Posts Tagged With: book club

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”.

 

 

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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

Inspirational Stories: The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

hidingplace4Elderly watchmaker, Casper ten Boom and his middle-aged spinster daughters, Corrie and Betsie, lived a quiet life in Haarlem, Netherlands at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1940. The ten Booms joined the Dutch resistance and built a hiding place in their home for Jews sought by the Gestapo, a stop on a twentieth century “underground railroad”, manned by Gentiles who would not bow to the occupying force.

It is estimated that 800 Jews were housed, fed and moved to safety through this family’s efforts, until they were betrayed in February 1944 and subsequently imprisoned, first in a local jail and ultimately in concentration camps.

Corrie ten Boom survived Ravensbruck and told her story in gripping detail in The Hiding Place, co-authored by Elizabeth and John Sherrill, first published in 1971 and reprinted in 2006 by Chosen Books in a 35th Anniversary edition.

Casper ten Boom, Corrie’s father, was a man of 84 at the time of his arrest by the Gestapo. He was truly remarkable – a compassionate and uncompromising Christian who took heroic measures to save Jews in the face of great pressure to mind his own business.

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Corrie recounts this excerpt of the interrogation her father’s underwent after his arrest:

“The Gestapo chief leaned forward. I’d like to send you home old fellow,’ he said. ‘I’ll take your word that you won’t cause any more trouble.’

I could not see father’s face, only the erect carriage of his shoulders and the halo of white hair above them. But I heard his answer.

‘If I go home today,’ he said evenly and clearly, ‘tomorrow I will open my door again to any man in need who knocks.’” (The Hiding Place)

In The Hiding Place, heart wrenching reality mixes with hard won faith to inspire the reader.

The State of Israel honored Corrie ten Boom for service to the Jewish people by issuing her an invitation to plant a tree in the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum near Jerusalem. http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/righteous/

A worthwhile tribute to Corrie ten Boom is found on the following blog: https://unexpectedincommonhours.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/corrie-ten-boom-i-remember-you/

This amazing survivor traveled the globe speaking about God’s love and the power of forgiveness, often accompanying Dutch countryman, Brother Andrew whose story is told in God’s Smuggler also co-authored by Elizabeth and John Sherrill. She authored more than 25 books before her death on April 15, 1983 at the age of 82.

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In the final pages of the Hiding Place, Corrie issued this challenge and encouragement:

“And so I discovered that it is not on our own forgiveness any more than on our own goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When he tells us to love our enemies, He gives along with the command, the love itself.” (The Hiding Place)

Keeping the inspiring story alive in the 21st century, volunteers give free tours of the ten Boom house in Haarlem, Holland only thirty minutes by train from the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.hidingplace3

Categories: Autobiography, Biography, Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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

The Yada Yada Prayer Group – Chick Lit at Its Best

I extend an apology to my blog readers of the male gender, but this post blatantly promotes a book series that is squarely in the “chick lit” genre; one which I think has been given a”bad rap”:

“Chick lit is smart, fun fiction for and/or about women of all ages. Many of these books are written from a first-person viewpoint, making them a bit more personal and realistic. The plots can range from being very light and fast-paced to being extraordinarily deep, thought-provoking and/or moving.” (www.chicklitbooks.com)

As a woman, my favorite stories, written or visual, deal with the push and pull of intimacy versus isolation. Personal relationships are messy; they are full of conflict, misunderstanding, and hurt and yet, we are fascinated by them and are pulled in almost against our will.

Contemporary author Neta Jackson’s Yada Yada Prayer Group stories, set in the city of Chicago, focus on this relational theme. The women’s group is named “yada yada” from the Biblical Hebrew word that means “to know and be known intimately”. A motley crew of twelve diverse women overcomes distrust and learns to support one another when it really counts. The first title in the series of seven novels, The Yada Yada Prayer Group, was published in 2003 and introduces the reader to Jodi Baxter who is married, white, and an elementary school teacher in an urban Chicago school. Jodi’s façade is firmly in place – she seems in control and confident, yet she soon faces a crisis that reveals her true fragility and she finds out just how much she needs the Yada Yada sisters to help her navigate through it. Neta Jackson writes very authentically about women from varying backgrounds: Asian, African-American, Jewish, Hispanic, Filipino, etc., but chooses to tell all the stories through the voice of white, middle-class Jodi whom the author resembles and understands the most. Throughout this series, Jackson successfully shows how people are very similar despite differences in outer appearance – race or ethnic heritage, age, economic status, or occupation. I personally resonate with this theme because I want others to believe that there’s more than meets the eye when they meet me, and to take time to get to know me. I hope I pursue friendships in this same manner, offering genuine interest. In my opinion, the spiritual themes in this series are never heavy-handed or shallow and would be a good first foray into Christian fiction for someone who has yet to read this genre. Another four book series by Neta Jackson, also set in present day Chicago, focuses on the wide gap between wealthy and poor as an elderly bag lady and lonely socialite develop an unlikely friendship. This series deals sensitively with dysfunctional marriage and the cycle of urban poverty. The House of Hope books in publication order are Where Do I Go?, Who Do I Talk To?, Who Do I Lean On?, and Where is My Shelter? More about the author can be found on: http://www.daveneta.com P.S. Many years ago, Neta Jackson teamed up with her husband Dave to co-author forty award-winning historical fiction novels for children. Each of the books portrays a significant period in a hero or heroine’s life as seen through the eyes of a young protagonist. Many of these titles have gone out of print as paperbacks, but are available as e-books at www.trailblazerbooks.com

Categories: Chick lit, Christian Fiction, Inspiration | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Enrich Your Christmas Season With Special Stories

Christmastime offers us more than scrambling for appropriate gifts for everyone and hurrying to get our homes decorated in time for holiday festivities. Our hearts long for meaning and heart-stirring stories to inspire and bring us together. Many movies provide spiritual and emotional sustenance, but books, too, turn our eyes toward deeper themes. Three of my favorites to share with my readers are The Gift of the Magi , How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Story of the Other Wise Man.

Gift of the Magi

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry is a short story set in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. A husband and wife are scraping by in their early years of marriage and seek to find a meaningful Christmas gift for each other. Money is certainly an object and there is literally not enough to buy even a single gift. Their story of sacrifice and generosity strips the gaudy materialism off American Christmas gift giving and shines a light into the heart of loving through sacrificial giving. Hopefully, O. Henry’s message will take the poor and rich on the same journey because it is not about “what’s in your wallet”, but about how one chooses to show love. Here is the ending, but I entreat you to read the story, too, to understand the profundity of this lovely language:

“The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.”

How_the_Grinch_Stole_Christmas_cover

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is a well-known Christmas story that is only fifty-seven years old, but still resonates with us today as we face a holiday that is a very mixed bag of holy and holly. It is funny and outrageous and profound; within its pages hides the answer to what is wrong with us Americans at Christmastime.

It opens with the Grinch up on his solitary mountain looking down, literally and figuratively, on the Whos as they prepare to celebrate Christmas with traditional and extravagant noise, gifts, food, and singing. Dr Seuss masterfully captures so many of our Christmastime difficulties: too much feasting, too much spending, and too many social encounters, but he turns the problems on their heads and teaches us that the heart is at the center of the solution:

“And what happened then…? Well… in Who-ville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day! And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight, he whizzed with his load through the bright morning light and he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast! And he…. HE HIMSELF…! The Grinch carved the roast beast!”

When our hearts are ready to experience the good in Christmas then we can participate, like the Grinch did, in the joy: time with friends and family, generous giving that delights others, and fun in the traditions and events.

OtherWiseMan

The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke is an old story, originally published in 1895, with a deep moral theme summed up at the end of the book with a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25:

“The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”

The main character of Van Dyke’s fictional account is a fourth wise man, Artaban, who misses the rendezvous with his three friends as they set off on the arduous trek through the Arabian desert to the birthplace of the Messiah. Artaban also earnestly desires to follow the star and offer his valuable gifts, but is continually waylaid by the needs of desperate people and, in the end, gives away all the treasure that was meant for the Christ Child. This precious story is told with a Middle Eastern voice, eloquent and mystical, and would be best read to younger children due to its complex sentence structure and vocabulary. The poignant ending of Artaban’s pilgrimage imparts a message to us all that the seemingly unimportant aspects of our lives can be sacrifices to God.

I hope you can add a little deep and touching reading to your Christmas busyness.

Categories: Children's Books, Classics, Inspiration, Read Aloud | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 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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