Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson

“Freedom would not be handed to us like a gift. Freedom had to be fought for and taken.”

This third and final book in Ms. Anderson’s Seeds of America trilogy wraps up the story of Curzon and Isabel, the black teens who have weathered the vicissitudes of the American revolution and of slavery, freedom, and re-capture and are now near their goal: the liberation of Isabel’s younger sister, Ruth, and her restoration to freedom and the only family she has, Isabel.

As always, however, in this series and in life, things don’t necessarily turn out the way one expects. Ruth, when she is found in Carolina, rejects Isabel and says she remembers nothing about her or their former life together in Rhode Island with their family. Also, Isabel and Curzon can’t agree about the war. Isabel believes, from experience, that neither the British nor the Continentals have any sympathy or good intentions for the freedom and welfare of black Americans, slave or free. Curzon believes in the ideals of the Revolution, and he believes that somehow, someday those ideals will be extended to apply to black people, too. So, they argue and separate, and eventually come back together because both love and circumstance push them together.

Ms. Anderson has written a trilogy that should become a classic in the genre of historical fiction about the American Revolution. Because of the violence and cruelty portrayed in the books, I would recommend them for middle school and high school readers, but they are invaluable in their depiction of the war from a different perspective, that of a courageous young black man and woman who maintain their dignity and determination throughout.

Two Books about Appreciating Differences

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood.
Different: The Story of an Outside-the-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Nathan and Sally Clarkson.

First I picked up The One-in-a-Million Boy, as recommended by Lisa Spence and by Shelia at Dodging Raindrops. It was a good read about a boy who befriends a centenarian, 104 years old, and entices her to dream of and work toward becoming a Guinness World Record holder. It’s also about how the boy’s musician father, Quinn Porter, becomes friends with Miss Ona Vitkus, and how families bond and how they fail one another.

The boy is just referred to as “the boy” throughout the book. He never gets a name. Maybe that omission emphasizes the difference inherent in the boy. He is a one-in-a-million boy, maybe autistic, maybe just quirky. He makes lists, counts items a lot, memorizes records from the Guinness Book. The story about the boy, Miss Vitkus, and Quinn has some memorable minor characters, too: Ted Ledbetter, a well-intentioned but unimaginative scoutmaster; the members of an up-and-coming Christian band; and the boy’s mother, Belle, who spends most of the book in the throes of grief and what I would diagnose as PTSD. It’s an excellent story about appreciating others for their differences and yet expecting them to grow and learn from their mistakes.

And that’s just the theme of Nathan and Sally Clarkson’s memoir, Different. Nathan Clarkson started out different as a baby, not sleeping, screaming for no apparent reason, fussy, difficult. And as he grew, the differences grew, too. He was eventually diagnosed with a whole alphabet soup of “differences”—ADHD, OCD, ODD—plus some learning differences, personality quirks, and a strong will. Put it all together, and you’ve got an array of problems and diagnoses, but Sally Clarkson, Nathan’s mother, had to learn to appreciate the person inside Nathan, help him deal with the issues that his differences caused, and also show him that God made Nathan Clarkson for a purpose, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, even with his many differences.

Told in alternating voices from Sally’s point of view and then from Nathan’s as a 28 year old man looking back on his childhood, teen years, and young adulthood, the book is insightful and inspiring.

Sally: “Being Nathan’s mother taught me so much about what really matters in life. It taught me how to see people through a different lens, to appreciate and validate the variety and differences of people without casting judgment on the ways they differ from me. I grew to become a healthier person as I came to understand and practice living well with the miraculous gift of Nathan in my life.”

Nathan: “In my soul I knew I wanted to be the hero of the story I was in. But so often, like the knight in my picture book, I felt tiny in comparison to the looming dragons of anxiety, learning disabilities, obsessions, and self-doubt. So often I wondered how I could ever win. But still I marched to battle, trusting that in the end the heroes always win, even if they’re beaten, tried, and worn. That while the battle is hard, good will always defeat evil and light will always win out over dark.”

I recommend both of these books for every parent who has a “different” child, one who at his or her best is amazing and beautiful, but at his or her worst is frustrating, oppositional, and enigmatic. Also these are good books for those of us who deal every day with being “different” in some way ourselves, or who know someone who is just a little—or a lot–strange and unusual and in need of understanding and affirmation. And that’s all us, isn’t it?

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Movies and books don’t usually make me cry. Even as I’ve become more emotional and easily moved in my old age, I still rarely cry in response to a fictional narrative. After all, it’s fiction, didn’t really happen.

Well, trigger warning, The Light Between Oceans made me bawl. In my bed at 1:00 in the morning as I read the ending to this beautiful, supremely sad, and emotional story, I cried, silently so that I wouldn’t wake up my sleeping husband. The themes of brokenness and loss and self-sacrifice and again brokenness were so poignant and so very, very sad.

Set just after World War I came to a close, the story is about a veteran of that war, Tom Sherburne, who returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, isolated island off the coast of western Australia. While Tom is on “shore leave” form his lighthouse duties, he meets a local girl, Isabel, and the two of them marry and go to live at the lighthouse where they will stay, just the two of them, without company or leave for years at a time. The real story begins when Isabel is down by the shore and hears a baby’s cry.

I have always identified with these quotations from Gone With the Wind:

“Perhaps I want the old days back again and they’ll never come back, and I am haunted by the memory of them and of the world falling about my ears.”

Rhett Butler to Scarlett: “I was never one to patiently pick up broken fragments and glue them together again and tell myself that the mended whole was as good as new. What is broken is broken – and I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived.”

Or this horribly frightening and prescient quote from Cry, the Beloved Country:

–I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good of their country, come together to work for it.
He was grave and silent, and then he said sombrely, I have only one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.

Brokenness.

We do live in a broken world. And sometimes things are so broken that there is no way to pick up the fragments and glue them back together. In The Light Between the Oceans, that kind of brokenness and tragedy comes to one couple, brought on by their own choices, wrong choices, but also very human and understandable choices. I don’t really want to tell anyone too much about this story, except that it is very sad, very real, and very good—-all at the same time. Thank you to whoever recommended it to me.

Thank God that my Jesus makes all things new. We live in a broken world, and sometimes that world is falling down about my ears. And many, many times it is broken through my own fault, my own bad decisions, my own sin. But my God promises, through Christ, to make all things new.

Demelza by Winston Graham

I’m spending my Thursdays here on the blog in the eighteenth century, 1700’s.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this second book in Mr. Graham’s Poldark series, even though I knew what was going to happen since I have already watched seasons one and two of the TV series, Poldark. These are such good stories. I think I will enjoy them even more when I get to the books for which I haven’t seen the television adaptation. I’m not sure exactly when that will be because season one was based on the first two books. Does season two cover books three and four?

At any rate, I find the books excellent reading. Mr. Graham seems to have done his research, and he knew how to tell a story. I’ll just use the rest of this post as my “commonplace book” and write down some memorable notes and observations on the text.

Ross Poldark, back in 1789, seems to be in a political pickle similar to the one that many of us are in nowadays:

“I’m neither Whig nor Tory,” Ross said.
“Well, drot it, you must be something. Who d’you vote for?”
Ross was silent again for some time and bent and patted the hound. He seldom thought these things out.
“I’m not a Whig,” he said, “nor ever could belong to a party that was was for ever running down its own country and praising up the virtues of some other. The very thought of it sticks in my crop.”
“Hear, hear!” said Sir John, picking his teeth.
“But neither could I belong to a party which looks with complacency on the state of England as it is. So you’ll see the difficulty I’m in.”

“You must be something.” Well, I see the difficulty, but I still choose to be neither fish nor fowl, neither Trumpista nor “progressive” in the absolute wrong direction. If that makes me a misfit, like Mr. Poldark, so be it.

This second book in the series ends with death, destruction, and loss. I won’t be specific, for those of you reading who haven’t seen the TV series or read the books; however, from its hope filled beginning with the birth of a child for Ross and Demelza Poldark to the end when all is dark with only a hint of light in the last line of the novel (“I am quite warm, Ross. Let me stay a little longer in the sun.”), it’s quite a ride.

In the Afterword, written by American author Liz Fenwick, she says that Graham “presents something of a feminist view” in this novel which was written and published in 1946, just after World War II. I think the story has more to say about the beginning of the end of classism in Britain, which only accelerated over a century after the setting of the book as World War I began and World War II continued the move toward a more egalitarian society. Demelza is from the lowest of the lower class, and the idea that a girl of her background could become something of a sensation in society within a few short years of being married to Ross Poldark is a bit fanciful and unlikely in the eighteenth century, but romantic and appealing to those of us who don’t believe in “classes” in the first place.

I love the history embedded in the pages of Demelza. The characters discuss the “troubles” in France, but it all feels very far away and foreign and extraneous to local concerns. Even the affairs of Parliament and mad King George and his ambitious son, the Prince of Wales, all seem far away in London, of no immediate concern to the people, both great and small, of Sawle and Truro and Wheal Leisure and Nampara. An eighteenth century antiquarian, Richard Gough, wrote that “Cornwall seems to be another Kingdom.” Indeed, and it’s a fascinating Kingdom to visit in Mr. Graham’s many iterations.

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Timeline of Middle Grade Fiction 2016

1242: The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz. travelers from across France cross paths at an inn and begin to tell stories of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions, William, an oblate who is half-Saracen and half French, and Jacob, a Jewish boy with a gift for healing. These children may be saints, or they may be using evil magic to do wonders that will deceive the faithful. And the dog, Gwenforte, who once saved a child from a deadly serpent, may be resurrected, but can a dog really be a saint?

1606: Caravaggio: Signed in Blood by Mark Smith. For fifteen-year-old Beppo Ghirlandi, an indentured servant accused of murder, there is no one to turn to. The only person who will help him is the painter from across the piazza, the madman genius known as Caravaggio—-who, unfortunately, has serious troubles of his own.

1781: Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson. The third book in the Seeds of America Trilogy chronicles the adventures of Isabel and Curzon after the winter at Valley Forge.

*1812: The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford. Lucy Bluecrowne and Maxwell Ault must find the three pieces of a strange and arcane engine they believe can stop the endless war raging between their home country of England and Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. But they are in America, where the Americans have just declared war on the British, and the engine is a prize that all three countries will fight to own.

1816: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb by Patrick Samphire. In this steampunk alternate history sci-fi novel, the evil Sir Titus takes Edward’s parents hostage to help him find a lost dragon tomb—on Mars. The political situation in the background of the story involves the British Empire on Earth as they fight the Napoleonic Wars.

1825: A Buss From Lafayette by Dorothea Jensen. Clara’s town is excited because the famous Revolutionary War hero, General Lafayette, is about to visit their state during his farewell tour of America.

1840-1877: In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall. Jimmy McClean learns about his Lakota heritage from his grandfather and from stories about the hero Tasunke Witko, better known as Crazy Horse.

*1847: The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby. Jacob Tibbs, ship’s cat, chronicles the sometimes sad, sometimes exciting, adventures of the sailors aboard the Melissa Rae.

1866: Makoons by Louise Erdrich. Makoons, an Ojibwe boy, and his twin, Chickadee, travel with their family to the Great Plains of Dakota Territory. There they must learn to become buffalo hunters and once again help their people make a home in a new land.

c.1870: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge. . Faith Sunderly is a proper Victorian young lady who has always been told, and who believes, that she is inferior in every way to men. Her father, the Reverend Sunderly is not only a cleric but also a world famous paleontologist. Faith, too is interested in science and in anything that will impress her father and get him to pay attention to her, but when she begins to learn more about her father’s research, she also finds herself enmeshed in a web of lies and deceit that won’t let go.

1871: Cinnamon Moon by Tess Hilmo. Three children displaced by fires (The Great Chicago Fire and another in Wisconsin on the same day) must find a way to survive and thrive.

*1887: A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket by Deborah Hopkinson. Eleven year old Rocco must survive on the streets of New York City after his Italian parents sell him to a padrone who uses him to make money as a street musician.

1892: The Crimson Skew by S.E. Grove. Third book in the Mapmakers trilogy. Sophia Tims is coming home from a foreign Age, having risked her life in search of her missing parents. Now she is aboard ship, with a hard-earned, cryptic map that may help her find them at long last.

*1909: The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow and The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth by Katharine Woodfine. Mysteries abound in an early twentieth century London department store.

1910: Race to the South Pole by Kate Messner. Ranger of Time series. A time-traveling dog, Ranger, helps out during Captain Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica.

1920’s: Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter by Beth Fantaskey. 10 year old Isabel is obsessed with becoming a news reporter in 1920’s Chicago, where gangsters rule and the Tribune is the paper of record.

1929: The Eye of Midnight by Andrew Brumbach. On a stormy May day William and Maxine, cousins who hardly know each other, meet at the home of their mutual grandfather, Colonel Battersea. Soon after their arrival, Grandpa receives a secret telegram which takes the three of them to New York City. From there, the story rapidly becomes more and more frenzied, dangerous, and desperate as the children try to rescue Grandpa, find a lost package, decide whether or not to trust the courier, a girl named Nura, and work out their own new-found friendship.

1929: The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Twelve-year-old Martha works as a maid in the New York City mansion of the wealthy Sewell family. The other servants say Rose Sewell is crazy, but Martha believes that the paintings in the Sewell’s gallery contain a hidden message about Rose and about the other secrets in the Sewell mansion.

1934: Sweet Home Alaska by Carole Estby Dagg. Terpsichore’s father signs up for President Roosevelt’s Palmer Colony project, uprooting the family from Wisconsin to become pioneers in Alaska.

1939: You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carol Boston Weatherford. Verse novel about the struggles and achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black air training program during World War II.

1940: Once Was a Time by Leila Sales. Time travel isn’t possible, is it? Or can time travel be the secret weapon that will allow the Allies to win World War II? And can friendship last over time when one friend gets displaced and can’t return to her own time?

1940’s: Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by Alan Gratz. 13-year-old Irish boy, Michael O’Shaunessey, becomes a spy in Nazi Germany.

1940’s: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepard. Winged horses live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital. But only Emmaline can see them.

1940’s: The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle by Janet Fox. During the Blitz, Katherine, Robbie and Amelie Bateson are sent north to a private school in Rookskill Castle in Scotland, a brooding place, haunted by dark magic from the past. But when some of their classmates disappear, Katherine has to find out what has happened to them.

1941: Bjorn’s Gift by Sandy Brehl. Sequel to Odin’s Promise by the same author. Mari, a young Norwegian girl, faces growing hardships and dangers in her small village in a western fjord during World War II.

1941: Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. Fourteen-year-old Junior Bledsoe struggles with school and with anger—-at his father, his insufferable granddaddy, his neighbors, and himself—-as he desperately tries to understand himself and find his own aim in life.

*1942: Skating With the Statue of Liberty by Susan Lynn Meyer. Gustave, a twelve-year-old French Jewish boy, has made it to America at last. After escaping with his family from Nazi-occupied France, he no longer has to worry about being captured by the Germans. But life is not easy in America, either.

1942: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk. Annabelle has lived a mostly quiet, steady life in her small Pennsylvania town. Then, new student Betty Glengarry walks into her class. Betty quickly reveals herself to be cruel and manipulative, and while her bullying seems isolated at first, things quickly escalate, and reclusive World War I veteran Toby becomes a target of her attacks.

1942: Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban. Ten year old Manami, a Japanese American girl sent to an internment camp with her family, clings to the hope that somehow grandfather’s dog, Yujiin, will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again.

1942: The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough. Marcel, a French boy, dreams of someday competing in the Tour de France, the greatest bicycle race. But ever since Germany’s occupation of France began the race has been canceled. Now there are soldiers everywhere, and Marcel bicycle may be useful for more important things than winning a race.

1942: Brave Like My Brother by Marc Nobleman. An American soldier in WWII England shares his war experiences with his 10-year-old brother via letters.

1952: Making Friends With Billy Wong by Augusta Scattergood. Azalea Ann Morgan leaves her home in Tyler Texas to stay with her injured Grandma and help out for the summer. Although Azalea has difficulty making new friends, she and Billy Wong have adventures together in the small town in Arkansas where Azalea’s grandma lives.

1969: Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock. A North Carolina town hires its first African-American teacher in 1969, and two girls–one black, one white–confront the prejudice that challenges their friendship.

1973: Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson. Ben Hogan Putter just lost his dad to cancer. Now Ben has a permanent lump in his throat that he believes is an actual golf ball, and his barbecue-loving, golf-loving daddy is speaking to him from beyond the grave, asking Ben to take his ashes to Augusta, Georgia, home of the most famous golf course in the world.

1975: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo. If Raymie Clarke can just win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, then her father, who left town two days ago with a dental hygienist, will see Raymie’s picture in the paper and (maybe) come home.

*1978: It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas. Zomorod Yusefzadeh is living in California with her Iranian family during the Iran hostage crisis. No wonder she wants to change her name to Cindy!

*1984: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. On his twelfth birthday, Al receives two gifts: a hamster and a letter from his deceased dad. The letter informs Al that it might be possible for him to use his dad’s time machine to go back in time and prevent his father’s death. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for Al to even get to the place where his dad’s time machine is waiting, not to mention the difficulty of manipulating past events to change the future.

1989: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet. Noah Keller has a pretty normal life, until one wild afternoon when his parents pick him up from school and head straight for the airport, telling him on the ride that his name isn’t really Noah and he didn’t really just turn eleven in March. Now, the family is headed for East Berlin, and Noah/Jonah mustn’t ask any questions.

2001: Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story by Nora Raleigh Baskin. Four children living in different parts of the country are affected by the events of September 11, 2001.

2001: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Actually set in 2016, this story is about three schoolchildren who are studying the events of 9/11 and who come to see its impact on their own lives.

2011: The Turn of the Tide by Roseanne Parry. Two cousins on opposite sides of the Pacific experience the 2011 tsunami.

A few notes about this list:

Some of the blurbs are taken from Amazon or from Goodreads and edited to fit my list.

My favorites of the ones I’ve read are *starred. No, I haven’t read all of these. Links are to Semicolon reviews of the books that I have read and reviewed.

Some of these are straight historical fiction, and others are time travel or other fantasy books set mostly in the time period indicated.

Finally, we need more (excellent!) books for middle grade readers set in ancient times and in the middle ages or at least before 1800. I know of lots of older books set in these time periods, but not many are being published now. Too much research required? Or just a lack of interest?

12 Historical Fiction Books Set in the 18th Century

I hope to read these recommended books sometime this year:

Fire by Bill Bright and Jack Cavanaugh.

Storm by Bill Bright and Jack Cavanaugh. The Yale Revival of 1798-1800.

Spider in a Tree by Susan Stinson. About Jonathan Edwards and his family.

Waverley by Sir Walter Scott. A young English dreamer and soldier, Edward Waverley, is sent to Scotland in 1745, into the heart of the Jacobite uprising.

The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale.

Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790 by Winston Graham.

Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 by Winston Graham.

Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793 by Winston Graham.

The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795 by Winston Graham.

Thorn in My Heart (Lowlands of Scotland Series #1) by Liz Curtis Higgs. “In the autumn of 1788, amid the moors and glens of the Scottish Lowlands, two brothers and two sisters each embark on a painful journey of discovery.” (Amazon)

Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson. Third and final book in the Seeds of America Trilogy.

Scandalmonger by William Safire. James Callender, was a Scots immigrant who became an American journalist in the 1790s before his suspicious death in 1804: he drowned in three feet of James River swamp water. Callender interacted with and influenced all the great names of the day: Aaron Burr, Madison, Monroe, Jefferson, and of course, Alexander Hamilton, and the late great Safire includes them all in his sweeping novel.

I’m also interested in Gore Vidal’s Burr, A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott, The Lost Ones by Norah Lofts (about Princess Caroline Matilda, younger sister of George III), Devil’s Cub and The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer, and Bonnie Prince Charlie by G.A. Henry—-if I can get the first twelve read, then maybe I’ll look at these.

Other suggestions?

12 Best Adult Fiction Books I Read in 2016

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute.

The Martian by Andy Weir.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Frank Drum, son of a Methodist minister, looks back on his thirteenth summer in Bremen, Minnesota where he and his brother Jake experienced death, secrets, false accusations, prejudice and growing up.

The Ringed Castle by Dorothy DUnnett.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett. These are the final two books in the Lymond series about a ne’er do well younger brother to a Scottish lord. Lymond ranges across Europe and the Middle East in these books, set during the sixteenth century, as he pursues adventure and romance.

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. Pirates!

Still Alice by Lisa Genova.

Come Rain or Come Shine by Jan Karon. Dooley and Lace finally get married, not without comic mishaps and a few misunderstandings.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham. Half of the first Poldark season is contained in this first novel in the series.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.

Talking to Strange Men by Ruth Rendell.

To round this list off to twelve, I’ll add a book that has been on my TBR list for a while, but that I have not yet read. However, Computer Guru Son says that one of the best books he read in 2016 was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. It’s just been moved up to the top of my 2017 TBR list.

Links are to my reviews here at Semicolon.

Christmas in Canterbury, England, 1067

Juliana, the protagonist of the novel The Striped Ships by Eloise McGraw, is exiled from her comfortable home in Winchester by the coming of the Norman invaders to Saxon England. On the morning after St. Nicholas’ Day, she is sleeping in the priory almshouse when she is awakened by bells:

“She was awakened by St. Savior’s bell, loud and close across the road, ringing, she thought at first, for nocturns. But it was, too wild, too loud, too erratic—as if the ringer had tugged hard and frantically, then fled—and there was a growing hubbub of voices outside, in the lane. Around her, others were rousing, scrambling up to cluster around the unshuttered window—and beyond their heads, beyond the black silhouette of the priory walls, she saw the red glow lighting the skies.

There was a fire—a big fire—in the monastery, it might be in St. Savior’s itself. She stumbled to her feet, pushed her way out of the house. She reached the lane just as the bell ceased, and the north tower, which she could see now bathed in flames, above the dark wall, collapsed, with a terrifying, fluttering roar and a final jangle of noise. Wild with panic for Wulfric, she ran, heedless, for the main gate, found the gatehouse aflame, and turned back to run the other way, to the small gate by the cellarer’s storehouse, which stood open, with figures crowding out through it, hampering her as she struggled past. Inside the walls, monks, guests, novices, schoolboys, ran in every direction, black shapes against the garish sky.”

This episode in Canterbury’s history did happen:

The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1067, a year after the Norman Conquest. Rebuilding began in 1070 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc (1070–77). He cleared the ruins and reconstructed the cathedral to a design based closely on that of the Abbey of St. Etienne in Caen, where he had previously been abbot, using stone brought from France. The new church, its central axis about 5m south of that of its predecessor, was a cruciform building, with an aisled nave of nine bays, a pair of towers at the west end, aiseless transepts with apsidal chapels, a low crossing tower, and a short choir ending in three apses. It was dedicated in 1077. Wikipedia, Canterbury Cathedral

Eloise Jarvis McGraw was a prolific author of children’s fiction, often historical fiction, including The Golden Goblet, Mara Daughter of the Nile, Moccasin Trail, The Seventeenth Swap, and many others. Her books are full of vivid, rounded characters and rich historical details that make the stories she tells come alive. My children especially enjoyed Moccasin Trail when I read it aloud to them many years ago, and I plan to read this medieval tale featuring William the Conqueror and the Bayeux Tapestry, Striped Ships, as soon as I can.

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.