The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure (J NF)

The Fairy Ring

The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World

Mary Losure (Juvenile Non-Fiction)

Elsie loved a good laugh, she loved to paint, and she didn’t like being teased.  Needless to say, when her young cousin, Frances, was being mocked by her family after she told them that she had seen fairies down by the stream, well it was enough to make Elsie’s blood boil.  But when they had the audacity to begin teasing HER, that simply was the last straw!  Elsie thought up a clever plan to show the adults that fairies were in fact real and she would do so by offering up photographic evidence.  Little did Elsie know at the time that her fairy photos would someday attract the attention of someone who really did believe in spirits and fairies.  Someone who her own father admired and adored.  Someone by the name of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Author Mary Losure said that her idea for The Fairy Ring came after a visit to an independent bookstore in Minnesota.  There she came across The Coming of Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—a book built around the photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths and the implications behind their much-believed authenticity.  Frances wrote her own book, Reflections on the Cottingley Fairies, a memoir that was completed by her daughter, Christine Lynch, after her death.  Looking at the original photos now, people would obviously see them as the forgeries they were.  But back in 1917, a time when the news cycle was dominated by the First World War, the demand for legitimacy may not have been on the forefront of anyone’s mind.

It is remarkable how two girls—ages 15 and 9—were able to pull off what would later be known as one of the greatest hoaxes of the 20th century.  What is even more astonishing was their ability to wholeheartedly ensnare one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  How could one of the greatest authors of his time, and a medical doctor to boot, have been so gullible?  Doyle was a scientific man, but he was also spiritual and the death of his son, Kinglsey, in 1918 caused him to fully embrace spiritualism and the idea of spirits and otherworldly beings.  With that in mind, it’s no wonder why in mid-1919, when the Cottingley fairy photos were made public, that Doyle was quick to embrace the idea that fairies were indeed real, thus bringing some semblance of validation and comfort to a still grieving father.

Elsie and Frances’s story is as fascinating as it is unbelievable.  Remarkably, both women kept their secret long enough so that many reputations, including that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were kept intact and untarnished.  It was a hoax that would transcend all others and spawned simply because one talented and easily offended teenager simply didn’t like being teased.  While Elsie eventually admitted to revealing the truth, Frances—even up to her death—never wavered from her belief in fairies.  Even Sherlock Holmes may have been inclined to believe in the Cottingley fairies for he once said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  Are fairies impossible?  I, for one, would like to believe that fairies exist, for in the grand scheme of things, what harm would there be really to believe otherwise?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Sea by John Banville

The Sea

The Sea

John Banville (Adult Fiction)

Recent widower Max Morden, looking for respite and solace from his grief, returns to the seaside town where he spent his summer holidays as a youth.  Once there, he rents a room in the Cedars, the same house where he met the affluent, affable, and alluring Grace family.  But memories can be both haunting and comforting and as Max begins to remember his first experiences with love and death, he understands just how fragile and unpredictable life can be.

The Sea was the 2005 winner of the Man Booker Prize and despite its bestseller status and numerous accolades, I was counting the pages to its completion (I don’t provide a review unless I finish a book in its entirety).  I agree with critics and reviewers that the writing is indeed superb, but I found it so over-the-top in its detail that I quickly became a victim of prosaic poisoning.  Here is an example of Max describing his mental haze before his wife, Anna, receives her fatal diagnosis: “In the ashen weeks of daytime dread and nightly terror before Anna was forced at last to acknowledge the inevitability of Mr. Todd and his prods and potions, I seemed to inhabit a twilit netherworld in which it was scarcely possible to distinguish dream from waking, since both waking and dreaming had the same penetrable, darkly velutinous texture, and in which I was wafted this way and that in a state of feverish lethargy, as if it were I and not Anna who was destined soon to be another one among the already so numerous shades.”  Again, simply beautiful in its artistry and imagery, but completely exhausting to absorb and resulted in more frustration than enjoyment on my part.

Another aspect of this book, which only added to its incredible weightiness, is that it lacked chapters and was only separated into Book I and II.  The Sea was simply paragraph after paragraph after paragraph with the occasional (and much welcomed) double-spaced separation.  It’s as if John Banville was feeding us a wonderfully delectable five-course meal and never giving us the opportunity to savor, swallow, and digest each bite.  We just keep getting spoonful upon spoonful and end up pushing ourselves away from the table for our own self-preservation—leaving a perfectly lovely meal unappreciated.

The downfall of writing a story where each word and phrase are so meticulously constructed is that you have characters that feel a bit one dimensional and lacking true warmth or vulnerability.  It’s like a room staged for an opulent magazine spread.  While it’s gorgeous and truly exquisite, you really can’t imagine living in it for it’s missing the heart and soul that allow you to connect with it.  That immersive feeling that wraps around you like a warm blanket or well-worn bathrobe.  But we’re not talking about a room or a home, but something majestic and vast and powerful and in the end, that is the problem with this book.  The problem is that we’re dealing with the sea.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard

Mr Timothy

Mr. Timothy

Louis Bayard (Adult Fiction)

Tiny Tim is tiny no longer.  The iron brace and crutch have long been replaced by an achy knee and slight limp…a mere lilt, really.  It is December 1860 and although Mr. Timothy Cratchit, now a man of twenty-three, lives off the monetary magnanimity of his “Uncle” Ebenezer Scrooge, he dredges the River Thames for treasure-yielding corpses and lives in a brothel where he tutors the Madam in reading.  It’s a satisfactory life, one in which Tim has grown used to until he comes upon one and then two dead girls, each with the letter “G” branded on her upper arm.  When Tim meets Philomela, a ten-year-old street orphan, he realizes that he must do everything he can in order to protect her for she, like the other two girls, bears the same “G” on her arm.

I must admit that it took me a while to connect with (and eventually enjoy) this book.  Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite stories and so it was distressing to see the iconic and beloved character of Tiny Tim reduced to desecrating corpses and spending his days living off charity.  I don’t fault Louis Bayard for building a story off an already-established fictional character.  Many authors have done the same in the past and will continue to do so in the future as long as there is a willing and interested audience; however, Bayard’s choice of using a character as cherished, wholesome, and pure as Tiny Tim and then casting him into London’s dark and dreary underbelly seems almost sacrosanct and readers of this story, who adore Tim, may feel a little duped in the process.  Luckily, patience proves to be a virtue and readers can rest assured that Bayard eventually gives us the loyal, spirited, and resilient lad that we’ve come to know and love.

Billed as a “literary thriller”, Mr. Timothy does not disappoint in delivering danger, intrigue, and fast-paced drama.  The story is a bit slow out of the starting gate and seems to drift as multiple characters are introduced and a number of storylines play out.  At about the midway point, things seem to get their bearing and the action moves at a steady and satisfying pace until the end.  Although Dickens wouldn’t have imagined his young hero delving into police corruption, child trafficking, and prostitution, he would be gratified to know that his Tim is armed with a strong moral center, a kindly heart, and nerves of steel…not to mention a leg that makes for a quite dependable barometer.

In A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was known for saying, “God bless us, every one!”  This phrase was repeated at the end of the book to signify Scrooge’s change of heart.  Like Scrooge, I experienced my own change of heart and am grateful I decided to give this book a second chance.  At times, this wasn’t an easy thing to do for Bayard really puts poor Tim through the wringer, but I’m glad I stayed with Mr. Timothy and accompanied him to the very end of his adventure.  So in honor of second chances—which are indeed a rare and precious thing—I’ll end by simply saying, “God bless us, everyone one!”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray (J)

Adam of the Road

Adam of the Road

Elizabeth Janet Gray (Juvenile Fiction)

Three things gave Adam Quartermayne comfort: his harp, his friend Perkin, and his dog Nick.  But for five months now, all Adam truly cared about was his father finally coming to take him out of school.  “Today he’s coming.  I know it!”, Adam would find himself saying over and over again.  But his father was Roger the Minstrel, and the open road was his home.  Roger will come for him and when he did, together with their harp and viol, they would travel the countryside—entertaining people with their songs and stories.  But life is unpredictable and just when Nick had settled into the life he had always dreamed of fate comes along and changes everything.

Elizabeth Janet Gray takes young readers to late thirteenth-century England—a time of Welsh revolt and a period when England’s population boomed and towns and trade expanded.  Best of all, it was a time for minstrels and what an important commodity they were.  As Gray writes, “When a book cost more than a horse and few could read, minstrels’ tales were almost the only entertainment.  Minstrels brought news, too; they told what was going on in the next town, and what was happening in London, and where the king was.”  Gray transports her readers to a time filled with wine (the hot spiced wine is particularly pleasant), women (Jill Ferryman was especially goodhearted and kind), and song.  Lots and lots of song! She gives us an adventure for the ages filled with robbers, thieves, narrow escapes, dastardly deeds, and daring-dos.

At the heart of this book is eleven-year old Adam, whose solid moral center, resilience, loyalty, bravery, and kindness make him the ideal protagonist.  He understands that stealing food—regardless of the degree of hunger—is wrong and that showing genuine appreciation for an otherwise undesirable gift is an admirable trait.  More importantly, he shows us the value of faith and family.  Time and time again, the reader is reminded that a minstrel’s home is the open road.  As Roger once said to Adam, “A road’s a kind of holy thing.  It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together.  And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”  But I think in the end, Adam may have been more in agreement with the Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (or just Pliny if you were a close chum).  For it was Pliny who gave us the beloved saying, “Home is where the heart is” and Adam’s heart was firmly placed within a master minstrel and a red spaniel with long silky ears.  Perhaps Pliny would have made for a rather good minstrel?

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.christianbook.com

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Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton (J)

Bedknob and Broomstick

Bed-Knob and Broomstick    

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fiction)

Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson are rather ordinary children who are planning to spend a rather ordinary summer with an old aunt in Bedfordshire.  The children, not being very fond of her house, choose to spend most of their time outdoors playing in the barns, by the river, in the lanes, and on the hills.  One day seemed to flow into the next rather uneventfully until the day that Miss Price hurt her ankle.  It was on that day where this story truly begins because Miss Price didn’t just visit the sick or teach piano or was the most ladylike in the village.  Miss Price also happened to be a witch…well, a novice witch…and it was this same Miss Price who cast a spell upon one of Paul’s bed-knobs—a spell that could take him and his bed anyplace in the present or past.  A spell that would eventually lead to a trip to the police station, an encounter with cannibals, and a chance meeting with a lonely necromancer.  Perhaps this will not be an ordinary summer for the Wilson children after all.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is the combination of Norton’s The Magic Bed-knob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947).  The first part covers the initial meeting between the Wilson children and Miss Price and details their adventures in the present while the second part picks up two years after and sends the group into the past.  Norton’s tale is sure to delight younger readers and has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep older readers engaged as well.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is a humorous, suspenseful, and enchanting book filled with courage, loyalty, friendship, and love.  American author Debasish Mridha once said, “The magic of love is that it has the power to create a magical world in and around us.”  Norton indeed gives us a magical world which teaches us that you’re never too young for an adventure and you’re never too old to find love.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

It’s Throwback Thursday where we review a Classic from literature.  In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw  

Henry James (Adult Fiction)

It’s Christmas Eve and, as is ancient tradition, ghost stories are being told by a group of friends sitting around a fire.  Now a ghost story with one child in it would be—as everyone might agree—horrible, gruesome, and terrible even.  But a ghost story with two children?  Well, that would be just an inexcusable and abominable turn of the screw.  Wouldn’t it?  This is such a story.

Contrary to popular belief, just because a story is labeled a “classic”, doesn’t mean that you are automatically inclined to love it, rave about it, or recommend it.  Sometimes old doesn’t instantly equate to great.  The Turn of the Screw is one such book.  Written in 1898, Henry James’ gothic novella is considered one of literature’s most famous ghost stories…but perhaps not the best.  The story is verbose, inordinately descriptive, and James throws about commas like strings of beads during Mardis Gras (“They moved slowly, in unison, below us, over the lawn, the boy, as they went, reading aloud from a story-book and passing his arm round his sister to keep her quite in touch.”).  Adding to the tedious reading that awaits even the most patient of readers, we are presented with an unlikable and unsympathetic  heroine (a governess) who puts her own need for vindication and legitimacy above all else.  As a result, she fails her employer, she fails her friend, and she gravely fails her two small charges.  Those around her pay the ultimate price for her incessant need to claim victory and prove her sanity.  The fact that she did it despite the ongoing harm she constantly inflicts upon two young children ultimately proves to be one too many turns of the screw.

Sometimes, when a story is exceptional, you got lost in it.  Other times, the story just simply loses you.  The Turn of the Screw is regrettably an example of the latter.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Witches by Roald Dahl (J)

The Witches

The Witches   

Roald Dahl (Juvenile Fiction)

“In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black cloaks, and they ride on broomsticks.  But this is not a fairy-tale.  This is about REAL WITCHES.”

Our story is told through the eyes of a seven-year old boy.  He’s quite ordinary really, but we soon find out that this rather ordinary boy is about to do some particularly extraordinary things.  Before he is eight years old, he tells us that he has had not one, but TWO encounters with witches…and he has lived to tell about it through this book.  I implore you to read this book so that you too will know how to spot a witch, for witches look just like ordinary women.  Miss the signs and alas poor reader, you might as well count yourself squelched!

Told in true Roald-Dahl fashion, the author gives us yet another whimsical, comical, and delightful story.  Dahl treats us to a young hero who shows courage, cleverness, and cunning in the most dangerous and dire of circumstances.  Even when he is at his lowest (and I mean that quite literally), our protagonist always seems to find the bright spot and never resorts to self-pity or defeatism.  His “can do” attitude and spunk will cast a wickedly delightful spell on your heart and is sure to entrance readers of all ages.  A few gory details of the supreme witch’s appearance may leave younger readers a tad squeamish, but it’s all told in good fun.

Dahl presents us with two very different groups of people whose appearance hide who they truly are.  When the narrator’s grandmother poses a question to him about identity and appearance, he responds, “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you.”  And that, friends, is about as bewitching and magical a message as you can hope for.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

 

 

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

In honor of Halloween, we’ll be reviewing ghoulishly scary and spooky books throughout the month of October.

The Woman in Black.jpg

The Woman in Black   

Susan Hill (Adult Fiction)

It’s Christmas Eve at Monk’s Piece.  Lawyer Arthur Kipps, his wife and children are gathered around the fire telling ghost stories, as is ancient tradition.  They all take turns until it comes to Arthur.  “Now come, stepfather, your turn.  You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…”  Arthur does know a ghost story.  One haunted by a child’s anguished screams, an approaching pony and trap, a moving rocking chair with no occupant, and a mysterious woman in black.  A ghost story made even more horrifying and terrible because this story is true…absolutely true.

I wasn’t familiar with Susan Hill before this book, but about twenty pages in, I was so impressed with the eloquent and nuanced writing style, and so immersed in the story, that I wondered if she was English.  Sure enough, she is.  There is no mistaking a truly adept English or British author.  The turns of phrase, the sentence structure, and the painstaking attention to detail without being overly verbose all add up to an exceptionally well-crafted book.

Hill gives us a satisfying horror story which achieves its goal of raising the hairs on your neck and increasing the beats of your heart.  By introducing noises in the dark, mysterious brushes against your body, and an invisible presence that always seems to be just right behind you, she goes to the very core of our fears and keeps them tucked into the deepest, darkest corners of our soul—very far away from the light.  Hill gives us a gripping and suspenseful story that builds at a steady and progressive pace until the final climax.  With one last blow thrown in at the end, it might be best to read this with a torch (flashlight) nearby…just in case.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.penguinrandomhouse.com

 

 

The Invisible Wall (Biography) by Harry Bernstein

The Invisible Wall

The Invisible Wall

Harry Bernstein (Adult Biography)

“It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they on the other.  We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”

Harry Bernstein describes growing up on a street in the English mill town of Lancashire—one of two sides of the same street separated by an invisible wall, but bonded by poverty.  He writes with fearlessness and bittersweet honesty about his selfless and strong mother who tries to make ends meet with the money left over from his father’s constant gambling and drinking.  The reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that goes from tragedy and despair to triumph and delight.  We cringe at his father’s heartlessness and disinterest in his own family, while we hold out hope for his mother who continues to wait for that elusive steamship ticket to America.

At times, Bernstein’s story is painful to read as dream after dream and opportunity after opportunity are unmercifully shattered.  If this was a work of fiction, one could justifiably harbor resentment toward the author for his unusually cruel treatment of his characters.  Knowing that this story is true makes it all the more unforgettable.  This book truly took my breath away and kept me engaged from the very first page to the last.

The Invisible Wall made Harry Bernstein a first-time author at the tender age of 96.  After reading his incredible and compelling story, all I have to say is, “Better late than never, Harry.”

Rating: 5/5

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrews Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson (Adult Fiction)

Ernest Pettigrew (that’s MAJOR Pettigrew to you) is retired and enjoying his tea, books, garden, and a rather predictable life in Edgecombe St. Mary.  That is until his brother unexpectedly dies, his son is dating some leggy American from New York, and he’s suddenly developed a rather uncontrollable fancy for Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman from Pakistan who runs the village shop.  Why, it’s enough to leave this settled, retired gentleman rather…unsettled.  And that won’t do.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was Simonson’s first novel and she didn’t shy away from sensitive and controversial topics.  Instead, she fearlessly jumps in with both feet and tackles cultural and religious conformity head on.  The book begs the question, “Is it possible for someone in the minority to be accepted by the majority: fully and unconditionally?”  She broaches the subject with honesty and respect and, most importantly, shows us the fallout of when the heart overrides the horde.  The front flap states, “Sometimes love does conquer all”, but I found that not to be entirely accurate.  Love may conquer most, but it is not infallible.  While the war may be bravely fought, there will be casualties and lives will be changed—whether for the better or worse depends of which side of the battle line you happen to fall.

All in all, Simonson succeeds in delivering a witty, charming, and delightful read and she gives us a main character deserving of his own BBC series.  The writing is crisp and intelligent, the story advances at a steady and comfortable pace, and the list of characters range from the exasperating to the enchanting.  All combine nicely—like a good cup of tea, a nice plate of biscuits, and a robust fire in the grate—to fulfill even the most particular of palates.

Rating: 5/5