Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Scarlet Pimpernel

 

The Scarlet Pimpernel / Baroness Orczy
NY: Signet Classics, 2013, c1905.
288 p.

Another mysterious classic! I read this years and years ago, and decided to revisit it recently. I still enjoyed it a great deal, with its romantic storyline featuring a brilliant mind hiding behind inanity, and star-crossed lovers. 

If anyone doesn't know by now, The Scarlet Pimpernel is the code name for a heroic Englishman rescuing French aristocracy from the guillotine, under the noses of the French revolutionaries. He has a whole spy network, and has never yet been caught - he is the master of disguise. 

But he's also an English fop, keeping his secret identity a secret even from his beautiful French wife Marguerite. She can't understand why he no longer seems interested in her, having been passionate when they were married. And he can't trust her, having heard that a word from her had led others to their deaths. 

There is the dual storyline going on here - the marriage and its miscommunications, and the whole French-English spy thriller bit. Both are exciting and dreamy and romantic and all that. I find this adventure romance style both old-fashioned and very swoon-worthy. 

Leaving aside the moments in which Marguerite is totally clueless thanks to the narrator's need for a story, the characters are appealing and the story is a fun one. 

However, what I didn't see as a young reader was the fairly appalling representation of a Jewish man at the end -- it was painful to read this time around. But I still do love Sir Percy Blakeney and his place in the literary tradition of genius spy/sleuth disguised as a bit of a fop. The ending satisfies the romantic reader and the intrigue is tied up neatly. 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Why Shoot a Butler?

 

Why Shoot a Butler? / Georgette Heyer
NY: Dutton, 1973, c1933.
262 p.

This is one of Georgette Heyer's Golden Age mysteries -- not as charming or witty as her better Regencies, nor as successful as a mystery as those by other Golden Age writers. It was, however, a fun enough read for a lazy afternoon. 

In this story, Frank Amberly, a very manly lawyer, arrives at his aunt's house in the country, where instead of a relaxing break he gets himself smack into another murder mystery -- it's happened to him before, and the police are aware of his reputation. 

Taking a 'shortcut' across the countryside on his way to his aunt's manor, he comes upon a young woman in distress, alongside a sports car with a dead butler inside. She swears she is innocent, and he believes her and gets her out of the way before reporting the body. 

For the rest of the book he is simultaneously suspicious of her and protecting her from police investigations. He's very snide, and high-handed, and wouldn't get away with behaviour like interfering with the course of justice and overriding local police investigations anywhere but in a book like this. 

It's light and quick but somehow drags at the same time. The dialogue is good, the plot alright, although it does go on a bit. A great number of the characters seem flat and not fully fleshed out, but our arrogant hero dominates while the tough, secretive, lovely heroine is appealing. The romance in the book doesn't exactly seem foretold, and the conclusion is a bit hurried, to my mind. There are multiple deaths, and numerous villians, a thrilling car chase through the dark countryside leading to an even more hair-raising boat chase at the shore -- like I said, it's a fun read for an afternoon. 

It certainly shows its age, though, in some of the characterizations; quite stereotypical in many ways, only a few characters really live. Still, it is Heyer writing it so it does have its pros. Not a must read, but a pretty good one overall. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Railway Children

 

The Railway Children / E. Nesbit
[Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2009, c1906.

Another children's book! This time a classic. Somehow I got into the groove of reading kid lit over the break. I have a lot of favourite Nesbit from when I was young, but this wasn't one of them. Somehow, the idea of a realist story of three siblings whose family loses all its money and has to move to the country didn't appeal as much as stories of sand fairies and magic carpets when I was a child reader.

But I decided to read it now, since there was an audio version in my library. I really enjoyed the narrator, who didn't try to sound twee or sweet, just crisply English. 

It's the story of Roberta, Peter and Phyllis, three siblings who face a crisis when their father mysteriously disappears and their mother moves them to a drafty country house, and becomes far too busy writing stories for magazines to play with them any longer. They entertain themselves by haunting the railway line that runs near the house, and visiting the station regularly. They make friends with the station master and porter, with an old gentleman on the train, and with various townspeople. 

It is an episodic story, with adventures happening regularly - the children have to warn an oncoming train about a landslide around the corner; they celebrate the porter's birthday; they rescue a schoolboy who has broken his leg inside the railway tunnel. And much more.

Throughout, the sibling relationships are realistic, with lots of arguments and boy/girl stereotypes too. It is quite of its time in some ways, with adults talking about the strength of boys and the weakness of girls, and the angelic mother. But it's also lively and fresh in others, as when the children's father states near the opening that girls and boys are equal and encourages Roberta, the eldest, in her interest in trains. 

It was a little soppy for me in parts, and the habit of the narrator talking to the reader, especially as the end got nearer, was a bit trying. It gets a bit meta in the end, with the children and their story-writing mother saying things like 'if this were a story, then x would happen' and the mother sweetly saying that God knows the right end to a story. 

But I did enjoy it in the main, and found the ending touching. I still think this wouldn't have appealed to me much as a child; I would always go for the magic in the other Nesbit stories. As an adult, I appreciated it but didn't make that connection you can make when reading as a young reader. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Story of Holly and Ivy

 

The Story of Holly and Ivy / Rumer Godden
NY: MacMillan, 2005, c1958.
64 p.

My favourite of all of Rumer Godden's stories about dolls, this small Christmas story follows Holly, a 6 yr old orphan being sent to a country home for the Christmas holiday as everyone else in her orphanage has been spoken for by local families. She tells herself that she's going to visit her grandmother in the country, and gets off the train randomly in a small town with the name that she has made up for her grandmother's village. 

She enjoys herself in the afternoon, walking the Christmas market and gazing into the window of the toy store, but as night falls she knows she can't be found by the policeman making his rounds. She scurries into an alleyway and finds a warm shed on the back of a bakery to curl up in. 

She can't help going back to the toy store in the night, though, to gaze at the doll she wants more than anything, and there she finds a key on the ground that she puts into her pocket. 

In the early morning, she is found by a policeman outside the shop, along with the shop boy who is anxious to find the key he dropped. And this coincidence leads to a surprising and heartwarming conclusion in which everyone gets everything they had wanted, with no bureaucratic claptrap to interfere with it all. Simpler times! 

This is a story that feels heavy with Christmas magic to me, though, and it's one I love. The picture book edition, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, is especially delightful if you can find it. The illustrations are just so perfect. 

That concludes my Christmas reading; on to other books and reviews shortly.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Fairy Doll

 

The Fairy Doll / Rumer Godden
NY: MacMillan, 2007, c1956.
52 p.

Over Christmas I revisited some stories by an author I really enjoy, Rumer Godden. I remember reading some of her doll stories when I was a child, and so I got out a collection and reread a couple of Christmas themed ones, which were charming, though a wee bit dated in some ways. 

The Fairy Doll is the tale of Elizabeth, the youngest of a family, who is treated impatiently because she is clumsy and not as quick witted as the older children. When Great Granny comes to visit, however, she suggests that Elizabeth needs her own Fairy to help her, and gives her the Fairy Doll from the top of the Christmas tree. All year long Elizabeth is helped in her struggles by a 'ting' in her mind showing her what to do, thanks to the Fairy Doll, and gets better at school, at her errands and finally learns to ride her bicycle. 

But then tragedy - the Fairy Doll is lost! But Elizabeth keeps on doing better at life. Was it just herself all along? This is a sweet story about the power of self-confidence and the realities of getting older. There are odd little moments, as when 6 yr old Elizabeth is sent alone to the shops to pick up items for Mother and gets muddled, and is mocked for this by her siblings when she gets home. A different time indeed! 

If you haven't read any of these "doll stories" before, Christmas is a good time to do it. They are sweet but not overly sentimental; I think Rumer Godden isn't capable of pure syrup. I enjoyed this story but my favourite is still The Story of Holly & Ivy, another seasonal tale. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Reads of 2021


Already time for the yearly roundup of some of my best reads this year. I always wait until the very last possible moment to post my list; you never know what you'll come across around Christmas! I like to give every book I've read this year a chance to appear on my favourites list, no matter if I read it in the first week of January or the last few days of December. 

I also create a statistical summary each year, mostly for my own geekish pleasure. As I've said before, I don't think of reading as a competition -- I keep track of numbers and various stats for my own interest, not to prove anything or compare myself to anyone. 

Here are my reading stats for 2021:

Total Reading: 150

Authors

Female: 136
Male: 12
Both/Neither: 2

Genre 

Fiction: 110
Non Fiction: 39
Poetry: 1


In Translation: 37

Esperanto - 1
Portuguese - 1
Italian - 2
Catalan - 3
Spanish - 2
Arabic- 2
Korean - 1
Japanese - 6
Ukrainian - 1
Russian - 2
German - 1
French - 5
Quebecois - 6
Swedish - 2
Norwegian - 1 
Finnish - 1


My Own Books: 42
Library Books: 100
Review Copies: 8

Rereads: 6
E-reads: 32

Author who I read the most from
Margaret Millar, with 4. 

2021'sWeird Random Stat: 
Books with characters named Melanie: 6


I seem to have picked up my reading slightly over last year, which admittedly was a very strange year! The number of audiobooks I read this year dropped quite a lot but I'm still using them more than I did in the past. 

Like always, I read a big majority of women authors, and quite a few more library books than my own this year. Must get to my own shelves again soon. But I am happy with all the great books I found through the library!

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And now for the Best of 2021!

These are titles that were memorable, unusual, or caught me with their great storytelling or rich characters. Just books that hit the right note with me when I picked them up! 


A random and unexpected find, this novel was set in the 30s in Reno, quickie divorce capital of the US. I liked the relationships between all the women in this one a lot. 

A small Canadian novel I stumbled across, this one hit me with the bittersweet storyline. Plus it was funny as well. A nice surprise. 

Loved this story of a girl with special powers recovering from the trauma of her past, and finding someone else with the same ability to sense the energy of objects. Fascinating and a great pace to the story too. 

Not reviewed yet, I finished this recently and loved it as I have loved many of Erdrich's books. More to come on this one.

This was a book I'd been looking forward to and it did not disappoint! Dumont is funny, sarcastic, and illuminates Indigenous lives through her storytelling.




The Core of the Sun / Johanna Sinisalotrans. from the Finnish by Lola Rogers

Finnish sf, a futuristic society and contraband chili peppers...what's not to love?

Variations on the Body / Marina Ospina; trans. from the Spanish by Heather Cleary

These six loosely connected short stories, set in Bogota, were wonderful. Each one had its own charm and I couldn't put this book down. 

The Lonesome Bodybuilder / Yukiko Motoya; trans. from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda

11 quirky stories from this Japanese writer -- strange things happen, fateful decisions are taken, the narrators encounter really odd people, and tell it all straight, as if nothing unusual is going on. Compelling reading!

Where the Wild Ladies Are / Aoko Matsudatrans. from the Japanese by Polly Barton

I read this collection of stories in nearly one go. Highly recommended for its bright, lively tone, clever construction, and wonderful women who feature throughout. This book just won the Best Collection award at the World Fantasy Awards, too. 

Your Ad Could Go Here / Oksana Zabuzhko; trans. from the Ukrainian by Nina Murray, Halyna Hryn, Askold Melnyczuk, Marco Carynnyk, & Marta Horban

A Ukrainian collection by an author I really like, this one was a great read for me this year!


There were also a couple of non-fiction reads that were just stellar. There were two in particular that really struck me this year.



A stunning look at books and their power to shape and change our lives, and help us through trauma.

Reviewed at my sewing blog, this is a book about memory and physical objects and museums and... well, so much to appeal to people whether they are sewists or not!



And I want to put in a special mention of a delightful middle grade series that entertained me a great deal, the Myrtle Hardcastle series by Elizabeth J. Bunce. If you're looking for lighthearted mystery reading, this is a great choice. 

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I hope you've enjoyed this wander through some of my favourites of the year. I was lucky to find some random titles that turned out to be great reads, and I found a bunch of fabulous reads during Women in Translation month, including short story collections, which are not always my first choice. But this year they knocked it out of the park! And then some provocative non-fiction and instant comfort reading kids books. A pretty good reading year for me. 

Here's to new discoveries in the new year. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Challenges Past and Challenges Ahead

Last year I set myself a few long term challenges that weren't new to me -- I didn't have the mental space to go all in with really challenging and novel projects in 2021, like many people, I imagine. So here are the few that I participated in during 2021, some now done and some ongoing.

I always read along with the Canadian Book Challenge, which runs from July 1 - July 1. I finished my list for the 14th Challenge, and now we're working along on the 15th Challenge, hosted by Shonna of Canadian Bookworm.  I'm doing pretty well, at 10/13 right now thanks to some Women In Translation reading and some very entertaining middle grade fiction. But still more to go. This is a low pressure readalong that I enjoy, so I'll keep participating as long as it's running.


I'm still reading along for my ACOB Challenge -- A Century of Books was created by Simon at Stuck in a Book some years ago. The first time I did it I took 4 years to read a whole century; last year I said I wanted to finish it in 3 years, by the end of 2021, but I'm not *quite* there. I hope to be able to get all my reviews for this challenge up by the end of January/February so I can start another list again ;)

I finished reading my Classics Club list in 2020 and was planning to start another. I created a list in earlyish 2021, but have only read a couple of titles, and have not officially rejoined the challenge. Planning to do so in 2022!


As always, I enjoyed reading for August's Women in Translation Month, which is more of a readalong than a challenge per se, but it helps me to focus in on my reading and reviews. I'll keep participating as long as it goes on as well. This year I really went all in and posted every day in August. So many great works in translation out there. Founder Meytal Radzinzki of Biblio.com also launched a new WIT website this year which is simply wonderful, if you are all interested in this project be sure to check out that site.


And finally there's my own challenge, of sorts, the Literary Sewing Circle. This is a readalong I host on my sewing blog, Following the Thread, twice a year. We read a book together and then sew something inspired by our reading. This year we read Karen Tidbeck's Amatka in the spring, and Simone St. James' The Sun Down Motel in the fall. Two more to come in 2022. 


I hope you also have reading plans that make you excited about a whole new year of reading choices. I know that I enjoy seeing other people's lists and plans to get me back into a reading groove.