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International Travel Through Literature: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series

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“The quality of the idea, the skill of the plot, the depth of the characterization, the distinctive style of the author – that’s the best I can do by way of defining a good book. When you find one, you recognize it.” Gladys Hunt, Honey for A Child’s Heart

One of the primary reasons I read fiction and go to the movies is so that I can travel. Vicariously of course. I used to actually go to foreign places: Brasil, Honduras, Israel, to name a few. Now I am bound to American soil with many responsibilities so I “go places” through books and film. Recently, one of my favorite literary trips has been to Botswana, Africa.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is a series set in this southern African country and first published in 2007. The first book in the series, entitled The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency starts a wonderful journey into the fascinating world of memorable and humorous characters.

The series is fairly slow-paced, avoids gruesome descriptions of murders, and does not thrill with conspiracies and thwarting “take-over-the-world” type villains. However, it is appealing because it takes the reader deep into the world of cultural Botswana.

Bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith, born in Zimbabwe and a law professor in Scotland, worked for a time in the setting where he helped set up a law school at the University of Botswana.

Though not necessarily a series only for women, the main character, Precious Ramotswe, is a middle-aged woman who opens a detective agency because “a woman sees more than a man sees”. In her own words, Mma Ramotswe claims: “It is my duty to help…. my brothers and sisters…solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.” (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, p. 4)

One of the cultural treasures I received from these stories is how Mma Ramotswe and her rich cast of supporting characters show the universal need for kindness and courtesy in human relationships. My teenage daughters and I greet each other in the morning now with the customary Batswanan words: “Have you slept well, Mma?” a greeting that is used whatever time of day a stranger, acquaintance or friend is encountered.

To my delight, Alexander McCall Smith is a prolific author.  He continues to write stories in this lovely series.

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A film adaptation, directed by Anthony Minghella, and produced by the Weinstein Company, premiered on HBO in March 2009. I am frustrated that nothing more has been produced, since this first effort was excellent! Jill Scott is wonderfully cast as Mma Ramotse.

Categories: Chick lit, Humorous, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Novels Written in Epistolary Format:The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The_Guernsey_Literary_and_Potato_Peel_Pie_SocietyRecently, I found “a window into reality” by means of the novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a heart-warming novel written in epistolary form (written correspondence between the book’s characters). The setting is the Channel Island of Guernsey immediately following World War Two. Novelist Mary Ann Shaffer, an American from Martinsburg, West Virginia, first encountered Guernsey on a vacation trip. She fell in love with its charming beauty and discovered that, shockingly, this small piece of British soil was occupied for five horrific years by the Nazis.

Shaffer thoroughly researched this dark period in the history of the Channel Islands and the result is this eye-opening account of the oppression that the Guernsey islanders experienced under the cruel hand of the Third Reich. Mixed in with the bitter tragedy is plenty of humor, however. The Guersney Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (GLAPPPS) began as a cover for an illegal pig roast which some islanders didn’t want the Nazis to discover. The plot develops as the main character, Juliet Ashton, known in London as a light-hearted journalist, seeks a new book idea. Juliet has just experienced her first literary success with the publication of Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War (a collection of her weekly newspaper columns written during the war).

What begins as a self-centered career opportunity to observe and write about the Guernsey islanders becomes much more as Juliet’s heart is drawn irresistibly into the lives of the unlikely comrades of the GLAPPPS. The book includes letters from numerous members of the Society to Juliet describing the wrenching deprivation, starvation conditions, and mistreatment during the occupation. The quirky characters and sense of community pour off the pages of the letters, as do the sweetness of loving sacrifice and romance.

Author Mary Ann Shaffer lived much of her life as a librarian and editor. This is her first (and last) novel. The book still needed revisions when Mary Ann became terminally ill. Annie Barrows, the author’s niece, stepped in to finish the manuscript for the publisher. Sadly, Ms. Shaffer passed away in February 2008 at the age of 73 – able only to see the publication of her novel in England; not in the United States. Ms. Barrows describes her aunt’s choice of the letter form for her novel:

“My aunt thought it would be easy and those are the types of books she liked to read. We loved reading people’s letters and diaries. I think we were born snoops. And of course, writing the book did not turn out to be easy.” (The Journal [Martinsburg, West Virginia] August 2008)

guernsey #6Another notable epistolary novel is 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 written. In 2009, Focus on the Family produced a wonderful Radio Theatre edition of The Screwtape Letters with the vocal talents of Andy Serkis (Gollum).

Guernsey #3On a more light-hearted note, the children’s book, Little Wolf’s Book of Badness (the first book in a series by Ian Whybrow) is a collection of hilariously misspelled and illustrated letters home from a well-behaved little wolf cub who is sent away on purpose to become “bad” – as wolves should be – at Cunning College for Brute Beasts under the tutelage of Uncle Bigbad.

In addition, non-fiction books that are records of written correspondence are another excellent way to see into the lives of people. I recently re-read a novel published in 1970 which chronicles twenty years of actual correspondence between New York screenwriter Helene Hanff and the London antiquarian bookstore staff members who helped her find out-of-print books. 84, Charing Cross Road is full of humor and pathos.guernsey #5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My renewed interest in epistolary books also reminds me to read my Bible epistles as letters. They were composed to someone and I dearly wish we had access to some of the answers the biblical authors must have received. For example, the apostle Paul’s response from his letter to the Philippians (Chapter 4) may have run something like:

“Dearest Paul, Euodia and I have made up and have started a weaving business together… Love, Syntyche”.

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Want to Meet Jan Karon

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I am a fan.  I hope not a crazy one, but I do have favorite celebrities that I follow and admire. As often as not, they are authors, not actors (though I have my preferences in that category, too).

Jan Karon is at the tippy top of my list.  She began writing her Mitford novels later in life, and it shows – they run over with her wisdom, humor, and pain.

I thought she had wrapped up the stories, but miracles do still happen and Ms. Karon began to write again in 2014 (Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good).

For you Mitford fans out there, you will understand the great joy I experienced knowing that I would finally learn what happened to Dooley and Lacy.  They deserve their own story and so, it was with intense delight, that I breezed through the most recent Mitford novel, published in 2015, entitled Come Rain or Come Shine in which they are the key characters. Good old Father Tim is still front and center, like a well-loved grandfather.  Cynthia still sparkles, but Dooley and Lacey “take the cake”.

I offer no plot description.  I can’t breathe a word more in case I would spoil it for you.  Just read it.  Catch up with the series first, of course.  I order you to do so.

Summer is coming and these books are perfectly designed for the open reading venues of beaches, hammocks, and lakeside docks.

Karon’s Mitford novels also got me through some hard times.    I have inhaled five in a row this Spring after a  complicated surgery and a long rehabilitation. They are the best medicine I know for sorrow, disillusionment, or illness.

Enjoy! Happy Reading!

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Categories: Chick lit, Christian Fiction, Humorous, Inspiration, Read Aloud, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 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

The Witch of Blackbird Pond – Historical fiction for young and old

witch of blackbird pond“No, writing is not lonely. It is a profession crowded with life and sound and color. I feel privileged to have had a share in it.” —Elizabeth George Speare

Elizabeth George Speare was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on November 21, 1908 and lived all her life in New England. She described her early writing days and the development of her first novel, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (the 1959 Newbery Award winner):

I turned naturally to the things which had filled my days and thoughts and began to write magazine articles about family living. Then one day I stumbled on a true story from New England history with a character who seemed to me an ideal heroine. Though I had my first historical novel almost by accident it soon proved to be an absorbing hobby.” Elizabeth George Speare (1908-1994)

The result was a deeply layered reading experience with a vivid heroine, Kit Tyler, who is imperfect and endearing. In1687, Kit, an orphan, loses both home and guardian when her grandfather dies and his estate on the Caribbean island of Barbados defaults to his creditors. She must sail to Connecticut colony to live with her Aunt Rachel who has married a staunch Puritan, Matthew Wood.

On the voyage up the Atlantic seaboard, Kit makes friends with the sea captain’s son, Nat Eaton, as well as a serious young minister, John Holbrook, also heading for the same town. Later, William Ashby, son of the richest man in town becomes a suitor approved by Kit’s Uncle Matthew.

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I remember thoroughly enjoying the romance woven into the tale when I first read the novel as a young teen. Recently, when I read the book to my own daughters, I found myself using the story and its characters to give them a life lesson on finding a compatible marriage partner.

Despite the kindness of her relatives, willful, spoiled, lonesome Kit cannot seem to adjust to Puritan life and suffers greatly. She finds solace in the meadows outside the town, and soon meets Hannah, an old Quaker woman who has been ostracized for her different beliefs and lives a serene and misunderstood life far from the town and surrounding farms.

“Tis a strange thing, that the only friends I have I found in the same way, lying flat in the meadows, crying as if their hearts would break.” (Hannah)

While their friendship brings Kit much joy, it also later leads to peril as Kit is accused of witchcraft.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is not a historical lesson on 17th century witch hunts disguised as fiction. The setting and time period are well researched, but the complex plot and the characters’ growth brings this young adult novel to life and earns it my highest rating and recommendation for children 10 and older and adults who either missed it in their youth or want to re-read it.

Other young adult fiction titles by Elizabeth George Speare:

The Bronze Bow

The Sign of the Beaver

Calico Captive

Categories: Children's Books, Classics, Girl Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romantic Fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Jungle Jam and Friends The Radio Show – Laugh out Loud Fun for Families

jungle jam  1-pineneedlesLaughter is good medicine and kids stay so healthy because they take huge doses of it daily. The under-marketed audio series I recommend in this blog post offers a cure for adults as well, since the stories are designed to delight young and old. Listen with the young people in your life and have a blast as you LOL.

“Jungle Jam and Friends” began as a radio program, with humorous plots teaching fundamental life lessons such as sharing, friendship, procrastination, and facing fear. About twenty years ago, creative giants Phil Lollar (of “Adventures in Odyssey” fame), Nathan Carlson, David Buller, and Jeff Parker collaborated in an effort to create colorful audio stories of an imaginary jungle world populated by animals with memorable voices and personalities which first aired in 1993.  Jean-Claude the flying squirrel, Millard the Monkey, Gruffy Bear, and Sully the Aardvark are all voiced distinctively and with great wit.

A parallel set of characters and stories is set on Razzleflabben Island to which human children, Marvy Snuffleson and his sister Katie, are sent to learn life lessons the funny way with the help of the island’s endearing and whimsical inhabitants, the Razzleflabbens. Our family listened to every Jungle Jam story and we are still quoting favorite characters years later. An added bonus in the Jungle Jam experience is the musical contribution of songwriting team Buddy and Julie Miller.jungle jam 2 - pineneedles

Jungle Jam fans wrote in the website guestbook: “My favorite character from Jungle Jam and Friends the Radio Show is Millard J. Monkey. He is to Jungle Jam what Daffy Duck is to Looney Tunes: egotistical, self-absorbed, and hilarious. I love how he makes such a good foil to the mild-mannered, sweet-natured, naive Sully the Aardvark.” Rebecca “My favorite character is Sully – his funny dialogue with the other characters, his naiveté. We love “Where the Bears Are”. My husband & I laugh a lot at that episode and are always taunting each other Gruffy/Sully style when we play a game (“You’re goin’ down, Bear”, “You’re gonna cry in your lemonade, Aardvark”). We’ve listened to Jungle Jam in the car for ages, but now that our son is old enough for the stories, we listen to them as part of bedtime routine.” Tammy

It is my understanding that the stories are only available now as downloads online, although some gently used CD sets may be still floating around for purchase. These stories are a must for children 4-12 years old and their parents and grandparents. I can not comment on the quality of the books that were produced after the audio stories, since we never read them. Suffice it say that the vocal talents and witty dialogues of the audio stories must not be missed! My favorite stories are: “ Sully Makes a Friend”, “Pogo A-Go-Go & The Terrible Truth About Lying”, and “The Great Coconut Clunking Debate”.www.fancymonkey.com

In my opinion, the best endorsement of this audio series comes from Katie, a mom of four active boys, who says: “…my favorite thing is that no one is fighting or talking because they’re listening to Jungle Jam!”

I am hoping against hope that my granddaughter will love these stories too, when she is old enough to listen.

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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

Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time and 59 Other Titles

Twentieth-century author Madeleine L’Engle, best known for A Wrinkle in Time, a young adult novel that won the Newbery Award in 1963, wrote sixty novels during her lifetime (1918-2007). If you haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time ever or recently, I highly recommend it whether you are young, middle-aged or older: “It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom, Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.”

Teen protagonist Meg Murry is distraught because her father, experimenting with time travel and the fifth dimension, has mysteriously disappeared. Now the time has come for Meg, her friend Calvin O’Keefe, and her young brother, Charles Wallace, to rescue him. They must overcome the forces of evil, but they discover that intelligence is no match for the brainwashing power of IT.

Like JK Rowling in her more contemporary “Harry Potter” series, Madeleine L’Engle focused on the power of love to overcome darkness. Beloved little brother Charles Wallace has been been mentally and emotionally “hijacked”, and his sister cannot reach him with reason. This novel is not a cold science fiction adventure, but a warm-hearted call to familial connection set in a fascinating mixed-up setting of real life and intergalactic fantasy.

Did you know that A Wrinkle in Time is the first in a series of five books? Recently, I went back and re-read the first three and then, read the fourth and fifth for the first time, since I missed them as a young adult reader. (A Wrinkle in Time Quintet titles in order of publication: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time).

I would like to add a brief comment that the movie, “A Wrinkle in Time”, released in 2003, although not exactly bad, certainly doesn’t have the emotional impact of the book.

Madeleine L’Engle

Many years ago, I saw Ms. L’Engle in person when she was awarded an honorary degree at my alma mater, Wheaton College, Illinois. Her rich and interesting life included a childhood in New York City, time in France at boarding school, living with her wealthy grandfather in South Carolina, acting, supporting her actor husband, Hugh Franklin, in Manhattan’s theatre circles, and running a general store in rural Connecticut.

I just finished re-reading A Circle of Quiet, the first volume in The Crosswicks Journals, an autobiographical series full of enjoyable and thought-provoking personal anecdotes, culled from her own writer’s journals. Several times as I read this book at my bedtime, I threw back the cozy quilt and hurried barefoot to my teen daughter’s room to read her an excerpt. I referenced A Circle of Quiet in my everyday conversations and found myself inspired to keep writing in my imperfect way:

 “A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.” (A Circle of Quiet) (The Crosswicks Journals in order of publication: The Summer of the Great-Grandmother, The Irrational Season, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage)

Now I am on to Meet the Austins, the first of the five Austin Chronicles, one of which received the Newbery Honor Medal (A Ring of Endless Light). I welcome your comments about Madeliene L’Engle or any of her novels.

Pineneedles and Papertrails Propaganda moment: Do you want your kids to be readers? According to Patrick Jones, author of Connecting with Reluctant Teen Readers, parents must model reading behavior and allow kids to see that parents “waste time” in nonessential pleasure reading. This helps the child to allow himself the same luxury.

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A Free Man of Color: A Historical Mystery

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I often blog on a series of novels because I fall in love with the protagonist and want to follow him or her for as many books as the author produces which is the case with Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mysteries. However, the atmospheric and accurately researched setting grabbed my attention just as powerfully and has not let go, even after thirteen novels.

Barbara Hambly, a contemporary American author living in California, effectively brings the reader into antebellum New Orleans.  (I had to look up the definition of antebellum: “occurring in the southern U.S. during the time before the American Civil War”.  My study of history was limited in my student days, so I enjoy being educated by A Free Man of Color.)

Benjamin January, a young widower, makes his way home from Paris after the death from cholera of his Moroccan wife, Ayasha.  1833 in New Orleans offers very different opportunities for a free man of color; January’s medical training in Paris is discounted in his hometown and he resorts to earning a living solely from his piano performances and music lessons. His options narrow to playing for society occasions and the first mystery begins with the violent death of an octoroon mistress at an opulent Mardi Gras ball where January has been hired to perform. (octoroon: term of the time period that referred to a person with one-eighth African ancestry).

The city of New Orleans in this time period is exotic and decadent, a strange world, alien and fascinating. The nuanced social order, like a caste system, ranges from black slaves at the low end up to free colored. Benjamin January was not born free; instead he was the offspring of slaves on a Louisiana cane plantation who, when still a child, received his freedom in conjunction with his mother’s purchase and freedom. She became a placée (a status at the time somewhere between wife and mistress with legal obligations between a white man and a woman of color). January’s mother’s new status included the boon of her child receiving a classical education in Paris, and training as a surgeon and a musician.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c.1764-1796.

January may be free, but his situation remains extremely precarious; he carries his free papers in his shoe when he lives his own home, and leaves another set in a safe deposit box.  He faces daily terror that he will be “sold down the river” with no one to vouch for him. This horrifying reality is depicted graphically in the 2014 movie Twelve Years a Slave based on Solomon Northrup’s biography of the same name.  “In New Orleans he was a man of color, an uneasy sojourner in a world increasingly American, hostile, and white. But he was what he was.” (A Free Man of Color)

In this first Benjamin January story, the entrenched and complex Creole social order of 1830’s New Orleans has been upset by the flood of uncultured Americans who, after the Louisiana Purchase, arrive to stake their claim to what they see as “new lands”. In A Free Man of Color, January discovers an unlikely ally in his elusive search for justice for the murdered courtesan, in the form a sympathetic (and unwashed) American – Lieutenant Abishag Shaw of the New Orleans Guards -whose keen sense of fairness matches January’s and pits them against both societal forces and pure evil.

The Benjamin January mysteries in order of publication: A Free Man of Color (1998), Fever Season (1999), Graveyard Dust (2000), Sold Down the River (2001), Die Upon a Kiss (2002), Wet Grave (2003), Days of the Dead (2004), Dead Water (2005), Dead and Buried (2010), The Shirt on His Back (2011), Ran Away (2011), Good Man Friday (2013), Crimson Angel (2014). Settings in later books include the worlds of Mexico, the American Frontier, Washington, D.C., and Haiti.

Barbara Hambly’s novels give us a refreshingly intricate and evocative set of American mystery stories crafted by a contemporary author. Although I am an avid mystery novel fan, I do not like them indiscriminately and acknowledge that my tastes run more toward British mysteries written in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by such authors as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and Ellis Peters. These British mysteries offer rich English language and complex plots and are set in England in places and times that are foreign to me.

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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