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Oscar Wilde, b.October 16, 1854, d.November 30, 1900

Facts about Oscar Wilde that you may not have known:
Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, was an ear and eye doctor, and his mother, Lady Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee Wilde, was a writer, poet, and translator.

Oscar was profoundly affected by the death of his younger sister when she was ten years old, and for his lifetime he carried a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope.

Wilde had two older half-sisters who died in an accident when their gowns caught fire after a ball.

In 1876 Oscar had a brief romantic affair with a girl named Florence Balcome, who later married Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.

He and his wife Constance had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. (Really, Vyvyan?) Vyvyan later changed the spelling of his name to Vivian. (Who wouldn’t?) Except for the unfortunate name choice, Oscar was an attentive and loving father who spent lots of time with his sons.

When Wilde was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for “gross indecency”, Constance attempted to protect her sons from the scandal. She took the children to Switzerland and took the old family name of Holland for herself and the boys.

Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life (after prison) wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels. Sad but true.

Oscar Wilde quotes:
“The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything, except what is worth knowing.”

“The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”

“A thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”

“A simile committing suicide is always a depressing spectacle.”

“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.”

“Everything popular is wrong.”

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.”

“Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

What have you read of Oscar Wilde’s work? His plays are delightfully funny and witty, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is quite insightful in its own way, as long as one takes almost anything the characters say or do and turns it upside down to do or believe the opposite.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Setting: Wintertime, almost Christmas, in an old four-story smugglers’ inn at the top of Whilforber Hill near the village of Nagspeake. Each floor of the inn has a beautiful stained glass window, and the guest rooms also have greenglass windows and old-fashioned, but comfortable furniture. There’s an attic full of treasures and junk, and the inn has outbuildings and a garage to explore, too. Plenty of room for mystery, treasure-hunting, and clues.

Characters: Milo Pine, the innkeepers’ adopted son, Mr. and Mrs. Pine, Milo’s parents, and several mysterious, unexpected guests.

Plot: Milo and his friend Meddy attempt to solve the mystery of Greenglass House and its history by taking on roles as players in a role-playing game. Milo is a blackjack, and Meddy is his scholiast.

Almost every review I read of this little gem of a book compared it either to The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin’s Newbery winner and mystery classic, or to Agatha Christie. And without having read those reviews beforehand, I also thought of The Westing Game and of Christie’s The Mousetrap or other books where the cast is snowed in or otherwise isolated (And Then There Were None). Greenglass House is not your typical children’s mystery story. In fact, you can read about three unspoken rules that author Kate Milford breaks in her novel, to the betterment of the story IMHO, in Betsy Bird’s insightful review at A Fuse #8 Production

I noticed, and enjoyed, the loving and involved adoptive parents. Mr. and Mrs. Pine are very busy with their inn and their unexpected guests, but not too busy to check on Milo and to do things with him and for him to make his Christmas special. I also liked the fact the the story is set at Christmastime. And it feels like an old-fashioned Christmas with a Christmas tree, a Christmas Eve gift for Milo, father/son sledding, hot chocolate by the fire, and story-telling. The setting is indeterminate, sort of Victorian with no cell phones or computers in evidence, but also modern with an electric generator for back-up electricity and up-to-date speech patterns and behavior. So that gives Christmas at Greenglass House a timeless feel.

Milo is a great protagonist, too. He’s very conscientious; he does all of his homework on the first day of vacation so that he can have the rest of the holidays to play. He’s resistant to change, but also intelligent and adventurous. He and Meddy make a good team since she inspires and encourages him to step out and use his imagination to solve the mysteries that the two of them encounter.

Greenglass House would be a lovely Christmas read-aloud book for a class or a family in the holiday mystery mood. I recommend it.

Nagspeake Online: The Nagspeake Board of Tourism and Culture.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen

I really enjoyed certain aspects of this murder mystery set in 1932 among the rich, royal, famous, and impecunious of England. It had the flavor of I Capture the Castle mixed with Downton Abbey mixed with a little P.G. Wodehouse. Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of Glen Garry and Ranoch, aka Georgie, finds herself unmarried, without funds, and without a real goal in life. She decides to leave the drafty castle in Scotland that belongs to her older brother the duke, aka Binky, and try her luck in London, unchaperoned and completely unsure about her future plans.

“I reminded myself that it is the 1930’s. Young ladies were allowed to do more than embroider, play piano, and paint watercolors. And London was a big city, teeming with opportunities for a bright young person like myself.”

Georgie, in addition to being of the aristocracy, is also a (very)minor royal, thirty-fourth in line to the throne. The title and the relations don’t get her much in the way of money, but she does get a summons from the queen (Queen Mary, wife of George V) and a commission to do a little bit of harmless spying on Prince Edward and the American woman he seems to have become involved with. However, Georgie finds that surviving on one’s own is more difficult than she had imagined, and spying on a prince comes with its own hazards.

Georgie is a wonderful character, intelligent but innocent. I liked her, and I liked seeing her navigate her way through the perils and amusements of a certain segment of London society. However, the minor characters are not so delightful. Georgie takes up with an old school friend whose constant advice is that Georgie must lose the dreadful “burden” of her virginity as soon as possible. Georgie doesn’t take her friend’s advice, but she is sorely tempted. And she never really mounts any kind of a moral or philosophical defense against this promiscuous and shallow idea of what life is all about.

So, I liked the setting, the plot was OK, and the main character is fun to watch, even if she is a little too easily influenced by foolish and unsavory characters. But the constant drumbeat of propaganda in favor of promiscuous, unattached sexual encounters spoiled the rest of the story for me, even though the actual sexual escapades in the book are limited in number and off-stage. I probably won’t read the rest of the series.

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.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

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.