2015. I saw the 2015 version which was what got me interested in reading the books. I must say that although I enjoyed the television mini-series, I wish I had read the books first. I think, having read the first book in the series, that the books will be the better stories, less sensationalized and more true-to-life. But now I have the actors, Aidan Turner as Ross and Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, in my head, and I can’t help but picture those actors as I read the story. Mr. Turner is certainly handsome in a tall-dark-and way, and I don’t mind picturing him. But I wish I had formed my own mental pictures first and then maybe super-imposed the actors onto my conceptions.

I was a bit disappointed in the ending of the first book, too, since I didn’t realize at first that the mini-series was based on the first two books. I expected certain events to unfold that didn’t happen. However, I’m now primed and ready for the next book in the series, titled Demelza. In fact, I’m looking forward to reading the entire series. It’s reminding me, for some reason, of the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Perhaps it’s the disadvantaged and maltreated hero, handsome and debonair, but also dark and tormented. Or maybe the emphasis on finding one’s love amid the toils and vicissitudes of business (Poldark) and politics (Lymond) is what binds the two series together. And the historical setting is vivid and well-drawn and researched in both series.

In case you should want to pursue the series of Poldark novels, the titles are:

1945 – Ross Poldark (original U.S. title: The Renegade)
1946 – Demelza
1950 – Jeremy Poldark (original U.S. title: Venture Once More)
1953 – Warleggan (original U.S. title: The Last Gamble)
1973 – The Black Moon
1976 – The Four Swans
1977 – The Angry Tide
1981 – The Stranger from the Sea
1982 – The Miller’s Dance
1984 – The Loving Cup
1990 – The Twisted Sword
2002 – Bella Poldark

I’ll probably be back with more Poldarkian observations soon.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Jeweled Moth by Katherine Woodfine. (2016)
The Mystery of the Painted Dragon by Katherine Woodfine. (February, 2017)

Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Sophie Taylor-Cavendish is the recently orphaned fifteen year old daughter of a military man and world traveler, her beloved “Papa.” However, since Papa died in an accident way out in South Africa, Sophie must make her own way in the world. And a job as a shopgirl in the millinery department at the fabulous new Sinclair’s Department store in Piccadilly, London, is just the place for a young girl with sense of adventure and a need for a regular source of income.

“Enter a world of bonbons, hats, perfumes, and mysteries around every corner! Wonder at the daring theft of the priceless clockwork sparrow! Tremble as the most dastardly criminals in London enact their wicked plans! Gasp as our bold heroines Miss Sophie Taylor and Miss Lillian Rose break codes, devour iced buns, and vow to bring the villains to justice.”

I think those two paragraphs pretty much capture the general atmosphere of this series of middle grade/YA mysteries. I read the first two books, and I hope to read the third book in the series when it comes out next year. These are not profound, literary, or even particularly well-plotted. There are few glitches in the mechanism, and suspension of disbelief is required. However, the setting and characters are just so enchanting and delicious that a few creaky or inconsistent plot details can and should be overlooked. I’m not sure the London of these books ever really existed, but it’s a delightful place for a mystery romp, nevertheless.

The books are appropriate for middle grade readers; the romance parts of the story are tame and miss-ish, as would be appropriate for the time period. However, there is a murder that takes place in each of the first two volumes in this series, and if a sensitivity to plain but not-gory descriptions of violence and crime are an issue, then younger readers may not be ready for these books. It’s not Agatha Christie, but it’s a good introduction to the genre that Dame Agatha owned.

There’s an ongoing mystery in these books concerning Sophie’s family and background, and I’m looking forward to reading the third book in the series to see if there’s a resolution.

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. My own life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance? Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

Behold Your Queen! by Gladys Malvern

Behold Your Queen! is a fictionalized version of the book of Esther from the Bible. The novel is by Gladys Malvern, a popular writer of what we would now call “Young Adult fiction”. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s it was called teen fiction or just children’s fiction for older children. Many of her books are set in either Old Testament or New Testament times and are embellishments on familiar Bible stories. Books such as The Foreigner (about Ruth), Saul’s Daughter (about David’s wife, Michal), Tamar, and Rhoda of Cyprus were favorites of mine when I was a teen, and as I re-read Behold Your Queen!, I was again impressed with how Ms. Malvern was able to make the Bible story come alive and make her characters into real, breathing people.

There are a few deviations from the Biblical story. In Ms. Malvern’s book, Esther gives only one feast for the king, her husband and Haman, the evil Amalekite minister. At that first feast, she begs for the lives of her people to be spared and denounces Haman as the enemy of the Hebrew people as well as the enemy of the king himself. The author adds many details and descriptions of Persian court life and of King Xerxes/Ahasuerus and other characters and settings in the story. However, the basic story is the same, and the author has the Jews give credit to Esther and to “Almighty God” for their deliverance from the hand of the evil Haman.

I’ve posted before about the book of Esther. It’s a fascinating story. Chuck Swindoll wrote a book about Esther called Esther: A Woman of Strength and Dignity. I also have a couple of other post about Esther, Soundtrack for the Book of Esther and Esther, Illustrated. On the latter subject, the “decorations” in Gladys Malvern’s Behold Your Queen! are done by her sister Corrine, who was the illustrator for most (all?) of Gladys’ books.

I had a fascination with historical fiction based on Biblical narratives or set in Biblical times for a while when I was a teen, and Gladys Malvern was one of my go-to authors. Others who wrote these kinds of tales back in the early to mid twentieth century or before were Lloyd C. Douglas (The Robe, The Big Fisherman), Lew Wallace (Ben-hur), Norah Lofts (How Far to Bethlehem?), Elizabeth George Speare (The Bronze Bow), Joanne Williamson (Hittite Warrior), Marjorie Holmes (Two from Galilee), Patricia St. John (Twice Freed), and Frank G. Slaughter (The Road to Bithynia and many others). All of these stories were more or less Biblically accurate and made me think about the Biblical narratives in new ways as the people in them began to feel like real people instead of the flannel-graph one-dimensional characters of my childhood understanding. Whether it’s by means of historical fiction or the kinds of imaginative Bible study, I think it’s important that the people of the Bible be understood in this way as one grows and learns more about them.

Theodosia, Daughter of Aaron Burr by Anne Colver

My daughters have become engrossed in listening to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, Hamilton, and therefore I have listened to bits and pieces of it quite a few times over the past couple of weeks. (Warning: there’s some fairly foul language in the lyrics to the musical, as well as some lurid gossip about the main characters. On the other hand, some of the lyrics are quite funny and witty.) As one thing leads to another, I noticed this book on the shelves of my library and decided to read it. Theodosia Burr Alston was the only (legitimate)* daughter of Aaron Burr, who figures prominently in the life and, of course, death of Alexander Hamilton.

Anne Colver wrote this book for children or young adults, and it was published in 1941. The content is largely pro-Burr, although various characters can’t help speculating that Burr may have lost at least some of his reason and judgment after the duel with Hamilton. Aside from murdering Hamilton, Burr does do other fantastical and ill-judged things: in particular he becomes involved in a plot to invade Mexico and either to deliver it to the United States or to set up a rival empire with Aaron Burr as emperor.

We see Aaron Burr in the book from the point of view of the adoring Theodosia. Her love never fails. She always believes in her father, always expects the best of him, always stands her ground in defending him. However, Theodora’s husband, Joseph Alston, makes a telling statement about his father-in-law, which becomes the summary judgment of this take on Aaron Burr: “It’s hard to pity a man who can never admit he’s been mistaken. Your father has so much to make him a great man, Theo. He has brilliance and ambition and energy. And magnificent courage. But he has more pride than any man is entitled to in this world.”

And yet, Theodosia, and the readers of this lightly fictionalized biography of Theodosia Burr Alston are impelled to pity Theodosia and her infamous father by the end of the book. He almost became president, but he was also thwarted and insulted at every turn by Alexander Hamilton and his political allies. Burr lost his wife (also named Theodosia) during Washington’s presidency. He endured Hamilton’s calumnies for many years without reply. Then, came the duel, which Burr initiated, and the people of New York were so incensed at Burr that he felt he had to leave the country. And he owed so many debts that he fled with hardly any money to France where he lived in near-poverty. Then, after the Southwestern Empire debacle, Theodosia’s only child, a son named for his grandfather, died of a fever. And in the final tragedy of the book, Theodosia set out from Charleston to travel by ship to New York to visit her aging and still beloved father, but the ship she was on never arrived. Lost at sea.

I don’t really know what to think about Aaron Burr or his daughter. Anya Seton wrote a novel, My Theodosia, also published in 1941, which apparently paints a much different picture of Burr and his daughter. I haven’t read Seton’s novel, but according to Wikipedia Seton portrays a traitorous and hugely ambitious Aaron Burr and again, an adoring and manipulable Theodosia. Burr offers his daughter the opportunity to become Princess of the Western American Empire, and young Theodosia has a brief romance with Meriwether Lewis, thwarted by her protective father. I prefer the Colver version of Theodosia and her father, but I’m not at all sure what is actually accurate or true.

And so the Burrs remain an enigma to some extent, but fascinating nevertheless.

*I went on a bit of a rabbit trail after reading the Wikipedia article about Aaron Burr, which stated that he had two illegitimate children with his East Indian servant, Mary Emmons. These two children, John (Jean) Pierre Burr and Louisa Charlotte Burr, grew up to become influential members of the free black community in Philadelphia, and Burr’s grandson, Frank J. Webb, wrote the second African American novel ever to be published. What would Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan preacher and Aaron’s Burr’s grandfather, have thought of his illustrious, infamous grandson and his progeny?

The Lark and the Laurel by Barbara Willard

The first in Ms. Willard’s series, The Mantlemass Chronicles, this romance novel is beautifully written. I compared it in my mind to another romance novel I read earlier this month (because it was set in Scotland; I don’t usually read romances), and this one by Willard is much more pleasing to the ear and to the imagination. The plot’s advancement depends on coincidence and on several fortuitous events that are almost unbelievable when threaded together to make a story. However, I didn’t care.

I just wanted Cecily and her fine, upstanding country friend, Lewis Mallory, to be able to get together in spite of all of the obstacles put before and between them. The blurb on the back of the book says that Christian Science Monitor called the book “an entrancing tale of cruel fathers, arranged marriages, sensible aunts, and a true love.” Library Journal named it “tender, solemn romance and a well-sustained mystery.” I agree. This book, published in 1970, holds up well as YA or even adult historical fiction, and the writing and the historical background require something of the reader that modern-day historical romances don’t usually—close and careful reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what a marriage truly is or isn’t. This book adds something to my rumination on that subject. Set in England in 1485, just as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond came to the throne, ending the Wars of the Roses between the Lancastrians and the Yorks, the story features several characters, each with his or her own attitude about what marriage is meant to be. Cecily’s father sees marriage as a contract, a way to advance his own interests in terms of power and money. Cecily’s aunt, having lived through a bad marriage to a cruel husband, is interested in maintaining her own independence and in helping Cecily to become strong and independent, too. However, Aunt Elizabeth FitzEdmund is not opposed to Cecily’s marriage—to the right person and at the right time and for love, not to further Cecily’s father’s ambitions. Cecily herself is not sure what she thinks, not having been allowed to think for herself nor to have any philosophies about marriage or anything else.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in the Mantlemass Chronicles:

The Sprig of Broom (1485)
The Eldest Son (1534)
A cold Wind Blowing (1536)
The Iron Lily (1557)
A Flight of Swans (1588)
Harrow and Harvest (1642)

These books take us through English history from the Battle of Bosworth, to the reign of the Tudor kings, to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, to the Spanish Armada, to another English civil war between Cromwell’s Roundheads and the king’s men, Cavaliers. During all these great events the families in and around the manor house Mantlemass—Mallorys, Medleys, Plashets, and Hollands–pursue their own ends and keep their own secrets. From reading the synopses of these other novels in the series, I can see that marriage and romance and family secrets and loyalty and independence continue to be themes that Ms. Willard explores in her books. I’m going to enjoy exploring with her and her characters.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

I am reading this book because Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended it to someone on her podcast. The premise is interesting: Peter is going to the planet Oasis as a missionary to the people who inhabit the planet. He is sent by a corporation called USIC to take the gospel to the Oasans.

I’m about halfway through the book. Maybe all of the following issues are resolved and explained in the second half, but right now I have some burning questions about our protagonist missionary and his mission. Some things just do not compute.

1. Peter’s mission. How does Peter even know that the Oasans need the gospel? Are they sinful creatures, in rebellion against the Creator? Do they need forgiveness and redemption? Maybe they already know God and walk in perfect fellowship with Him. Maybe not.

2. Which brings me to the second problem, Peter’s ignorance. Our missionary, Peter, is remarkably naive and unquestioning. He knows nothing or almost nothing about the people/creatures he is planning to evangelize. He knows next to nothing about the planet Oasis. He doesn’t even know what the initials OSIC stand for. When he does ask a few tentative questions, he is stonewalled. And still he allows this corporation that he knows nothing about to send him millions of miles away to a planet he knows nothing about to minister to a people he knows nothing about.

3. Problem #3: Peter’s and Bea’s marriage, which is supposed to be the central theme of the novel. They are said and shown to be very close, in a very loving and inter-dependent marriage. Yet, not only does Peter leave Bea to go to a planet far, far, away for an indeterminate length of time, but when he has the opportunity to email her, to answer her plea for details about his mission, to reassure her that he is there and that he still cares for her, Peter can’t manage to write much more than a few sentences at a time, every two or three weeks. This ostensibly strong marriage falls apart in short order. Maybe the point is to remind us of our bodies, that we are embodied creatures, very dependent on physical intimacy to maintain emotional and spiritual intimacy?

4. There’s a mystery about the Oasans and their relationship to OSIC and their relationship to Jesus. I get that there’s a mystery. And that part will probably get resolved. But what in the world is going on with OSIC supplying these non-human creatures with pharmaceuticals? They haven’t examined these “Oasans” and don’t even know how they look on the outside, much less their body chemistry and physiology, but they’re giving them antibiotics, analgesics, and other medicines that have been tested on humans but never on Oasans? Wouldn’t that be unethical and highly dangerous—or else maybe ineffective? And no one is questioning the ethics or the efficacy of this “drug drop”?

5. The people who work for OSIC come across as very amateurish and untrained. Oh, they have engineering degrees or mining expertise, but they don’t seem to know much about Oasis or the overall mission of OSIC or anything besides their own narrow job skills. And that mission, whatever it may be, looks as if it’s thrown together by a bunch of amateur NASA wannabes. No astronaut or cross-cultural missions training for Peter, no details or background education for any of the other OSIC workers. The Oasans want drugs? OK, give them whatever we have left over. The Oasans want to hear more about Jesus? OK, hire a missionary. There’s this flower that grows here and is good for food? OK, let’s eat it. It rains a lot on this planet? OK, drink up.

I just finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir before I started this book, and no doubt the previous book colored my reading of another space travel science fiction book, The Book of Strange New Things. Peter the Missionary and his cohorts just are so very amateur and unprepared compared to the protagonist in The Martian. Mark Watney, the astronaut who is stranded alone on Mars, knows how to fix almost anything, and he has been trained to the nth degree. By comparison, Peter the Missionary looks like a child wandering in the dark. Maybe The Book of Strange New Things is meant to make Christians look like credulous fools, except that Peter comes across as really intelligent, but also gullible and unquestioning. I won’t really know until I finish the book.

So, have any of you read either The Martian or The Book of Strange New Things? What did you think? Are you frustrated, as I am, at Peter’s lack of curiosity and his credulous nature? And on the other book, does anyone believe that even a NASA-trained engineer could survive what Mark Watney survives in The Martian? I wouldn’t have have made it five minutes–even if I had all the NASA training that Mark Watney had.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

I tried to become absorbed in this rather self-centered and pretentious novel because the cast of characters who inhabit the novel are my age mates. The six friends who make up the group who call themselves “the Interestings” are teenagers in the mid-seventies, college students in the late seventies and early eighties, get married (or at least co-habit) in the eighties, really marry and have children in the nineties, and find themselves midddle-aged and evaluating the consequences of their life decisions in the twenty first century. That’s me, except for the co-habitation part, and except for the fact that these are artsy people. Or artsy wannabes. And rich, mostly. And New Yorkers, insufferably proud and parochial New Yorkers. If it weren’t for all those differences, I could have been any one of the characters in this novel.

So, other than age, I don’t really have much in common with Jules and Ethan and Ash and Goodman and Jonah and Cathy. Honestly, I’m glad not to have much affinity with these characters because they are not very likable people, except for Ethan who is a teddy bear. Jules, the main viewpoint character, is the outsider who meets the other teens at Spirit-in-the-Woods summer camp for “talented” teens and becomes a part of their oh-so-interesting in-group. But Jules always feels a little outside and a little envious because she’s from suburbia and middle class and not really all that interesting. Ash and Goodman, brother and sister, are rich, not terribly talented or interesting on their own, but backed by lots of money and influence, they can appear to be both. Cathy is a dancer with the wrong kind of body for professional success in dancing. Jonah is a musician, but emotionally damaged, the son of a sixties folk music star. And Ethan is an artist and animator, the real talent in the the group.

In 468 pages, Ms. Wolitzer tells the story of these six people, their friendships, their professional lives, their coupling and uncoupling, their families, and their sexual misadventures. The book could have been about 200 pages shorter and lot better had Ms. Wolitzer left out the long and tedious descriptions of the various characters’ sexual encounters, both within and outside marriage. I get it. Sex is really important to these people. Jules rejects Ethan because she’s not sexually attracted to him, even though he is her best friend. She buys sex toys on a shopping trip with her best girlfriend, Ash. She fantasizes sex with Goodman. She has lots of sex with her live-in boyfriend, then husband, Dennis.

Jonah Bay is gay, so we must have lots of descriptions of homosex, including answers to the questions we all have about how to have sex when one partner is HIV-positive. Then, there’s attempted rape, sex with a clinically depressed person (not much there), sex in marriage, sex in the college dorm, sex while high, unfulfilled sexual attraction, sex with vibrator, no sex, maybe sex, wild sex. Every few pages the author throws in a sex scene, some of which attempt to be titillating but only succeed at being boring. I skimmed a lot.

And, although I read the whole thing, skimming aside, I would say that’s an apt description for the entire book: it tries but fails to be interesting. The characters try but fail to grow to be interesting. Jules tries to be wry and sardonic but only manages to be jealous and lazy, trapped in some ideal past when she “came alive” at camp. Jonah tries to overcome his past as an abused kid, but he never connects with anyone much. Ethan tries to be a good rich and powerful man, but he has to have a major failure, so the author sticks one in, even though it doesn’t seem to be in character. Ash tries to be a feminist and an artist but turns into a a rich housewife like her mom. Goodman doesn’t try ever, and he reaps what he sows. Cathy sort of drops out of the story after providing a convenient plot device. I kept hoping for character development, but all I got was more sex scenes and detailed physical descriptions of how ugly or pretty each character was at any given point in his or her life. These descriptions (and the sex scenes) may have been supposed to stand in for character development.

I don’t know to whom to recommend this book. If you are self-absorbed enough to identify with these characters, then you are self-absorbed and won’t find them to be very interesting. Maybe New Yorkers who are not self centered and pretentious could see by reading The Interestings why the rest of us tend to think that they are. Books like this one don’t help to dispel the stereotype.

Remembrance by Theresa Breslin

I read Remembrance for my journey to Scotland last month because it was the only book by Theresa Breslin, Carnegie medal winning Scottish author, that my library system had. And it was set during World War I, a favorite time period. There were definitely echoes of Downton Abbey in the book.

Seventeen year old John Malcolm Dundas, son of a Scottish shopkeeper, can’t wait to enlist and fight the Huns. His sister Maggie is eager to do her part, too, or at least to do something more exciting than working her father’s store, and she goes to work in a munitions factory. Little brother Alex Dundas is only fourteen, but he longs to get into the fighting before the war ends. Then, there’s the other family in the book, the Armstrong-Barneses, consisting of mother, son Francis, and daughter Charlotte. Charlotte trains to become a nurse so that she can contribute to the war effort, even though her mother does not approve of girls in her “station of life” (the upper class) working in hospitals, particularly not her teenaged daughter. Francis, old enough to be a soldier, tries to avoid the war, reads lots of newspapers, and draws. He’s the sensitive, artistic type, and he’s opposed to the war and the way it’s being fought.

The book follows the histories of these five teens as World War I impacts them, fills their lives, and changes them and their families and their village. It would be a good fictional introduction to World War I for high school age readers and for adults. The details of life in the trenches and in the hospitals are harrowing and gritty, but I would much prefer this book as an accompaniment to the study of World War I over the one that’s often assigned, All Quiet on the Western Front. I found the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front very nearly as confusing as the battles of the war itself must have been. Remembrance with its more straightforward plot leaves out none of the horror of the war, but it tells the story of World War I in a much more approachable and understandable manner.

Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell

Talking to Strange Men is a strange book, illuminating the strange but insightful mind of acclaimed mystery writer Ruth Rendell. If ever Thoreau’s famous observation were embedded in a novel, this story of a lonely garden center sales clerk who pursues his runaway wife while becoming caught up in a game of espionage is that novel.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” ~Henry David Thoreau

The cast of characters, teens and adults, in Talking to Strange Men are not wise. The plot is convoluted, but believable. The setting is very British, and my only complaint, besides the depressing, almost despairing tone of the novel, was that some of the details and language and slang that are peculiar to the British setting were somewhat obscure to me, a lowly American.

There is some talk of sexual matters in the novel; it’s definitely an adult novel despite the many teenaged characters. But the sex talk is much more discreet than would be the case with a novel written and published nowadays. (I just read The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and I thought the book could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter and much better without all the detailed sexual information that added very little if anything to the story.) Talking to Strange Men is a 1987, cold war sort of novel, and its age shows in the details of the spying and the crime investigation that go on throughout the story. Not that the age of the novel makes it any less satisfying as a psychological page turner, but it is definitely set back in the days before cell phones, computers, and the world wide web became ubiquitous.

Read Talking to Strange Men if you’re a fan of psychological and British quirkiness, like Tana French, maybe, or P.D. James.