Thursday, October 31, 2019

Cart and Cwidder (Dalemark Quartet, Book 1) by Diana Wynne Jones

Title: Cart and Cwidder, Dalemark Quartet, Book 1
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publication: Greenwillow, hardcover, 1975
Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Plot: Clennen, his wife Lenina, and their three children are traveling musicians, and among the few who move between the North and South regions of Dalemark. His parents deliver messages and gossipy news as they travel and sometimes take passengers with them. There are political overtones: the South is more restrictive and “[y]ou dared not put a good, or a word, out of place for fear of being clapped in jail.” Red-headed Moril may be a dreamer but he knows better than to sing seditious songs on his cwidder (a sort of lute) in the wrong part of Dalemark. When Clennen tells the family they are bringing Kialan, a youth about Moril’s age, with them to the North, his children resent the arrogant boy, who sneers at them and brings violence into their lives. When tragedy strikes, it is up to the overlooked Moril, as well as his older brother Dagner, and his feisty sister Brid to stand up for themselves, which also means accepting annoying Kialan and work together to survive.

My Impressions: The first DWJ I brought home from the library (probably in the early 80s) was The Ogre Downstairs, and everyone in the family enjoyed it before it went back to the library. I continued to read her books whenever I had the chance. Much later, when I worked at Avon/Morrow, I ordered myself a copy of every backlist title. Turns out I own a nice first edition American copy of Cart and Cwidder that I had never had time to read. Inspired by Lory from The Emerald City Book Review, I took it with me to the gym the other night and got yelled at by some guy when I was distracted reading between sets and didn’t lift weights fast enough for him. “It’s not a library!” he scolded me. Oh, please!
As with many of DWJ’s books, the main character is thoughtful and quirky, unassuming but with the capacity to rise to the occasion when necessary. Music has dominated the family’s life and it is Moril’s inspired playing of his father’s cwidder that saves the day. Jones’ skill is her ability to mingle humor and tragedy, fantasy and realism effortlessly, without losing her plot (I did think she was hard on the mother in this story). There are also plenty of villains and an overall sense of foreboding that made up for the lack of magic, other than the cwidder.  While not as memorable or multidimensional as the Charmed Life series, I look forward to reading more about Dalemark.

There's going to be a Cart and Cwidder discussion over at Calmgrove where there are lots of DWJ fans later this week.

Off the Blog: Nationals win the World Series!  

Source: Personal copy

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Avalon by Anya Seton

Title: Avalon
Author: Anya Seton
Publication: Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1965
Genre: Historical Fiction
Avalon is the eighth of twelve books that are part of my 2019 TBR Challenge, inspired by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, to prioritize some of my unread piles. It is one of Seton’s lesser-known titles and I have owned it for years without getting around to reading it.

Plot: When Rumon, a young man of noble birth, descended from Charlemagne, leaves his home in Provence to seek the source of his visions, his goal is Avalon, the legendary island featured in Arthurian legend. Instead, he is shipwrecked in Cornwall, where he meets a girl called Merewyn, whose father was killed by Vikings before she was born. Promising her dying mother he will deliver Merewyn to an aunt, an abbess at a convent, they set off to the court of King Edgar. The politics of court and of the church, anchored by Dunstan, the Archbishop of Canterbury, provide the counterpoint to the odd friendship that connects Rumon and Merewyn. Both young people are dazzled by Edgar’s queen, Alfrida, which prevents Rumon from recognizing Merewyn’s devotion as she becomes a young woman capable of great love. Because he alone knows the secret of her birth, he considers her unworthy. However, once Rumon realizes that he cares for her, he pursues Merewyn, making a perilous journey across the Atlantic to Iceland, believing he needs to rescue her.

My Impressions: This is another compelling historical novel by the talented Anya Seton and, as with Dragonwyck and My Theodosia, it provides a vivid picture of a little known period, including some real characters, such as St. Dunstan, Leif Erikson, and Ethelred the Unready.  Seton has an uncanny
Merewyn would likely freeze in this outfit
ability to bring history to life, although there are fewer appealing characters and what seems like more violence than in Katherine, one of my (and many others') all-time favorites. Still, it is a great read for historical fiction fans and I could not put it down. As usual, Seton’s sweeping narrative carries the reader along, even when the main protagonist is considered a wimp by reader and Vikings alike:
“And I think that Rumon will always be wanting what he cannot find, and that if he finds what he thought he wanted he will be disappointed. As he is now.” She tried to smile but tears came into her eyes...
Does a real hero always know what he wants? Merewyn’s observation is accompanied by the Vikings’ contempt for someone who won’t fight and who “sounded abject” when he spoke to a mere woman. Rumon is a "Searcher" of visions but is not capable of seeing beyond his own nose.   Still, I give Rumon credit for a three-year quest to find Merewyn, although his overweening pride prevented him from appreciating her when she was close at hand.

Off the Blog: This review is a break from a weekend creating what my History of Children’s Literature professor calls a LibGuide. I chose children’s fantasy literature as my topic and will add a link once complete.

Source: Personal copy

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Bitter Feast by Deborah Crombie

Title: A Bitter Feast
AuthorDeborah Crombie
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, October 2019
Genre: Mystery/Suspense/Series
Plot: Melody Talbot’s parents are hosting a benefit at their home in the Cotswolds, and when Melody invites her boss, Detective Inspector Gemma James, Gemma’s husband Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, and their three children for the weekend, everyone expects a relaxing sojourn in a picturesque part of England.  Unfortunately, Duncan is involved in a fatal car crash on his way to Lower Slaughter, which turns out to be connected to the talented chef, Viv Holland, who is catering Lady Adelaide’s lunch.  The weekend turns into a busman’s holiday for Gemma and Duncan as they assist the local police in investigating several mysterious deaths, while Melody’s romance with Andy is suffering from prolonged separation while he is on tour, due to her insecurity about their relationship.   In the midst of all this angst, Duncan’s son Kit, now 15, shows real maturity by acting as sous-chef to Viv Holland and listening to Viv’s daughter who is confused and angry.
In 2017, I enjoyed seeing children like Toby and Charlotte frolic at Bourton on the Water
My Impressions: I am a huge fan of this series and had eagerly awaited this18th book featuring Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid; all of which are delightful.  However, I do recommend starting at the beginning with A Share in Death.  Although Gemma and Duncan spend very little time together in this book, A Bitter Feast was enjoyable for several reasons: the Cotswold setting was very appealing because I was there myself not long ago, including to Bourton on the Water where Gemma and Lady Adelaide take the children; Melody’s parents are great characters, and it was fun to see them taking an interest in Gemma and Duncan (Sir Ivan dragging Duncan to the doctor which he desperately needed and even helping to replace the family car, which was totaled in the accident); the foodie aspects were interesting: both Viv Holland’s up and coming pub, the Lamb, and her restaurant experience back in London long ago.  I like Melody and am sorry her relationship with Andy is not progressing smoothly; I don’t think she and Doug are meant to be together.
The plot and actual mystery of this particular book are secondary to the setting and characters, always Crombie’s strength.  She deftly manages a large cast without losing track of the actual crime and how it is going to be solved.   I did think that there were two characters, Bea and Roz, who were too similar but that is a minor quibble.  Readers will appreciate a beautiful map of the Cotswolds which is almost as good as being there.
I yearned for a cottage in the Cotswolds!
Purchase Links: IndieBound * Barnes & Noble * Amazon * Book Depository * HarperCollins

Off the Blog: Winter approaches!  I kidnapped the nephews briefly this afternoon to help put away the hammock and the patio umbrella, and I broke down and turned on the heat yesterday.  Hardy New Englanders try to wait until November 1.
Source: I was eagerly awaiting this book and appreciate the copy from the publisher and TLC Book Tours, provided for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

October 10th: Literary Quicksand
October 11th: Instagram: @slreadsbooks
October 14th: PhDiva
October 14th: Bewitched Bookworms
October 15th: Write – Read – Life
October 16th: Jessicamap Reviews
October 17th: From the TBR Pile
October 22nd: Lesa’s Book Critiques
October 23rd: Jathan & Heather
October 24th: Amy’s Book-et List

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene #1930Club

The 1930 Club is a meme started by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Book Ramblings that explores a specific year of published books.

Title: The Secret of the Old Clock 
Author:  Carolyn Keene
Publication: Grosset and Dunlap, hardcover, 1930
Genre: Children’s mystery/series

Plot: When Nancy Drew, the attractive 18-year-old daughter of accomplished lawyer Carson Drew, starts investigating the estate of recently deceased Josiah Crowley, she learns she has the makings of a fine detective!   Nancy encounters several families who innocently thought they would inherit modest amounts of money from him; instead, Crowley seems to have left everything to the disagreeable Topham family.  Encouraged by her father, Nancy scrutinizes Crowley’s activities before he died in the hope of finding a more recent will.   Her curiosity leads her to new friends, old rivals, antique thieves, lunch with a prominent judge, being locked in a closet, the secret of the old clock, and a career as a dashing sleuth.

My Impressions: Devouring Nancy Drew is or used to be a rite of passage for girls who read. The expectation is that you move on to less formulaic books and you forget about Nancy, Carson, housekeeper Hannah Gruen, Bess, George, and Ned Nickerson (well, Ned wasn’t very memorable in the first place).  So I was impressed several years ago when there was a flurry of articles which revealed several of our Supreme Court justices had been big Nancy Drew fans: Sandra Day O’Conner, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.
I too read every Nancy Drew I could find after an aunt gave me a copy of The Clue in the Diary when I was in third grade.   

However, The Secret of the Old Clock is particularly significant because it is the first book in the famous series and because the actual mystery is fairly memorable.  Spoiled rich people inherited money they didn’t need while those left in the lurch were hard-working and deserving. Learning about wills and how   they had to be witnessed and produced when someone died was fascinating to me, as was Nancy’s compassion and her sense of justice. Neither the justices nor I knew back then that author Carolyn Keene didn’t exist, and that Nancy was the product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, a New Jersey-based book packagers also responsible for the Rover Boys (I inherited these from my father), Hardy Boys, Happy Hollisters (these I ordered by mail because I wanted the secret decoder that came with the first book), and much more.

1930 was the launch of a dynasty as Nancy Drew would be hugely successful with more than 70 million copies sold, not to mention movie and TV spinoffs (including a new show on the CW just this month - I watched for 10 minutes - it was dreadful), merchandise, and more.  At 8 or 9, I didn't notice the formulaic plots librarians disliked.  I enjoyed the way Nancy dashed about in her shiny convertible, intrepid and confident, although I will admit I sometimes preferred the Dana Girls, also produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, about sisters at boarding school who solved mysteries.   But when I found a Dana Girls book at a Cape Cod rental and read it to my nieces a couple years ago, they laughed hysterically at nearly every sentence, so I have to admit it did not hold up well.  

Off the Blog: I am taking a History of Children’s Literature class and just got permission from my professor to write my term paper about Nancy Drew!  I need to fine-tune the topic first . . .  Let me know if you have any suggestions that haven’t been done to death.
Source: I gave all my Nancy Drews to my niece Katherine so got this from the library.  I love that it is the very edition I first read from the John Ward School library. 

Monday, October 14, 2019

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield #1930Club

The 1930 Club is a meme started by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy's Book Ramblings that explores a specific year of published books.  This inspired me to chose a book I had always meant to read, set in one of my favorite fictional places, a small English village.

Title: Diary of a Provincial Lady
Author: E.M. Delafield (1890–1943)
Publication: Academy Chicago Publishers, trade paperback, 2002 (1930)
Genre: Fiction
Plot: The book is a somewhat autobiographical diary of the life of an upper-middle-class Englishwoman living mostly in a Devon village in the 1930s, with a grumpy husband, two young children (one of whom attends boarding school), a large awkward house, a number of servants, and many acquaintances (although only one real friend).

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Goldsmith’s Treasure by August Šenoa (book review)

Title: The Goldsmith’s Treasure
Author: August Šenoa (1838 – 1881)
Translator: Neven Divjakinja
Publication: Spiritoso (Zagreb), hardcover, English edition 2015 (1871)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: Zagreb, 1574-79
August Šenoa
Plot: This is a Croatian story of forbidden love between Dora Krupiceva, the Goldsmith’s daughter, a beautiful and devout young woman, and Pavao Gregorijanec, willful son of Lord Stjephko.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation - from The Women in the Castle to Shadow Castle

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo was Kate’s starting book this month.  Unusually, I hadn’t heard of it and when I took a look it was definitely not my thing.   However, it made me think of my first book, which is about three women living in close quarters after WWII:
The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck was published in 2017.   This is a historical novel written by a Boston-based author, set primarily in post-World War II Germany.   Heroine (albeit flawed) Marianne takes in widowed survivors of resistors and their children, trying to preserve a new generation for the country in a castle that is barely functional.  I think I liked this because it showed a very different perspective on WWII historical fiction I have long enjoyed (I tend to read books set in England or France).   I realized I could have a castle theme, and that brought me to my second book with another falling-apart castle full of women:
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (1949).   Aspiring writer Cassandra and her family live in a dilapidated castle and are living in genteel poverty because their father cannot write a successor to his long-ago bestseller and obviously can’t do anything as plebeian as getting a job.  But everything changes for Cassandra and her sister Rose when two attractive young men come to town.    Somehow I missed this coming of age story when I was growing up and although I enjoyed it as an adult, I think I would have liked it more as a teen.   I do enjoy the famous first line and I really enjoyed the movie.   Did you see it?   Here is a link to the trailer.   My third book involves a castle that is not falling down but is constantly moving:
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1996).  A mysterious castle appears in town, which belongs to the Wizard Howl, who is rumored to suck the souls of young girls. Surprise! He is actually young and handsome, although very annoying.  Sophie Hatter, the intrepid oldest sister, is under a spell for most of the book, but that barely slows her down, even though believes.  A real gem!  The movie is a 2004 Japanese animated, fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
The Maze in the Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman (1983).  Gilman, known for her teen novels before she reinvented herself as the author of the Mrs. Pollifax (1966 and on), middle-aged housewife turned CIA agent, and other mysteries, first mentioned this book in an adult standalone, The Tightrope Walker, a really unusual and appealing novel.  Clearly, she fell in love with the description of Maze and then wrote it! It works by itself but I highly recommend The Tightrope Walker too, in which shy heroine Amelia Jones searches her past for clues to a mystery that terrifies her . . . The Maze in the Heart of the Castle is a middle school fantasy about an orphan on a quest to understand the loss of his parents.   This is a sad castle so I picked a more humorous one for my fifth book:

Knight’s Castle by Edward Eager (1956), Illustrated by a favorite, N. M. Bodecker.  This follows Magic by the Lake and is about the offspring of the children in Half Magic.   Roger and Ann, visiting their cousins in Baltimore, are taken to see the Elizabeth Taylor movie of Ivanhoe and are enthralled.   They start playing with the castle Aunt Katharine gives Roger and new soldiers from their Uncle Mark, and then the soldiers come to life and they find themselves back in the days of Ivanhoe and Bad King John . . . English friends: this is better than The Return of the Twelves.  Knight's Castle led me to my sixth book, another favorite:

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell (1945). In the middle of a deep forest is an enchanted valley and a castle where only shadows live, shadows of kings and queens who have waited for hundreds of years for the spell cast upon them to be broken.   One day, a girl named Lucy follows a little dog through a tunnel into the valley and meets the mysterious red-haired Michael, who takes her into the shadow world to meet Prince Mika and his mortal wife Gloria, their children and their children's children, and learn the magic that will lift the spell.   I return often to this gem of a book, and cherish my mother’s copy, which was published during WWII on very-thin paper.   Happily, an expanded version was made available not long ago by the author’s daughter, also a writer.
So we started off *in* WWII and concluded with a book written *during* WWII.  Next month, Kate says the launch book will be Alice in Wonderland.  I have very pleasant memories, not only of reading it but my grandmother gave me LP versions of Alice and Through the Looking Glass I listened to often as a child.

To my surprise, I read today that Jojo Moyes is in the middle of Three Women, so *someone* is reading it!  I was also startled to read her new book is set in Depression-era Kentucky, which seems a very odd setting for her to choose.

Happy Birthday to my dear friend, KDC!
Knight's Castle images copyright to HBJ Publishers