The Moonspinners

Category: Mystery/suspense

Rating: PG. Some violence, mostly off-screen. Understated romance; no sex.

Nicola Ferris, a young Englishwoman on holiday from her job at the British embassy in Athens, goes for a walk in the White Mountains of Crete, and stumbles onto a badly wounded young Englishman, Mark Langley, and his Greek guide. Mark’s injury? He had been shot and left for dead by an unknown assailant. The two men are badly frightened and worried, revealing in a hurried conversation they don’t expect Nicola to understand, because it’s in Greek, that a third member of their party, Mark’s younger brother, is missing, possibly dead.

This is the start of The Moonspinners, one of my favourites of Mary Stewart’s  romantic suspense novels. Published in 1962, it is set in then-contemporary Greece. Disney released a movie version in 1964, starring Hayley Mills, based loosely on the book. Very loosely. I saw it on TV long after I read the book. I can’t say whether the movie was any good on its own merits—I didn’t like it, because in my opinion it diminished the qualities of the main characters. In the book, they are independent, resourceful people, doing their best under difficult circumstances. Characters, in other words, I can enjoy reading about.

In the book, Nicola’s conscience won’t let her abandon the two men, despite her own fears. The men don’t want another victim caught up in their troubles; they persuade her to leave them and go on with her holiday, unwittingly sending her straight into the proverbial lion’s den. Naturally, she is instrumental in unravelling the mystery of who shot Mark and what happened to his brother.

One of the pleasures of this story is watching the macho hero having to reassess his opinion of Nicola, more than once, after she proves her worth through intelligence, pluck, and determination, without ever getting strident over being dismissed as a girl.

The story is a bit dated, but not badly so. It’s a light, fun read, easily digested over a weekend; just the kind of thing to cheer a person up after a tough work week.

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The Lymond Chronicles

Category: Historical fiction

I had intended to write on a different topic this weekend, but I made the mistake of looking at Facebook, saw this link to an article in The Guardian about Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, and got derailed.

My Georgia Tech roommate introduced me to the Lymond Chronicles years ago. (Thanks, Letha!) The six books in the series, historical novels following ten years in the life of the fictional 16th-century Scottish nobleman, Francis Crawford of Lymond, are packed with action, drama, romance, and vivid characters. They are the best historical novels I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few.

It’s fair to say I love them; my husband and daughter don’t. Sigh.

The reasons for our different reactions is at least partly due to how we approach a novel. My husband reads slowly and thoroughly, and hardly ever re-reads a novel. He wants to understand everything as he goes along, and in these stories, that’s not easy. Besides the indirections the author throws in around the central mystery, the books are littered with phrases and verses in foreign languages and allusions to 16th-century or older literature, all appropriate to the well-educated aristocrat Lymond represents. They are also crowded with dozens of real historical figures. Even with The Dorothy Dunnett Companion at hand, keeping track of who’s who or figuring out what this character meant by that quote is difficult, and seriously annoyed my dear husband.

I didn’t try to understand it all. When I first read them, I didn’t care what most of the literary allusions meant, and largely still don’t. I got caught up in the story (and what a story it is!) and rolled with it, getting enough clues from the context to keep up, or making mental notes on the things I didn’t understand, and waiting for them to be cleared up later. I read all six, back to back, in one heated rush over summer vacation, and then read them through again, more slowly, immediately afterwards, savouring details and fragments I’d skimmed over the first time. These books not only benefit from multiple readings, they practically demand it. (And they get easier to read as the series continues. She does show off a bit in the first book.)

This swashbuckling epic sweeps across Europe and the Levant, taking in Tudor England, France, Malta, and the Russia of Ivan the Terrible. Saying a novel or movie brings history to life is such a cliché, but in this case it seems fitting. I’m left with memories of living, breathing, human beings. Some books are instantly forgettable; a week later it’s hard to remember any details. This series is the opposite; nearly forty years after I first read them, a mere mention of them evokes a flood of vivid images, among them a chase across the rooftops of Paris, a grim card game with a man’s life and reputation at stake, a chaste and uncomfortable night in Suleiman the Magnificent’s seraglio, and a brilliantly-narrated sword fight* between two brothers. And that scene where Lymond, arrow nocked and bow drawn, is determined to stop a man carrying a deadly message. He stands unmoving, waiting for a clear shot, despite seeing another man with an arquebus closing in on him. Who will get the first shot? Will either hit their target? Read The Game of Kings and find out.

* That sword fight was in the first book she ever wrote! These are the kinds of books that make us lesser mortals aspire to try our own hand at writing historical fiction, at the same time leaving us in despair that we could ever be good enough in a genre where the bar has just been cranked out of reach.

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Role Models

We hear about the underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields, and one of the strategies always discussed for dealing with that disparity is by providing good role models. The number of non-traditional role models, both real and fictional, for women has expanded hugely since I was a child. Many of the more recently published books I’ve read in the last decade or so have women in such roles as engineer, mechanic, mathematician…

And yet, there is still something missing.

I didn’t realise what it was until recently. In looking back over the books I’ve read to my daughter and the books she brought home on her own, I can’t find one—not a single one—that has a teenage female character in a contemporary, real setting excited by science and mathematics.

Probably I’ve just missed some gems. I’m not a librarian or teacher; I can’t keep up with the publishing world. But it isn’t just the lack of girls; there weren’t very many with boys, either.

From my own youth, I vividly remember two books that were, to me, empowering, despite the lack of girls: The Mad Scientists’ Club by Bertrand Brinley and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert Heinlein.

I wrote about The Mad Scientists’ Club in an earlier post. I’ll post about Have Spacesuit, Will Travel some other time. What was significant about both was that the protagonists were kids close to my own age, in circumstances not too far removed from my own, who were tackling real problems I could understand, and having to acquire the technical skills needed to solve them.

These were not adults who had already had the benefit of years of tertiary education and on-the-job training, nor were they characters in science fiction set so far in the future the technology they had available might as well have been magic. They weren’t tackling classroom problems for a grade, and they weren’t doing connect-the-dots with pieces of technology they didn’t understand the guts of. These were kids like me (or close enough) who were digging into the nuts and bolts of engineering and mathematics because they were excited about them.

If they could handle them, so could I.

Now, I admit, I was not typical. I had parents and grandparents supportive of non-traditional interests, an older sister who went off to university to study mathematics, and good grades and test scores across the spectrum. I went to a technical school (Georgia Tech, you’re the best!), discovered computer programming, and never regretted my choices.

But I still needed those stories, because it’s hard to picture yourself an expert in some subject ten years from now if you’re not exposed to and excited by the basics today.

The only book I’ve seen since that had the same effect was the non-fiction memoir, October Sky. I read all of these books to my daughter. She’s now at university, studying civil engineering. That’s not a direct result; again, she’s not typical. Between her parents, aunts, uncles, and two older half-siblings, she has ten adult role models, half of them women, in STEM fields. She couldn’t have avoided an immersion in STEM subjects if she had tried.

But this is all the more reason we need stories like these, for the kids who aren’t as well-blessed with role models and supportive families.

Are there other, more recent books like these for young adults, male or female? I’d like to hope there are. I’d love to hear about them.

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I learned a new word this week*: tsundoku, a Japanese word meaning owning too many books that will never be read. I came across the word in the Saturday paper, in an article on home decorating that had me in stitches for its suggestions on ways to display a literary collection. The first picture showed two small shelves hung on a wall, each with a stack of three or four books, plus plants and pottery. The second picture had a small table with three books on it. I showed this to my husband just so I could laugh at his dumbfounded expression.

The next page did show one photo of a room with something approaching a book collection—a wall with built-in bookcases—but this set me off again; the books were arranged by colour. (How could you ever find what the book you wanted?) I have since discovered it is possible to buy books by the foot, sorted by subject, physical style, or colour. Buying mysteries by the foot doesn’t sound too bad, but the other two… And finally, there was the suggestion of shelving the books with their spines against the wall to make them less conspicuous. I hardly know whether to laugh or cry. Let’s laugh; after the horrors in the news the last few weeks, I could use a good giggle.

This is what a section of my library looks like:

The rest of our bookcases are equally overloaded. We’ll never win points for our decorating style, but we don’t care. Our books comfort us; they make our house our home.

So you think we suffer from tsundoku, don’t you? I prefer to think our affliction is lack of shelf space, rather than too many books. I’m not sure how well tsundoku translates into English, either. Does it mean a compulsive need to collect more books than you can possibly read in one lifetime? Or does it apply when you have more books than you can read in the limited, near future—a year or two, say?

On the flip side, given that bibliophiles are going to own books, what’s the point of having shelves full of books we’ve already read? I need to have enough unread books on my shelves that when I’m done with the day’s work—too late to go to the library or bookstore—I can easily find something that fits the mood I’m in, whether that’s fantasy, mystery, history, romance, or whatever.

That’s not to say I advocate tossing every book when finished. There are reasons for keeping around some friends, both old and new. Some books we reread to recapture the emotional experience it induced, others work on so many levels each revisit brings out something new. But my problem—bigger than the one of piling up books I haven’t gotten to yet—is keeping around too many I have read and will never read again. I’m getting better at pruning, but it’s still difficult, especially when my dear other half is a worse hoarder than I am. Take that copy of The Pillars of the Earth: do I push it on the rest of the family and insist they read it? No. Will I ever want to read it again? Unlikely, and I’ve already held onto it too long. It’s going in the box by the back door to be given to a neighbour or donated to a used book sale in hopes it will find a better, more appreciative home, or at least a chance to be read again. The World According to Garp? Same treatment—out!

And if there are still unread books on my shelves when I die, is that so bad? It doesn’t seem nearly as awful as either running out of books, or losing the enthusiasm to open a new one.

*Actually, I learned several words this week: bibliokleptomania (compulsive book-stealing—weird), bibliotaphy (book-burying—weirder), and bibliophagy (book-eating—eww!)

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Category: Children’s books

Age: middle school and up

Apparently I’ve had it wrong all my adult life. I thought explicit sex involved, well, contact or at least display of private body parts. You know, actual sex. But I’ve just discovered that a simple kiss is enough to earn a book the label “age-inappropriate, explicit sex.” My dad always kissed my mom goodbye before he left for work in the morning. I thought it was sweet. My husband and I do the same. We’ve probably scarred our daughter for life. How could we have been so wrong?

What’s that you say? That it’s fine for a married couple to kiss? That it’s even a good thing for parents to demonstrate to their children that they’re fond of each other? And that plenty of G-rated movies, like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, show kisses. It’s only when the kiss involves two boys that it becomes “explicit sex.”

You can’t be serious.

Unfortunately, it appears a lot of people are. According to the  American Library Association, this is the situation for the graphic novel Drama, by Raina Telgemeier, which has been in their list of the top ten most challenged books for two of the past three years. In celebration of Banned Books week, I bought a copy to see for myself what the fuss was about.

I still have difficulties seeing what the fuss is about. Drama is a charming story, for and about middle-schoolers, concerning a school drama club putting on a musical. The protagonist is a girl a parent could be proud of, and the focus on the stage crew rather than the actors was a pleasure. The story is also about the drama (pun intended) of young teens in the grip of crushes, triangles, and sexual orientation confusion. Age inappropriate? I remember kids starting to pair up at that age, and crushes I had, so no. (And our daughter was about that age when our friends Jim and Dick got married. I think it was the first wedding she’d ever been to. Starting her off on the right foot, eh?) Drama’s biggest crime appears to be using humour and a light touch to make kids attracted to members of their own sex seem like just normal, ordinary kids. Well, aren’t they?

I wish I could just say that the boy’s part in the story was about overcoming shyness, and finding his own voice. That’s true, but not what people notice, and that’s a pity.

The adults who object to the LGBTQ concerns in this book probably mean well, but their family values aren’t my family’s values, and their angst isn’t my angst. When teens send each other explicit selfies so often there’s a word for it (sexting), when the internet is awash in pornography, and violence and disrespect towards others is endemic in our society, how can anyone justify wasting their energy on outrage over a consensual kiss between two boys?

I’m ranting. Time to stop and eat some chocolate to drive the dementors away. Maybe I’ll feel better after a nap…

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The Mad Scientists’ Club

Category: Children’s fiction

Rating: G

As a preteen, I loved Bertrand R Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club. As an adult, I read these pre-MacGyver, Do-It-Yourself stories to my daughter, and still loved them.

In these stories, a group of boys, including one wild dreamer, concoct and carry out stunts like building a sea monster, haunting a house, winning a hot-air balloon race, and making a man fly. The stories are fiction, but they aren’t science fiction; these kids were handling real engineering problems. The technology, ranging from ham radios to ultra-violet lamps to army surplus balloons, was readily available when they were written in the 1960s, and Brinley, with a background in science and technology, knew what he was writing about. When the kids created their remote-controlled sea monster, my fingers itched to join in, and I believed that, with a little effort, I could build one of my own.

By today’s standards, the technology is outdated low-tech, but I’d like to hope the Can-Do attitude never goes out of date. Do these stories still appeal to today’s young readers? Hard to know, based on my limited sample, but the fact that they’ve been reprinted multiple times and are still available new says someone besides me likes them.

I should point out that they are slightly subversive; they are not about following the rules. They are about imagination, initiative, and teamwork, but these kids were running around unsupervised (small chance of that, these days), sneaking out of the house at all hours of the night, and in a few cases, causing non-trivial trouble for their elders. But I can’t get too excited over the cost of their antics. For the most part, this was good, clean fun, as well as laugh out loud funny.

There are no girls in this club—unfortunate, but that’s the way it was. That may be a stumbling block for some girls, but some, like me, will love them. There’s very little in them that’s gender-specific, and I identified with these kids as kids.

Twelve of these stories were short stories originally published in Boys’ Life magazine and then collected in two volumes, the original The Mad Scientists’ Club and The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club. The other two were separate book-length stories, The Big Chunk of Ice and The Big Kerplop! They are available in those four separate books, or in one omnibus collection. I read all but The Big Chunk of Ice to my daughter, but the ones I remember from my childhood, and that still seem the best, were the ones in the original The Mad Scientists’ Club volume.

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October Sky

Category: History

Rating: PG. Non-violent and clean, except for one fade-to-black scene in the back seat of a Dodge.

On 5 October 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, and a 14-year-old boy in a coal mining town in West Virginia began a long journey towards being a NASA engineer. Homer H Hickam Jr’s memoir October Sky, originally published under the title Rocket Boys, recounts the next three years of his life, as he and a small group of friends learn how to build and fly rockets.

Between 1957 and 1960, Hickam and his friends scrounge for scrap metal and rocket fuel, study trigonometry, chemistry, and girls, and form the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA). Along the way they destroy his mother’s rose garden fence, nearly kill themselves, are accused of setting a forest fire, and fight their school to get a course in offered in calculus. (Calculus? You don’t need calculus to mine coal!) In their final year of high school, these small town, coal miners’ kids take first place in the 1960 National Science Fair for their entry on rocketry.

It is, however, about more than just rocketry. The way of life the town was built on was, even then, dying. Hickam’s parents are at war with each other; his father, the mine supervisor, is proud of his work; his mother sees the cost to his father’s health and is determined neither of her sons will work in the mine. That same conflict is reflected throughout the town, and in both the pride and anger the boys’ antics inspire in their elders. In the end, these boys triumph. If they had not had the support of a few good teachers, parents, and even machinists and garbage truck drivers, they might not have.

This heartfelt memoir was made into a movie in 1999. Funny in places and sad in others, it adds up to an inspiring story.

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Category: History

Rating: PG

Endurance was the name of a ship. The Endurance is the title of a book, American author Caroline Alexander’s spellbinding account of the British explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic aboard that ship.

On 5 December 1914, the aptly named Endurance, with twenty-eight men aboard—sailors, scientists, explorers, and a photographer—set out from South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic. Shackleton intended for the ship to set him and his exploring party ashore at Vahsel Bay in the Weddell Sea, and from there to cross Antarctica on foot.  If they had succeeded, it would have been one of history’s last great feats of exploration. They never reached the continent. The pack ice in the Weddell Sea never broke up in that southern summer, and by the middle of January 1915, the Endurance was trapped in it.

The story of the next twenty months is an epic tale of survival against the odds. They drifted on the currents for hundred of miles before the ship was crushed by the ice in October 1915, then camped on ice floes, crossed open ocean in lifeboats, and endured storms, starvation, hypothermia, and frostbite. Miraculously, all twenty-eight men survived.

The account of that saga includes true events that, if this was a work of fiction, would have you shaking your head and thinking, Oh no, you can’t expect me to believe that. The accompanying photographs—remarkable in themselves for surviving a journey in an open lifeboat and months buried in snow—help bring the story to life. We see these men as real people, and glimpse the grandeur and bitter cold of the Antarctic.

The book raises some questions about the wisdom of the expedition’s aims, and their readiness for Antarctic conditions, but the focus is on Ernest Shackleton’s leadership abilities, and what it took to bring all of them home. In the end, this is more than just an adventure story, it is a paean to the human spirit.

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Edward Eager

Category: children’s fiction / fantasy

Rating: G. A very small amount of cartoon violence

The captivating children’s books by American author Edward Eager are among the classics in children’s literature. I remember being spellbound by them when I was first introduced as a young reader, and my then seven-year-old daughter enjoyed them when I read them to her.

The seven books are, in order, Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake, The Time Garden, Magic or Not?, The Well-Wishers, and Seven-Day Magic. Not really a series, there are overlapping characters, and it’s best, but not necessary, to start with Half Magic.

As fantasies, these might count as forerunners to the modern urban fantasy genre, being grounded in the real city of Toledo, Ohio. There are no paranormal creatures; the magic comes into play from a coin found on the sidewalk, or from a book borrowed from the library. Some of the stories are set in the 1950’s, when Eager was writing, but Half Magic and Magic by the Lake are set in the 1920’s, when he was a teen, and abound with period detail, from Model-T Fords to the songs played by the orchestra at a dance pavilion.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with one of my favourite tropes: Be careful what you wish for. The theme of needing to think through the consequences before you speak or act runs throughout the set of books, but is most evident in Half Magic, where the coin the children find grants only half a wish, and they endure painful mistakes before learning how to phrase their wishes to get what they want. I enjoyed this problem-solving aspect of the books as a child—maybe related to the fact that I grew up to be a programmer—and as a parent, have an even better appreciation of the lessons so gently imparted here.

The illustrations by N M Bodecker are delightful, and humour and wordplay add to the charm. In Magic by the Lake, four siblings spend the summer in a lakeside cabin with a nameplate by the door saying Magic by the Lake. When one of the girls says,

“Don’t you wish it were true?”…

The turtle stuck its head out of its shell. “Now you’ve done it… You couldn’t be sensible, could you, and order magic by the pound, or by the day?…You had to be greedy, and order magic by the lake…”

These books aren’t without faults. There are a small number of scenes of cartoon violence that might disturb the more literal-minded young readers, and the 1950’s attitudes towards race and sex, though mild for the time, make me wince. Use them as opportunities for discussions on how attitudes change, and you should be fine. The faults aren’t serious enough to avoid these stories over, because these books are gateways to more serious reading. Eager invites his readers in to a richer, wider literary world through frequent references to other books and authors his characters are familiar with, and if that leads other children to the tales of King Arthur, or Little Women, or E Nesbitt, or any of dozens of others, then that’s surely a good thing.

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An Instance of the Fingerpost

Category: Historical mysteries

Rating: NC-17. Violence, sexual assault, gore.

This, my friends, is a fingerpost:

How often do you get to learn a new word just by reading the title of a book? I love historical mysteries, but I was intrigued enough to read An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, just to make sense of the title.

This heavily-researched novel, ostensibly about a young woman’s conviction for a murder she didn’t commit, is told by four narrators, the first three of which are clearly unreliable. The 4th, claiming to be the fingerpost—the reliable guide showing the true way—does seem the most trustworthy, as he does a better job than the others of acknowledging his shortcomings, and sheds light on the plot twists and turns made increasingly murky by the 2nd and 3rd narrators. But on watching him fall into religious mysticism, and after being led so badly astray by the other three narrators, there’s room to doubt even him.

So while the true murderer is unmasked, I was left scratching my head on some other aspects of the story. This story’s plot is, if not the most complicated I’ve ever dived into, certainly one of the top five. Despite being nearly seven hundred pages long, it was dense, with little wasted or repetitious. Whenever I found myself skimming, I had to back up and re-read sections to make sure I didn’t miss some plot point. Having a scorecard would have helped. If I hadn’t discovered at the back of the book the list of characters, nearly all historical individuals, I would have gotten quite lost.

The book has been compared to the movie Rashomon, with its conflicting points of view. I don’t know; I haven’t seen it. The movie that came to mind for me was Memento, with its under-current of delusion, and constant, disorienting reassessments.

As far as historical novels go, this is one of the most effective I’ve ever read, bringing 17th century Restoration England to life with a wealth of detail and consistency of voice. (The detail is the sort to make a reader glad to be living in an era benefiting from electric lights, basic sanitation, and—in enlightened countries, anyway—publicly funded health care. This is not the kind of story that inspires romantic yearnings to return to some picturesque and unrealistic days of yore.)

As gripping novels go, however, it isn’t as effective. The reviewer who said it “has you reading by torchlight under the bedclothes” didn’t match my experience. It was a bit of a slog to start with, until the first section turned into an eye-witness account of the experimentation with blood transfusions and other anatomical discoveries that began the transformation of medical practice, and then it took off. That narrator was a charming fellow; it was a shame to discover he was an out-and-out liar.

The 2nd and 3rd narrators didn’t fare as well. Both were so cruel and self-centred I didn’t enjoy the time spent with them (nearly half the book). I came close to giving up halfway through the 2nd narrator, but by then I really wanted to know how it resolved, and other reviewers said it picked up again with the 4th narrator. They were right; it did.

The 4th narrator was the most sympathetic of the four, and the one with the strongest emotional connection to the young woman at the centre of the story. The last quarter was enough (barely) to make up for the long dry section in the middle.

Earlier I said this was about a murder. That’s the plot driver, but the book is really about the nature of truth and delusion. What, if anything, that any of the four narrators have said can we believe? Are they lying outright, or are they self-deluded, and how do we ferret out the real truth, if there is one?

The reviews that call this book a tour de force are right, but it’s not to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for light, easy escapism, forget it. But if you have a deep interest in either history, particularly English history, or the nature of truth, and don’t mind a challenge, then give it a go.

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