“The Falcon at the Portal” and “He Shall Thunder in the Sky”

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by Elizabeth Peters

Published 1999, 2000

The next two books in the Amelia Peabody series find the Emerson family back in Egypt (where they belong!), once again finding their archaeological efforts interrupted by little annoyances like murder.

Overall, these books have been rather lighthearted and fun, but in these two books the stories get a bit – darker.  Part of it is the war.  The Falcon at the Portal is set during the 1911-1912 season, and murmurs of war are already everywhere, especially in northern Africa, where various European countries are all quietly wrestling for control.  By the time we reach He Shall Thunder in the Sky in 1914-1915, war is a reality, and life is a completely different normal than before.

But even beyond the background, the stories themselves are more serious.  Part of it is the continued development of the relationship between Ramses and Nefret, which is a central part of these two books.  Part of it is the reintroduction of Amelia’s dreadful nephew (who is Ramses age or thereabouts), Percy.  Percy is more than a villain.  He is cruel, diabolical, without conscience, and just plain creepy.  And I think that part of it just simply that everyone is growing up.  Ramses, Nefret, and David, who have been children and teenagers, are now adults, and facing adult problems and decisions.

Despite the gap of two years that separates them, these stories are closely entwined; The Falcon at the Portal wraps up its main story, but leaves far more loose ends than the earlier books.  I could hardly wait to start reading He Shall Thunder in the Sky.  The conclusion of that book definitely feels like the end of both of these stories.

A characteristic of these books that I enjoyed (especially in the second of them) was the growing relationship between the younger and older generations as they all learn to relate together as adults.  In particular, Ramses relationship with both of his parents, and the friendship between Nefret and Amelia, are developed as Ramses and Nefret learn that their parents (adopted in Nefret’s case, of course) aren’t as stupid or ridiculous as they have thought in the past, and Emerson and Amelia recognize that Ramses and Nefret are intelligent, independent adults.

On a personal note, I’m 31 now, and this aspect of the story really resonated with me.  I feel like one of the biggest lessons I learned in my 20’s was how to relate to my parents now that all of us are grown-ups.  It’s a whole new balance, almost like they’re different people.  I appreciated the way that Peters addressed that in a realistic way.

Per usual, the narrative was from Amelia’s journals, Ramses’s Manuscript H, and Nefret’s Letter Collection B (to her adopted cousin, Lia).  Peters does an excellent job creating three believable and different voices.  Ramses narrative, especially, has come a long way.  He still writes in the third person, but the writing reflects more of his wry sense of humor.

Overall, this series is continuing to keep me involved.  It can be difficult, I think, to write such a long series involving the same characters.  But as with Ellis Peters’s Cadfael stories, this Peters uses each story to develop her characters more, making them realistic and intriguing.

The “Moffat” books

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by Eleanor Estes

Published 1941, 1942, 1943, 1983

In the pages of these books we meet some of my most beloved literary characters.  Sylvia, Joey, Jane, and Rufus Moffat, plus dear Mama and Catherine-the-Cat.

Don’t be confused: even though these books were written during World War II, they’re set just before, during, and after World War I.  In a small Connecticut town, the Moffats are a beautiful family.  Papa Moffat died several years before the books begin, and Mama works as a dressmaker to support her family.  Though poor, the Moffats are a happy, tight-knit family.  They work and play together.

These books are genuinely funny.  I literally laughed out loud on multiple occasions at the antics of the Moffat children, especially Jane (my favorite).  The stories mostly focus on the two younger Moffats, Jane and Rufus.  Full of fun, they frequently get into scrapes, but always manage to come out right at the end.

I’ve actually struggled a bit with this review.  These books are just so sweet and wonderful that I don’t really know how to describe them.  They are simple yet deep, funny yet touching, happy yet serious.  I will say that The Moffat Museum is my least favorite of the quartet.  Estes wrote it quite a long while after the rest; in the meantime she had written her two famous books about the Pye family (Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye), which also take place in the Moffats town of Cranbury.  Somehow, The Moffat Museum is a great deal more about growing up than the others – somehow not quite as innocent.  Plus, it almost feels as though Estes goes out of her way to mention other characters who were actually originally introduced in the Pye books.  In The Moffat Museum, Sylvie gets married and Joey has to leave high school to get a job.  These life changes are met with grace and humor, but the book has much more of a bittersweet taste to it than the other three.

The Middle Moffat is probably my favorite.  It focuses on Jane, and especially her friendship with Mr. Buckle, the oldest citizen of Cranbury.  (As an aside, Mr. Buckle is a veteran of the Civil War!  It’s quite amazing, if you think about it, how close our country’s history really runs.)  Jane’s thoughts are truly hilarious to me.

The Moffats are kind.  They live in a world wherein neighbors care for one another, where young children run about town without fear, where pleasures are inexpensive, and where contentment is a characteristic strongly cultivated and greatly valued.  Even though they are set nearly a hundred years ago, the laughter and lessons found in these stories are timeless.  Excellent read-alouds for younger readers, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.  They are quick, easy reads, 100% guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, and possibly a tear to your eye.

“True Devotion” and “True Valor”

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by Dee Henderson

Published 2000, 2002

So some of you may remember when I read the O’Malley series last spring.  The thrillers, by this same author, followed a family of adopted brothers and sisters.  They were not only excellent mysteries, but well-written Christian fiction as well (a category of books that I consistently judge quite harshly, as nothing annoys me as much as clumsy, shallow, let’s-just-slap-on-a-Jesus-bandaid Christian lit).  I’ve put off reading her Uncommon Heroes series for a while because, confession: I judge them by their covers.

As you can tell by said covers, these  books are about individuals in the United States military.  Without getting super political, I have to say that, over the last several years, my views have been trending isolationist (in that sort of “What the heck are we really doing all over the world when we could use money domestically to fix problems here at home that seem more important and relevant and look a lot more like our actual business??” way), so I had to read these books by setting aside that mentality a bit.  I can definitely appreciate the heroism of the actions and lives of the individuals involved (and my isolationist feelings in no way wish to belittle the lives of those who have chosen to serve in the military), but I do have to consciously squelch the part of me that keeps muttering But why the heck are you flying over Afghanistan anyway?!?!

At any rate.  True Devotion is about a young widow whose husband was killed during a SEAL operation.  Three years have passed since his death, and Kelly is slowly rebuilding her life.  At the beginning of the book, Kelly almost dies while rescuing a young man from drowning in the ocean (she’s a lifeguard).  That event causes her to reassess where her life has gone since the death of her husband.  She realizes that her spiritual life has become a farce and determines to get herself back on track.

Kelly isn’t the only one doing reevaluation, though.  Joe, or Bear, is the commanding officer for the SEAL team Kelly’s husband was a part of, and the two men were best friends.  Bear has been a true friend to Kelly since her husband’s death, but Kelly’s near drowning makes him realize that he loves her and desires more from their relationship than being friends.

In True Valor we meet Grace and Bruce.  Grace is naval aviator who flies a F/A-18 Hornet from an aircraft carrier, while Bruce is an Air Force Pararescue Jumper (PJ).  The two are friends because Gracie’s cousin/feels-like-a-brother is dating Bruce’s sister.  While they are definitely interested in each other, their careers have both of them traveling all over the world.  And so they begin a correspondence, and much of the book is comprised of their letters.

These are fine books and, considering that the jobs of the main characters, surprisingly relaxing reading.  They are definitely more of love stories than thrillers.  Unlike the O’Malley series, wherein there was a definite Bad Guy, these folks are just living their lives.  There is an almost-villain in True Devotion, but even that guy feels more like he is just a victim of circumstances than a true Bad Guy.

So, as thrillers, they’re pretty terrible.  But as simple novels – Christian literature with a love story – they’re actually quite good.  Henderson draws characters very well, creating people who are personable, realistic, and likable.  She handles the building of these romantic relationships under difficult circumstances very well as the couples work through the logistical and emotional difficulties realistically but without dragging the plot down.  Conversations flow naturally, making the relationship-building believable.

The Christian part is handled with grace, as always.  Henderson, in my mind, truly epitomizes what all Christian literature should be – the religious part of the book flows naturally through the characters’ actions and conversations.  No unnecessary sermonettes or forced prayers.  Henderson’s characters are intelligent, forward-thinking, and proactive.  They don’t sit about ringing their hands and waiting for God to “do something,” but they display a trust and faith in His ultimate goodness that makes the conversations about Him that they have feel completely natural.

In the O’Malley books, there was usually one character who had not yet become a Christian, and the book sort of followed their path to salvation.  In the Uncommon Heroes stories, the characters are already Christians, and are working to understand exactly how their faith works out in real life.  I really enjoyed that aspect.  Christianity is not about one moment of faith or one prayer offered, but is a constant, life-long progress that is not always easy or simple.

All in all, these are fine books.  There are a total of four of them (I just started the third today), and I doubt that they will make my forever-classics list, but they are solid, pleasant reads with just enough story to keep them interesting.

 

The Shadow of the Bear

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by Regina Doman

Published 1997

Someone, and I can’t remember who (SO BAD at remember who recommends books to me!  I’m sorry!), recommended this series of fairy tales retold to me.  The Shadow of the Bear is the first and is a modern-day retelling of Snow White and Rose Red.  I’ve actually always really liked that fairy tale, and was excited to see someone paying attention to it.

Doman tells a story without magic, yet a story that is still most definitely a fairy tale.  I really, really enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to reading the rest in the series.

One of the things I especially loved was the way that the beginning of each chapter was a quote from the original fairy tale – that really added context and helped the reader to see the parallels between the original story and Doman’s version.  The story was well-paced and the characters were engaging.

The author is obviously a Catholic, and her conservative viewpoints come through strongly in her writing.  However, she isn’t obnoxious about it, and there are no “preachy” sections.  I would be thrilled to find more YA Christian fiction like this, as I think that Doman has struck an excellent balance between allowing her characters to naturally discuss their religion (and the morals thereof) without making the book into a theology lesson.  I also think that the story is strong enough that non-Christian/non-religious readers will also find it enjoyable and intriguing, which, for me, is the hallmark of good fiction: are the story and characters strong enough that even someone who completely disagrees with the author’s viewpoint can still enjoy them?  (e.g., I obviously have a lot of disagreements with Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody books, but the story/characters are strong enough to keep me reading anyway)  For Doman’s tale, I think the answer is yes.

Sometimes the writing does get a little …  flowery? … for me (one scene where they’re getting on the subway and one of the characters goes off on this thing about how these underground trains remind her of dragons yadda yadda and, I don’t know, it just felt a bit over-the-top with this poetical description in the midst of the conversation; on the other hand, the character has a bit of an overly-dramatic personality, so in a way it fit, lol) but overall the story moves briskly.

Excellent read, 4/5.

“Guardian of the Horizon” and “A River in the Sky”

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Published: 2004, 2010

Sometimes an author writes a series, but doesn’t publish the books in chronological order.  This actually drives me crazy, because then if you want to read the series, it’s incredibly difficult to find a list (or rather, find consistent lists) because some people list them chronologically, some list them in published order, and some list them completely haphazardly.

I am a bit of a ditherer when it comes to deciding which way is the best way to read these series, because with series I love, I’ve had different experiences.  For instance, if I’m introducing someone to the Chronicles of Narnia, I always recommend that they start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe rather than The Magician’s Nephew (even though the latter is first chronologically) because I feel like The Magician’s Nephew actually makes more sense if you’ve read The LWW first.

Peters, from what I can gather, wrote her initial Amelia Peabody series, and then reached a point where she decided that the characters’ stories had been concluded satisfactorily.  Instead, the next two books she wrote fit into “gaps” from the original books.  For the first run-through, The Ape Who Guards the Balance takes place during the 1906-07 season, and the next book that was published, The Falcon at the Portal, takes place 1911-12.  The two books above were published after the last book chronologically, but are set in the gap, taking place 1907-08 and 1910 respectively.  Peters passed away before published any further books, but talked of filling in the gaps even more with future books (although the only other huge gap is between the first book – 1884-85 – and the second – 1892-93).

ANYWAY all that to say (sorry for the yawn-fest) that, in the end, I decided to go with the chronological order on these read.  Guardian of the Horizon and A River in the Sky fit in so neatly that if I hadn’t known they were published out of order, I never would have suspected.

In these two books, Peters once again engages us with what have become her two main narrative methods – Amelia’s journals and “Manuscript H,” Ramses third-person narrative.  In these books I felt that Peters had done a much better job balancing these two voices, allowing them to work together rather than against each other, and underscoring rather than undermining the love that Amelia and Ramses share.

I will say that in Guardian of the Horizon, Ramses sleeps with a girl he has met (not graphically, but it was still like, Whoa wait what?!) so that was a little bit surprising.  While Peters has always tongue-in-cheek enjoyed hinting at the very intimate and warm relationship that Amelia and Emerson share, it’s not offensive because that sexual tension is balanced with a warm, committed, strong marriage over all.  That comes off very differently from Ramses’ night with this girl.

The anti-religion (especially Christianity) bias came through stronger in these books as well.  In Guardian of the Horizon the Emersons are traveling by boat.  Two of their fellow-passengers ::just happen to be:: a rather fanatical “Christian” missionary and his sister.  Per usual, the missionary is portrayed as stupid, stubborn, prejudiced, hypocritical in the extreme, anti-women, anti-minorities, and just plain obnoxious.  His sister is little better – fluttering, ridiculously submissive, simpering, dumb, unable to think independently, completely bamboozled, and just ridiculous all around.  What made me so angry about this pair is that they were completely unnecessary to the plot.  They were just filler characters, killing time, who could easily have been written as being either less obnoxious or not as missionaries.  While I don’t expect writers to always portray Christians as honest, upstanding, delightful people (because I am fully aware that many people who claim the Christian label do not act that way), it does begin to wear when an writer seems incapable of portraying any Christian as anything other than a stupid, greedy hypocrite, and, in fact, consistently goes out of her way to do so.

In A River in the Sky, Peters decides towards the beginning that she will get the Emersons to Jerusalem by having them follow someone who claims to be seeking the Ark of the Covenant.  However, the Ark doesn’t appear in the story at all, does not actually appear to be being sought, and the whole thing comes off as just being a way to justify Emerson’s claims that the entire Old Testament is historically inaccurate, full of lies, completely useless, etc., which he rants about AT LENGTH.  Again, I’m not against fictional writing using Biblical artifacts (hey, I love Raiders of the Lost Ark and all the King Arthur stories about seeking the Holy Grail, too – heck, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a favorite of mine, and it doesn’t get much more sacrilegious than that!), but I don’t appreciate having an author introduce those elements simply because she feels like mocking the religion behind them.  It’s unnecessary, insulting, and degrading.

Other than those nagging annoyances, these books read very well.  (Sorry for all the complaining!)  I actually am really, really enjoying these books.  The mysteries are great fun, the main characters are quite likable, both Amelia and Ramses have an excellent narrative style, and most of the secondary characters are entertaining as well.  These two stories were a bit odd because neither of them took place in Egypt – in the first, the Emersons have to return to the “Lost City” from where they rescued Nefret in The Last Camel Died at Noon.  It was actually very interesting to return and see some of stories wrapped up a bit better, and to give Nefret some closure from her highly unusual childhood.

In the second book, as I mentioned, the Emersons travel to Jerusalem.  Besides managing to point out that every single major religion in the world is a joke, the story flowed fairly well.

The next book will put us back on track with publishing dates, and we’ll pick up the Emersons for the 1911 season.  The romantic relationship between Ramses and Nefret (or lack thereof – thus far, Ramses’ love is unrequited) has been paced slowly but interestingly throughout the stories and hopefully will pick up a bit soon.

Overall, these are fun and entertaining mysteries that I definitely recommend.

Jeeves & the Wedding Bells

by Sebastian Faulks

Published 2013

Apologies – apparently I forgot to take a picture of this one before sending it back to the library!

So yes, here we have an actual Jeeves & Wooster book not written by P.G. Wodehouse.  What is this sacreligiousness, you ask?  It is, in fact, a surprisingly fun story written by someone who obviously loves Wodehouse’s work and characters.

Let’s be honest: I was more than a little terrified of this book.  I am a HUGE Wodehouse fan (for those of you who have only been following me for a day), and have recently been reading through all of the Wooster stories in their published order.  Then I saw that Faulks was publishing another book, with the permission of the Wodehouse estate, I was filled with equal parts horror and anticipation.  Then my book blog friend, FictionFan, published a review on the book.  I was stunned to find that the review was actually a positive one!  Since FictionFan holds Bertie and Jeeves in the same high esteem as myself, I was slightly more confident going into the reading that it wasn’t going to be absolutely dreadful.

Faulks is pleasantly candid about the fact that he knows he isn’t Wodehouse.  He writes the book, he tells us, out of a love for Wodehouse and his work, and a desire that perhaps a fresh story added to the collection will help to encourage a new generation of readers to pick up one of Wodehouse’s tales.  He has written a story that, I think, captures the essence of Wooster and Jeeves without attempting to be Wodehouse, and I think that that was what made this book readable.

The story was fun, with much chaos and role-swapping and assumed identities and star-crossed lovers (all Wodehouse hallmarks).  However, I never, at any point, forgot that I was reading the work of someone other than Wodehouse, and even if I had been given the story without any identifying features, I still would have known it wasn’t Wodehouse.  The main reason, as FictionFan also mentioned, was the way that Faulks introduced, for lack of a better term, real time into his story.

I think that one of the most wonderful parts of the Wodehouse stories is the way that they don’t actually fit into a real period of history.  It’s almost like he created an alternate universe, one in which the Great War never occurred and Britain didn’t lose such a huge number of their young men to the trenches and the horrors thereof.  In Wodehouse’s England, everything is lighthearted and merry; aunts and terriers are the most dangerous foes, and serious subjects (like death and illness and major familial strife) are more or less completely avoided.  That is what makes his books so genius and so completely uplifting and hilarious.  There is no dark matter, no background story, no historic setting.  Wodehouse’s stories take place in a world that has never existed, the early 1900’s without any wars or the Great Depression.

Faulks, in contrast, introduces historical context into the story multiple times.  Not in a long, drawn-out way, and not with specific dates, but he definitely mentions people dying on the Lusitania and other events that would have taken place around World War I.  The death of Bertie’s parents is spoken of as a reason for him to bond with the girl with whom he has fallen in love.  In short, the story is a bit more real, and thus not as light.

Some reviews that I have read have disagreed with having Bertie fall in love (for real this time), but I didn’t mind that part of  the story, even though it strays from Wodehouse formula (his stories tend to be a bit sitcomish – everyone more or less ends up where they started).  Wodehouse never really concluded the Wooster tales – he was still writing books at the time of his death.  Somehow, for me (perhaps because I’ve just read ALL of the Wooster stories), Faulks’s story seems like a fitting conclusion for the series – loose ends are tied and all is golden.

And I think that that was how I felt when I finished this book – I felt as though the story was really finished.  It was almost as though the Faulks story was an epilogue to all of the Wooster books Wodehouse had written.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable read.  While not imbued with Wodehouse magic, Faulks nevertheless brings to life Wooster and Jeeves and then sends them off into the sunset, content and companionable.  Definitely a recommendation for anyone who has loved that pair through the years.