Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Derek Jacobi

C. S. Lewis’s fifth novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lucy and Edmund Pevensie are visiting their terrible cousin Eustace Scrubb (who “almost” deserves the name) and are drawn back into Narnia through a picture of a ship hanging in a guest bedroom at their aunt and uncle’s house. They find themselves on King Caspian X’s ship the Dawn Treader, which is headed on a course to the Lone Islands to find the seven lords Caspian’s usurping uncle Miraz banished. Accompanying the king on his voyage are the ship’s captain, Lord Drinian, and the irrepressible mouse knight Reepicheep.

One of the things I liked about this book is that each of the characters, excepting Edmund, is tempted and tested. There aren’t any real enemies at the focus, as in first four books of the series. Of course, they encounter bad people, such as the slave traders, who must be vanquished before they can move on, but there is not one great enemy they must defeat, aside from themselves. Reepicheep is probably one of Lewis’s best characters. He’s fearless and adorable at the same time. He deserves his own series. I suppose he might be why we have Brian Jacques’s [amazon_link id=”0142302376″ target=”_blank” ]Redwall[/amazon_link] and Kate DiCamillo’s [amazon_link id=”0763625299″ target=”_blank” ]The Tale of Despereaux[/amazon_link].

I was reminded several times of the Camelot knights’ quest for the Holy Grail as I read. For instance, the scene in which the children encounter the three hairy sleeping men at the banquet table and the resulting quest to go to the uttermost East and leave one of their company behind there reminds me of [amazon_link id=”0140445218″ target=”_blank” ]Sir Percival’s story in the Grail quest[/amazon_link]. If you haven’t read it, Percival goes to the Grail castle and encounters the Fisher King, but ultimately fails in his quest to retrieve the Grail, while Galahad succeeds. Galahad is taken up into heaven. Reepicheep, then, is Sir Galahad. I also thought of The Odyssey many times, especially when the ship encountered the Dark Island, where dreams come true—the description of the unseen terror that lay in wait put me to mind of Scylla and Charybdis. Actually, a bit later on, the book itself referenced the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus covers his ears with beeswax and has himself lashed to the mast so he can listen to the sirens.

I’ve already said my peace about Aslan, so I won’t rehash it here, but suffice it to say I don’t feel any differently after this book. The device of the painting drawing the children into Narnia doesn’t make as much sense to me as the wardrobe or Susan’s horn.

Derek Jacobi, as you might expect, is an outstanding narrator. His characterization of Reepicheep is particularly praiseworthy, but really, I could listen to him all day on potentially any subject (except the Earl of Oxford, but I digress). He has done a substantial number of audio books besides this one. I would highly recommend listening to his narration of this book.

When I first tried to read this series many years ago, my memory was that I stalled out somewhere in the middle of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I have no memory at all of the stories after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from that time, so it’s possible I started this book, but I’m rather wondering if I didn’t stall out in the middle of Prince Caspian now. Not sure, and I probably never will be, but this one was highly enjoyable. I have to say, the entire series has been exceptionally narrated, with the lamentable exception of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m looking forward to Jeremy Northam’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062314610″ target=”_blank” ]The Silver Chair[/amazon_link] and Patrick Stewart’s reading [amazon_link id=”0062326988″ target=”_blank” ]The Last Battle[/amazon_link]. After I finish this series, I think I’ll return to Diana Gabaldon’s series on audio.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Prince Caspian, C. S. Lewis, narrated by Lynn Redgrave

Prince CaspianI finished listening to C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian over the weekend, and I haven’t had a chance to do my review yet.

Prince Caspian takes place one Earth year after the Pevensie siblings—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have returned from Narnia through the wardrobe. They are at the train station preparing to go off to school, when they are suddenly whisked back to Narnia. It takes them some time to realize where they are because everything has changed. While they have been gone, hundreds of years have passed in Narnia, and they discover they have been summoned because Narnia once again has great need of their services. Prince Caspian, rightful king of Narnia, has had his power usurped by his evil Uncle Miraz, and he can’t defeat his uncle alone.

Each of the novels in this audio book series is narrated by a different great British actor. I found Kenneth Branagh’s reading of The Magician’s Nephew utterly charming, while Michael York’s reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a bit spottier. Alex Jennings’s read of The Horse and His Boy was also good. Lynn Redgrave’s reading of Prince Caspian is excellent. She did a masterful job capturing the characters’ voices and using different types of accents. She managed to inject the patronizing tone of older siblings into Peter and Susan, and her characterization of the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik made me glad whenever they took the “stage.” I also particularly enjoyed her characterization of Doctor Cornelius, Reepicheep, and Trufflehunter. It looks like she has narrated a few other audio books, so I have to recommend her highly. What a shame she is no longer with us.

Of the four Chronicles of Narnia books I’ve read or re-read this year, I would say Prince Caspian comes in a strong second after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensies strike me as similar to King Arthur: they will come when Narnia has great need of them, and the device of Susan’s horn to call them was clever (and somewhat evocative of other myths). I really loved some of the minor characters in this one. Caspian is likeable, but Trumpkin, Reepicheep, Trufflehunter, and Doctor Cornelius are loveable. I like the idea that Narnian time passes at a different rate. I wonder if I can say this, though, without making someone angry: I just don’t like Aslan. He’s not bad, he’s just so heavy-handed a symbol. I realize it would wreck Lewis’s Jesus allegory if he removed Aslan from the stories, but I would find them more interesting if they had to figure out how to defeat the enemies without him as a deus ex machina. I also don’t find his personality particularly compelling. I understand his role in the stories, but he just doesn’t interest me as much as the children do. I suppose that if he is supposed to represent Jesus, then I’m not really sure I like this particular characterization of Jesus. Jesus struck me as less judgey and more gentle. I know he overturned the moneychangers’ tables at the Temple, but I mean on the whole. Aslan is forgiving, too; I’m doing a sloppy job putting my finger on their differences. Suffice it to say that I don’t find him as much fun as the other characters.

In all, this was a very enjoyable reading. I know I’m liking an audio book when I find excuses to wash the dishes so I can listen to a book while I do it. I mean, that’s just crazy, right?

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Voyager, Diana Gabaldon, narrated by Davina Porter

Voyager audio book (Voyager)Voyager is the third book in Diana Gabaldon’s [amazon_link id=”0440212561″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link] series. Outlander is filming right now and will appear on Starz this summer. Can’t wait! The casting looks phenomenal. Spoilers follow for the first two books, so you might not want to read the rest of this review if you don’t want them wrecked for you. I figure you probably wouldn’t be reading a review of the third book in a series unless you had either already read the others or don’t mind their being spoiled.

If you’re not familiar with this series, it’s a most unusual and difficult to classify series of books: part historical fiction, part romance, part fantasy/sci fi—I can’t think of too many books like these that so defy labels. In the first book, a World War II nurse named Claire Randall steps through standing stones in a stone circle near Inverness and finds herself over 200 years in the past. As she tries desperately to get back home to her husband Frank, she winds up forced (after a fashion) to marry young Jamie Fraser and unexpectedly falls in love with him. In the second book, [amazon_link id=”0440215625″ target=”_blank” ]Dragonfly in Amber[/amazon_link], the Jacobite Rebellion draws closer, and Claire and Jamie try to think of a way to avoid the devastation that will follow, even spending time in France, but Jamie is inevitably called to fight at Culloden, but before he faces a battle where he expects to die, he sends his wife Claire back through the stones to save her life and that of the baby she is carrying.

Voyager begins some twenty years later. Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna is grown, and Claire has become a doctor. She and Brianna travel to Scotland and discover that Jamie did not die at Culloden after all. Claire decides to go back through the stones one more time to reunite with the love of her life, leaving her daughter behind with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who helped Claire discover Jamie’s history and who is falling in love with Brianna.

The first time I read this book was probably around 1998 or 1999. I remember that I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first two at that time because I thought I like it better when Claire and Jamie were in Scotland, and I also had more difficulty enjoying them as an older couple, which sounds pretty horrible now (thought it’s an accurate representation of my feelings at the time). For crying out loud, Claire was something like 50! And Jamie was at least mid-40’s. Now that I am actually a lot closer to their ages in this book, I found that I no longer seem to have much trouble enjoying Jamie and Claire as an older couple. 😉

I will admit that this book starts a little bit slowly. I suppose it is necessary for the reader to be filled in on exactly what Jamie did following Culloden and how Claire found out he was still alive and decided to go back in time to reunite with him, but the book drags a bit through this part. Once Claire goes back through the stones and finds Jamie in Edinburgh, the book picks up quite a bit, and frankly, the action doesn’t let up for pretty much the remainder of the book. I had forgotten what a swashbuckling story this one is. Jamie and Claire spend much of the book running away from or chasing Really.Bad.People. Pirates even. Witches! Possibly—just possibly even zombies. It’s crazy adventurous, and for that reason, it makes for quite a gripping read.

Gabaldon does get bogged down in details sometimes, but that’s actually one of the interesting things about her writing. Sometimes these scenes she writes, which don’t necessarily move the plot forward, are compelling in terms of character development. I am surprised she has been able to get them past an editor, who might be tempted to cut them. Then again, like I said before, these books tend to break all the rules.

I enjoyed this one much more this time around than I did the last. Davina Porter is an excellent reader who is able to do a wide variety of accents and brings life to the characters. She’s so good that I’ve just about decided listening to her read is the only way I want to read the rest of the series.

Book Rating: ★★★★½
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard

Mr. Timothy: A NovelCharles Dickens’s [amazon_link id=”0486268659″ target=”_blank” ]yarn about the redeeming power of Christmas[/amazon_link] is one of my all-time favorite stories. I try to watch a version of it every year, and one year, I read the book itself. When Mr. Timothy came across my radar, I couldn’t resist. I think I requested the book on PaperBackSwap. And then it sat unread on my shelf for quite some time.

In Mr. Timothy, Louis Bayard takes up the story of Tiny Tim Cratchit, all grown up and mourning the recent passing of his father. Aside from saying “God bless us, every one,” Tiny Tim is probably most famous for being the saintly crippled child who finally melted old Ebenezer Scrooge’s icy heart. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if Tiny Tim will live, the ghost replies, flinging Scrooge’s own words back at him: “If he be like to die he had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Louis Bayard imagines a Timothy Cratchit who is altogether crushed under the [amazon_link id=”0486415864″ target=”_blank” ]weight of expectations[/amazon_link] of having survived and received the beneficence of the former “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He has grown up, but who has he become? He is as lost, in his way, as Ebenezer Scrooge. He lives in a whorehouse, where he pays for his room and board by teaching the madam to read. His parents are gone, and he is reduced to taking handouts from Uncle N (old Uncle Scrooge, that is). He hates himself for being unable to cut the purse strings, but he seems stuck, unable to do anything with his life. Then he finds the bodies of two girls, curiously branded with a letter G, and he discovers another lost little girl being hunted, and fearing she will be next to die, Timothy enlists the help of a foul-mouthed street urchin to save her. What he uncovers is the grossest exploitation of the lower classes by the upper echelons of British society. But is he the man to do anything about it? Bob Cratchit once said that in church, Tim said he was happy that others could see him in church and remember, on Christmas Day, who it was who made blind men see and lame beggars walk. Grown up Mr. Timothy insists he never said any such thing—his father only wished that he had. When it really counts, can Timothy Cratchit really offer salvation to anyone? Can he even save himself?

A page-turning tale of Victorian gothic suspense, this novel really begins to pick up once Timothy is hot on the trail of the people at the center of a horrific child slavery ring. Do not look for Dickens in this novel, though I admit he shows up a bit in chapter 16, when Timothy Cratchit is brought before a magistrate on trumped up charges of sexual assault. I love the description of the lawyer Peter Cratchit has engaged to defend his brother:

A stout, whey-skinned man with a decamping hairline and advancing whiskers, soldierly red on both fronts. The hand he presents to me is quite damp, and there is a prevailing humidity all about his person: wet eyes, wet lips, wet teeth … and, exhaling from his pores, an effluvium that, unless my nostrils deceive me, represents the final gaseous iteration of imported Jamaican rum. … There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Sheldrake exudes confidence. (213)

The whole chapter through had me chuckling, and brought to mind Dickens’s own way with characterization and scenecraft.

Bayard deftly captures the soot begrimed streets of Victorian London, from the refuse in the streets, to the cabbies, to stately manors behind lacy wrought iron fences. Timothy’s character winds up being believable. He has so long been the protagonist of a narrative written by others, as he reflects, that it is easy to see how he might lose his way and find it necessary to discover who he really is. If you are looking for the squeaky clean, cherubic Tiny Tim of myth in this story, you’ll be disappointed. However, if you are looking for a different sort of tale of redemption, Mr. Timothy should do nicely.

Rating: ★★★★½

Check out these other reviews of Mr. Timothy:

Mr. Timothy is the first historical fiction book to count towards the 2014 Historical Fiction Challenge.

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The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Inglis

The Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings, Book 3)What can one say about J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King? It’s the long denouement of Tolkien’s epic saga The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, so I had forgotten just how long the ending is. I think Gollum actually falls into the crack of Mount Doom clutching the Ring, Frodo’s finger still attached, around the middle of the book. The rest of it is setting things to rights and putting a nice bow on the whole story. Of course, my perception may be off because this time I was listening to the books instead of reading the print versions.

As with [amazon_link id=”0788789821″ target=”_blank” ]The Hobbit[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B00BR9WMW2″ target=”_blank” ]The Fellowship of the Ring[/amazon_link], and [amazon_link id=”078878983X” target=”_blank” ]The Two Towers[/amazon_link], Rob Inglis narrated The Return of the Ring superbly. His characterization once again impresses, and he handles the scene between Frodo, Sam, and Gollum at Mount Doom particularly well. I can’t think of a finer reader for the series. Nothing about his reading disappointed me.

I noticed a propensity for Tolkien to tell a little more than show in this volume, and I don’t recall noticing this issue the first time I read the books. In particular, the Battle of Pelennor Fields seems to be related mostly second hand and after the fact, which is a little disappointing. All of the action in this battle is shown in the [amazon_link id=”B0037WTD5G” target=”_blank” ]Peter Jackson film of the same title[/amazon_link], so perhaps that interpretation interfered with my memory.

One of the ways in which I feel Jackson erred with the movies was to give the Shire the short shrift. It’s a lovely country, and Tolkien brings it to vivid life in his books, but Jackson omits the entire section of the novel in which the Scouring of the Shire sets the hobbits free from the yoke of the wizard Saruman and his band of ruffians, and in which Merry, Pippin, and Sam become heroes in the Shire (Frodo’s role in saving Middle Earth is largely overlooked at home—the great ones are never really appreciated at home).

At the end of the film version of The Return of the King, there is a scene which always makes me cry when I watch it. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry, are bowing to Aragorn, and he says, “My friends, you bow to no one.” And then he bows to them. It’s just such a wonderful acknowledgement of everything they did to save the entire world, and the fact that the king humbles himself before these little folks that people forget about (Treebeard himself needs to add them to the list of the world’s creatures)—it’s just an amazing moment. I didn’t remember it happened in the book, but it does (sort of, words and things are changed), and it’s even grander.

I have to admit my favorite character for years was Gandalf, but as time has worn on, I have come to appreciate Samwise Gamgee, and I think he’s my favorite now. He is the steadfast, loyal friend—even as Frodo begins to succumb to the Ring, Sam remains by his side. His sadness when Frodo departs for the Grey Havens is pitiful. And he is the guy who winds up getting married and having a bunch of little hairy-toed hobbit babies. I just love him. I know a lot of Tolkien’s fans go in more for the elves, but I have to say the hobbits are my favorite.

Incidentally, I made a soap called Hobbit’s Garden that smells like apples, oak, English ivy, and rain. It’s available from my Etsy store, where you can find some other nice soaps I made as well. I have one bar available to ship right now, and the other batch I made will be ready July 6.

It feels almost sacrilegious to do so, but I am knocking half a star off my rating for this book for the excess of telling versus showing, but I am of the opinion that the series should be taken as a whole, and if so, then it’s a five-star read all the way.

Rating: ★★★★½

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Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior: A NovelBarbara Kingsolver’s latest novel [amazon asin=0062124269&text=Flight Behavior] opens as Dellarobia Turnbow, unhappily married at the age of 17 after a pregnancy scare, is on her way to meet up with a telephone repairman with the express purpose of cheating on her husband. Before she reaches her destination, she is confronted with the arresting sight of trees aflame with monarch butterflies. Spooked by the vision, which she considers a sign, she returns to her mother-in-law’s house to pick up her children and go back home.

Others in her small town view the strange butterflies as a sign of God’s providence. The butterflies’ appearance sparks a national news story. Monarch butterflies are, of course, native to Mexico and unheard of in the small town of Feathertown, Tennessee. What could be driving them to Appalachia? Scientists visiting the town set up a lab in the Turnbows’ barn, pulling Dellarobia further into their work. The scientists discover that the monarchs’ appearance is the result of global warming, but the populace of Feathertown doesn’t believe it. Over the course of the novel, Dellarobia’s life in Feathertown is reflected in the butterflies’ existence. Dellarobia wonders, “Why did the one rare, spectacular thing in her life have to be a sickness of nature?”

Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. She has a way with words that is frankly gorgeous. I marvel at her writing. However, I had trouble getting into this book. I didn’t find myself too interested in Dellarobia. I think Barbara Kingsolver has a gift for character development, and I could clearly see Dellarobia as a real person. I didn’t relate to her in the same way I have other characters she has created. [amazon asin=0060786507&text=The Poisonwood Bible] is one of my favorite books, and [amazon asin=006210392X&text=The Bean Trees] is another I enjoyed quite a lot. I also appreciate Kingsolver’s purposeful use of symbolism and metaphor to convey much larger ideas (brilliantly executed in The Poisonwood Bible). This book starts kind of slowly, but the beautiful writing and description should keep readers going in spite of the slow start.

Rating: ★★★★½

Learn more about Barbara Kingsolver at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

TLC Tour HostBarbara’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, November 6th: A Reader of Fictions

Wednesday, November 7th: Dolce Bellezza

Thursday, November 8th: The Blog of Lit Wits

Monday, November 12th: Caribousmom

Tuesday, November 13th: Bookish Habits

Wednesday, November 14th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, November 15th: Unabridged Chick

Monday, November 26th: Book Snob

Tuesday, November 27th: What She Read … – joint review

Wednesday, November 28th: Becca’s Byline

Thursday, November 29th: A Patchwork of Books

Wednesday, December 5th: No More Grumpy Bookseller

Thursday, December 6th: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness

Tuesday, December 11th: Man of La Book

Wednesday, December 12th: Tina’s Books Reviews

Thursday, December 13th: Seaside Book Corner

Monday, December 17th: 50 Books Project

Friday, December 21st: Much Madness is Divinest Sense

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The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

[amazon_image id=”0062064223″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel[/amazon_image]Margot Livesey’s novel [amazon_link id=”0062064223″ target=”_blank” ]The Flight of Gemma Hardy[/amazon_link] is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë’s [amazon_link id=”B004CFA9Y6″ target=”_blank” ]Jane Eyre[/amazon_link]. Like Jane, Gemma is taken in by her uncle and his family after the deaths of her parents, and once her uncle also passes away, she is abused and neglected by her aunt, who ships her off to a boarding school as a “working girl,” where she pays for her tuition and board through menial labor for the school and is treated like a second-class citizen. When the school closes, Gemma must shift for herself, so she answers an ad for an au pair position in the Orkneys. She moves into Blackbird Hall and quickly subdues her wild charge, Nell. Hugh Sinclair, Nell’s uncle and guardian, returns to Blackbird Hall and soon finds himself entranced by Gemma.

While the story closely follows the plot of Jane Eyre, Livesey has added details that make the story Gemma’s own. Gemma, born in Scotland to a Scottish mother and Icelandic father, wonders about her Icelandic family and yearns to travel to Iceland to see if she can uncover her past. The story is set mostly in Scotland in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Gemma has opportunities that Jane couldn’t have imagined; for instance, Gemma is able to sit for exams and go to college.

The danger in writing updated versions of classic novels is that they will seem too derivative to be their own story, but I didn’t find this to be the case with The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Because I had read Jane Eyre, I could guess the general directions in which various plot points would turn, but Livesey threw in enough unique details and changes that I felt the novel was much more of an homage to Jane Eyre than an imitation. Another challenge Livesey successfully navigates is making the story of Jane’s sad childhood and subsequent removal to Thornfield Hall believable in the twentieth century. Not only does Livesey answer this challenge, but in my opinion, she tempers a bit of the horrific improbability present in Jane Eyre. I know, I know—Charlotte experienced some of the horrible events she describes in Jane Eyre at the Clergy Daughters’ School. Tragedy ran rampant through the Brontë family, and I don’t mean to make light of it. However, it reminds me that sometimes true stories sound over the top when rendered in fiction. Young Jane’s early experiences, the goodness of Helen Burns, the evil of Aunt Reed and Mr. Brocklehurst—all these rang slightly too awful to believe when I read them, which isn’t to say I didn’t love Jane Eyre. Gemma’s experiences, while uniquely horrible in their way, read as more realistic, and Helen’s counterpart Miriam is a more believable and less “Mary Sue” type of character (and yes, I know that Charlotte based Helen on her sister Maria, and that Charlotte claims Maria really was that good).

I liked Gemma. She is smart and spunky, particularly as a child. The supporting cast are all enjoyable, too, particularly Gemma’s charges Nell and Robin. I loved the Rivers sisters’ counterparts Hannah and Pauline. St. John Rivers’s counterpart Archie was more likable than St. John himself. The relocation to Scotland and Iceland made for an intriguing setting that rendered events in the story more believable, I think, than they might have been had Livesey set her novel in England. I do think fans of Jane Eyre will enjoy this book, but I think it stands on its own as a fine novel without its connection to its literary ancestor.

Rating: ★★★★½

You can find Margot Livesey online at her website, her Facebook page, and her Twitter account.

I read this novel for the TLC Book Tour. You can visit the other stops below on the dates listed to read other reviews of this novel.

*Also reading Jane Eyre

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A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly

[amazon_image id=”B0006BD9BK” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]A Northern Light[/amazon_image]Jennifer Donnelly’s YA novel [amazon_link id=”B0006BD9BK” target=”_blank” ]A Northern Light[/amazon_link] is based, in part, on the same crime that inspired Theodore Dreiser to write [amazon_link id=”0451531558″ target=”_blank” ]An American Tragedy[/amazon_link]: Chester Gillette’s murder of Grace Brown in the Adirondacks in 1906. The novel’s protagonist, Mattie Gokey, is the teenage daughter of a poor farmer in the North Woods. Mattie’s mother died not too long before the events in the book start. Before she dies, Mattie’s mother extracts a promise from Mattie that she will stay to help take care of her siblings. Mattie’s older brother Lawton left home after a fight with their father, and Mattie is responsible for her three younger sisters. Mattie, however, dreams of going to college. Her teacher, Miss Wilcox, encourages Mattie, who she believes has a gift for writing. Mattie’s friend Weaver Smith has dreams of attending Columbia University, and Miss Wilcox encourages both of them. They both take jobs at the Glenmore Inn, where Grace Brown and Chester Gillette come to stay. Before Grace is murdered, she entrusts Mattie with her letters and asks Mattie to burn them. After Grace’s body is found and Mattie finds herself unable to dispose of the letters as Grace asked, she reads them instead, and she uncovers a motive for Gillette’s murder of Grace as well as motivation to follow her own dreams.

Jennifer Donnelly’s books are all good. This particular novel’s narrative flashes backward and forward in time, but the plot is not difficult to follow, and in the end, Donnelly’s reasons for telling the story in this less linear fashion are clear. Mattie is an engaging heroine, representative of so many girls of her age who were expected to marry, often without love, and raise a family. Weaver is an interesting character too. His father was killed in a racial hate crime, but rather than making Weaver fearful of whites, it instead empowered him to stand up for himself when he encounters racism. Like Mattie, the reader can have no doubt that Weaver will go to Columbia and become a fine lawyer despite the odds. Donnelly’s setting is vividly painted for the reader, both in time and place—which is a particular gift of Donnelly’s and something I have enjoyed about all of her books.

I would recommend this book even to readers who aren’t necessarily fans of YA, mainly because I think readers will enjoy learning about this time and place and will like Mattie and her friends and family (except, of course, for those we aren’t supposed to like). Grace Brown’s murder is more or less incidental to the plot, as the main story is Mattie’s coming of age.

Rating: ★★★★½

I thought about counting this book as a crime/mystery book as part of the Mixing it Up Challenge, but I ultimately decided not to because the crime is not the center of the novel.

Full disclosure: I obtained this book via PaperBackSwap.

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Those Across the River, Christopher Buehlman

[amazon_image id=”0441020674″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]Those Across the River[/amazon_image]Frank Nichols and his wife Dora move to Whitbrow, Georgia, to claim a home left to Frank by his aunt in Christopher Buehlman’s novel [amazon_link id=”0441020674″ target=”_blank” ]Those Across the River[/amazon_link]. Frank and Dora believe that moving to Georgia will give them a fresh start: Dora has left her husband for Frank, and Frank’s career as an academic has been destroyed by Dora’s powerful ex-husband. Frank believes he may be inspired to write the story of his great-grandfather, a harsh plantation owner who refused to liberate his slaves when the Yankee army came through and who died in a slave uprising as a result. Dora takes a job teaching school. The woods across the river near Whitbrow, however, hold a mysterious menace. Before long, Frank will find himself wishing he had heeded his aunt’s advice and sold the home rather than try to make a go of it too close to “those across the river.”

Those Across the River is a strong debut. The balance between creepy dread and outright horror is nicely struck, and that is no easy feat to accomplish. I flew through the last third or so of the book in an evening. Buehman’s pacing was deft. He lures the reader in with Whitbrow’s small-town charm and creepy atmosphere. I don’t hold with critics describing Buehlman’s prose as lyrical in the vein of Fitzgerald or Hemingway’s, but it’s a step up from your usual horror novel. It is much more a literary heir of novels like [amazon_link id=”0143106163″ target=”_blank” ]Dracula[/amazon_link] or the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

This was a great R.I.P. read and is even set mostly in October, so grab it now so that you can more fully savor the novel with the added creepiness of reading it during the same time of year it’s set. Most of you probably can’t live near the setting like I can, and I can tell you, I did jump a little when I walked past the creepy house at the end of our street while I was finishing up a chapter of this book. This novel makes the woods seem almost as menacing and creepy as [amazon_link id=”B00001QGUM” target=”_blank” ]The Blair Witch Project[/amazon_link] before it, and I couldn’t be near trees in the dark for a long time after I saw that movie.

Rating: ★★★★½

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The Wild Rose, Jennifer Donnelly

[amazon_image id=”1401301045″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The Wild Rose[/amazon_image]The third and final book in Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” trilogy, [amazon_link id=”1401301045″ target=”_blank” ]The Wild Rose[/amazon_link] follows the story of Seamus Finnegan, younger brother of Fiona (focus of [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link]) and Charlie/Sid (focus of [amazon_link id=”1401307469″ target=”_blank” ]The Winter Rose[/amazon_link]), and Willa Alden, Seamie’s childhood friend, climbing partner, and soulmate. In The Winter Rose, Willa lost her leg while climbing Kilimanjaro with Seamie, and the accident tore them apart. The Wild Rose begins as Willa has relocated to Tibet, living in the shadow of Everest, taking pictures for a planned book about the mountain, and guiding other mountaineers for money. Seamie, meanwhile, meets a young teacher named Jennie Wilcott and marries her, trying to forget about Willa. Donnelly’s familiar cast of characters all make an appearance: Fiona is now a suffragette and Joe has continued serving as MP. Their fierce daughter Katie has started a newspaper and has set her sights on a career in politics. Charlie/Sid and India have settled in Point Reyes, California, but return to England after the mysterious death of India’s sister, Maud. Meanwhile, Max von Brandt, a German spy in love with Willa and rubbing shoulders with the likes of gangster Billy Madden, makes trouble for everyone. Donnelly’s characters tramp all over the globe—Willa becomes part of T. E. Lawrence’s party in Arabia, while Seamie joins up with the navy when World War I begins.

This novel was much more Indiana Jones than your typical “romance.” Willa is hardly slowed down by having only one leg. She’s a difficult heroine—she can be selfish, and she nurses a drug addiction for most of the novel. At the same time, she’s fearless and dashingly brave. I quite liked Seamie’s wife Jennie, and I felt she certainly had the short end of the stick, as Seamie would never be able to love her as he had loved Willa, and frankly, she deserved much better. The new villain, Max von Brandt is much more layered and complicated (as all Donnelly’s characters are) in this novel.

The whole series is epic in scope and spans over 30 years. I think just about every historical event that occurs during the time period of this book (1913-1919) touches the Finnegan family. They experience World War I, the Spanish flu, and Lawrence of Arabia—and that’s just in this book, so I’m not sure what else Donnelly could have thrown at them. Like its predecessors, this book is eminently readable, but not without its problems. I did catch some continuity errors (Joe’s age near the end of the novel, for instance), but those may be corrected in the final publication, as I read a galley copy. Like its predecessors, The Wild Rose is just a really big book. So much happens, and the story threatens to become unwieldy at times. Donnelly does a better job keeping it all together in this book than in the other two, and even with the outlandish events that take place in this novel, it somehow seems more plausible than the others, perhaps because the characters are much more “gray” than black or white. Willa is a more interesting heroine than India. I can’t say I liked her as much as I liked Fiona, but she’s complex. The series is definitely worth a read. It certainly kept me turning the pages and staying up way too late to find out how the characters would emerge from the latest trap they’d fallen into. I definitely think romantic historical fiction fans would love this series, and I would recommend it for fans of Diana Gabaldon or [amazon_link id=”0061990477″ target=”_blank” ]The Thorn Birds[/amazon_link].

Rating: ★★★★½

Full disclosure: I received a free galley copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. The Wild Rose is available in stores on August 2, 2011.

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