Book Notes from August and September 2020

Gyula Benczúr – A Woman Reading in a Forest

With the ending of the summer and the beginning of a new school year I’ve been busy reading but not writing so much about what I’ve been reading. So these are the books that I’ve finished, as best as I can recall.

  1. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy Sayers

Might be my least favorite of the Lord Peter Wimsey novels. Lord Peter and Bunter are on vacation in Scotland, where there are many artists, when one of the artists is found murdered. The detecting of the crime involves a lot of train schedules and an elaborate recreation of the circumstances of the crime. It’s not a novel that has a hook that grabs me. I read it to be completist in my Lord Peter re-read, but still don’t love it.

2. Book of Night with Moon by Diane Duane

The first in a spin-off series from Duane’s Young Wizards series. The protagonist is a cat-wizard, Rhiaow. Kit and Nita, the heroes of the Young Wizards series make an appearance, playing a small but important role in the story, but this is a cat’s-eye view of magic and wizarding. I really liked this book, the cat wizarding world is wonderful and the relationships between the cats and their people is really delightful. I’m not a cat person, but I imagine this would really appeal to cat-lovers. Even as non-feline-affiliated as I am, I still appreciated the cat language and cat culture and the way that cat magic really is fundamentally different from human magic.

3. Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers

I really love this novel. It opens with the wedding of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, told in epistolary fashion via telegrams and letters and the diary of Peter’s mother, Honoria, the Dowager Duchess.  This is the perfect bridge between Gaudy Night and the main story of BH. You can’t in good conscience deprive the readers of the wedding, but at the same time the book is about the honeymoon. This device is genius. And I love Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess.

Peter and Harriet buy a house, Talboys, which was in the neighborhood where Harriet grew up. They arrive for their honeymoon and discover a dead body in the cellar. But as I’ve written elsewhere, this is a novel about love and marriage that is interrupted by a body.

4. Betsy’s Wedding by Maud Hart Lovelace

The conclusion of the Betsy-Tacy series (I still haven’t read all of the earlier books, but I had this one lying around so why not.) Betsy arrives home from Europe at the beginning of the First World War. Although she had quarreled with Joe before she left, when he meets her at the port they are reconciled and engaged within the day. They are married fairly early in the book. The rest of the book records their early married life: getting an apartment, learning how to manage a household, and then trying to find a husband for Betsy and Tacy’s friend Tib. The book ends with Joe going off to war. 

I really loved all the details of their married life, learning to live together, Betsy learning to cook. It’s actually a nice novel to read next to Busman’s Honeymoon as it takes up many of the same themes. Including one amazing moment when Betsy has to fight desperately with what she knows is a thoroughly selfish desire– and even goes to church to pray and ask God’s help– finally her conscience and love for Joe win out and she is very happy with what happens when she dies to self and embraces what at first seemed to be a disastrous change that threatened their honeymoon happiness.

5. Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis

Set in the town of Buxton in Ontario Canada, a settlement founded by runaway slaves. Elijah is the first child in the community born free and was once held by the great Frederick Douglas (infant Elijah threw up on the great orator). Elijah is rather gullible— his mother calls him fragile. As an innocent, he makes an ideal first person narrator to help younger readers understand something of the horrors of slavery. 

His perspective shifts over the course of the novel and he loses some of his naïveté and gullibility as he encounters firsthand betrayal and slaves who have been caught by slave catchers. I thought the novel  navigated these treacherous waters admirably: it does not shy from showing the horrible truth about the abomination that is slavery. And yet it also is careful not to deliberately use shock and awe to harm the young reader. Sensitive readers might be upset, but a helpful adult will be able to guide them to understand the importance of good people taking a stand against evil and injustice, but also the limitations of what a child can do to rectify the evils of the world. 

6. The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

A delightful Regency romance. Not too heavy, perfectly what I was in the mood for. Ancilla, a well-born woman whose family has fallen on hard times decides to become a governess rather than be dependent on relatives. She despises fashion and sports, but finds herself falling for the Nonesuch, a paragon of both, when he inherits a house in the neighborhood. He turns out not at all what she presumed he would be. And Ancilla’s thoroughly spoiled brat of a pupil improves for the better by the end of the novel, too. Very satisfying.

6. Swift by R.J. Anderson

A contemporary urban fantasy story set in Cornwall about fairies and Cornish piskies. Even though it was billed as first in a trilogy, it turns out this trilogy follows a previous trilogy. And while it was an interesting premise, I’m not sure the execution always worked for me. Sort of urban fantasy, though you don’t get to the city till later in the novel and only a few chapters take place there; but once you’re there it really changes the feel of the novel which up to that point didn’t feel much like urban fantasy at all. The characters and plot both seemed a little flat and the conflicts seemed somewhat contrived. It definitely felt more juvenile than many works of juvenile lit that I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think I’ll be following up with the rest of the series. But if you’ve got a voracious reader who likes fairy stories and might be interested in something modern with a hint of urban fantasy, I would not hesitate to put this book into the hands of a middle schooler. 

7. A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

A lovely novella set in 1920. The first person narrator is a veteran of WWI, suffering from PTSD, who goes to the Yorkshire town of Oxgodby to uncover and restore a medieval mural in an old church. The mural is a revelation and the narrator is a fascinating character. He meets a fellow veteran, Moon, who is conducting an archaeological dig of the neighboring area, hoping to uncover an older Anglo Saxon church. I liked the deliberate pace of this short work and rather wanted it to go on for longer.

8. Outcast by Rosemary Sutcliff

As an infant Beric was the sole survivor of a Roman shipwreck he was saved and subsequently raised by a British man. But when the tribe experiences a bad year, they decide that they need to kick Beric out to propitiate the gods. Beric, still more boy than grown man, goes out into the world on his own deciding that since he’s been rejected by the tribe, maybe he’ll have better luck with the Romans. And, not knowing much of anything about the Romans, gets into trouble falling into the hands of slavers and eventually ending up chained on a galley as a rower. 

Sutcliff’s historical novels about Britain really make the past come to life. Though her heroes often experience quite dark moments, they also experience friendship and joy and unexpected moments of happiness and light. 

9. Tug of War by Joan Lingard

A juvenile novel about Latvian refugees in WW2. Follows twins Astra and Hugo Petersons who flee with their family and another family, the Jansons as they escape from Latvia into Germany to escape the invading Russians. Lukas Petersons, their father, is wanted by the Soviets, who would arrest him and take him away if he was captured. The Russians had previously invaded Latvia and then been driven out by the Germans, and during the previous Russian occupation Lukas had gone into hiding. They wait too long to leave and miss the last train and join a group of German soldiers escorting Russian prisoners of war to the port, hoping to catch a boat. They make to to Germany finally, but Hugo gets separated from his family and loses his glasses, without which he can hardly see. Astra and the family end up on one train after another, shuttled from one refugee camp to another and Hugo is wounded and almost dies and is nursed back to health by a kind German family. The novel continues to follow them after the war ends when they continue to be Displaced Persons because of the Russian occupation of Latvia. This was a wrenching book, but very well told. Recommended for high school and maybe for mature junior high readers. There are a lot of books out there about WW2, but this one stood out for me because I’ve never read a book about Latvia. And because there’s a final twist at the end, a bittersweet note to end on that gives a new meaning to the book’s title, Tug of War. I look forward to finding more of Joan Lingard’s novels, if I can.

What about you? Read any good books lately?

One Response to Book Notes from August and September 2020

  1. Stephanie October 9, 2020 at 9:26 pm #

    Thanks for the Lingard recommendation, I haven’t read that one. I haven’t read much from the Baltic either but two from Lithuania come to mind: Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story a beautiful picture book of a Japanese diplomat who saved Jews and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, a story so searing I was haunted by it for months after (college age plus). Of children displaced from Poland there’s The Endless Steppe and the adult novel Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. When I was young I loved books set in Russia and two favourite authors were Mara Kay (Masha) and E M Almedingen (pre-revolution settings not WW2).

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