Month in Review: March 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015 | 14 comments

This month, inspired by some Bloggiesta posts, I installed Disqus for comments on my blog. Then I removed it again less than 24 hours later. It was annoying that when I imported old comments into Disqus, all the reply threading was lost and commenters' avatars and links were gone, plus all comments on static pages disappeared. But beyond that I was disturbed by reports that comments from mobile devices or from versions of the site viewed in foreign countries could get lost and were very difficult to retrieve...and that syncing with Blogger doesn't always work, so if I ever left Disqus, or it went under, all comments might be lost. Plus, a lot of people refuse to use it at all, and there seem to be some security issues.

What is your opinion? Do you like Disqus or run away from it as fast as possible? I'm really not sure what to do, since the Blogger commenting system also has issues. Maybe I will move to WordPress sooner rather than later.

In actual reading news, this was the month of School Library Journal's Battle of the Books, and I made an effort to read more of the contenders than I ever have before. It was fun, but it took up a lot of my reading time! Here are my reactions to the first rounds of judging. The winner will be announced on March 31, in case you're interested.

This month's most popular post was the discussion about "What makes a good book title?" I had a great time making this list of book titles that I love (the books are good, too). Thanks to everyone who commented and contributed their own favorites. What's yours?

I was excited to announce that in less than one month we'll be celebrating Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week. As you can see below, I've been reading some of her books in preparation. Will you join us?


Other features and events

Other books read
  • A bunch of contenders from the aforementioned Battle of the Books.
  • And a batch of Elizabeth Goudge: The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim's Inn, A City of Bells, Henrietta's House, Sister of the Angels
  • The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Jones, another DWJ March read (and the topic of my first-ever Twitter chat, which made me feel very hip). I also polished off The Pinhoe Egg, which I've been meaning to reread for some time.

Favorite posts from other bloggers
How was your month?

Linked in the Sunday Post hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer
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Battle of the Books

Friday, March 27, 2015 | 6 comments

The School Library Journal Battle of the Books is nearly over! One of the things I enjoy about this tournament-style contest is that rather than being handed a winner by some group of more or less anonymous judges, we get to read their responses in detail, with some very individual and sometimes controversial reasoning behind the choices. It was much more interesting for me this time since I had actually managed to read more than half of the books.

Would I do this again next year? I'm not sure, because it made me cram a lot of "required" reading into a short time, crowding out other books I wanted or needed to read. But I'm not sorry I made the effort this year. If you have read any of these, please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Here are my play-by-play reactions:

Round One
Match 1: Brown Girl Dreaming vs. Children of the King
Winner: Brown Girl Dreaming
I'm in the middle of listening to the audiobook of Brown Girl Dreaming, and even though I'm not a huge fan of the free verse format, Woodson's child's-eye view of growing up during the civil rights movement is moving and eloquent. Hearing the author read her own book gives it an especially personal touch. Children of the King was a good and interesting read, but didn't quite succeed in making history come alive in the same way.

Match 2: The Crossover vs. Egg and Spoon
Winner: Egg and Spoon
One of the few brackets in which I finished both contenders, and I would have chosen differently. For me, Egg and Spoon started well (with a particularly fun rendition of Baba Yaga) but faltered at the end. On the other hand, I was dubious about The Crossover but liked it more and more as I read -- it was funny and inventive and emotionally engaging, and the characters became real for me. I hope it got votes in the Undead poll!

Match 3: El Deafo vs. The Family Romanov
Winner: El Deafo
I agree with the judge here. The Family Romanov is fine narrative non-fiction, but El Deafo is unique, an excellent use of the graphic-narrative form to express the protagonist's experience of deafness (empty speech bubbles, fading words) as well as a universally relevant story of the trials and traumas of childhood.

Match 4: Grasshopper Jungle vs. The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
Winner: The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza
I didn't read either of these; I would get nightmares from reading a book about giant grasshoppers destroying the world, and I started Joey Pigza but found the middle-grade gross-out style of humor unappealing -- not realizing that it's actually a hard-hitting portrait of mental illness and child neglect. I might look into the series again some time but would probably not start with this one.

Match 5: The Madman of Piney Woods vs. Poisoned Apples
Winner: The Madman of Piney Woods
I didn't read Poisoned Apples; a poem or two using fairy tale metaphors to explore issues of teen body image could be fine, but a whole book? The commentators confirmed my fear that this could get repetitive and boring. I enjoyed The Madman of Piney Woods, and like judge G. Neri I "grew fond of the characters and the place," though something about the arc of the story didn't quite work for me. It's worthy to move on, but there are stronger books in the battle.

Match 6: The Port Chicago 50 vs. The Story of Owen
Winner: The Port Chicago 50
I adored the premise of The Story of Owen -- teenagers fighting dragons in a modern-day Canadian town -- but although the characters and setting were well-developed and believable, the plot was lacking in narrative tension and I lost interest before the end, which is why I have yet to finish it (though I would like to). The Port Chicago 50, on the other hand, I read straight through, finding it a lucid and compelling story that illuminated an important but overlooked historical incident, as well as how far we still have to go toward racial equality. The commentary by judge Rachel Hartman was especially thoughtful on this one.

Match 7: This One Summer vs. A Volcano Beneath the Snow
Winner: This One Summer
I don't read many graphic novels, but This One Summer was an impressive example of storytelling through a visual medium. I wouldn't consider it a children's book, but I guess I'm in the minority with that opinion. My history education being quite spotty, I was grateful that A Volcano Beneath the Snow filled in many of the blanks in my knowledge around the abolitionist movement and the Civil War, but I can understand it not beating This One Summer; the latter is simply the more striking book. (Added points for the humorous style adopted by the judge here.)

Match 8: We Were Liars vs. West of the Moon
Winner: West of the Moon
We Were Liars sounded as though it had an extremely annoying writing style, and I'm also not enamored of books that depend on a twist no one is allowed to reveal, so I skipped it. West of the Moon had great potential -- I love the idea of weaving Norse folklore into a real-life story. But the story was so frantically paced and packed with brief, melodramatic incidents that it made me feel tired before I got to the end. Still, I'm glad it won this round.

Winners in Round Two:
Brown Girl Dreaming, El Deafo, the Port Chicago 50, West of the Moon
These were pretty easy to predict. The first three were shoe-ins (I thought). The fourth was more iffy, and I was slightly surprised by the outcome. Although I didn't much like either This One Summer or West of the Moon, I thought Summer was the more impressive book. Will it come back in the final round?

Winners in Round Three:
El Deafo, The Port Chicago 50
This is where things got really heart-breaking. Brown Girl Dreaming against El Deafo? Nooooo! Still, one book had to be the winner, and El Deafo continued its unstoppable march to the podium. The other round didn't move me so much: worthy but conventional non-fiction vs. genre-bending but problematic fiction. Which to choose? I thought The Port Chicago 50 did a better job at what it set out to do, which is exactly how judge Marcus Sedgwick put it.

The winner of the "Undead Poll" will be revealed on Monday, and the final battle will take place the following day. May the best book win!
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The Masque of a Murderer: Author interview with Susanna Calkins

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 | 11 comments
In my recent interview with mystery author and historian Sam Thomas, I asked if he had recommendations for any other books set in seventeenth-century England, and he mentioned a series by Susanna Calkins. Almost immediately, the chance came up to host a blog tour stop for the third and latest entry in the series, The Masque of a Murderer, and I was happy to take this opportunity to learn more about the books and their author.

The Masque of a Murderer takes us into the heart of a turbulent time. London is recovering from the devastations of plague and fire. Social norms are being overturned as women take on new roles in the wake of death and destruction. New religious groups, such as the Quakers, are challenging deeply ingrained conventions. Making her way in all of this turmoil is former servant turned printer's apprentice Lucy Calkins, who hears a deathbed confession that leads her to search for a murderer. As she goes further into danger, Lucy also must try to solve some knotty problems in her personal life, including that of her relationship to Adam, the son of her former employer.

The novel takes a wide range of elements that are fascinating on their own -- Quakerism, early printing and bookselling practices, London's recovery after the Great Fire -- and weaves them into a narrative that will keep you guessing. Although plot-wise it can certainly be read on its own, I found that I regretted missing out on the character development (particularly for Lucy and Adam) that must have taken place in the earlier volumes, so unlike me you might want to start with the first book in the series, Murder at Rosamond's Gate, and its sequel, From the Charred Remains. There, I'm sure you'll find even more fascinating historical details wrapped up in an engaging mystery.

Author Susanna Calkins describes herself as an educator, historian, and faculty developer by day, writer by night. She says, "I've had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before I earned my Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives -- tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange -- inspired my historical mysteries. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I live outside Chicago now, with my husband and two sons."

Welcome, Susanna, and thank you for sharing your perspective with us! I'd like to start with the same question I asked Sam Thomas: You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?

I enjoy Sam’s Midwife Mysteries! My interest in writing a mystery set in seventeenth century England came from when I was doing research as a graduate student. I came across a collection of murder ballads—people used to sing, literally, about murder—and I knew I had to turn some of those ballads into a story.  I am always very happy to hear that people learned something about the time period from my books; my intention wasn’t to educate, but rather to entertain, so it's always a thrill. (And by the way, Sam and I have talked about a cross-over: his midwife would deliver one of my characters!) 

This novel starts with a murder that takes place within the Quaker community in London. Today, most Americans' associations with Quakerism are probably vaguely benign: pacifism, Benjamin Franklin, oatmeal. But as you make very clear, in the seventeenth century this new religious group was a hotbed of controversy and persecution. Can you describe some of the reasons for this?

Ha! That’s funny. When the Quakers first emerged—along with other radical groups like the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Anabaptists etc—they were challenging the established religious and social order enacted by the Church of England (Anglicans). They likened themselves to Old Testament prophets, and saw it as their godly duty to protest against the King, Parliament, and other authorities who sought to constrain their religious views. So they dressed in sackcloth, shouted from street corners, “quaked in the presence of the Lord,” and “ran naked as a sign” to demonstrate their conscience.

Why did you choose to set a mystery within this community? What intrigues you most about it?

My doctoral dissertation focused on the political activities of Quaker women. As a group they were the most prolific of writers; they published thousands of tracts and other penny pieces, which was quite amazing. I was always intrigued by the way people in this time period would gather around while someone was dying; the Quakers in particular would make sure they recorded someone’s last dying words for posterity; I always wondered what would happen if that dying person said that he or she was murdered, and that the murderer was nearby. That is the premise of this book.

Several of the characters in your story have left lives of wealth and relative luxury to become Quakers, giving up many pleasures and indulgences to follow the strict rules of the sect. Were you following a historical precedent in this? Why do you think people would make such a choice at that time in history?

Many Quakers actually came from the ‘middling sort’ or even the noble class. Indeed, the founders of the Quakers--George Fox, Margaret Fell Fox and William Penn--were all fairly wealthy and used much of their money to fund Quaker causes. Deep religious and spiritual values were much more pervasive and meaningful in early modern England as well; for many people, obeying one’s conscience was far more important than blindly establishing an established institutionalized religion.

Your main character in this series is a former chambermaid who becomes involved in investigating crimes. Is there a relationship between her two roles of servant and detective? Do you believe that one informs the other, or are they antithetical?

As a servant Lucy is able to move in and out of different environments, listening to people, paying attention to things, and she is often able to pass unnoticed. As a printer’s apprentice and bookseller, she has increased access to the outside world, and can move about a little more freely. 

Another thread in your series is the rise of the popular press, as Lucy becomes an apprentice in a printer's shop. You mention that "ephemera from the archives" inspired your fictional writings -- what are some examples in this field? Are the tracts and pamphlets that you write about real? Did they prompt some of the events in your fiction?

I spent a lot of time poring over these old tracts, pamphlets, broadsides and ballads when I was a graduate student (still do, actually). Since the paper quality was so cheap, most of these printed pieces have not survived. What remains are usually from the collections of individuals, who may have enjoyed certain types of stories—like stories of murders, “monstrous births,” as well as jokes and ribald tales. They are very helpful to draw upon when I am writing. A few of the tracts I reference are real, but most of the ones I mention in the books are made up by me.

You're already working on a fourth Lucy Calkins book, Death Along the River Fleet. Can you give us a hint of what is in store next for your heroine? 

In this one, Lucy is making an early morning delivery, walking along the burnt out area of London. As she crosses one of the now-lost rivers of London—the River Fleet—she comes across a woman, clad only in an underdress and covered with blood that is not her own. The woman has no memory of who she is, and so Lucy takes her Dr. Larimer, a physician of her acquaintance. Without going into too many more details, the woman appears to be a noblewoman, and Lucy is asked to serve discreetly as her companion while she recovers. When the body of a murdered man is discovered, suspicion will fall upon this woman, and Lucy will seek to unearth the truth of the matter. . .

Thanks for having me today!

And thank you, Susanna! Your answers made me even more interested to learn more about this time and place, and appreciative of the research that went into your fictional creations.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Masque of a Murderer. Please visit the tour page for additional reviews, interviews, giveaways, and more.

Review copy source: ARC from publisher. This book will be released by St. Martin's Minotaur on April 14, 2015. 

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Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week is coming in one month!

Monday, March 23, 2015 | 6 comments
In a month and a day, I'll be hosting Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week, a celebration of an author who is beloved by many readers but who hasn't to my knowledge received this kind of attention in the blogophere. I do hope you will join us! Please feel free to grab the button and spread the word, and do hop over to the main event page (linked above) to let us know your plans.

From 1934 to 1970, Goudge published historical fiction, children's books, contemporary novels, and short stories that share richly developed settings and characters, a fine and generous sense of humor, a love of beauty in nature and art, and a spiritual and philosophical view of life that is not one-sided or dogmatic, but rooted in that deep love of humanity that to me is the true "Christianity." While Goudge herself would be the first to note that her works are not perfect, the understanding of both joy and suffering that they embody has endeared them to many.

So what will be happening at ECBR during the week? Starting on Elizabeth Goudge's birthday, April 24 (a nativity shared by Anthony Trollope, no less), we'll have several guest posts courtesy of the lovely bloggers at Fleur in Her World, Shelf Love, and Charlotte's Library. There will be a fun quiz to test our knowledge of all things EG, which I'm putting together with the help of Jean from Howling Frog Books. There will be a giveaway or two, thanks to some of the splendid publishers who are keeping Goudge's books in print. And I'll be reading and posting something as well -- I'm just not sure which book(s) to choose yet. . .

In the coming weeks, I'll be also be doing some additional posts and a giveaway in anticipation of the Reading Week. I hope that all this activity will get you excited about reading or re-reading some of Elizabeth Goudge's books, and that you will share any posts (or Goodreads reviews, etc.) that you do -- I will create a round-up post at the end to collect all the links in one place.

In the meantime, here are some reviews to sample, featuring our generous and talented guest bloggers. Happy reading!

At Fleur in Her World:
Linnets and Valerians
I Saw Three Ships
The Castle on the Hill

At Shelf Love:
A City of Bells

At Charlotte's Library:
The Valley of Song

At Howling Frog Books:
Sister of the Angels
Overview of children's books
The Middle Window
The Rosemary Tree

At The Emerald City Book Review:
I Saw Three Ships
The White Witch (together with Thornyhold by Mary Stewart)

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Once Upon a Time challenge

Sunday, March 22, 2015 | 13 comments

I said I wasn't going to join any more challenges, but I couldn't resist this one: Once Upon a Time, hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. It only runs for three months, so I have the rest of the year to catch up on other reading, right?

There are many different options for joining this fantasy and folklore oriented bonanza, including reading just one book. I'm interested in "Quest the Second," which means reading one book from each of four categories: fantasy, fairy tales, mythology, and folklore. I definitely have candidates on my TBR for the first three categories: The Valley of Song by Elizabeth Goudge, the forthcoming Oxford University Press Victorian Fairy Tales, and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. Could The Golem and the Jinni count for folklore?

Anyway, I'm always up for more of this kind of reading, so I figure there's no way to lose.

Are you joining in? Let me know what your plans are!
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New Release Review: H Is for Hawk

Friday, March 20, 2015 | 6 comments

Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk (Grove, 2015)

H Is for Hawk does what many of my favorite non-fiction books do: it makes connections between things and ideas that are surprising and genuine and painful, enriching us by raising our experience of life to a new level of consciousness. It reminds us what it means to be human, and stretches the limits of that definition.

The primary connection here is between Macdonald's grief following the death of her father, and her decision to take on the training of a goshawk, a notoriously difficult task. Many other threads come into play, too, notably a reconsideration of T.H. White's book The Goshawk, and of its brilliant, wounded author. There's a unique angle on history, too; the practice of falconry goes back to the dawn of civilization, and speaks to many of our most primal impulses and fears, casting light both on our hunger to survive, and on our impulse toward warfare and destruction.

Part of the fascination of falconry is that it evokes the age-old ritual magic of the hunter, who would put on skins or draw an animal over and over to try to become one with its essence. In her intense, grief-spurred communion with Mabel, her goshawk, Macdonald experiences the pull of this totemic magic. In vivid, striking prose she makes us feel what it is like to dissolve some of one's humanity into the vastness of nature. But that is not, and cannot be the whole story, as she concludes: "In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not." Her words enable us to go on that journey as well, and to emerge with a new perspective on grass, stones, trees, the complex web of all living and breathing things.

And as in her sorrow Helen lives and identifies with this alien creature, she finds her way back to who she is and how she can re-enter a life that seemed altogether broken. It's an intimate, tender, fierce story, as beautiful and dangerous as the hawk that glows at its center.

Release date: March 3, 2015; originally published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in 2014

Review copy source: ARC from publisher
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#DWJMarch: Year of the Griffin

Monday, March 16, 2015 | 10 comments

If you're not already aware of the fact, We Be Reading is hosting the fourth annual DWJ March event, celebrating the fantastic fantasy author Diana Wynne Jones (who, sadly, died in March, 2011). Please stop by to check out the month's readalongs, review posts, giveaways, and many other wonderful things.

After a grueling winter, I felt that I needed some humor in my life, so this month I decided to reread one of my favorite later books by DWJ, Year of the Griffin (Greenwillow, 2000). This is a sequel to Dark Lord of Derkholm, which has many enthusiastic fans but which I personally find a bit grim. Happily, Year of the Griffin does not suffer from this problem, being a hilarious send-up of the "magical academy" trope, and very likely the only comic novel ever to be written about a female griffin who goes to college. I thought it would be especially fun to reaquaint myself with this unique protagonist in light of this year's DWJ March theme, "The Ladies and Lasses of DWJ."

Elda is the magically-produced griffin daughter of Wizard Derk, who formerly played the role of Dark Lord when his world was forced to host "pilgrim parties" sent from another, non-magical world for their fun and the tour company's profit. Now, having rebelled and thrown out the intruders, Elda's world is in disarray, and her mother has packed her off to the wizards' university to get her out of the way. But the university is not in very good shape either, and having a giant magical griffin thrust upon it -- along with several other new students who bring difficulties of various kinds -- is quickly causing headaches for the faculty, who have better things to do with their time than actually teach.

It's hard to make a griffin look anything other than menacing, and in the cover image of the US edition Elda appears rather fierce. (As to what on earth is happening there, I can't explain -- you will just have to read the book.) This is a bit misleading. Yes, she's huge, strong, and dangerous, but she's also a sweetheart. In the first chapter she develops a crush on one of her professors because he reminds her of her old teddy bear: "I want to pick him up and carry him about!" she cries. Jones somehow manages to make such absurd situations seem totally natural within the context of her created world, crowding in an astounding variety of elements familiar from fantasy literature, and affectionately poking fun at them. At the same time, she never loses sight of the emotional core of her story, which is about adolescents growing up and finding their way in life. That these two strands can co-exist and be intimately intertwined -- as in the passage in which Elda becomes disillusioned of her crush -- is highly characteristic of DWJ, and one of the delights of this particular book.

This is one of only two school stories by Jones, the other being Witch Week, and in many ways they are very different. The school cliques and unhappy misfits that populated the earlier book are absent in Year of the Griffin; Elda easily makes friends with a diverse group of fellow first-year students who support and encourage each other through their troubles in and out of school, in quite a heart-warming way. But the underlying theme is the same: the need for young people to discover and develop their own powers, for the betterment and healing of their world, in spite of the opposing forces of mediocrity and resistance to change. Even non-magical institutions of education would do well to heed this message.

In this book Jones reserves her sharpest satire for the faculty, particularly the University head who is obsessed with his research project of flying to the moon. His blindness to every other consideration, even as Elda and her friends keep trying to break through his ridiculously self-centered perspective with their talent and creativity, gives rise to many of the book's funniest situations.

Rather than trying to describe these, I encourage you to pick up Year of the Griffin (preceding it with Dark Lord of Derkholm, if you want to get the backstory first). If you're not smiling by the second page, I'll eat my wizard's hat.

Review copy source: Hardcover, personal collection
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Camels and Anglo-Cats: The Towers of Trebizond

Friday, March 13, 2015 | 4 comments

Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (1956; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)

Judging from just the famous first line of The Towers of Trebizond (" 'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass") you might think you were in for a humorous travelogue, sort of a midcentury female Bill Bryson. That's what I expected, but what I got was something quite different.

Narrator Laurie is accompanying her eccentric Aunt Dot and a very High (in the Anglican sense) priest, who are venturing on a missionary society's scouting expedition to Turkey with the unlikely hope of finding that the Turks are ripe for converting to Anglicanism. The mission is a failure, but we are treated to a tour of Troy, Istanbul, Jerusalem, and more, with a running commentary on Anglicanism, religion in general, love, the Islamic world, Byzantium, bathing, communism, feminism, and camels.

Not only is this book different from what I expected, it's different from any other book I have ever read. I was charmed and somewhat baffled by turns, and I at least have an Anglican background; I can't imagine what someone without at least a rudimentary experience of that peculiarly proper faith would make of it. In addition, it must be said that the English-eye view of the Turkish people is not generally one of tolerance and understanding. This could be meant satirically, but be warned that if taken at face value some of the opinions and attitudes expressed may cause deep offense.

As the medium through which all this comes to us, Laurie's narrative voice is a comic tour de force. Sometimes, especially toward the beginning, she talks in the run-on sentences of a screwball comedy heroine:

The girls thought the altar and the candles and the Mass very cute; one of them had been sometimes to that kind of service in Cambridge, Mass., at a place she called the Monastery, which Father Chantry-Pigg said was where the Cowley Fathers in America lived, but the other girl and her parents were not Episcopalian, they belonged to one of those sects that Americans have, and that are difficult for English people to grasp, though probably they got over from Britain in the Mayflower originally, and when sects arrive in America they multiply, like rabbits in Australia, so that America has about a hundred to each one in Britain, and this is said to be on account of the encouraging climate, which is different in each of the states, and most encouraging of all in the deep south and in California, where sects breed best.
Later on she turns to a form of laconic understatement that I find funnier and less wearisome:
I mean, with religion you get on a different plane, and everything is most odd. It only goes to show that human beings are odd, because they have always been, on the whole, so religious.
But there's a somber undercurrent to all the seeming frivolity. Laurie is in a moral quandary with no resolution in sight, and mourning the lost faith that she cannot quite relinquish. Her nattering is a sort of whistling in the dark against the emptiness that faces her when hope and faith are gone. In the end, the dark overtakes her, a disquieting conclusion -- but one that underlines the modern questions at the heart of her story. Byzantium is gone; the glittering towers of ancient Trebizond are no more. What will we put in their place? Where will our quest lead us, if not toward supernatural reward and punishment? Rose Macaulay gives no answers, but she takes us on one hell of a trip.

Review copy source: Purchased 

Back to the Classics Challenge: Humorous or Satirical Classic 

Classics Club List #48
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Words and Pictures: The Madman of Piney Woods

Monday, March 9, 2015 | 0 comments
How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh? Without tickling them, without making a silly face, without doing something foolish, they just make those twenty-six letters fall in a certain order, and for no good reason, I can see your eyes narrow, your cheeks get pulled up, your lips separate, your teeth show, and before you know what's hit you, those twenty-six letters have you doubled up laughing.

Now that's magic.

Christopher Paul Curtis, The Madman of Piney Woods (2014)
Image: The Letter, Vittorio Reggianini, found here.
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New Release Review: Echo

Friday, March 6, 2015 | 12 comments

Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo (Scholastic, 2015)

Echo takes an unlikely candidate for bearing mysterious, magical powers of healing and protection -- a harmonica -- and weaves a surprisingly compelling tale around this humble instrument. This middle-grade novel tells three stories of young people during the years surrounding the Second World War, with music as the thread that inspires, sustains, and ultimately connects them. As the harmonica passes through the lives of Friedrich in Germany, Michael in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, it changes their lives in unexpected ways, though revelation of the ultimate results for good or ill is left till the very end.

I enjoyed the details of how the harmonica played a role in each story. Who knew there was a golden age of harmonica bands, or that these small pieces of wood and metal really saved lives in the war? Other bits of historical fact, like the fight against the unjust segregation of Mexican-Americans in California schools, are incorporated gracefully as well. Though I found Echo to suffer from a certain amount of oversimplification and stereotyping, featuring as it does an abundance of cartoon Nazis, plucky orphans, and deserving immigrants, there are also vividly drawn and memorable characters to take into one's heart, as well as a moving plea for the vital importance of music in human life. Certainly, I will never look at a harmonica in the same way again.

I found it sometimes frustrating to be pulled out of one story into another just at a crucial moment, and would peek at the end to make sure everything was going to turn out all right. (Not very surprising spoiler: it does.) The closing pages wrap everything up neatly, and rather too quickly for all that has gone before. It would have felt more balanced if the final section had been given more weight, rather than resolving all the narrative tension in a few hasty flashbacks.

At nearly 600 pages, this looks like a formidable chunk of a book, but appearances are deceiving. I really don't understand why publishers sometimes choose to set the type of middle-grade books at nearly easy-reader proportions, but I wish this wasteful and misleading practice would stop. In this case, don't be intimidated by the page count; Echo will quickly pull you in to its tale of music, courage, and hope.

Release date: February 24, 2015

Review copy source: ARC from publisher
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