British novels

Lark Rise to Candleford: Food for the Soul

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I invite you to enjoy this guest post by my dear friend and college roommate, Wendy Robinson of Virginia:

Lark Rise to Candleford is part memoir, part history, and a lovely tale of growing up in the English countryside. The volume contains three books: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford, and Candleford Green.

The story celebrates all the tiny details of nature, first through a child’s eyes and later through those of a young woman. The author, Flora Thompson, relished and observed all the little things in the hedgerows, and in the woods, and in village life before the turn of the century. She understood this village life on an intimate level, both the harshness of poverty, having lived alongside it, and the beauty of its industrious, self-sufficient inhabitants, and she wrote beautiful descriptions of the surrounding landscapes and farms that tie the book together like a thread.

It begins in a hamlet called Lark Rise where a young girl named Laura lives with her brother in the ‘end house’:

“Looking at the hamlet from a distance, one house would have been seen, a little apart, and turning its back on its neighbors, as though about to run away into the fields. It was a small grey stone cottage, with a thatched roof, a green-painted door and a plum tree trained up the wall to the eaves.”

Laura’s world moves from this isolated hamlet to the larger town of Candleford and eventually to a village called Candleford Green as we see her become a young woman through the three stories.

This was a time when men worked on the land, sang at their work and, for the most part, enjoyed their labor:

“There was a good deal of outdoor singing in those days. Workmen sang at their jobs; men with horses and carts sang on the road … even the doctor and parson hummed a tune between their teeth. People were poorer and had not the comforts, amusements, or knowledge we have to-day; but they were happier. Which seems to suggest that happiness depends more upon the state of mind — and body, perhaps — than upon circumstances and events.”

For modern day readers it is a beautiful picture of life right on the edge of the Industrial Revolution. On this side of it, we see all that we have lost. For an older reader like myself it is to be reminded of my own grandmother’s stories from her childhood only a few decades removed from Laura’s. I was surprised to see that many of the songs and games the children played were the same ones Grandma taught us. She also told similar tales of the wild outdoor freedom and responsibilities (and dangers) that children enjoyed – and today’s children may never know. I was blessed to grow up in a small semi-rural town where it was safe to explore the woods and meadows, and I love this book because it took me back to those memories. In these living history essays, you may even be able to trace shades of the old ways through your own family’s story.

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George Vicat Cole “A Surrey Countryside”

The book brims with the domestic details of everyday life and vivid descriptions of the hamlet homes:

“Old Sally’s was a long, low, thatched cottage with diamond-paned windows winking under the eaves and a rustic porch smothered in honeysuckle.” Her kitchen: “…with pots & pans and a big red crockery water vessel at one end, and potatoes in sacks and peas and beans spread out to dry at the other. The apple crop was stored on racks suspended beneath the ceiling and bunches of herbs dangled below”

“Inside Freddy Ashley’s home all was peace and quiet and spotless purity. The walls were freshly whitewashed, the table and board floor were scrubbed to a pale straw colour… Freddy was helping his mother make biscuits, cutting the pastry she had rolled into shapes with a little tin cutter. Their two faces, both so plain and yet so pleasant, were close together above the pasteboard, and their two voices as they bade Laura come in and sit by the fire sounded like angels’ voices after the tumult outside. It was a brief glimpse into a different world from the one she was accustomed to, but the picture remained with her as something quiet and pure and lovely. She thought that the home at Nazareth must have been something like Freddy’s.”

The author’s descriptions of their vegetable and flower gardens are also charming and poignant:

“The garden was a large one … Nearer the cottage were fruit trees, then the yew hedge, close and solid as a wall, which sheltered the beehives and enclosed the flower garden, Sally had such flowers and all of them sweet-scented! It seemed as though all the roses in Lark Rise had gathered together in that one garden.”

“As well as their flower garden, the women cultivated a herb corner, stocked with thyme and parsley, and sage for cooking, rosemary to flavor the home-made lard, lavender to scent the best clothes…”

While the first book, Lark Rise, is full of images of everyday life, the second book, Over to Candleford, depicts how Laura’s world opens up when she begins to spend her summer holidays with her cousins in a neighboring town, eight miles away. The final book, Candleford Green, sees Laura off to her new life as an assistant in a village Post Office.

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first published in 1939

But Laura never loses her love for her humble upbringing or her heart for nature; she moves out into the world with youthful hope, never forgetting what it was to have her shoes ‘powdered yellow with buttercup pollen’, to see the copses full of bluebells and the water-meadows with cowslips or the warm-hearted faces of the people she knew. She carries the picture with her and is able to call up at will the beauty maybe only she recognized there.

Read it slowly, outside in the warm sunshine, where you can hear the wind in the trees and you may be able to catch a glimpse of it, too.

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Flora Thompson 1876-1947

“ Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford is a much-loved classic that has been read in various ways. For some it is an artless childhood memoir set in an Oxfordshire village in the 1880s. For others it is a lament for England’s peasantry, destroyed by mechanisation and modern farming. Richard Mabey’s expert, exploratory book sees it, rather, as a sophisticated work of fiction, part-fact, part-imagined, that was the crowning achievement of a self-taught working-class woman who transformed herself, by sheer determination, into a successful author. (“Dreams of the Good Life: The Life of Flora Thompson and the Creation of Lark Rise to Candleford by Richard Maybe”,  review  by John Carey, The Sunday Times, London, UK, February 23, 2014)

 

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Categories: British novels, Classics, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Silver Chair – A Newcomer Arrives in Narnia

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The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe may be the most familiar of the seven Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, but it is not necessarily the most thrilling. That honor belongs to The Silver Chair, the sixth book in chronological order, a tale of daring rescue, escape from man-eating giants, and being in over one’s head to fulfill a call.

In this Narnia adventure, the four Pevensies (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy) have not been drawn by Aslan in His world; instead their unappealing cousin, Eustace Scrubb, enters the magical land with his classmate, Jill Pole. As you may know, Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader made a complete change and has become a new person. This has become evident to his school acquaintance, Jill, and is expressed by Eustace himself in the following humble and humorous fashion: “Then wash out last term if you can,” said Eustace. “I was different then, I was –gosh! What a little tick I was.”

This pair of unlikely heroes is joined by a new creature -one from C.S. Lewis’ fertile imagination, a Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum from Ettinsmore who is all gangly limbs and pessimistic predictions.

 

silver chair 4The trio’s impossible mission is to locate the missing Prince, heir to the throne of Narnia and son of the aged King Caspian.   But Rilian disappeared without a trace over ten years earlier and their quest is fraught with mystery and both subtle and horrifying dangers.

Jill Pole as a newcomer to Narnia has no experience with Aslan, the Lion who rules this world. He is not a tame lion and she knows this instinctively in her first face to face encounter with Aslan.  His prone and majestic form lies between her and the stream she so desperately needs to drink from:

“If you are thirsty, you may drink.” …and the voice was not like a man’s. It was deeper, wilder and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice. It did not make her any less frightened than she had been before, but it made her frightened in rather a different way.”

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer; “ I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Once she approaches and drinks, Aslan gives her the instructions for the quest: “I lay on you this command, that you seek this lost prince until either you have found him and brought him to his father’s house else died in the attempt, or else gone back to your own world.”

Jill is given the responsibility to remember four signs to guide the rescuers in their quest. Aslan gives Jill a stern command: “Repeat the signs to remember them. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs.”

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As you might imagine, Jill does not have the maturity or faith to fulfill her duty and what happens next is a series of misadventures that ultimately lead them into great peril. Join Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill as they encounter giants from the House of Harfang, the sinister Lady of the Green Kirtle, a mysterious knight in black armor, and gnomes from the Land of Bism.

I recommend the trade paperback edition (256 pages) published in 2000 by Harper Collins with its beautiful full color illustrations by Pauline Baynes.

The Narnia Chronicles in chronological order: The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle.

The Silver Chair was originally published in 1953 and is 4th in publication order. The website http://www.narnia.com features an interview of C.S. Lewis’ step-son Douglas Gresham who gives an update about the movie version of The Silver Chair.

 

 

Categories: British novels, Children's Books, Christian Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Adventure on the High Seas: Horatio Hornblower saga

11334531-_uy200_Are you ready to enter the naval world of the Napoleonic Wars between England and France? Sea battles, duels of honor, consummate seamanship, and heroic deeds leap from the pages of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower saga.

It is 1793 and 17-year-old Horatio Hornblower is an untried lowly midshipman in Her Majesty’s Navy. His first adventures at sea, in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, quickly reveal his dauntless courage and lightning quick strategic thinking. In his eleven-volume saga, C.S. Forester develops this fascinating main character and reveals the complexity of French and British conflicts during the Napoleonic Wars. This complex yet compassionate character has endeared himself to many readers.

Written in the early part of the 20th century, how did C.S. Forester (1899-1966) reconstruct British naval life so realistically? The Library of Congress article on the author’s life offers an answer:

“In 1927, C.S. Forester purchased three volumes of The Naval Chronicle from 1790 to 1820. For the Chronicle, officers of the Royal Navy wrote articles on strategy, seamanship, gunnery, and other professional topics of interest to their colleagues. The Chronicle for those years covered the wars with Napoleon. Reading these volumes and traveling by freighter from California to Central America allowed the germination of the character Horatio Hornblower as a member of the Royal Navy in the late eighteenth century.

By the time Forester’s journey brought him home to England, the former medical student-turned-writer had plotted Beat to Quarters, and it was published in 1937. A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours were published soon after, and in 1939 all three appeared as Captain Horatio Hornblower. Forester’s interest in the Romantic period and the political and military maneuvers of the early 1800s continued, and the Hornblower saga was produced.

Subsequent volumes in the series were sequels to the original trilogy or filled in its gaps. The episodic quality of the novels is due partly to their having appeared serially in magazines, primarily the Saturday Evening Post.” https://www.loc.gov/nls/bibliographies/minibibs/horatio.html

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Reading historical novels set on the sea can be a challenge with so many unfamiliar, almost archaic, English words embedded in the text. However, it is possible to avoid referring to one’s dictionary when the reader’s “comprehending in context” skills are put to use. My 17-year-old daughter, Rachel, explained her ability to understand the first book’s language:

“Within the context it was like I was constantly learning the words, and it almost always made sense. I understood what the seaman was doing with the ship’s rope and which way the ship was moving. I loved this book because it was an unusual setting and the adventure was so delightful.”

In 1951, an original motion picture, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck, was produced. More recently (1998-2003) A & E created an 8-part series of the stories with Ioan Gruffudd, the British actor, cast as the beloved hero.

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The Hornblower Saga in chronological order: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, Hornblower and the Hotspur, Hornblower During the Crisis, Hornblower and the Atropos, Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, Flying Colors, Commodore Hornblower, Lord Hornblower, and Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.

 

Categories: British novels, Classics, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Are You Ready to Be Scared? Fantasy by Jonathan Stroud

Lockwood and Co.“Between the ages of seven and nine I was often ill, and spent long periods in hospital and at home in bed. During this time I escaped from boredom and frustration by reading furiously: books littered my bedroom floor like bones in a lion’s cave. I tended to enjoy stories of magical adventure more than ones about real life – I think this was because they provided a more complete escape. Around this time I fell in love with fantasy.” Jonathan Stroud (www.jonathanstroud.com)

Jonathan Stroud is a wonderful wordsmith and a skilled world maker. His two fantasy series, Lockwood & Co. and The Bartimaeus Sequence, employ supernatural beings that frighten and intrigue the reader.

I’ve read The Screaming Staircase and The Whispering Skull in the Lockwood & Co. series and am looking forward to getting my hands on the third novel, The Hollow Boy, which has just been published.

Mr. Stroud uses his home turf, the City of London, as his setting, but has masterfully altered it to create a fantasy world in which “The Problem” has occurred, an invasion of ghostly hauntings that frighten and often kill the human residents. A culture of children and teen warriors has arisen to do serious battle with these malevolent apparitions.

Anthony Lockwood, Lucy Carlyle, and George Cubbins make up the members of the maverick agency Lockwood & Co. that dares to venture out at night to solve ghostly hauntings without the supervision of adults. Lucy, a teen girl with the dubious gift of hearing ghosts joins in the adventures of the two boys who inhabit a rambling three-story house in the city.

I am not a believer in ghosts, but I found myself irresistibly pulled into the world Mr. Stroud created.  Swords at their sides, intrepid “agents” risk their lives locating the source of the ghosts – often a burial ground, beloved object, or murder site. Ancient wrongs are righted, people are protected, and human evildoers are unmasked. Weapons that work on the supernatural creatures include salt bombs, magnesium flares, iron chains, and silver rapiers.

I was introduced to Jonathan Stroud’s writing in his earlier New York Times bestselling series: The Bartimaeus Sequence: The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem’s Eye, Ptolemy’s Gate, and The Ring of Solomon.

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In the Bartimaeus books, the people who sought to harness the power of demons have become evil themselves (which is a fair warning to resist summoning evil spirits). These demonic slaves nurse an abiding hatred for their human masters and ceaselessly seek to escape – to destroy, kill, and then return to their hellish home. Nathaniel, an inexperienced, yet arrogant magician’s apprentice, encounters Kitty, a member of the Resistance, and finds himself rethinking his role in the governmental system that has placed power in the hands of corrupt officials who use it to further their own selfish interests.

Both the Lockwood and Co. Series and the Bartimaeus Sequence contain story lines and world building that are based on a view that the occult world, be it demonic or ghostly, is dangerous and opposed to the wellbeing of humans.   This was comforting to me because I threw away my ouija board as a teenager, and as an adult, continue to have nothing to do with contacting the evil spiritual world. I would like to point out that the demon Bartimaeus is a sympathetic character that incongruously develops some concern for his human counterparts. This puts him in an odd “good demon” category.

As a fantasy author, Mr. Stroud never opens a window into the Heavenly realm, nor does he bring in the helpful services of angels or the power of a benevolent God to work on behalf of the beleaguered people in his stories.  It is best lockwood & co. 3if the reader enters Mr. Stroud’s fantasy worlds without expecting a Christian worldview.  Taking that into consideration, these two series are delightfully scary, interesting and penned by an excellent storyteller.

Categories: British novels, Children's Books, Fantasy, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Plan Ahead for Summer Reading

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s almost summertime and I am pushing my “read more” agenda again! Here are some specific ideas for getting more from your reading this summer:

1) Read more – set higher personal reading goals! Summer reading is a special experience because is often takes place out of doors, on a beach or a porch swing. We can allow ourselves a large allocation of time to read during this season because our routine is changing as we welcome our children home from school and make vacation plans.

My goal: Read a minimum of an hour a day June -August.

2) Connect with others in your reading! Reading is not a solitary happening, but a satisfying conduit for building common experiences. Use your inner circle’s reading recommendations – children, spouses, parents, librarians, and friends. Target your children’s favorite book and watch their pleasure as you become familiar with the plots and characters they love.

My goal: Read The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

See! A boy is reading in this candid photo.

3) Stretch your mental muscles! All have the capacity to enjoy a classic book. Although there is no harm in seeking a “light” read; the mental challenge in reading classic literature propels you into new depths — past the shallow water of superficial plots and stereotypical characters.

My goal: Read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

4) Re-read a childhood favorite! Go down memory lane and enjoy that classic children’s book again. Perhaps a family member might join you in this endeavor, but even when you read something independently, you can still take time to share excerpts that you felt most impacted by; whether it be humorous, serious, or touching.

My goal: Read Winnie-The-Pooh by A.A. Milne.4cd2e-the_sweetness_at_the_bottom_of_the_pie

5) Listen to an audio version of a book! On a family car trip or even during your mundane work commute, pop in an audio book and enjoy a good story as the miles roll by.  As a side effect, if your children are listening too, audio versions of books allow them to participate and experience literature above their own reading level.

My goal: Listen to the fourth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley (Book #1 is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – all the books are narrated splendidly by Jayne Entwhistle)

6) Be a good reading example to others! Maybe this summer is the time to read purely for enjoyment. Others watch what you do more than what you say, so if you especially want your spouse or children to pick up a book in their spare time, – to “read for pleasure” – as the phrase goes, then you must do the same.  Show them by example that reading isn’t always work!

My goal: to put up my feet in the daytime and read when the chores are not yet done.

7) Hit the library! Make use of your tax dollars and browse the local library for good ideas and free books to borrow. Library summer reading programs for kids and adults help direct our goals to increase reading with their prizes and recognition.

My goal: Sign us all up for the Dauphin County Library summer reading program on June 1st.

da69a-girl-reading1So, enjoy some special reading adventures this summer and please tell me about them!

Categories: Autobiography, Biography, British novels, Chick lit, Children's Books, Christian Fiction, Classics, Fantasy, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Mystery, Read Aloud, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Don’t Go Alone

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African proverb)

Lord of the RingsThis is my 58th Pine needles and Paper trails blog post and I am finally writing about my favorite book of all time. Why did I put off publicly declaring my eternal love for the Lord of the Rings trilogy? Most likely because I was certain my limited vocabulary and imperfect writing could never do justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterpiece.

Here goes.

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the trilogy entitled “The Lord of the Rings”, was first published in 1954 by J.R.R. Tolkien, a literary giant and a close friend of C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). These men produced fantasy stories that profoundly impacted their own generation and ours, and set the bar high for all fantasy writers who came after them.

If you enjoyed the movies directed by Peter Jackson, many more delights await you in the novels. In my opinion, the movies were brilliantly cast and filmed with breathtaking cinematography, but were disappointingly truncated because this tale is so intricate.

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Entire characters, locations, and action in the narrative were ruthlessly hacked off on the cinematic chopping block, never to be brought to life on the silver screen. I understand the filmmaker’s limitations. However, to honor Tolkien’s life work, we simply must read the entire narrative (or listen to an unabridged audio version).

I love the way Tolkien develops each character and shows the reader the complex relationships between them. One example of this rich character development is that the first “fellowship” in The Fellowship of the Ring consists of the hobbits who band together to take the Ring from its hidden life in the Shire to Rivendell to gain the wisdom of elves and men.

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Frodo Baggins, our unlikely hero, believes he must go alone and tries to sneak off on his journey, bravely risking his life. However, the original story directly contradicts the movie scenes because his hobbit friends conspire to help him: loyal Samwise (“Sam”) Gamgee and three other hobbits: Meriadoc (“Merry”) Brandybuck  , Peregrine (“Pippin”) Took, and Fredegar (“Fatty”) Bolger.

When Frodo discovers what his faithful friends have planned, he protests:

“’Sam!’ cried Frodo, feeling that amazement could go no further, and quite unable to decide whether he felt angry, amused, relieved, or merely foolish.

’Yes, sir!’ said Sam. ‘Begging your pardon, sir! But I meant no wrong to you, Mr. Frodo, nor to Mr. Gandalf for that matter, He has some sense, mind you; and when you said go alone, he said ‘no! take someone as you can trust.’

‘But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,’ said Frodo.

Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘ It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid – be we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, p. 118)

The hobbits hope to escape the terrifying Black Riders and arrive safely in the Elven sanctuary to bring the Ring of power to those who would form an effective plan to keep the weapon away from Sauron, the Dark Lord. “Fatty “ stays behind in the Shire to play his part in a less perilous way.

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I forewarned my teenaged daughter when she began reading the trilogy that Tolkien was given to lengthy descriptions of flora, fauna, rocks, paths and streams. I explained that the adventure was mostly lived out on foot and it took an excruciatingly long time to get from one location to another. This literary device communicates to the reader that the quest was arduous.  Unlike many modern novels, the protagonists sleep and eat and drink along the way, depicting the real pace of life and their human frailty.

If you decide to take on the challenge of reading the trilogy and “do the math”, roughly 400-500 pages per book times three novels, it will require a serious time commitment. Not to brag, but I have done so three times. I believe I am ready for my fourth; it’s just that wonderful.

My favorite edition of the trilogy was published in 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The hardcover books boast beautiful color illustrations by Alan Lee who explained his artistic style:

“In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader’s mind, which tends to be more closely focused on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text.” Alan Lee

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The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

Categories: British novels, Classics, Fantasy, Inspiration, Read Aloud, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Death Comes to Pemberley – Pride and Prejudice has a sequel after almost 200 years

death comes to pemberley 1How is it remotely possible that a sequel published nearly tw hundred years after the original novel and by another author could reflect the style and feeling of the first story? P. D. James succeeded brilliantly with Death Comes to Pemberley, published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, and a sequel, of sorts, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

James seamlessly sewed a murder mystery plot to a beloved 19th century romance and the reader does not feel the change in fabric. It seems as though P.D. James created these characters herself, so genuinely did she spur them to speak and act. Death Comes to Pemberley picks up only six years after Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy. They are the proud parents of two healthy sons, and manage the glorious Pemberley estate with a mixture of hard work, team effort, and grace.

A murder is needed to disrupt the placid existence of the happy family and P. D. James provided a complex one, drawing in a very disturbing murder suspect, rogue George Wickham, with whom the Darcys severed ties after his disgraceful elopement with Elizabeth’s sister, Lydia.death comes to pemberley 2

This is definitely not a gory, forensic mystery. A delightful romance softens the story – Mr. Darcy’s lovely sister, Georgiana, now of marriageable age, must contend with the attentions of two suitors.

The reader experiences the delight of renewing the acquaintance of Elizabeth Darcy’s father, Mr. Bennet, whose sustaining presence consoles the couple during the uproar of a murder on their property. Other family members enter the fray, sweet-tempered sister Jane, and her amiable husband, Charles Bingley, shallow, self-serving Lydia Wickham, and Darcy’s austere aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. P.D.

James skillfully plotted a tasteful mystery within an authentic 19th century world, introducing the reader to the judicial system of the day. With a 30 year career in the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Policy Department of Great Britain’s Home Office, P.D. James was extremely qualified to write her mystery novels, over 18 of them – many featuring Inspector Adam Dalgliesh.

P.D. James, 1920-2014, was a former governor of the BBC and a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award. She lived in London and Oxford and is survived by two daughters, five grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

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Produced by the BBC, the TV mini-series Death Comes to Pemberley aired in 2013, starring Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Darcy, Matthew Rhys as Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Matthew Goode as George Wickham. Its lush scenery, attention to period detail, and excellent acting make it a worthwhile program.  If your stack of books to read is teetering and threatening to fall over, you may enjoy this wonderful production instead.

Author’s Note: “I owe an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabeth in the trauma of a murder investigation, especially as in the final chapter of Mansfield Park Miss Austen made her views plain: ‘Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody not greatly in fault themselves to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.’ No doubt she would have replied to my apology by saying that, had she wished to dwell on such odious subjects, she would have written this story herself, and done it better.” P.D. James, 2011

P.D. James had nothing for which to apologize; she gave us a precious parting gift – the resurrection of beloved characters and a wonderful story.  We owe her a debt of gratitude.

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P.D. James 1920-2014

Categories: British novels, Mystery, Romantic Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Mystery Novels – Feeding My Reading Sweet Tooth

mystery1What genre of fiction brings you the most genuine enjoyment?

I find that, although I sincerely and successfully attempt to read broadly, I possess a “default setting” in my literary taste; one that inevitably draws me back to mystery novels and  one that I give in to with periodic binges.

It all started twenty-five years ago when I stumbled upon Masterpiece Mystery airing on Sunday night television. My local public broadcasting station was showing the Brother Cadfael mysteries, wonderful productions starring British actor Derek Jacobi and based on the novels of Ellis Peters. I rushed to the library and gobbled up the series. A Morbid Taste for Bones (1977) being the first novel.

Why do I love mysteries so much?

Sometimes the mystery novel is “delicious” due to its fascinating setting. In the case of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, all the action take place in 1137 A.D. Britain as a retired Crusader turned monk uses his knowledge of herbs (and poisons) to solve whodunits within the environs of Shrewsbury Abbey.

Another mystery novelist I recommend for excellent setting is Tony Hillerman who brings the reader to 20th century North America and the fantastic arid desert region of the Four Corners where the state borders of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada meet. Navaho Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his counterpart Sergeant Jim Chee delve into the mystical current and ancient culture of the First Peoples. The Blessing Way (1990) is the first novel in the Navaho Mysteries series.

Fundamentally, mystery novelists honor the preciousness of human life.  Murder is heinous and murderers must be found out and brought to justice.  This underlying truth resonates with my worldview.  The justice system, fair law enforcement, and a belief in the sanctity of human life all join together in a worthwhile, yet arduous battle to expose and eradicate hidden evil.

mystery2Another reason mysteries can be valuable reading  are the well-drawn characters who leap off the page, enter our living room and sit down beside us as if they were real people. A prime example is Mary Russell, who matches Sherlock Holmes in wit and brains in contemporary novelist Laurie R. King’s mysteries. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (2002), the first in this series, introduces the reader to a middle-aged Sherlock who engages the impressive intellectual gifts of young Oxford student Mary Russell to help him solve intricate mysteries in a series of thirteen novels.

Another wonderful character is Lord Peter Wimsey who acts the part of shallow rich blue blood all the while figuring out impossible puzzles in both the English countryside and in urbane London. Dorothy L. Sayers adds another layer to Lord Peter’s personal complexity with the entrance of love interest Harriet Vane who is accused of murder in Strong Poison (1930). These stories are both set in and written in the 1930s and are extremely authentic.

Not to be ignored in this genre, is the importance of a complex plot. I mined the riches of British mystery authors for years because of their ability to fool me every time. Sometimes, after I read the denouement, I flipped backwards through the pages to find those hidden clues in conversation or description and saw how skillfully authors had planted the trail of breadcrumbs. Masterful creators of intricate plots are Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, and Bruce Alexander.

Inevitably the criminal mind and the depths of human depravity weave themselves throughout all mysteries. I must admit the dark alleys down which certain authors go can be too haunting for me. I have backed away from certain stories when I felt the cold breath of evil curl around me too chillingly.

Patricia Cornwell’s suspense thrillers starring brilliant Virginia medical examiner and FBI consultant, Kay Scarpetta finally scared me away with their depiction of evil. These mystery novels are full of well-researched forensic detail and psychological suspense for readers who dare. Postmortem (1990) is the first of this series.

More wholesome mysteries abound; one such author is Patricia Sprinkle who introduces Katharine Murray, a Georgia homemaker who is in the midst of a mid-life crisis and discovers her talent for unraveling family secrets in Death on the Family Tree (2006). The Family Tree series also includes Sins of the Fathers (2007) and Daughter of Deceit (2008).mystery3

Of course, I must give a most honorable mention to the best sleuth of all – eleven year old Flavia de Luce.  See my blog post on Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009).  I hope to write again and in more detail about this wonderful mystery series by Alan Bradley.

I truly don’t mind being fooled by the mystery author, as long as I am captivated by the characters, the setting, or the plot.

If you are a mystery novel aficionado, please leave a comment with your favorite.

Categories: British novels, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Screwtape Letters – More from C.S. Lewis for Narnia Fans

screwtape 1C.S. Lewis may be best known for his seven children’s novels called The Chronicles of Narnia (which I adore by the way and have blogged on a few times already). However, another jewel in the crown of his literary and apologetic achievements is the notable epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters. Author C.S. Lewis masterfully composed letters from the fictional demon “Uncle Screwtape” to his nephew “Wormwood”. Screwtape offers diabolical advice on how to tempt Wormwood’s human assignment. Lewis writes letters solely from Screwtape’s perspective and cleverly alludes to what Wormwood has previously written.

Although the book was written for adults, teen readers may find themselves able to comprehend the underlying truths: “These letters from veteran devil Screwtape to his novice nephew Wormwood shed more humbling light on the spiritual weaknesses of people than they do on the state of supernatural beings. Wit and wisdom combine to aid us all to discern better the traps of the Evil One.” Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Barbara Hampton and Gladys Hunt

Our family enjoyed listening to the wonderful 2009 Focus on the Family Radio Theatre production of The Screwtape Letters with the vocal talents of Andy Serkis who played the character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films.

One must continually keep in mind that C.S. Lewis’ used the irony of “hearing from a devil” to stir our minds and hearts to encounter old truths in a fresh way. Hopefully, the following excerpts of the wit and wisdom of C.S. Lewis may whet your appetite to read or re-read this classic. (Screwtape refers to God as “the Enemy” in all his letters):

screwtape 3

“At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”

“All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.”

“He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity. In a word, the Future, is of all things, the thing least like eternity – for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.”

“The aim is to guide each sex away from those members of the other with whom spiritually helpful, happy, and fertile marriage are most likely.”

“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.”

“He would therefore have them continually concerned with eternity…or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

Several articles from C.S. Lewis aficionado, Brenton Dickieson of www.apilgriminnarnia.com offer a more in-depth look at the Scewtape Letters. http://apilgriminnarnia.com/2014/01/20/impossible-beauty/

Categories: British novels, Classics, Fantasy, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Courage to Change: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Brat Farrar 2

“If a book leaves you exactly where it found you, thinking and feeling nothing you hadn’t felt or thought before, you are no different for having read it. The criterion for a memorable book is the hope of rereading it some day and a passion to share the book with someone else.” Glady Hunt, Honey for a Woman’s Heart

So many wonderful books would be hidden from our knowledge without the enthusiastic recommendation of a dear friend or relative. A novel that has remained on my personal “Top Ten” list for over twenty years came from just that source. Years ago, Margaret Turner, in her eighties and legally blind, passed on to me a tattered anthology of mystery novels by Josephine Tey. Brat Farrar was my favorite. First published in 1949 and set in rural England, it is a mystery without the standard corpse on the hearthrug and polite police inspector. Instead, it is a masterpiece of deep themes, clearly defined characters, and building suspense.

The main character, Brat Farrar, is a young man with many flaws and a “checkered” past. As the story starts, Brat agrees to pose as the heir to a fortune for personal financial gain. Clearly, this is an immoral choice. Yet, all through the story, I felt a kinship with him. His motivation gets challenged early on in his deception. He experiences “a faint queasiness, a sort of spiritual indigestion” (p. 121) that leads to profound change during the course of the novel. This is definitely not one of those books with static characters who never learn or grow. Instead, I find inspiration that we, too, are able to be transformed.

Also, Tey interweaves a beautiful theme about our need to belong throughout the story. Brat, an orphan, is motivated by this visceral human impulse: “No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual — no, not possessive… Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never ‘belonged’ before that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?” (p. 158)

This mystery novel is chock-full of charming, intricate characters: the rector, George Peck, is described as being ugly, but possessing great kindness and wisdom: “One of George Peck’s charms was that he listened to what was said to him.” (p. 202), Aunt Bee holds the family together and shows Brat undeserved kindness. Then there is Simon, Brat’s rival for the family fortune and Eleanor, the “sister” who is Brat’s dream girl . The plot twists, turns and culminates in a riveting denouement.

Elizabeth MacIntosh

Elizabeth MacIntosh aka Josephine Tey

My proof that I love this novel is that I have read it four times! Josephine Tey, is one of the pen names for Elizabeth MacKintosh who, sadly, died at an early age. Thankfully, most of her novels are still in print, though, alas, sometimes not available at the local library.  The following are the novels written under the name Josephine Tey, some starring Inspector Grant:  Brat Farrar, A Shilling for Candles, To Love and Be Wise, The Man in the Queue, A Daughter of Time, The Singing Sands, Miss Pym Disposes, and The Franchise Affair.  The author also wrote plays under the nom de plume Gordon Daviot.

Categories: British novels, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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