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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 oolong 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 embitter 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?

The Windy Hill by Cornelia Meigs

Big Hair and Books

I had intended to get a review written and posted about Cornelia Meigs’ 1922 Newbery Honor book, The Windy Hill, soon. I just read the book last night. However, I forgot about Rosemond’s Way Back Wednesday link-up, and of course, The Windy Hill is way back, almost a century back. So, here goes.

The very first year that the Newbery was awarded, Cornelia Lynde Meigs’ story of two young teens solving a family mystery at their cousin Jasper’s house in the country won a Newbery Honor. Ms. Meigs was a teacher whose first book, The Kingdom of the Winding Road, was published by Macmillan in 1915. Meigs’ books won Newbery Honors again in 1929 for Clearing Weather and in 1933 for Swift Rivers. I read and reviewed Swift Rivers a few years ago, and I still remember quite a bit about that story, something I can’t really say about many of the more recently published children’s books I’ve read. Finally, in 1934 Ms. Meigs’ biography of Louisa May Alcott, Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women won the Newbery Medal. Over the course of her career, Cornelia Meigs wrote over thirty books for children.

On to the book at hand, The Windy Hill tells the story of a family feud, a rather polite New England sort of feud, but a family quarrel nonetheless. The author tells her story from the point of view of fifteen year old Oliver and his sister Janet who have come to visit Cousin Jasper in his country mansion near Windy Hill. Unfortunately, Cousin Jasper is not himself. Something, or someone, is troubling him, and Cousin Jasper is not a very entertaining host. Oliver first decides to run away from the problem and return home on the next train. But on his way to the station, he meets The Beeman, a beekeeper with a penchant for storytelling, and as Oliver thinks and listens to the Beeman’s stories of the history of Windy Hill, he decides to stay and figure out what is wrong and do something to help.

The historical stories, one about an Indian named Nashola, another set during the War of 1812, and a third during the California Gold Rush, illuminate both the past and the present, and the main story comes to a climax when evil is revealed, good is rewarded, and all is made right. It’s probably unsuited for the internet generation, but I enjoyed the slower pace. The Windy Hill served as a good old-fashioned antidote to all the dark, weird, and twisted children’s books I’ve been reading for the past week or so. If my children were still young enough for read-alouds, I’d put it on the read aloud list.

QOTD: What’s your favorite Newbery Award or Newbery Honor book? What Newbery Award book do you think should definitely not have been chosen for the award?

The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett

I read the first of the Lymond Chronicles, The Game of Kings, back in early January and reviewed it, sort of, here. Mostly I told you about all of the new words I learned from reading the first in a five volume series about a sixteenth century Scots lord with a loquacious and facile tongue.

A couple of months ago I read the second book in the series, Queens’ Play, in which Francis Crawford of Lymond, moves his base of operations from Scotland to France, where he lives a dissolute and adventurous life at the court of Henri II and manages to protect the young Scots princess Mary, who is affianced to the the Dauphin, from numerous assassination attempts, all while drinking inordinate amounts of alcohol and staying drunk for most of the book. Crawford of Lymond is, simply put, amazing.

“On the day that his grannie was killed by the English, Sir William Scott the Younger of Buccleuch was at Melrose Abbey, marrying his aunt.
News of the English attack came towards the end of the ceremony, when, by good fortune, Young Scott and his aunt Grizel were by all accounts man and wife. There was no bother over priorities. As the congregation hustled out of the church, led by bridegroom and father, and spurred off on the heels of the messenger, the new-made bride and her sister watched them go.”

In this third book, The Disorderly Knights, Lymond becomes entangled with the affairs of the Order of the Knights Hospitaliers, whose headquarters and refuge on the island of Malta is threatened by the Turkish fleet bent on revenge. The Knights of Malta themselves are torn by internal dissension, and the only hero in the whole mess, besides the ever-smiling and accomplished Lymond himself, is Sir Graham Reid Mallett, nicknamed Gabriel, a Scots recruit to the order whose skills and expertise in war and diplomacy rival those of Lymond.

After a stirring and tragic (for Lymond’s inamorata, Oonagh O’Dwyer) escape from the Turkish invaders in Tripoli, Lymond and Gabriel both return to Scotland where Lymond puts together a small private army, trained in all of arts of war and intended to keep the peace along the Scottish border on behalf of, but not directly under the orders of, Queen Dowager Mary of Scotland. Gabriel joins Lymond’s merry band ostensibly to train under the great soldier, but also to claim Lymond’s allegiance and soul for God, the (Catholic) Church and the Knights Hospitaliers. Lymond, of course, has other plans for his soul.

Lymond: “What does anyone want out of life? What kind of freak do you suppose I am? I miss books and good verse and decent talk. I miss women, to speak to, not to rape; and children, and men creating things instead of destroying them. And from the time I wake until the time I find I can’t go to sleep there is the void—–the bloody void where there was no music today and none yesterday and no prospect of any tomorrow, or tomorrow, or next God-d— year.”

Finally, in addition to a fiendishly clever plot and excellent characters and dialog, there are the words. Here are a few more words that I gleaned from The Disorderly Knights:

Fremescent: Becoming murmurous, roaring. “Fremescent clangor.” –Carlyle.
Opaline: of or like opal; opalescent; having a milky iridescence.
Fauve: wild, literally, tawny
Insessorial: adapted for perching, as a bird’s foot.
Coign (quoin): an external solid angle of a wall or the like; cornerstone.
Debouch: to march out from a narrow or confined place into open country, as a body of troops: The platoon debouched from the defile into the plain.
Culverin: medieval form of musket or a kind of heavy cannon used in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Cittern: an old musical instrument related to the guitar, having a flat, pear-shaped soundbox and wire strings.
Simulacrum: a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance.
Dissentient: dissenting, especially from the opinion of the majority.
Otiosity: being at leisure; idle; indolent.
Pendicle: An appendage; something dependent on another; an appurtenance; a pendant.
Bagatelle: something of little value or importance; a trifle.

Those are just a few of the new-to-me words I encountered in this volume of Francis Crawford of Lymond’s further adventures. The next book (fourth) in the series is entitled Pawn in Frankincense.

QOTD: What is your favorite word? What word(s) do you just like to use because of the sound and meaning and the way the two fit together?

When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket

When did you see her last? Did you get the message? What’s for breakfast? Who has the formula? Where could she have gone? Where is Cleo Knight? When did she go missing? What was she wearing when she left? How about some tea? Do you know the one about the big fight over an apple and a pretty woman? The one that ends with a hollow statue and a ghost who likes to bury things?

These are all questions from Lemony Snicket’s second book in the new series All the Wrong Questions. Some of the above questions are nearly right, but they’re all the wrong questions. In When Did You See Her Last? from the rapidly deteriorating town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, Lemony himself narrates his adventures as an apprentice detective to the inept S. Theodora Markson. The case is the disappearance of the wealthy young chemist, Cleo Knight. Lemony is a rather melancholy young man of mystery in this noir detective story for middle grade readers.

Fans of the wildly popular A Series of Unfortunate Events will applaud this new series by the same author, Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler). And since in this particular series Mr. Snicket gets to be both author and character, we are treated to more insight into the narrator’s life and circumstances, even though Lemony Snicket remains somewhat of an enigma. Something is going on with his sister in another town in an underground tunnel? And in the first book in the series (which I haven’t read) Mr. Snicket and his associates find and lose a statue in the shape of the Bombinating Beast? It’s all slightly esoteric, but still loads of fun, especially the wordplay, literary allusions, and droll humor.

In addition to questions, there are also answers, or at least aphorisms. Try some of these on for size:

“Anyone who gives you a cinnamon roll fresh from the oven is a friend for life.”

“Boredom is not black licorice. . . . There’s no reason to share it.”

“Do the scary thing first, and get scared later.”

“The world is a puzzle, and we cannot solve it alone.”

“They can teach you anything. That doesn’t mean you learn it. It doesn’t mean you believe it.”

“It doesn’t matter if you look ridiculous, not if you are with people you know and trust.”

You’ll have to make up your own questions. Maybe they will be the right questions. Maybe not. But if you enjoy slightly nonsensical, noirish adventures in which the main point and backstory of the series is Yet To Be Revealed, you might want to check out Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions. I’d suggest, unlike me, that you start with the first book in the series, Who Could That Be at This Hour?, proceed immediately to the second, and then to the third in the series, Shouldn’t You Be In School?

From Amazon (in case you are not familiar with the author’s rather wacky style): “Author Lemony Snicket is a broken man, wracked with misery and despair as a result of writing ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Events’. He spends his days wandering the countryside weeping and moaning and his evenings eating hastily-prepared meals. He has also written the mystery series ‘All the Wrong Questions’. Artist Seth is no stranger to a town that is fading. He is a multi-award-winning cartoonist, author, and artist, whose works include’ Palookaville’, ‘Clyde Fan’s, and ‘The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists’. He lives in Guelph, Canada.”