Fangirl

//by Rainbow Rowell//published 2013//

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So this is my third Rowell book.  Landline, which I never got around to reviewing, was the first.  Then, not long ago, I read Eleanor & Parkwhich, unexpectedly, I actually enjoyed.

Fangirl wasn’t like either of those.  It was more lighthearted.  There were some genuinely funny characters, some fantastic dialogue, and some solid conversations/themes underneath.

The main character is Cath.  A college freshman, Cath is nervous about being on her own for all the usual reasons, and some that aren’t so usual.  She can’t believe that she is going to be rooming with another random student in the dorm – she’s always shared a room with her twin sister, Wren, but Wren has shown a spark of independence by declaring that it’s time to meet new people, have new experiences, and embrace life – which means having a new roommate in a different dormitory.

Cath is a huge fan of Simon Snow.  As Rowell explains to us via an “Encyclowikia” entry at the beginning of the book, Simon Snow is the main character of a fantasy series that sounds a great deal like Harry Potter.  Cath isn’t just a fan, though – she writes fanfiction about Simon Snow, and her stories are immensely popular.

Throughout the story, Cath adjusts to her new life, and we learn more about her old life, and why she is the way that she is.  Cath is an incredibly relatable and likable heroine, and I really enjoyed reading about her ups and downs of college life.  There is plenty of good stuff about family, relationships, friendships, and just overall becoming-an-adult stuff, and Rowell handles it all well.  I really loved watching Cath’s relationships with her dad and her sister transition from relating as a child to relating as an adult.  It’s one of those weird things about growing up that people don’t really talk about – while you’ll never be a contemporary of your parents, you do become an equal.

Eleanor & Park was about a pair of high schoolers; Landline is about a middle-aged couple; but I really felt that Fangirl was where Rowell belongs – she brought life to her college characters incredibly well, capturing that awkward whoa-we’re-adults-except-we-have-no-idea-how-to-adult feeling perfectly.

Fangirl was a super fun read.  I could have done without some of the passages of Cath’s fanfiction, but overall the story moved well, the characters were both likable and believable, and the story was adorable.  4/5.

French Leave

//by P.G. Wodehouse//published 1956//

So, as I mentioned in my April Rearview Mirror, spring always puts me in a bit of a reading slump.  Two things brought me out of the slump:  a crazy werewolf-paranormal-YA series that was completely out of my usual realm of reading but completely engaging (review to appear whenever I finish the third book in the trilogy… do you have any idea how sad it is to wait weeks for the third book in a trilogy?!), and, of course, my hero: P.G. Wodehouse.

French Leave is a pretty average Wodehouse read, if I’m honest.  There are all the usual ingredients – a dashing and slightly-shady elderly uncle-type, a hardworking and handsome young man, a spunky and adorable heroine, an overbearing and terrifying mother/aunt, another nice although not-quite-as-smart young couple to get mixed up with the primary couple, and a bumbling law enforcement officer.  Why, and this is a legitimate question, why is Wodehouse so perfect?  How can he take the same ingredients and yet manage to consistently emerge with a book I can hardly put down and that makes me laugh out loud at regular intervals?  It’s not as though it’s the element of surprise – his books are frequently predictable – but there is something about them that makes each one unique, even if it is a variation on his favorite song.

I thoroughly enjoyed French Leave, and it was really nice to finally read a book I really wanted to dig into, after several very MEH reads, and even a couple of DNFs.  While there is still too much springtime in the air for me to be a full-on winter-reading capacity, French Leave definitely helped get me back into the reading gear.  Wodehouse is highly recommended whether you are in a reading slump or not because it is always a perfect time for Wodehouse!

4/5

Cousin Kate

//by Georgette Heyer//published 1968//

CousinKate  So this little regency gem by one of my favorite authors was quite a bit different from the other Heyer works I’ve read.  While still engaging and interesting, full of delightful dialogue and likable characters, Cousin Kate was a more melodramatic work, with an underlying tension that was actually quite exciting.

Our story opens with the heroine, Kate, arriving at the home of her childhood nurse, Sarah (excellent name, that).  Kate, an orphan, was left penniless a year (a few years?  a few months?  not exactly sure how long) earlier and has been attempting to earn her living as a governess.  Dismissed from that position thanks to the unwelcome attentions of the son of the master of the house, Kate has come back to Sarah’s to regroup and decide what to do next with her life.

 Of course, as we know, job opportunities for gently bred young women in the Regency era were not numerous.  Sarah, determined that Kate should have the “good” things in life, which Sarah believes Kate deserves, goes behind Kate’s back and contacts one of Kate’s only living relatives (her mother was disowned by her mother’s people when her mother married Kate’s father), Kate’s father’s half-sister.  Much to everyone’s surprise, Aunt Minerva immediately dashes up to London and (figuratively) sweeps Kate into her arms and insists that Kate comes to live with her at Aunt Minerva’s country manor, Staplewood.  Here, Aunt Minerva lives with her (much older) husband, Sir Timothy, and their son (a few years younger than Kate), Torquil, who is also invalidish – he has never really gone anywhere beyond the immediate environs of Staplewood, being too delicate to go away to school or to enjoy a Season in London.

At first, Kate enjoys the pleasure and rest of Staplewood, but, being an intelligent, sociable, industrious young woman, the inactivity and lack of companionship begins to wear on Kate.  Also, the relationships between her three relatives seem…  odd.  When Sir Timothy’s nephew, Phillip, arrives for a visit, things become even more strained.

Overall, I really enjoyed Cousin Kate.  Although in some ways the story was slow, it rarely felt as though it dragged.  Heyer manages to slowly reveal several characters to be more sinister than they first appear, and Kate’s realization that all is not well is completely natural and oddly creepy.  Throughout, there is a sense of unease, and uncertainty of whom one can actually trust to be the person they claim to be.

However, there are so rather lengthy monologues that aren’t terribly interesting, especially as several times one person would tell Kate what they thought about another (at length) and then a few pages later, Kate would have to listen to the previously-discussed person explain why they were, in fact, exactly as the other had thought they were …  in other words, it was almost the same monologue twice in the same chapter, which was a bit monotonous at times.

The ending also felt rather abrupt.  While not necessarily dissatisfying, it was sudden (can you have a sudden ending on page 318?  Yes, yes you can), leaving me not 100% convinced of Kate’s future happiness (although I would say I was left 95% sure, which, on the whole, probably isn’t too bad).

Kate is a strong protagonist, someone I really liked and was definitely rooting for.  She is kind, industrious, intelligent, funny, and brave.  She tries to find the best in people and situations, but faces up to trouble when it meets her.  Even though her life had thrown her plenty of difficulties, she was still determined to make her own way on her own terms.

Cousin Kate was an excellent read.  While different from the more lighthearted Heyer novels I’ve enjoyed in the past, the more “gothic” aspect of the story was actually a fun change of pace.  4/5 – definitely recommended, especially for other Heyer fans.

Sleeping Murder

//by Agatha Christie//published 1976//

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So I do believe that this is my favorite Miss Marple tale to date.  Sleeping Murder was a delightfully creepy, well-paced story.

First, though, let’s talk about something that really confused me.  I’ve been reading the Miss Marple stories in their published order, as I did last year with Hercule Poirot.  And, thus far, the stories have also been in chronological order (the Poirot mysteries did the same).  However, Sleeping Murder is definitely set earlier in Miss Marple’s timeline than the book before this one (Nemesis).   While still elderly, Miss Marple is much more active, and, throughout the story is found gardening and weeding, activities she has vocally mentioned in earlier books as being too strenuous for her, per her doctor’s orders.

And so, I did something that I rarely do for this book blog (because, as I have mentioned in the past, I am a super lazy blogger) – I actually did a smidge of research on this book.  And by that, I mean I read the Wikipedia article.  And now I will summarize the publishing information from said article for you, so you can be a lazy blog reader and not click through to the link.  (Besides, if you click through to a Wikipedia link, you’ll never end up back here.  You’ll get swept up in a series of Wikipedia links, and before you know it, it’s already after 18:00 and you’re supposed to have supper on the table but you’re busy reading about the communication methods of honey bees.)

Okay, so, apparently, earlier in her career, Christie wrote the last Poirot novel and the last Marple novel. Then she put those novels in a vault, and went on to write many other novels, including lots that involved these two characters.  After she published Postern of Fatethe actual last novel she ever wrote, in 1973, Christie authorized the publication of Poirot’s final appearance, Curtain.  Sleeping Murder followed in 1976, although Christie passed away before it was actually published.  While Curtain is most definitely the end of Poirot, Sleeping Murder is, in fact, set earlier in Miss Marple’s lifetime (so I wasn’t crazy).  Sleeping Murder wasn’t as powerful of a mystery as Curtain, but I was unsurprised to find that it had been written earlier in Christie’s career – I really think that her earlier works are much stronger than her later ones.

This story starts with a young woman, from New Zealand, who has arrived in England to pick out a home.  Her husband is to follow shortly (he is traveling on business), but she gets the pleasure and the challenge of finding the perfect home for their new life together.  Whilst driving through the countryside, Gwenda finds a beautiful little house – she loves it at first sight.  She feels as though she has come home at least – it is as though she instinctively already knows about this house, all its secrets.  She purchases it happily, and wires her husband Giles to tell him the wonderful news.

As Gwenda settles in, though, she continually has feelings of unease.  That feeling of “knowing” the house takes on a more ominous tone as various  remodeling projects she puts into action turn out to be, in fact, restoration – clearing bushes leading down to the sea reveals that there used to be stairs there.  Putting a doorway between the den and the dining room – except there was already a door there, plastered over.  Separately, these little incidences would feel inconsequential, but as more and more of them occur, Gwenda becomes more and more frightened.

I cannot begin to describe how creepy Christie makes all of this sound.  I really don’t want to give any more of this away because you definitely need to read it yourself.  It sounds so dumb, but it is positively eerie.

Much like Curtain, Sleeping Murder is a book that you simply have to read.  I can’t describe much more for fear of giving it away.  The story unwinds with perfect pacing, hurling the reader into a very satisfactory ending.  A 4/5 for Miss Marple’s final entrance, and an excellent way to end her series.

Nemesis

//by Agatha Christie//published 1971//

14714-nemesis-christie-agathaMiss Marple is enjoying her quiet life at home when she receives a letter…  from someone who is dead…

Back in A Caribbean MysteryMiss Marple met the elderly, crippled, and slightly eccentric millionaire, Mr. Rafiel.  Mr. Rafiel helped Miss Marple apprehend the murderer in that tale, but she never expected to hear from him again.  However, in his will, Mr. Rafiel offered Miss Marple money in exchange for “seeing justice done.”  Without any real clue as to what she is supposed to do, Miss Marple nonetheless accepts the challenge, and heads off on a little home and garden tour that, prior to his death, Mr. Rafiel arranged for her.  Along the way, Miss Marple slowly begins to piece together the story he wanted her to unravel.

The last several Miss Marple reads have been quite meh for me, but Nemesis really engaged me.  The pace is actually quite slow, and the story lacks that edge of nervous anticipation (no one ever really feels in danger at any point; the death feels a bit out of place, really), but for some reason I really enjoyed the conversations and the slow unraveling of the past.  Miss Marple is a patient person – in a way, that is her technique.  Gentle conversation and always listening to stories.

And while the story was sadly devoid of Miss Marple’s rambling comparisons, it still contained plenty of her no-nonsense wisdom:

“If you expect me to feel sympathy, regret, urge an unhappy childhood, blame bad environment; if you expect me in fact to weep over him, this young murderer of yours, I do  not feel inclined to do so.  I do not like evil beings who do evil things.”

“I am delighted to hear it,” [he said].  “What I suffer in the course of my profession from people weeping and gnashing their teeth and blaming everything on some happening in the past, you would hardly believe.  If people knew the bad environments that people have had, the unkindness, the difficulties of their lives and the fact that nevertheless they can come through unscathed, I don’t think they would so often take the opposite point of view.”

While Nemesis was not a high-action thriller, it is an engaging story and interesting mystery nonetheless.  4/5.

Deep Secret

//by Diana Wynne Jones//published 1997//

Deep_Secret_CoverSo it’s been a while since I read a DWJ book, and Deep Secret was an excellent read to jump back in on.  (Wow, terrible grammar.  Oh well.)  In Deep Secret, DWJ again shows her fantastic world-building skills by creating an alternate universe just enough like our own to make you wonder if she is, in fact, writing about an alternate universe, or simply the way it really is.

Rupert is a Magrid.  These powerful magicians are given jurisdiction over various worlds, and are in charge of making sure things happen the way they are “supposed” to.  This way is determined by a group of magic workers/possibly gods/goddesses who live in the Upper Room and make decisions about what all needs to happen throughout the universes.  We start our story with Rupert having a Very Bad Day as he is called to his least favorite world to solve a problem (and doesn’t; things go rather dreadfully) and then returns home only to find out that his friend and mentor is dying.  Not only is Stan’s death sad on a personal level, it means a lot more work for Rupert.  There must be a constant number of Magrids, so the loss of Stan means Rupert is now in charge of finding a replacement.

Frequently, I find DWJ’s stories very confusing or garbled, but Deep Secret really made sense for me.  I found I was able to keep characters straight (mostly), and the  magic made sense, too.  I also really, really liked Rupert, and ended up liking pretty much everyone on Rupert’s team of friends.  Per usual, the villains are quite villainy, and they meet some very strong just desserts in the end.

This is another of DWJ’s “adult” fantasy books, but far more PG than the last one I read (A Sudden, Wild Magic).

Overall, Deep Secret was a 4/5.  It has a loose sequel, The Merlin Conspiracy, that I’m getting ready to start, so I’m pretty excited about that as well, as it really felt like DWJ had created a very intriguing world in Deep Secret.  

The Far-Off Land

download (2)  by Rebecca Caudill

published 1964

As a little girl, I loved the book The Happy Little Family by Rebecca Caudill.  Aimed at a much younger audience than this title, that book is more a series of little stories about the same family.

The Far-Off Land is more of a YA novel of sorts.  Set in 1780, the story is about Ketty, a young woman who, orphaned, has been taken in by a community in North Carolina comprised of people known as the Moravians.  I’d never really heard of the Moravians before, but they appear to be a Christian religion similar to the Quakers, in that they are very peaceful and (at least in the 1780s), focused a great deal on acceptance, hard work, non-aggression, and kindness to all.  Ketty has lived within this community for several years when our story opens, but she doesn’t stay there for long – in the first chapter her long-lost older brother appears from the North Carolinian frontier.  He sweeps her up to come live with him and his family, and to journey with them even further west to an area on the North Carolina-Tennessee border known as the French Lick.

While Ketty isn’t completely sure she wants to go with her brother, who is practically a stranger, the Moravian elders urge her to remember and embrace the importance of family unity.  Ketty sets off with her brother (Anson).  He and two other men have built a flatboat, on which they intend to float down various rivers with their families until they arrive at the French Lick.  Over the next several months, Ketty does a great deal of personal growing as she faces situations and difficulties that she never imagined.  Of course, she finds some romance along the way, but it’s a rather minor part of the overall story.

The Far-Off Land was an interesting book because it wasn’t exactly a happy one.  Life in the 1780 frontier is no joke, and the group faces some hard situations, including injury, disease, hunger, bad weather, and Indians.  Through it all, though, Ketty learns the importance of loyalty and trust, but she also learns the importance of standing strong for her own beliefs.  While Ketty respects her brother and his position of leadership in her life, she isn’t afraid to do what she believes is right, and, in the end, she is respected for her actions.

The treatment of the Indians is the big division between Ketty and the others.  Because the Moravians have always treated the Indians with respect and kindness, Ketty has never known them to be dangerous or frightening.  However, the other settlers have all experienced violence at the hands of the Indians – and have delivered violence of their own.  Ketty struggles a great deal with trying to understand how to hang on to her convictions, even in situations where  her convictions seem dangerous or foolish.

Before she left the Moravian town, one of the women there gave Ketty two life-rules, to which Ketty clings throughout the story:  To be present and to be reverent.  Sister Oesterlein explains that  by being present, Ketty can hear and respond to the needs of those around her, and that by being reverent she can learn to value and cherish life and beauty everywhere they are found –

“By loving people, Ketty, you will come to understand their needs.  By loving and caring about people – all people.  See people as we Moravians see them – not as friends or enemies, but as people, red people and black people as well as white, Tories as well as patriots, the gentleman’s slave as well as the gentleman.  If love goes with you through the wilderness, Ketty, you needn’t be afraid.  There isn’t any evil in the world that won’t give ground before a loving woman.

…Reverence God and all that He has created.  Especially reverence life, Ketty – all life.  Reverence and enjoy the lovely things of earth – wind in wheat fields, cucumber vines in bloom, the smell of scythed hay in windrows, the noise of thunder, and the stillness of the snow.  Whatever falls to your lot, lean times or times of plenty, if you care about people and walk reverently, Ketty, you will be doing right.”

This isn’t a book of gripping excitement or intense doings, but a story of a young woman who is trying her best to learn to walk lovingly and reverently through life, even when she is surrounded by people who tell her that that is a foolish way of life, and that the only way to survive is by being the strongest, and taking whatever one needs from the weakest.  It is not at all an overtly religious book, and I really felt that the concepts of being present and being reverent were equally applicable to life whether someone is religious or not.

Really, my biggest beef with this  book is that it ended quite suddenly.  We spend all this time traveling to the French Lick, and the book ends before they get there!  It really felt like we could have cut out a little bit of the traveling and showed a more conclusive ending than Ketty and her man paddling off in a canoe to start their new life, but maybe that’s just me.

Overall, this book was a thoughtful 4/5.  While not a beloved classic like A Happy Little Family, The Far-Off Land still  has plenty to recommend itself in thought-provoking and engaging story-telling.

PS I haven’t looked into very closely, but apparently the Moravian Church is still around?  And, more intriguingly, still based in North Carolina!