If you are like me, when you are in an uncertain mood (as we all certainly are during our current enforced retirement from daily life) you don’t necessarily thrive: I see posts on social media from people who say, I should be using all this free time to get to my stalled projects, clean out my house, exercise more, cook complete meals, read the classics, but instead I’m binge-watching Netflix and Hulu and surviving on Oreos and Cheetos.
A lot of people are also saying they don’t have the focus for reading that they normally do (myself included), and have been flailing around a bit trying to find the right thing to fully occupy their imaginations. I finally realized that for me, going back to books that I have read before that are familiar and yet have such a scope and depth that new things can always be discovered between their covers is the thing to do to get me reading again. Let me share a few of these with you, most of which are long, involved, and completely immersive. If you have read them before, you may want to revisit them; and if you have never heard of them or always meant to read one, then you have a treat in store.
Susan Howatch is best known for her long-running series (Starbridge, and later St. Benet’s) pairing the sacred and the profane, revealing the crises of faith and the ruthless power struggles of priests in the Church of England. This began with Glittering Images in 1987 and continued through 2003 with The Heartbreaker, but although I enjoyed these quite a lot, I prefer some of Howatch’s earlier works.
My favorites are a duology that links the same ruthless and charismatic cast of characters over a period of years spanning the two World Wars in England and America, called The Rich Are Different and Sins of the Fathers. Howatch is a master of the dysfunctional family saga, and she leaves no psychological trauma unturned. But these are also a wonderfully complete and entertaining look at the historical period spanning the post-WWI economic boom on Wall Street and the Roaring ’20s right through to the invasion of Normandy, contrasting English and American lifestyles of the era. They are character-driven, intriguingly narrated in several voices and, despite having been written in 1977, are both modern and relevant in their tone, and have been re-released
Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor (1944), is THE classic historical novel you can’t not read during your lifetime. Think Gone With the Wind, but set in Restoration England (and equally lengthy, at 972 pages!). Amber St. Clare, the naive but intelligent and independent heroine, goes from simple country wench to Cavalier’s mistress, from wife to jailbird to actress and courtesan. She lives and loves through the English Civil War, the Restoration of the monarchy, and the Plague of London, and it is both her personal story and also the vivid historical details that capture the imagination so completely. Winsor is also credited with having written with this same tome the first ever historical romance novel, which was quite racy for its time.
On the shorter side compared to the others on this list (but still a compelling read) is The King’s General, by Daphne du Maurier (1946), set during the English Civil War of the 1640s. It is romantic, mysterious, and tragic. It details a lesser known bit of Cornish history regarding Sir Richard Grenville, the king’s general in the west, in the battle between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. Part civil war history and part love story, it follows Grenville’s romance with the young Honor Harris, who is engaged to Sir Richard until a tragedy separates them. Later in the war, they reconnect to share a passionate but ultimately perilous relationship. Fun fact: Menabilly, the real-life house of the Rashleigh family (relatives of Honor’s), was also the setting for du Maurier’s best-known novel, Rebecca, in which it is transformed into Manderley.
If you managed to make it through the late ’60s or early ’70s without reading Tai-Pan, by James Clavell (1966), you have missed out on one of the best-told tales ever. You can’t strictly call it historical; it’s a fictionalized account of the first year of the British colony of Hong Kong (1841). The characters and their trading companies are only loosely based on actual people, but what characters they are! Pirates, opium dealers, and thieves, who maintain a surface appearance of “simple” Scottish, English, and American tradesmen, run Hong Kong from the offices of their companies and from the decks of their ships, fighting for their lives and fortunes in a foreign land that they conquer (or think they do) without necessarily understanding it at all. This is a blockbuster of a novel, written by a guy who also had a big career as a Hollywood screenwriter and knows how to set a scene, draw out the suspense until you want to scream, and give you
what you want in an epic saga: larger-than-life characters on an intriguing stage.
Reviewing this list, I realized that not only are these books mostly historical fiction, but it is almost exclusively British in nature (although the Howatch novels are half American, and Tai-Pan is set in China). I’ll review my reading lists to see if I can come up with an equally compelling group of books that are neither British nor history-based, and share those soon. Perhaps fantasy and science fiction will yield a good array….
I tried to think of one word to describe the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological mysteries by Elly Griffiths, and there you see it in the title: Uneven.
The series first started with The Crossing Places, and that book was gripping if only because of its novelty: The plot conceit is that the skeleton of a little girl is discovered and the police, represented by Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, call in Ruth Galloway, a 30-something forensic archaeologist who lives near the fens in Norfolk, to inspect the bones and verify whether it is a modern or an ancient murder. Then a contemporary girl goes missing, and Inspector Nelson begins receiving letters—taunting clues that remind him of the unsolved case of a lost girl from a decade before.
Book #11, The Stone Circle, is virtually identical in plot, to the point where I had a real experience of déja vu the entire time I was reading it. Bones are found, then more bones are found, letters are received, then a child is abducted…. Out of the 11 books in the Ruth Galloway series, they pretty much fall into one of two categories—either gripping or dull on an almost every-other-one basis. This one, I’m sad to say, was dull as well as repetitive. In addition to mimicking the formula of a cold case that heats up when a new body is found, it even produces the son of a controversial character from the first book to serve as a mostly irritating red herring. This book almost seemed like a place-holder until Griffiths had a better idea.
I was already waffling over continuing this series: After reading the last book, which was at least original in plot and took us away from the fens to Italy, I was so annoyed by the soap opera of the personal relationships that remained bollixed up that I was ready to give up. People kept doing the same things and expecting different results. This book made that frustration even worse.
It was almost a relief, at the end of this derivative story, to conclude that it was time to quit reading…but then I saw a synopsis of the newest (which will release in July) and finally, something has changed significantly: Ruth has a new job, a new home away from Norfolk, and a new PARTNER. Intriguing. Okay, maybe I will read just one more…
Meanwhile, to those who read #10, The Dark Angel, I would say, get someone who already read #11 to give you the few details on the personal relationships that you need to bring you up to date (you can email me if you want!), but by all means skip reading The Stone Circle and go directly to #12 when it becomes available!
I’m sorry for the gap between posts—I, like most people, have been self-quarantining, and in my concentration on reading up about various issues on social media I haven’t spent a lot of time on recreational reading. I have been more drawn to making art during this time, simply because I have many artist friends who are doing likewise and it’s fun to share it in various groups.
I haven’t quit reading entirely, however, and this past week I continued my exploration of children’s books, but this time instead of revisiting old favorites I read one that I somehow missed when it was first published back in 2007—The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. I probably missed it because that was the year I graduated from library school at UCLA. Nothing like getting a degree to prevent you from reading what you want!
We read the prequel to this book, entitled The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, when I was running the 6th and 7th grade book club at Burbank Public Library. It follows the fortunes of Mr. Benedict when he was nine, an orphan with a pickle-shaped nose and an unfortunate habit of falling asleep at the drop of a hat. In this book he was sent to a new orphanage, where he had to use his peculiar genius to evade bullies, pull the wool over the eyes of the pompous adults, and solve a mystery.
When I finished reading that book, I wrote on Goodreads:
“I sort of hate how much I love this book, because now I’m going to have to read all the others. And while that is a delightful prospect, it’s also a daunting one, given that there are three of them, each of which is 400+ pages, and
I have many other things in life to do besides read!”
The rest of my reaction was equally laudatory:
This was such a well done, engaging, literary book.
I was worried that it wouldn’t be mature enough for 6th- and 7th-graders, given that the protagonist is nine years old (the “wisdom” in reading for children and teens is that most kids like to read about people who are at least a year or two older than they themselves are), but given the vocabulary, the descriptions, the scene-setting and world-building, and the wonderful dialogue, I think this book would appeal to almost anyone who likes this sort of thing.
It made me think about Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, simply because the protagonist in that one is also a precocious genius, and because I was continually debating with my colleagues over the audience for that book. The publishers described it as a middle-grade novel, but the subtleties of the concepts conveyed by Willow’s story are more mature. Similarly, although Nicholas is nine, this book is universal in its appeal. Also, there’s just something about the boarding school/orphanage trope that is immediately attractive,
Although that book is not a prerequisite for the rest of the series, I was glad that I had read it first, since it gave me a little more context for who Mr. Benedict was and what one could expect from him. I really enjoyed The Mysterious Benedict Society; I particularly liked the beginning where the children take the tests that are all puzzles designed to ferret out the truly innovative from the merely smart.
I also enjoyed the interactions of Reynie, Sticky, Kate, and Constance, and how they went from acting separately to functioning as a team, bringing all their complementary assets to bear on the various problems they encountered. Although the story has many ridiculous and exaggerated aspects (mass hypnotism, world domination, highly unlikely physical feats), underlying those is a sweet tale of neglected children who are enabled to find each other and form lasting bonds, with the aid of some compassionate adults. It has an old-fashioned flavor but in the best way possible. In fact, I was somewhat surprised when I looked up the publication date because, based on both the story-telling and the writing, I was convinced it dated from back in
I can’t leave this review without complimenting the illustrations of Carson Ellis—quirky and delightful, they add substantially to both the story and the mood.
Although I bought all three volumes of the Benedict trilogy, I think I will leave the other two for now and read some adult fare. I have two Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths lined up waiting on my Kindle.
If you are curious about my artistic escapades, please take a look at my art blog, at https://theslipcover.blogspot.com.
The book I read this week is a fairly classic example of a story told by an unreliable narrator. It is also written in epistolary form, which is to say in the form of a letter to another person. You might also view this book as an example of Victorian Gothic, although it takes place in 2017, because of the setting and some of the events.
A narrator always serves as a filter for her story, and if that story is told in first person, then the only person’s viewpoint we are able to discover is that of the storyteller. As readers, we generally believe that the narrator is truthful and is providing, as far as she is able, an accurate view of the story. But an unreliable narrator is one whose version of the story the reader comes to realize cannot be trusted; there is a point in the narration at which the reader discovers there are lies involved, a hidden agenda is revealed, or the nature of the narrator is discovered to be criminal, crazy, naive, pathological, or any other aberration that would call the person’s views into question. Motivations are revealed that cast doubt on the narrator’s veracity, and the reader has to decide whether the narrator is being willfully deceptive, or is just deceiving herself.
Whatever the case, it takes a certain level of skill to write an unreliable narrator that readers will continue to follow even when they have discovered this deceptive nature. The protagonist in The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware, is one such character.
The book opens with a set of incomplete letters, each addressed to a solicitor, a Mr. Wrexham—impassioned pleas for him to listen to her story, to believe her, and to defend her. Rowan Caine is a nanny sitting in jail awaiting trial for the murder of one of her charges. She already has an attorney, but believes (with some justification) that he is one of the reasons she is behind bars, and is looking for someone who will hear her out instead of dismissing the (admittedly odd) details of her story as irrelevant. Eventually she manages to push through all her false starts and put the events down on paper for Mr. Wrexham.
It proves to be a disturbing and convoluted explanation, with multiple reveals as we discover that Rowan is not who she pretended to be, on at least two separate levels. It also furnishes plenty of questions about the motivations of the other characters, but once you realize that she has lied about some significant events, you are provided with many reasons to doubt her experiences.
The story’s gothic elements arise from the setting, which is an old Victorian mansion set in the wilds of Scotland that has been bought and massively but jarringly remodeled by a husband-and-wife team of architects. The front half of the house maintains its pristine Victorian façade and ornate interior, while the rear has been demolished and replaced with an über-modern structure of cement and glass that provides a jarring disconnect when moving from one part of the mansion to another. And it also turns out that when the mansion was stripped and refinished, certain secrets of its architecture remained unknown to the builders, while other aspects of the house are almost too well known through its surveillance app that provides a view and a microphone to almost every room.
The couple in question, Bill and Sandra Elincourt, have four children—a teenager, an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, and a toddler. They have gone through four nannies within the past year, and are looking for someone qualified, reliable, and without a surfeit of imagination or superstition to take responsibility while they are pursuing their busy careers. Enter Rowan Caine, beguiled by the generous salary, the beautiful house, and the apparently well-behaved children. But when the Elincourts take off for a few weeks of conventions and client meetings, things begin to disintegrate, starting with the behavior of the children and ending with a series of strange events that may or may not be related to the remote controls installed in the house.
This is a suspenseful story, with vivid description and a gripping, slightly ominous feel throughout. The story builds to its conclusion, which is both cryptic and satisfying. The only thing I am pondering is whether I loved or hated the ending. It’s plausible, it explains much, but the result it implies is vague enough that I had to read it a couple of times to decide what I thought and whether I believed it.
For readers who are looking for a thrill, who enjoy a tale with twists, and who embrace the ploy of an unreliable narrator, The Turn of the Key will satisfy.
When is an author building appropriate back story for his characters, and when is he just going off on random tangents?
I thought about this question a lot while reading Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane. Some of his books have been among my favorites, particularly Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, so I was pleased to discover there was a stand-alone I hadn’t yet read.
The first half of the book—maybe more than half—is dedicated to a meandering examination of the life and internal workings of Rachel Childs. Her beginnings are typical for smart and broken children—a difficult mother, an absent father, a lot of pressure to be perfect but on someone else’s terms. Most of this part of the book focuses on Rachel’s obsessive and ongoing quest to find out her father’s identity. Her mother refuses to tell her, and then dies; she tries hiring a private detective but the pickings are so slim that even he refuses to charge her for what little he can discover; and every clue seemingly leads to a dead end.
The book maintained my interest throughout this quest, but only because it said interesting things about Rachel herself. Then it takes a segué into career and family, as she develops her abilities as an on-air news reporter and, under the tuition of her new husband Sebastian, a producer and mentor, becomes known for reporting on dangerous situations in marginalized societies. This career leads to a crisis that triggers anxiety attacks and agoraphobia.
At this point Brian Delacroix, the private detective she hired to look into her father’s identity, comes back into her life. She realizes there was always a spark between them and begins to explore a relationship, and at that point I thought, Was the entire first half of the book only a build-up to get us to this pairing?
After this transition, the book’s purpose turns yet again, and becomes a Hitchcockian thriller with a secret. The first half of the book doesn’t telegraph this in any way, so the subsequent events are quite disconcerting, particularly when Rachel rather abruptly goes from a passive to an active player and turns into someone you’re not sure you believe was “in there” all this time. So if you can suspend disbelief enough to see the entire book as a character study of Rachel, then it works as a whole. If you are unable to do so, it falls apart into separate, interesting, but not necessarily well integrated parts that seem like they belong in at least two different books.
I always enjoy Lehane’s writing style—he reminds me of some of the classic mystery/thriller writers I read when younger, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. But while this book held my attention throughout, I couldn’t recommend it unreservedly to people looking for one of Lehane’s trademark psychological thrillers. There was both too much and too little to sustain a specific mood, and I focused more on the transitions than on the tale.
I just read two books, both of which I would probably categorize as “relationship” fiction. I enjoyed both, but one receives a higher rating because the author knew when to stop.
It wasn’t a total surprise that I would enjoy The Garden of Small Beginnings, by Abbi Waxman, since I had previously liked The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, her ode to reading and readers.
(I reviewed that book here.) But sometimes an author gets lucky with one book and doesn’t subsequently live up to expectations. I’m happy to say that wasn’t the case here.
Small Beginnings was one unalloyed delight. I might be a little prejudiced, because the protagonist and I are both artists, plus the subject of the book is gardening—a former hobby and a future aspiration—so it is natural I would have an affinity with this story. But subject matter isn’t enough to float an entire book, and this one had other advantages in spades (as in shovels full).
The book is about Lili, widowed in her 30s and left with two young daughters—Annabel, who is now seven, and Claire, now five. It’s been four years since her husband was killed in a car crash, and although she has recovered her equilibrium after a few months of total breakdown and has made a good life for herself and her daughters, she is determined not to yield to her family’s and friends’ pleas that she “get back out there.” Then, the publishing company for which she is an illustrator decides that Lili will be the artist who takes on a new book on vegetable gardening, and her boss asks that she attend a six-week gardening class to familiarize herself with the subject. Lili is happy to comply, and takes along her sister, Rachel, and her two girls to the class. She is surprised to discover a hint of chemistry with the solemn but charismatic Danish instructor, as well as some unexpected but welcome camaraderie with the other students…
The characters in this story were completely engaging, the scene-setting was just right, but the ever-present humor was what took it over the top. So many writers do a poor job with children, in particular, but Lili’s two girls exhibited that perfect mix of literal and precocious that makes girls of five and seven years old both maddening and hilarious, while each embodying a distinct personality. I loved the coming together of the mismatched crew at the garden class, and how everyone’s assumptions about each of them was busted in some way as the story progressed. The romance was in just the right measure. The gardening tips between chapters were bonuses I enjoyed…but to make it truly perfect, the publisher should have engaged an illustrator of Lili’s caliber to add in some drawings! That’s pretty much the only flaw I can find.
The thing I liked best about this book (especially in retrospect after reading the next one on my list) was that it lived up in every way to its title: Small beginnings were made on some changes for all the characters and Lili in particular, but the author didn’t feel the need to either belabor things or to unnecessarily wrap things up. She trusted the readers’ imaginations enough to give them a small amount of satisfaction and let them extrapolate the rest for themselves.
By contrast, my next choice, Things You Save in a Fire, by Katherine Center, was positively heavy-handed. It didn’t start out that way—in fact, it was an enjoyable read for the majority of the book, although the protagonist did tend to take herself too seriously.
Cassie Hanwell, a female firefighter, is excellent at her job because she allows for no distractions. Her temperament has been shaped by an unfortunate event that scarred her as a teenager, and this single-minded attitude has served her well for 10 years; but in a sudden confrontation with the author of her tragedy, she loses control and changes the trajectory of her career. She is forced to leave her comfortably familiar job in a progressive fire department in Austin, Texas to take on the challenge of being the only “lady” on the crew of an old-school, out-of-date fire house in a small town outside Boston.
Her choice of this particular place is due to a request from her estranged mother, who is having a health emergency and has asked Cassie to move in with her and assist her until she gets back on her feet. Cassie, compelled by her gaffe to make a change, complies by finding an assignment near where her mother lives, and spends the next few months equally uncomfortable in her home and work life as she reunites with the mother who left her and fights for a place among some tough competition.
Then she starts having romantic feelings, for the first time in her life, and even more inconveniently, it’s for the rookie at her fire station…
This book almost got top marks from me, but the author just couldn’t resist an epilogue. The book was finished before the epilogue—everything that needed to happen had happened, and the rest of the stuff could be left up to the reader to decide, just as in Waxman’s novel—but Center just couldn’t let it be. She had to wrap things up with a bunch of ribbon and some great big showy bows, by spelling out every little thing and bringing a conclusion to each and every character, situation, and psychological issue. Included in there were some sappy scenes, some completely ridiculous reformations, and a few comeuppances of bad characters that simply wouldn’t happen outside an author’s fantasy life. I have to say, it kind of ruined the book for me.
The difference between an author who knows when to quit and one who doesn’t can be as slight as 20 extra pages, but what a difference it makes. After all, isn’t imagination a big part of enjoyment when it comes to the peculiar habit of reading?
After my trip down childhood’s memory lane,
I decided to jump over to read a YA novel set in a ballet school in Manhattan.
Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, takes the usual envies, rivalries, and jealousies of adolescent girls and ramps them up exponentially by placing them within the rarefied atmosphere of one of the elite—and therefore intensely competitive—ballet schools feeding into the American Ballet Theatre. The girls in the story are at levels 6-8, the top three at their school, and therefore about the equivalent of juniors and seniors in high school, except that their preferred outcome to academic distinction and college is a place as a dancer at the top ballet company in the country.
The authors do well at distinguishing the various personalities among the girls. There is Bette, a dainty ice-blonde diva with a perfect turnout, whose older sister’s legendary prowess weighs heavily on her. Her boyfriend, Alec, is also her talented dance partner, looks as if he could be her taller, more muscular blond brother, and is the son of one of the members of the board of trustees, giving him (and Bette by extension) an edge.
June, Korean name E-Jun, is fighting against both the school’s and her mother’s judgment to keep her place; her dance technique is all but perfect, but she has never been cast as anything but an understudy, and is desperately starving herself and rehearsing hours a day to change that judgment. It doesn’t help that her fellow Koreans at the school shun and belittle her.
Eleanor, as Bette’s best friend, has been eclipsed by her in every way, although gaining a certain caché by being a part of her entourage; it’s hinted that she may have found another, less reputable way of working herself up the corps de ballet ranks into a solo position. And Giselle, known as Gigi, the new girl in school, is a mixed-race carefree Californian, immensely talented but not used to the intense and sometimes hateful climate of these surroundings, and with a secret malady that puts her at a disadvantage should anyone find out.
There is a back story involving the previous new-girl-in-school, Cassie, a cousin of Alec’s who was injured last year when she was dropped from a hold during a rehearsal and broke her hip. Will, the dancer who dropped her, has a secret that certain people were willing to keep if he would help them out by removing Cassie from competition, but no one thought it would be so permanent. Henri, a newly enrolled student from France, turns out to have a connection with Cassie that has brought him to the school to discover who sabotaged her career. And now that Cassie has been replaced by Gigi, odd occurrences start up again to dog her progress, from malicious rumors to damning pictures to active attempts at injury.
I can definitely see how both the romance of the dance and the competitive snarkiness of the dancers in this book would appeal to teens. It’s another iteration of Gossip Girls, but with ballet as its background. The characters are well defined, the world-building backdrop of ballet school is convincing, and the drama is compelling.
The big flaw for me was that there is absolutely no resolution in this book. Suspicions are high that Bette is behind the pranks that turn ugly, but then we discover that in fact she is only accountable for a few of the most obvious, and someone else behind the scenes is conducting the rest of the campaign. We receive hints at who it might be, but nothing is ever confirmed, and after reading the entire book waiting for resolution to the mystery, I discovered that there is a whole other book, Shiny Broken Pieces, that you have to read to find out what happens to Bette, June, and Gigi! And while I mostly enjoyed this volume, by the end I was weary of the tiresome back-and-forth he-said-she-said of who was responsible for what, and I don’t think I have the patience or the interest to pursue those answers for another almost 400 pages! Perhaps I’ll come back to this story someday…
There are numerous other books, some written for teens, that incorporate ballet (and other kinds of dance, too, of course) in fiction. One I read and enjoyed was Bunheads, by Sophie Flack. Another is the dark and disturbing The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. And of course there is the classic children’s book, Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, immortalized by Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail. If you like this theme, here is a list of YA Dance Books compiled by Goodreads members, some of which you might enjoy.
When I teach Young Adult Literature, one of the things we discuss at the beginning of the class is the concept of the “home run book.”
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a leader in the field of reading, and discovered through his research that people who read because they want to, with no assignment components—no book reports, no questions, no tests, no analysis—do better in school by far than those who don’t read, or who only read under compulsion.
But the key ingredient in creating a reader is to hit upon the book that gives them that one positive experience that forever cements their relationship to reading. Jim Trelease came up with the concept of the “home run book,” basing it on a quote from wordsmith Clifton Fadiman, who said:
“One’s first book, one’s first kiss, one’s first home run are always the best.”
Trelease did a lot of anecdotal research, asking people who were readers whether there was one particular book that made them into regulars. He was surprised and pleased to discover that almost every reader could cite the very book that changed their attitude about reading to a positive one.
This issue came up for me lately when a good friend of mine read for the first time a book that has been a beloved one for me since childhood. Although I can’t cite The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, as my “home run book,” it is definitely one of the top 10 that kept me interested in reading. As an only child, I empathized with the heroine’s isolation; I loved gardens and nature and the thought of a secret one that I could discover and have all for myself was compelling; and I liked how being forced into relationships with others almost against her will finally turns Mary from a sourpuss into a better, nicer, happier person.
Kim, however, came at it with a contemporary perspective, and her judgment was anything but flattering. Her first reaction was that while the descriptions of the gardens are lovely, “the entire book is a sermon on a set of values that have no place in a humane world.” She goes on to cite the colonialism and racism, comments on “healthism” that betrays both the disabled and the physically able child, and notes the “noble savage” trope depicted in the “peasant” character, Dickon. Despite the descriptive writing, the bright and resourceful children, and the extolled virtues of playing outside in nature, she concludes that the story cannot be disentangled from its classist moralizing, and maintains that it’s time to retire the book.
This reaction made me cringe, mostly because I recognized that she was probably right. Her comments made me remember a discussion in my YA Lit class one year about the relative merits of continuing to require the book Huckleberry Finn to be read by upper grade students, despite its rampant racism, and how severely my young students judged it, despite my urging them to consider context. It also made me recall what a shock I experienced when I recently reread a book that I had previously listed as one of my most beloved—China Court, written in 1961 by Rumer Godden—only to encounter an inexplicably forgotten and utterly shocking example of sexist physical abuse in the last chapter that effectively spoiled my previously unalloyed delight.
Suddenly, my judgment was suspect as I thought back over six decades of reading and wondered how I had been shaped by books that I had embraced unquestioningly at various stages of my life. This prompted me to revisit some of those, to see if books other than Burnett’s should have modern judgment pronounced upon them. So I picked up a few I had particularly loved, and began to read with a gingerly sense of both anticipation and dread.
The first, from a series that I read over and over as a child, was The Children of Green Knowe, by Lucy M. Boston. The initial theme of the book is eerily similar to that of The Secret Garden, in that the child’s parents (well, his father and stepmother—that trope is present here!) are out of the country, and the boy, whose name is Toseland, is sent to live with his great-grandmother in her big old mansion verging on castle (it has a moat) in the English countryside. But the similarities (in characterization at least) end there: The boy’s personality is trusting, open, and sweet, and the grandmother is delightfully quirky and kind. Toseland becomes Tolly, except when Grandmother Oldknowe forgets and calls him Toby after his ancestor (the stepmother, unforgivably, calls him Toto), and is welcomed into the rarefied atmosphere of her life surrounded by the memories of generations of the occupants of Green Knowe.
The question for Tolly, however, quickly becomes whether they are memories or something much more tangible. He hears giggles coming from the upstairs bannisters, and catches quick movements out of the corner of his eye as he enters rooms. Gifts and trinkets turn up under his pillow, on his chair, in his pockets, and as Grandmother tells him the stories of the three children who lived at Green Knowe in the long-ago days—Toby, Alexander, and little Linnet—he begins to believe they have never left.
I still loved this book, and found nothing objectionable that would prevent bringing it up as a favorite to contemporary children (although I didn’t read past the first book in the series, so I can’t vouch for all of them). I wonder if this series is the origin of my love for the surreal? You could call them ghost stories, but with the interactions with animals, with supposedly inanimate objects (a carved mouse, a garden topiary, a statue) that occasionally come to life, and with the three dead children, we’re talking magical realism. The relationship between the grandmother and child is touching, the fanciful narrative is wonderful, and I probably loved the whole thing the most when I was a child because I, too, was an only, solitary child who longed for playmates, loved animals, and had a vivid imagination.
The second book about which I had fond memories—again the beginning of a series and this a lengthy one—was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. This is the story of four enterprising brothers and sisters—Henry, Jessie, Violet, and little Ben—who have been raised by their father to believe that their maternal grandfather is an unkind and unloveable tyrant. So when their father dies the day after they have moved to a new town and the neighbors propose to find their grandfather and send the children to him, the children respond by running away. They find an old boxcar, buried in shrubbery along a disused railroad siding (and adjacent to a convenient brook), and turn it into a home, finding clever ways to provide water, food, clothing, and entertainment for themselves, even though they are children without adult supervision.
This one has a few coy moments, and the author does that prescient thing (“they were not to know that this moment would be a lasting influence in their lives…”) that informs you not at all but nonetheless manages to take you right out of the story in a most annoying way; but in most respects the book was surprisingly good. Although at one point Jessie, who is “motherly” to her younger siblings, is referred to as “the housewifely girl,” and the oldest boy, Henry, takes the fatherly role by going “out” to work (mowing lawns, picking fruit, and doing various chores for a doctor in a nearby village), mostly the children work together at chores and projects without too much regard for gender roles, and take delight in objects (Ben and his pink china cup) without any remarks about “girliness” and such.
When the children’s situation is eventually discovered, near the end of the story, and they go to live with their grandfather, I was further pleasantly surprised. Ben asks their grandfather, a curmudgeonly sort, what they will all do when they grow up; at first he says that Henry will take over his business (typical). But then, when I expected him to say something sexist about Jessie’s and Violette’s prospects as girls (marriage and family), he instead tells Ben, “You will all four of you go to college, and then you can choose to do whatever you want!” Considering the book was first published in 1942, that is an exceedingly progressive sentiment! Bravo, Gertrude!
I have a few more childhood favorites I’d like to revisit, but I’ll leave this subject for the moment, just concluding that, as painful as it can sometimes be, it’s never too late to become cognizant of our blind spots when it comes to learned prejudices. So while I still treasure my memories of The Secret Garden, perhaps I will find books less fraught with flaws to recommend to contemporary children.
In The Night Country, sequel to Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, we find Alice, known in the Hinterland as Alice-three-times, back in the “real world” of New York City. (Spoilers for the first book ahead…)
She has been followed fairly precipitately by many of the other inhabitants of the Hinterland, because when Finch broke her out of her story he didn’t do it gently, and the trailing threads and gaping holes began to disintegrate patterns, then stories, until none of the so-called “characters” were safe there. So although Alice is back to living with her mother, going to school, working in a bookstore, and exploring the concept of normality, she is uneasily aware that there are other inhabitants of the city who are also refugees, and who have more in common with her than she does with the oblivious humans surrounding her.
In addition to following the fairy tale people when their stories crumble around them, the book contains a murder mystery: Characters are turning up dead, and not just dead but missing important parts of their bodies. There is a certain method to the killings, as first a left hand, then a right, then a left foot, then a right, go missing from each subsequent victim. The frightening part for Alice is the state of the corpses—as far as she knows, no one but she has the ability to freeze people with a touch, and doesn’t like the idea that she is therefore the prime suspect.
In a parallel tale, when the Hinterland started to disintegrate, Ellery Finch saw his friends to safety as best he could but then made another choice—not to go back to his world of origin, but rather to go on, whatever that meant. We catch glimpses of him here and there throughout the first half of the book through the letters he writes to Alice from strange worlds, and then halfway through the book we turn more fully to his story. How all the stories—and Stories—come together in the end will stay a mystery ready for you to read.
One thing I love about these books is the descriptive nature of the prose. There are three escaped characters who in the Hinterland were known as the Acolytes of the Silver Dagger, the Red, the White, and the Black (after the colors in which they dress). But here on Earth, they are simply known as the Trio. They have found their way to the Christian God, and hang out in a church in Midtown. Alice goes there to confront them, to ask if they have a message for her:
“Looking over the pews I saw that they weren’t quite empty: three heads just peeked over the top of a bench on the left side. The heads were hooded, from left to right, in red, white, and black…. I slid into the pew in front of theirs and turned around, facing them over its back. They had eerie little oatmeal box faces, like an illustrator’s idea of how a wholesome child might look. If the illustrator were terrified of wholesome children.”
Doesn’t your mind immediately flash to a picture of a child sporting the rounded pink cheeks and sly smile of “the Quaker man,” with just a hint of menace somewhere in the expression?
Although the author plans to bring out the actual volume, Tales from the Hinterland, containing Althea Proserpine’s original stories, in January of 2021, that feels more like a whimsical addition to round out the worlds she has created than it does a sequel. Unless Melissa Albert contradicts me sometime in the future, The Hazel Wood and The Night Country form a perfectly complete duology.
Fairy tales are being well represented in the world of literature these days, and I don’t mean yet another pallid re-telling of some archetypal classic, I mean new and original Story.
I just finished reading The Hazel Wood, by Melissa Albert, and I don’t know how its discovery eluded me between its publication date in 2018 and now, particularly with all the encomiums it has received from the likes of The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist, among many others. Eventually, however, hints of its renown sifted down into my consciousness, and I ordered a copy.
Having just suffered through the disappointing first 50 pages of yet another turgid, bulky, awkward fantasy by a supposed queen of YA literature and making the decision not to continue reading it, I picked up Albert’s book with a little trepidation, but from the first sentence—”My mother was raised on fairy tales, but I was raised on highways”—I was completely enthralled.
Alice’s stories of bad luck and trouble that follow her nomadic existence with her mother, Ella, seem unlikely yet inevitable, and when they finally find a reprieve in a letter sharing important news plus a new husband for Ella who is able to provide all the advantages Alice has never known, she seems so surly and ungrateful for what she has received. Her instincts about the ephemeral quality of their new life prove more reliable than Ella’s, however, and when she and her friend Finch encounter ever more bizarre circumstances in their search for a supposedly kidnapped Ella, Alice feels like the trouble around her is more familiar than not.
It all proceeds from the obscure little book of dark fairy tales Alice’s grandmother, Althea Proserpine, brought into the world. Alice has never gotten her hands on a copy, but schoolmate Ellery Finch is a super-fan who can fill Alice in on the contents of this somewhat nasty little collection. Alice resolves that a trip to the Hazel Wood, somewhere in upstate New York, where her grandmother lived near the supposed entryway into the Hinterland from where the stories flow, is necessary to rescue her mother; but relying on Finch to get her there is a doubtful advantage, knowing his loyalty is suspect.
This is a classic portal tale, wherein fairy tales are also to be found, but only behind a door to a place you may not, in the end, wish to visit. It’s written in a literary and intelligent manner, well plotted, and has a satisfying story arc. It contains some surprises that were actually predictable if you were paying close attention, but the fact that they could be expected doesn’t detract from their relevance to and enhancement of the story. The Hazel Wood is a consistent and engaging celebration of the sometimes horrifying origins of Story, and I loved it from beginning to end, including the cover art that so wonderfully foreshadows most of the activity in the book.
The irony in my thorough enjoyment of this book and the next I am about to discuss is that I have not previously been a big fan of fairy tales, having always found them dark, disturbing, and inexplicable; but this book and the next made some sense out of them for me. I appreciated the two “found” tales from Proserpine’s book at the end of this one.
(There is a sequel, The Night Country, which was just published last month and, obeying the behest of a Goodreads friend who said “read the sequel while the events of The Hazel Wood are fresh in your mind,” I have placed it on order.)
The second work that is currently reinforcing the portal story in the world is the latest volume in the Wayward Children tales by Seanan McGuire. I have enthused in the past over this gem of a series—if you are unfamiliar with the previous four books, please read my review, here. The fifth entry, Come Tumbling Down, harks back to Jack and Jill, the twins whose history was explained in book two, Down Among the Sticks and Bones.
The conclusion that Melissa Albert approaches in The Hazel Wood and that Seanan McGuire has fully realized in her books, which is something I never really understood until having read this one, is that fairy tales aren’t supposed to be nice, and the protagonists of the tales aren’t necessarily benign and pleasant people. As Sumi from the Wayward Children books says, none of the children who have traveled to other worlds and returned are in the normal range of character—they are all from the land of misfit toys. They all realize they are heroes of some kind, if only of their own stories; but heroes may have to be ruthless, heroes make hard decisions, heroes may sacrifice themselves or choose to sacrifice others in the cause of the greater good, or Balance, or whatever geas their world has imposed upon them. Even in the world of Disney, heroes can be incredibly single-minded—and therefore self-involved—when pursuing a quest. These children who have traveled to other worlds are not Lyra, or the innocents of Narnia, largely unscathed; they are scarred by their journeys, tragic figures in some instances hollowed out and filled again with something alien that continues to call them. As hard as Disney tries to make fairy tales into benign and positive love stories, the goblins and sea monsters and gnomes keep rearing their heads and saying, Don’t forget about us, we are still here too. McGuire gets that, and it’s what makes her books both terrifying and so genuine that they bowl you over with their awful sincerity.
If you are curious about other portal stories with which you may be unfamiliar (besides the classics of Narnia or Wonderland), try Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld books and the wonderful Shades of Magic trilogy by V. E. Schwab. Also of note, in a more time travel kind of way, is Kindred, by Octavia Butler. Book Riot provides a longer list, many of which I can’t vouch for, but you go exploring in these other worlds and see!