Archives

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Last year I read Michaela MacColl’s Nobody’s Secret, a mystery story for young adults set in Amherst, Massachusetts, 1846, and featuring a young Emily Dickinson as the protagonist and sleuth. MacColl’s latest novel, Always Emily, features a different literary Emily, Emily Bronte and her sister Charlotte as a mismatched but effective detective duo.

Emily and Charlotte are as different in character, personality, and appearance as it is possible for two sisters to be. On the first page of the novel the family is at a funeral. Charlotte sat “stiffly, her back perfectly straight.” Emily “fidgeted unconscionably.” Charlotte is later portrayed as bossy, prim, near-sighted and anxious. Emily, on the other hand, is wild, independent, outspoken, and undisciplined. The two sisters share only three things: a passionate nature, inquisitive intelligence, and a love for writing.

The two young women, ages 17 and 19 in the book, squabble and argue incessantly. And yet they manage to work together to solve a mystery and bring a miscreant to justice. I was impressed with the author’s ability to bring these two famous writers to life, along with their sometimes chaotic home life. The youngest Bronte sister, Anne, doesn’t play a part in Always Emily; she’s away on a visit. But their father the Reverend Bronte is very much present, as an indulgent father and a socially concerned pastor and counselor. The Bronte brother, Branwell, is already headed toward a weak and dissolute life in this story. And Tabitha, the young ladies’ Yorkshire cook, servant, and substitute mother-figure, rounds out the cast of characters who live in the Bronte household.

The mystery itself was somewhat slight, but it served as a vehicle for the characters to shine. Fans of the Brontes will enjoy the book, and some readers might become fans after reading about the two fiery and independent Bronte sisters. For a biography of the Brontes, try The Bronte Sisters: The Brief Lives of Charlotte, Emily and Anne by Catherine Reef, a Cybils finalist from last year. For more Bronte-related fiction, I recommend The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke. Ms. Clarke’s fantasy about the Brontes’ toy soldiers who come to life and try to return to the Bronte home in Yorkshire won the Carnegie Medal in 1962 (British title: The Twelve and the Genii). Of course, if you’re interested in direct exposure to the Bronte sisters, Emily and Charlotte, I also recommend either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, if you haven’t already read both. Like the sisters themselves, the two books are quite different, but each one is insightful and appealing in its own way.

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney

The bus in question is a school bus, and the riders include several fifth, sixth and seventh graders and some “littles.” The story begins with the bus in a ditch in the middle of a torrential rainstorm, and then the rest of the story is a series of flashback chapters told from the point of view of several different bus riders about what happened throughout the school year to get the bus and its passengers to the day of the fateful accident.

Spencer is a genius, just back from a high-powered summer physics camp. Jay is Spencer’s best friend and the kid most likely to play pro-football. Shelley is something of a diva/singer/dancer, already worried about next summer and the performing arts camp in California that she wants to attend. Miranda is the side-kick who latches onto any BFF who will pay her some attention and eat lunch with her in the cafeteria. Bender is the bully, the kid who just might take your lunch money or trip you on a whim if you don’t watch out. Kaitlynn is a blabbermouth, full of ideas. Igor is probably ADHD, always in motion and looking for attention. Alice is the new girl who reads all the time. And Michael—well, Michael is the only African American kid on the bus, and no one knows what he’s thinking because he doesn’t say much to anyone.

I was intrigued and eager to keep reading to see how the author would tie together the stories of all the characters and their interactions with each other. For the most part, all of the loose ends were knotted, which is how I like my stories to be. I believe most kids would agree with me. Ambiguous endings are for literary adult types. This satisfying ending might be a little rushed, but it’s good and not forced.

The only thing that bothered me about the book is that the story is written in present tense. I guess this present tense choice lends some immediacy or nearness to the story, but I sometimes found it distracting. Mostly I tried to ignore it, although my brain insisted on “translating” the story into past tense for me at strategic moments.

Writer’s Digest: The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.

Overall, I highly recommend Ms. Cheaney’s Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous for middle grade readers who enjoy suspense and family/school stories. The plot and the writing remind me of authors such as Caroline B. Cooney (The Face on the Milk Carton) and Margaret Peterson Haddix (Don’t You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey), so I would recommend it as a read alike for those, maybe for a slightly younger crowd, say fifth through seventh graders.

Bellwether by Connie Willis

Coffee shops. Statistics. Management. Sheep. Fads and trends. Anti-smoking activism. Mail delivery. Chaos theory. Rom-com. Romantic Bride Barbie. Duct tape. Post-modern pink.

All of these forces and subjects and more combine and influence and permutate and percolate to form one funny, sweet, and at the same time thoughtful, romantic comedy of a novel. I was charmed. Bellwether is certainly not as meaty or deep as Willis’s other novels, but it might be a good introduction to her work.

Sandy Foster studies fads, how they start and what they mean. She becomes acquainted with fellow HiTek corporation scientist Bennett O’Reilly by accident—a case of mis-delivered mail. As fate and the highly incompetent mail clerk, Flip, continue to throw Sandy and Bennett together, she becomes interested in his seeming immunity to fads. Bennett, oblivious to Sandy’s growing interest, continues to pursue his interest in chaos theory. Can a flock of sheep and a new office assistant help them to truly see each other and achieve equilibrium?

Connie Willis continues to be my favorite living science fiction author. I highly recommend her other novels:

Doomsday Book, reviewed at Semicolon: my first foray into the world of Connie Willis, and her first book in a series about time-traveling historians.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, reviewed at Semicolon: Comedy and time travel in Victorian England.

Blackout and All Clear, reviewed at Semicolon: one book, really, in two volumes. The time-traveling historians visit World War II England.

Passage: about NDE’s or Near Death Experiences.

Her short stories are probably worth checking out too, if you like short stories. I don’t read short stories, unless I have very good reason to believe that the story up for perusal is worth the aggravation of its being so very short. I haven’t read Ms. Willis’s short stories, but she’s such a good author that I may give them a try.

The Scapegoat by Daphne DuMaurier

Wow! This one ranks right up there with Rebecca as one of Du Maurier’s best novels of intrigue and suspense, with plenty of twists, turns and unexpected revelations to keep the pages turning.

“Two men—one English, the other French—meet by chance in a province railway station and are astounded that they are so much alike that they could easily pas for each other. Over the course of a long evening, they talk and drink. It is not until he awakes the next day that John, the Englishman, realizes that he may have spoken too much. His French companion is gone, having stolen his identity. For his part, John has no choice but to take the Frenchman’s place—as master of a chateau, director of a failing business, head of a large and embittered family, and keeper of too many secrets.” ~From the blurb on the back of the book.

The initial premise is a little shaky: can two people who are not twins really look so much alike that a switch will fool even their closest friends and kin? However, given that postulation, the story is incredibly insightful as John realizes that he is bound to the past decisions and mistakes of the man he is impersonating in such a way as to make him almost unable to act in any way except the way that the Comte Jean de Gue would have acted in the same situation. John struggles to become Jean—and to keep from becoming Jean. Then, John must decide whether to let himself care about Jean’s family and Jean’s community, thereby running the risk of hurting them and they him, or whether he wants to withdraw and run away from the responsibilities and possibilities that his new life has thrust upon him.

Several questions infuse the plot with significance:
To what extent am I compelled to be the person that others expect me to be?
Can people change?
Is anyone wholly evil or wholly good, or are we all some admixture of both?
To what extent does a person become what he pretends to be?
Do good intentions redeem mistaken actions that hurt others?
Does the past pre-determine the future?

I just found this review by Helen at She Reads Novels in which she says that “[t]here is also another way to interpret the story, one which goes deeper into the psychology of identity.” I must say that I think I know what she is hinting at, but I hadn’t thought of this alternate theory of what happens in the novel until I read Helen’s review. It’s an interesting thought, and it makes me want to go back and re-read the entire novel to see if it really can be read the way I’m thinking. Enigmatic enough for you?

If you like psychological suspense and the philosophical exploration of sin, history, and identity in your novels, you won’t want to to miss The Scapegoat.

A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck

Alfred Hitchcock films are some of our family’s favorites. Engineer Husband says Vertigo is a masterpiece. Brown Bear Daughter likes The Lady Vanishes. Betsy-Bee and my sister say they are both fans of Rear Window. I rather like North by Northwest and To Catch a Thief, only partially due to my crush on Cary Grant.

Author Jim Averbeck harbors a fondness for “Hitch”, too, and he’s made the famous director a central character in his debut middle grade mystery novel, A Hitch at the Fairmont. After his aspiring actress mother drives her car off a cliff, eleven year old Jim Fair is a double orphan. His horrible Aunt Edith, his sole surviving relative, takes him to live with her at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, but when Aunt Edith disappears, Alfred Hitchcock is the only adult Jim can trust to help him find his awful aunt and avoid the social worker who wants to take him to an orphanage.

There are lots of reverences and allusions to the canon of Hitchcock films as Jim and Mr. Hitchcock careen through their own film-worthy adventure. It’s San Francisco, and one chapter takes place at the Mission Dolores. Also a ghost lady lures the crooks out of hiding. (Vertigo) Jim gets a ransom note embedded in a news article titled “Birds Terrorize Coastal Town” (The Birds). Jim and Hitch briefly mull a theory that Aunt Edith might have been carried out of the hotel, dismembered, in several suitcases or trunks, and another part of the action takes place in a building that is a “camera obscure” that the two use to spy on their suspect (Rear Window). Hitchcock talks to the social worker from the shower while pretending to be Aunt Edith shaving his/her leg (shades of Psycho!). In The Lady Vanishes and in North by Northwest, the police disbelieve the witnesses to a kidnapping/disappearance, and the same thing happens in A Hitch at the Fairmont. And Jim and his mentor Hitchcock meet the kidnappers in a church while the congregation is singing a hymn, similar to the Ambrose Chapel scene in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

I’m sure that fans will find several more echoes of Hitchcock films as they read A Hitch at the Fairmont, and middle grade readers who are not familiar with the movies Mr. Hitchcock directed might find this book an entertaining introduction to Hitch. I thought the book was fun and intriguing, just as Alfred Hitchcock’s movies were.

Quaker Summer by Lisa Samson

Not much happens in this character-driven novel of a woman who is having a mid-life crisis in the midst of her addiction to materialism and shopping. In fact, if you want to know what Quaker Summer is all about, read this 2007 interview with author Lisa Samson.

That’s pretty much it: suburban upper middle class Christian mom feels guilty and stressed all the time. She discovers that Christ is calling her to give up her materialistic life, quit shopping so much, and serve the poor. It’s hard.

I sound sarcastic, and I don’t mean to be. However, the main character Heather Curridge (and by extension perhaps the author Lisa Samson) both over-complicate and over-simplify the Christian life. Yes, it is as simple as “follow Jesus and love people.” Yes, it is hard to give up our pet sins and idols. But as I read I wanted Heather to just get over herself, and at the same time I wanted her to be more aware of her propensity to make snap judgements about other people and to give the other moms in her life some grace. Maybe I’m too much like Heather: impatient with others and self-centered most of the time. I’ve always thought there was a lot of truth in the old saw that the sins that annoy us in others are often the ones most present in ourselves.

So, I’ll quote some others on Christianity Today‘s 2008 Novel of the Year:

“Samson shines with themes of grace, purpose, and the emptiness of what we call success. Her stories prompt Christians to rethink stereotypes and call them to riskier living. Neither contrived nor saccharine; manages to convict without preaching.” ~Christianity Today

“Lisa Samson has a wonderful insight into people. Through Heather, she analyzes a woman’s guilt at overeating, overachieving, and overspending. She examines women’s friendships–some genuine and some superficial, as well as the obstacles that we create that hinder finding new friends or going deeper with the ones that we have.” Deliciously Clean Reads

“Don’t read this book if you’re happy with your comfortable Christianity. This book will challenge you to step outside of that little box you’ve put your faith-walk in, and open your heart and life up to real hands-and-feet Jesus-following Christianity. Reading this book made me squirm. In a good way.” Carrie K. at Mommy Brain

I was mostly annoyed by Heather Curridge and her journey toward self-discovery, but that doesn’t mean you will feel the same. Maybe I just need a mid-life crisis of my own and a little more grace.

Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett

The fourth book in Dorothy Dunnett’s historical series Renaissance man, Francis Crawford of Lymond, aka Comte of Sevigny, takes the characters, especially Lymond himself, to a new level of complexity and human triumph over adversity and suffering. And at one point in the story, we are informed or perhaps reminded that Lymond is only twenty-six years old. He’s already survived more than most men three times his age, even in the adventurous Renaissance times in which he lives.

In this book, Lymond manages to escape a couple of assassins disguised as nuns, imprisonment in a North African harem, poisoning, an underwater struggle with his murderous arch enemy, and a rather deadly chess game featuring human chess pieces who forfeit their lives if taken by the opposing player. The chess game in the seraglio in Istamboul is unforgettable, by the way. And that’s just a sample of the perils and predicaments that face Mr. Crawford in this highly entertaining adventure.

Entertaining, yes, but the denouement of the novel is heart-rending. Lymond must choose whether or not to forfeit the life of one innocent in order to save the lives of many more. It’s a no-win situation, and of course, since Lymond is the sensitive soul that he’s always been in all of the other books in the series, he blames himself for the outcome and carries a heavy burden of guilt into the next book in the series, The Ringed Castle.

Has anyone else read this series, and if so, what did you think? The vocabulary and writing style are challenging for me, in a good way, and I don’t usually find that to be so with novels written after 1900. Lymond is also a complex, conflicted, and challenging character. I do have a prediction to make at this point in the series, a prediction I came up with halfway through this volume: I predict that Lymond and Philippa will end up truly married by the end of the sixth book. Don’t ask me how (I don’t know) and don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong. I’ll see how my prediction pans out as I read books five and six.

If you want to read a little more about this engaging novel, here are some other blog reviews of Pawn in Frankincense:

She Reads Novels: Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett.
Shelf Love: Pawn in Frankincense (some spoilers)
Semicolon review of The Disorderly Knights, book three in the series.
Semicolon thoughts on Game of Kings, the first book in the series.

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.

P.K. Pinkerton and the Pistol-Packing Widows by Caroline Lawrence

P.K. Pinkerton fills yet another niche in detective fiction for middle graders with a high-functioning autistic detective who is half Lakota Sioux/half white. I haven’t read the first two books in this series, but I want to read them both after having enjoyed The Pistol-Packing Widows. There are a few caveats that might discourage some readers:

1) Some reviewers have lambasted the first two books as stereotypical and offensive in their portrayal of Native Americans. I didn’t find this book to be so, but I may not be as sensitive to this issue as other people are.

2) P.K. is supposed to be a devout Methodist Christian, and for the most part he acts like a Christian. However, there is a brief scene in which P.K. consults his “spirit guide” (who turns out to be a worm?). I wish the author hadn’t included that scene since it’s not really integral to the plot or characterization, but there it is.

3) P.K. also talks about and associates with ladies he calls “soiled doves”, a euphemism for prostitutes. He’s tolerant of their profession, if he really understands what it is they do. P.K. is fairly innocent about the world, and he may be oblivious to the true nature of prostitution.

All that stuff aside, I loved this book. P.K. is an engaging character, something of a savant and quite an astute observer, even if he doesn’t always understand what he is observing. In this particular episode in the career of P.K. Pinkerton, private detective, P.K. is observing the Nevada politicians in Carson City as they give out toll road franchises to the highest bidders and negotiate with one another over the possibility of Nevada Territory’s becoming a state. He’s also trying to save his friend Poker Face Jace from the clutches of a “black widow” named Violetta de Baskerville, and in his spare time, he’s helping his new friend Miss Carrie Pixley keep an eye on her beloved, Mr. Sam Clemens. P.K. has a busy life.

There’s a big reveal about three-fourths of the way through the book, and I didn’t see it coming. For those who have read the first two books, I think the cat is already out of the bag. But for me, it was an adjustment to my thinking. Anyway, it’s a fun read with plenty of action and a thoroughly likable young detective. Reading this one not only made me want to read the first two books in this series, but it also made me interested in looking up Ms. Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries series.

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton

If there was ever a piece of fiction that should be adopted as a manifesto and banner for the conservative/libertarian movement in American politics, it’s not any of that nonsense by Ayn Rand. (I never could get through either of her most famous tomes although I tried . . once . . each.) Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained is a Western classic, a conservative classic, and a cracking good story. It should be recommended reading for all little conservatives-in-training.

So, in the 1950’s, about the time I was born, West Texas ranchers and farmers endured a seven year drouth. Seven years with little or no rain. Seven years. Charlie Flagg has lived through drought before, and he’s sure he can make through this one. But seven years is a long time, and no one, of course, knows that the drought will last so long or when or even if it will ever be over. Charlie, cantankerous and set in his ways even before the drought begins, only becomes more so as he faces the loss of his cattle, his sheep, his family and friends, and finally most of his land. Still, Charlie never gives up, never gives in to what he believes is wrong.

And one thing Charlie believes is wrong, at least for himself, is accepting government aid and price supports. As it turns out, the government aid offered to the ranchers to help them feed their animals and survive the drought comes with strings attached, and artificial prices confuse the free market so much that the ranchers can’t make a living even when the rains return. Charlie must change, accepting the idea of raising goats in addition to the sheep that have been his mainstay, but he never compromises his principles.

Charlie Flagg isn’t perfect, and the author shows us his faults as well as his strengths. Charlie and his wife have grown apart, mostly because Charlie is the strong, silent type, not much of a communicator (Charlie’s attitude: He told her he loved her when he married her, and he’d be sure to let her know if anything changed.) Charlie is an old-style patron to his Mexican American workers, and he sometimes patronizes them and treats them with the kind of “separate but equal” attitude that was the trademark of the fifties relationship between Anglos and Latin Americans, as we used to call them. Charlie doesn’t hire illegals, but he respects them for their work ethic and their willingness to cross the border to find work. He wishes the government would just leave everybody alone, including the Mexicans who come to work in the United States, and especially including the ranchers who are just trying to make a living raising cattle and sheep and goats.

That’s the typical attitude of the typical West Texan that I knew growing up. I grew up in San Angelo, Mr. Kelton’s hometown. And most people there, at least thirty years ago, would have told you they just wanted the government, state and federal, to leave them alone. Some older men and women I knew were “yellow dog Democrats” and others were newly-coined Republicans, but all of them shared the desire to be left alone to raise their families and do their work without interference or help from the government.

QOTD: How do you respond to adversity or failure? How do you want to see yourself respond to hard times?