April Minireviews – Part 1

Still catching up on a bajillion reviews!  Now that I’ve checked off February (ha!), it’s on to March!!

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – 5* – finished March 5

//published 1934//

So it may not come as a surprise to learn that I am still in love with these books!  I’m reading this series very slowly, savoring each one.  I’ve also been purchasing them as I go in the Jonathan Cape editions, which come with amazing end maps that I love.  This story was about a gang of children on a sailing expedition.  I usually think of sailboats (when I think of them, which, if I’m honest, is rarely) in association with large, open bodies of water, but in this story the characters are sailing on a river!  There was loads of adventures and excitement, the most adorable characters, and just so many happy things.  I loved every single page, as always.

Wild Horse Running by Sam Savitt – 4* – finished March 5

//published 1973//

This is another children’s books, and a fairly short read with loads of gorgeous illustrations by the author, who is one of my favorites.  This is a story about a wild horse, and like the countryside the horse roams, the story is a bit sparse.  Although it was choppy at times, Savitt still pulls together a tale that tugs at your heartstrings.  Published at a time – tragically not very long ago! – when it was still legal to pursue wild horses by car and plane, run them to exhaustion, and then ship them off to make dog food, it’s obvious that part of the reason Savitt is writing is to shine a light on this horrific practice, but his writing never feels polemic.  If you like horse stories, than you’ll enjoy this one.  If you don’t, this one probably isn’t for you, as there isn’t a great deal of human interest aspect.

Mystery in the Pirate Oak by Helen Fuller Orton – 3* – finished March 6

//published 1949//

As you may be able to tell, I was on a run of children’s books at the beginning of the month, looking for some light, fast reads.  (Although Coot Club was particularly fast – it was 352 pages and still not long enough for me!)  This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I picked up at a booksale back in 1997!  Considering it’s barely 100 pages long, you think I would have bothered to read it sometime in the last 20+ years, but here we are.  This was overall a pretty average, if someone haphazard story, but what really blew my mind was the historical context – published in 1949, yet the characters’ grandma went west in a covered wagon.  It just never ceases to amaze me how actually close we are to that kind of history.

Watership Down by Richard Adams – 4.5* – finished March 6

//published 1972//

It had been years since I last read this classic, so I was rather excited that one of my group members chose it as her book to mail for #LMPBC (Litsy Markup Postal Book Club – four people in a group – each person picks a book to read and annotate – every month everyone mails whichever book they have to the next person until you get your own back).  Not only did I get the pleasure of reading it, I got to read notes and thoughts from the other members as well, which was super fun!

Anyway, if you enjoy animal stories, you have to read this one.  An epic adventure of a small group of wild rabbits who leave their home warren in search of someplace new.  Like truly great animal tales, the rabbits don’t behave unnaturally, other than their ability to converse with one another. (And who is to say they can’t do that in real life anyway?)  Adams even uses words that are part of the rabbits’ language that are “not translatable” into English, which somehow adds to the authenticity.  While this is an animal story, there is a lot of depth to the characters and world-building, and some thought-provoking lessons as well.

Fallen Into the Pit by Ellis Peters – 3.5* – finished March 8

//published 1951//

Ellis Peters wrote the Cadfael mysteries, which are some of my favorite books of all time.  Fallen Into the Pit is one of her much earlier books, and is a “modern” mystery (set just after WWII, which is when it was published) rather than a historical mystery like Cadfael.  While this was a perfectly enjoyable book, I didn’t love it, or particularly bond with any of the characters.  It was an interesting concept – a look at the way that WWII German POWs were being assimilated into Britain by sending them out to live in small villages.  I think part of the reason that I struggled with this book is because the German is definitely one of the bad guys, and was SUCH a jerk, so in a way it felt like the lesson of the book was that Yes, you SHOULD be paranoid about Germans living among us because they SUCK.  So the whole thing felt vaguely racist against Germans, if that makes sense.  Still, a decent if not stellar mystery, and with a likable enough protagonist that I reserved the next two books in the series from the library.  Of course, they are still there because the libraries have been shut down what feels like years, but someday!

The Last Waltz by Dorothy Mack – 3.5* – finished March 10

//published 1986//

Another paperback out of the box of random Regency romances, this one was set in Brussels rather than England, which was a fun switch.  With Napoleon closing in, the setting was more interesting than the actual story, which was incredibly bland.  Truly nothing unpredictable happened in this book, to the point that I can only vaguely remember it a month later!

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – 3.5* – finished March 12

//published 2015//

This is the first in a series revolving around a group of (modern) detectives in Derbyshire.  While this was a decent read, it was a bit garbled since one of the characters was doing her own research about the killer at the same time as the police, and it was easy to get confused about which people knew what – something that always frustrates me a little.  There were also SO MANY illegitimate babies.  SO MANY.  Basically every time there was a plot twist, it was because someone had had an unexpected pregnancy, and that got old after a while, especially with the not-so-subtle “if only they could have gotten an abortion at the time all their problems would have been solved!” message.  That’s right, because killing your baby solves all your issues and definitely doesn’t create any others. *eye roll*  Anyway, it was a fine mystery, but nothing about it inspired me to pick up the next book in the series.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold – 3.5* – finished March 15

//published 2015//

Quite a while ago I read another of Arnold’s books, Kids of Appetitewhich I genuinely loved.  I’ve been meaning to read Mosquitoland ever since, so I decided to choose it for one of my #LMPBC picks this round.  While I did like it, it just didn’t have the magic of Kids of Appetite.  In this story, teenager Mim has been forced to move with her dad and stepmom from northern Ohio to Mississippi, leaving her mother behind.  Lately, even letters and phone calls from her mom have stopped coming in, and when Mim overhears part of a conversation between her dad and stepmom, implying that Mim’s mom is sick, she steals some cash from her stepmom, jumps on a Greyhound bus, and starts heading north.  The book is journey, with plenty of adventures throughout.

My two main issues with this book – the first was just that most of it was way over-the-top.  I never really believed that any of these things happened to Mim.  There were way too many coincidences and genuinely ridiculously crazy characters.  While some of the episodes were entertaining, most of them just had me rolling my eyes in disbelief.  The book is very episodic in nature, which added to the overall choppy feel.

My second big issue is just that Mim’s dad didn’t tell her what was really going on with her mom.  Mim is 16, not 6, and there wasn’t really any reason that she shouldn’t have been told the truth immediately.  Literally all of Mim’s problems could have been avoided if her dad had had ONE honest conversation with her – and there was literally no reason for him not to, which I found frustrating.

All in all, Mosquitoland was interesting as a one-time read, and I am definitely curious to get it back in a few months and see what notes my fellow #LMPBC readers have left, as it does have a lot of potential discussion points, but it wasn’t a book that I really bonded with.  I do love the cover, though!

Brother Cadfael’s Penance



by Ellis Peters

Published 1994

It took Peters almost 20 years to publish the 20 Cadfael books.  The final installment, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, was published in 1994; Peters (whose actual name was Edith Pargeter) died in 1995 at the age of 82.  I am EXTREMELY glad that she was able to finish this book first.  For me, one of the most beautiful parts of the Cadfael books is the way that they all tie together.  Throughout the series, you not only come to know Cadfael himself, but many of the other brothers and townspeople.  Peters tells the story of a man who has followed his faith throughout his life, first during the Crusades and then as a monk, and who, despite these widely different lifestyles, is at peace with the choices he has made.

I think that it is the very humanness of her characters that makes these books so readable.  She certainly has her share of flat, shallow characters, but the ones who reappear in multiple books definitely take on depth and portray the many facets of human choices and life.  In this final book, Cadfael has to make some of the most difficult choices of his life, decisions that impact not only himself, but the fates of many others, and Peters writes about the agony of those decisions with beauty and poignancy.  Sometimes life does not present us with clear black and white choices, and life never presents us with people who are wholly evil or wholly good.  Dealing with those decisions and individuals is no easy task.

Every time I have reviewed one of these books, I have recommended the series.  This review is no different – these are excellent stories, beautifully written – stories that are not only decent mysteries, but wonderful reflections of humankind.

The Potter’s Field, Summer of the Danes, and The Holy Thief



by Ellis Peters

Published 1989, 1991, 1992

Sorry for the long posting delay…  we are in the  midst of moving house (again) so things are more than a bit chaotic around here!  But reading is always a constant, and I have TONS of books to post!!!

All the way back on vacation, I finally finished the Brother Cadfael series.  I’ll talk about the final book later, but first, books 17-19…

As always, excellent stories.  The Potter’s Field is an interesting one to me because it brings up an interesting question–a man left his wife to become a monk.  And I’m not sure that I agree that God would ever have someone take sacred vows (marriage) and then call that man to walk away from those vows.  Still, the cast of characters involved in this story are interesting.

The Summer of the Danes reintroduces one of my very favorite characters from the series, Brother Mark.  He and Cadfael are sent on an errand into Wales, and, while there, are caught up in a local civil war.  This book is a bit unusual for the series, in that Cadfael is not the center of the story.  He’s there, and we see much of it through his eyes, but it’s almost like she had this other story that she wanted to tell and just stuck Cadfael in it so she could include it in the series.  That doesn’t make the story any less worthwhile, because some of the other characters are very well drawn.

In The Holy Thief, we actually meet several characters who were first introduced in The Potter’s Field.  Saint Winifred again plays a large role in the story as well.  Somehow, this series gives you a great love and respect for that saint.

I truly love these books, as I say every time I review any of them, and highly recommend this well-written, historically accurate series.

The Heretic’s Apprentice



by Ellis Peters

Published 1990

This is actually one of my favorites of the Cadfael series (and, fear not, I finished these on vacation, so you are almost done reading about Cadfael! :-D).

In this story, a young man returns to Shrewsbury, bearing the body of his employer, whom he had accompanied on a pilgrimage that had lasted the last several years.  Although the older man had died on his trip, he had desired to be buried at his home church, and had charged (before his death, obviously) Elave (the young man) to bring his body home.  However, when Elave arrives at the abbey, another guest has arrived first–an Augustinian canon, Gerbert.  Gerbert’s horse has been lamed, and so he has had to unexpectedly stay at Shrewsbury for several days.  A strict (some may even say narrow-minded) man, Canon Gerbert is swift to pounce when he finds out that the reason that Elave’s employer went on a pilgrimage to begin with was because he had been accused to heresy.

While the mystery is good, per usual, my favorite part of the story is the non-mystery part–the part where Peters really studies human character.  She does a beautiful job working with the concept of heresy, managing to show several perspectives as reasonable, reminding all of us of the importance of humbleness (especially when it pertains to spiritual matters).  There is even a point where Brother Cadfael experiences a sudden understanding of Canon Gerbert’s viewpoint–

As for Gerbert himself, Cadfael had a sudden startling insight into a mind utterly alien to his own.  For the man really had, somewhere in Europe, glimpsed yawning chaos and been afraid, seen the subtleties of the devil working through the mouths of men, and the fragmentation of Christendom in the eruption of loud-voiced prophets bursting out of limbo like bubbles in the scum of a boiling pot, and the dispersion into the wilderness in the malignant excesses of their deluded followers.  There was nothing false in the horror with which Gerbert looked upon the threat of heresy…

The entire topic of heresy at this point in history is a fascinating one anyway.  Sometimes we forget that, at this time, the Catholic Church was the law and THE religion.  You were either Catholic, or you were a heretic, an outcast.  But Peters handles this beautifully.  Per usual, this book made me fall in love with Father Abbot quite a bit more.  He is my favorite character by far.

Since I haven’t posted in a while, I haven’t mentioned it in a while–you MUST read these books!

The Rose Rent, The Hermit of Eyton Forest, & The Confession of Brother Haluin



by Ellis Peters

Published 1986, 1988, 1988

Truth be told, while I love every single page of these books, I feel like a broken record reviewing them, especially since I don’t like to tell too much about the plot–they are mysteries, after all!  So I thought that I would combine these three into a single post.

One of the things that I greatly enjoy about Peters’s writing is her ability to teach a lesson quietly and unobtrusively.  Through the mouths of Brother Cadfael and the Father Abbot especially, gentle truths are put forth, truths worth wrestling with and examining.  In these books, we learn the beauty of generosity, that there is indeed a time to mourn, and that all is not always as it appears.

Perhaps one of my favorite lessons is found in The Confessino of Brother Haluin, which begins when a young monk falls from a roof (in dire need of repair due to a heavy snowfall) and nearly dies. So nearly, in fact, that he calls the Father Abbot so that he can make his final confession. However, the brother does not die, and, though very crippled, receives leave to make a pilgrimage as penance for a long-past but very serious sin. Brother Cadfael, the only other man alive to know this story, is chosen as the brother’s companion.

But what I loved about this book was the acknowledgement that life does not always go the way we wish. Love is not always fulfilled in the way we want it to be, but sometimes the life that we would have thought of originally as second-best, turns out to be the first-best after all. It is one of those lessons that we never seem to teach (or learn), but great contentment can be found when one realizes the import of this teaching.

These books are by no means perfect, and the mysteries are not always as mysterious as one might desire, but the overall writing quality, historical research, and simple beauty of these stories make them well worth the read.

The Raven in the Foregate



by Ellis Peters

Published 1986

In this Cadfael mystery, the author explores, as usual, not only a mystery, but human nature as well.  When the priest of the Foregate passes away, a newcomer must take his place.  But the new priest lacks the kindness and understanding of his predecessor.  And when he is found murdered, the question is not so much of “Who had motive?” as “Who didn’t?”  As always, Cadfael’s mystery is seamlessly woven with the background of England’s civil war.  These books are brilliantly written–wonderful mysteries and beautifully thought-provoking.  5/5.

An Excellent Mystery


by Ellis Peters

Published 1985

This is actually one of my favorite Cadfael books, and I’m not sure that I can exactly describe why.  I won’t try to describe the entire story, but towards the beginning of the book, a monk, Brother Humilis, comes to stay at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  While not an old man, he fought in the Crusades and was terribly injured there.  And though he was somewhat recovered, he is still dying, slowly.  Traveling with him is another brother, Brother Fidelis.  Though mute, Fidelis shows his devotion to Humilis through his constant, tender service.

There is just something so very beautiful about this friendship, about the care that Fidelis gives, and the gracious and humble way in which Humilis receives it.  This man who was once a great and famous soldier, now reduced to a shadow of his former self, who laid aside even his name (for Humilis was not his name in the world) and accepted the burdens he was given–this man is a profound example of one who is willing to receive, even with thankfulness and praise, God’s will.  And Fidelis–simple, quiet, constant service, the every-day laying aside of himself to give to one he loves.

The other stories that are woven throughout this book are thoughtful as well, exploring love and loss and lust and courage and sacrifice and forgiveness.  I have a bit more to say about this, but cannot do so without spoilers, so the rest will be below the line.  :-)

Continue reading

Pilgrim of Hate



by Ellis Peters

Published 1985

Just a few notes on this book in particular–as the tenth book in the series, it marks the middle ground.  And, interestingly, while Peters has always built on her previous books, weaving a world in which people are introduced and reintroduced and grown and change, in this particular book, many earlier plot lines reappear–most importantly, Saint Winifred and her place in the Shrewsbury abbey.

I am not Catholic (although I am a Christian) and I do not believe that the saints have the power, after their deaths, to aid us in our daily lives.  But Cadfael’s belief and reverence for his patron saint is beautiful.

Dead Man’s Ransom



by Ellis Peters

Published 1984

In this installment of my beloved Cadfael mysteries, England’s civil war impacts Shrewsbury on a personal level when, in battle, the county’s sheriff is taken prisoner by the Empress’s men.  Luckily for Shropshire, the King’s forces have a prisoner to exchange.  But when the sheriff dies before the ransom is complete, suspicion falls on the young prisoner, leaving Cadfael to untangle the truth of it.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again–a huge part of the charm of these books is their brilliant historical context.  While Peters doesn’t prose on and on about the political situation, it is an ever-present and very real part of the lives of the characters in these books.  The ebb and flow of the fortunes of the various contenders for the throne shifts military might, battles, scavengers, highwaymen, and the common folk of England all over the war-torn countryside, in a time where the smallest decision of a king or empress could have an almost immediate impact on the daily lives of many innocents.

These are wonderful books.  This title, in particular–excellent mystery, believable characters, and a well-paced story make it great fun.  5/5.

The Devil’s Novice



by Ellis Peters

Published 1983

So, here we are with another Cadfael book.  And while, as always, I enjoyed the story, this particular book is not one of my favorite mysteries.  For me, the conclusion is not far-fetched exactly, but a bit out of the circle of the thoughts Peters has given us.  It’s kind of along the lines of just choosing some random person off the street to be the murderer, instead of one of the people the detective has been interviewing.  Possible?  Yes.  Almost like cheating when you’re writing a mystery novel?  Perhaps.

Still, the story is interesting and well-written, and the relationship between Meriet and his father is well-drawn, I think.  What does one do with a younger son in 1140 England?

These books are all excellent reads, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.  But because I felt like the mystery itself was a bit weak in this one, it’s a 4/5.