Category Archives: 05. A Century of Women

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper TreeThe Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1985
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 173
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Bella Winter has hit a low. Homeless and jobless, she is the mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn’t quite catch, and her once pretty face is disfigured by the scar she acquired in a car accident. Friendless and without family, she’s recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns’s other heroines: a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. Before too long, Bella has found not only a job but a vocation; not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns’s novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm’s macabre tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella’s hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of the happiness of others?

This is the second book by Barbara Comyns that I have read – the first was Our Spoons Were From Woolworths, which I read back in January, 2019. Like that one, this was a very unique book. Comyns is not a cozy writer, even if some of her writing is very beautiful. Her books are disturbing, and sometimes harrowing, with characters whose mental health is often tenuous at best.

The Juniper Tree is a retelling of one of the most terrible and terrifying Grimm’s Fairy Tales (also called The Juniper Tree), which involved monstrous step-mothers, child abuse, decapitation and cannibalism. It is noteworthy for the following poem:

My mother, she killed me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister Marlene,
Gathered all my bones,
Tied them in a silken scarf,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.

The book begins with the meeting of the main character, Bella Winter, who is at a low financial ebb, and a wealthy couple named Bernard and Gertrude. Bella is unmarried, and has a toddler-aged daughter named Tommy. She becomes enmeshed with Bernard and Gertrude, who are childless, and begins a job in an antique shop. Things seem to be headed in a positive direction.

As Bella grows closer to Bernard and Gertrude, their lives becomes more and more idealized to her. She takes the place of beloved daughter of the home, especially where Gertrude is concerned. When Gertrude becomes pregnant, though, things start to fall apart. The juniper tree, a part of a thicket that is an especially important section of Gertrude’s garden, takes on increasing significance.

If you are familiar with the fairy tale, the trajectory of the book will not surprise, but I don’t want to spoil it for readers who aren’t. Suffice to say that there are significant losses ahead, and, as well, Bella’s mental health becomes more fragile until it breaks completely. The end of this book is quite different from that in the fairy tale, and, thankfully, Comyn’s skips the cannibalism element.

I read the NYRB print edition, which I checked out of my local library. These books are very well made, and are a pleasure to read. The Juniper Tree definitely isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it well-worth reading.

Black History Month: Jubilee by Margaret Walker

by Margaret Walker
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1966
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 497
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

Jubilee tells the true story of Vyry, the child of a white plantation owner and one of his black slaves. Vyry bears witness to the South’s antebellum opulence and to its brutality, its wartime ruin, and the promises of Reconstruction. Weaving her own family’s oral history with thirty years of research, Margaret Walker’s novel brings the everyday experiences of slaves to light. Jubilee churns with the hunger, the hymns, the struggles, and the very breath of American history.

I stumbled on Jubilee when I was looking for a book for my birthday year of 1966 to finish up that decade for my Century of Women project. It fit well with my reading for Black History Month as well, and my public library had a copy available, so I grabbed it.

I’m really surprised that this book isn’t better known because it was an amazing read. Margaret Walker, the author, was a black woman born in Alabama in 1915, the daughter of a Methodist minister. Jubilee draws heavily on the oral history of Walker’s family, and is basically an unromanticized, unsanitized (and frankly much better) answer to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.

The character at the center of the book is Elvira, or Vyra. The reader meets Vyry at the very beginning, as a small child who is brought to see her mother, a slave, one last time before she dies, worn out from child bearing and physical labor. Vyry is the daughter of a slave and her white master, who rapes her on the regular (the book doesn’t frame the relationship as “rape” and the master would surely not have imagined himself a rapist. But a person who is property has no ability to decline consent, and therefore the entire concept of consent is meaningless when it comes to sexual contact between the man who owns the woman and the woman. All sexual contact is coercive and is also, therefore, abusive and assaultive). She is the despised half-sister of the legitimate daughter of house, who looks enough like her to pass as white and to constantly remind the mistress that her husband was forcing himself on a slave during their marriage.

The book begins in around 1850, fifteen years before the Civil War, through the Reconstruction. Vyry is a fantastic character – fully realized and complex. She rebuts many of the myths about slaves – that they were happy, that they weren’t mistreated, that they didn’t yearn for freedom, that they neither saw nor internalized the unjustness of their circumstances. She is absolutely indomitable, as are many of the black characters in this book.

Before the Civil War, she falls in love with a wealthy, well-educated and free Black man. They want to marry, but are denied the opportunity because the plantation owners recognize that the very existence of free Blacks will create unrest among their slaves. When she approaches her master – who is also her father – about her wish to marry, he is indulgent until he finds out that she has been keeping company with a free man, at which point he becomes abusive. The man she loves wants to purchase her freedom, and this request is denied. It is cruel.

I suppose that this is one of those books that the new breed of book banners would likely seek to ban. It shows the south for what it was – a brutal, white supremacists regime under which a good chunk of humanity lived in terror (and was denied their humanity). The Civil War destroys the south, leaving the plantations in ruin and economically broken. The North abandons the emancipated slaves, leaving them to fend for themselves in circumstances that are impossible and horrific.

No, they have begun a reign of terror to put the Negro back in slavery. They will never accept the fact that the South rose up in rebellion against the Union North and the North won the war. They mean to take out all their grudges on us.”

Vyry and her children struggle on, scraping by in poverty, fleeing from one racist town to the next, supported by a good and decent man that Vyry marries when she believes her first love has died in the Civil War. Vyry dies free, but there is no real happy ending for her, unless you consider the life of Margaret Walker to be her happy ending – a brilliant, successful young granddaughter who stood on the weary shoulders of a great-grandmother who never really had a moment’s rest.

Walker, born in 1915, was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. She was a poet and a novelist, and her poem, For My People, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition in 1942. It reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, The Hills We Climb. It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;
1942 was 12 years before Brown v. Board of Education and 22 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You can read the whole poem here.

This book is a great read, and I highly recommend it. It can be difficult to be reminded how brutally the United States treated some of its citizens, but it is better to remember than to pretend. Our shared humanity demands that we be strong enough to face the truth about our history and ourselves.

2022: Book 17 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of YouthTestament of Youth
by Vera Brittain
Rating: ★★★★★
Publication Date: August 28, 1933
Genre: classic, memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 688
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, Mt. TBR 2022

Much of what we know and feel about the First World War we owe to Vera Brittain's elegiac yet unsparing book, which set a standard for memoirists from Martha Gellhorn to Lillian Hellman. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war's end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation. Hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as a book that helped “both form and define the mood of its time,” it speaks to any generation that has been irrevocably changed by war.

This book was a journey. Divided roughly into three parts, Brittain’s memoir covers the pre-WWI period, including her first year at Oxford University, the war itself and her work as a VAD, and then the post-WWI period, including finishing her degree and then her ultimate career and marriage.

There is so much to say about it. Brittain starts her memoir at the beginning, as a young woman who has decided that she wants to attend Oxford and needs to persuade her parents, who are very traditional middle class people, that she should be permitted to try for a spot in spite of her obvious deficiency: she’s a girl. Her father, in particular, isn’t wild about his daughter going to college. She ultimately gains admission to Somerville College, which is known for many of it’s women graduates, including Dorothy Sayers. She arrives at Somerville in 1914, and the war begins within weeks, completely derailing her plans.

For the time being I simmered wrathfully in anger and hopeless resentment. By means of what then appeared to have been a very long struggle, I had made for myself a way of escape from my hated provincial prison – and now the hardly-won road to freedom was to be closed for me by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke. It is not, perhaps, so very surprising that the War at first seemed to me an infuriating personal interruption rather than a world-wide catastrophe.

Youth just can’t help but be self-centered.

Vera has four men who are close to her: Edward, her brother, Roland, her brother’s friend and eventually her fiance, with whom she falls madly in love in the immediate pre-war weeks, and two close friends, Victor, or Tay, and Geoffrey. When all of the men she loves enlist to fight, she leaves Oxford and becomes a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. In this capacity she works in hospitals in England, eventually ending up in France and the Dardanelles.

This section of her memoir is deeply affecting. Her description of nursing war injuries is terrible, but most affecting is the fact that, one-by-one, the young men die. First Roland, then Edward, then Victor and then finally, and last, Geoffrey. I’m not a crier, but every single death felt like a body blow, and by the end of the war, I, too had wept more than once. It does seem that Providence could have left one of them, but I suppose it would have been a very different book under those circumstances.

But the War kills other things besides physical life, and I sometimes feel that little by little the Individuality of You is being as surely buried as the bodies are of those who lie beneath the trenches of Flanders and France. But I won’t write more on this subject. In any case it is no use, and I shall probably cry if I do, which must never be done, for there is so much both personal and impersonal to cry for here that one might weep for ever and yet not shed enough tears to wash away the pitiableness of it all.’

The memoir could have ended there, but it didn’t. How does a person come back from this kind of devastation?

The fact that, within ten years, I lost one world, and after a time rose again, as it were, from spiritual death to find another, seems to me one of the strongest arguments against suicide that life can provide. There may not be – I believe that there is not – resurrection after death, but nothing could prove more conclusively than my own brief but eventful history the fact that resurrection is possible within our limited span of earthly time.

Brittain was by no means alone in her experience, and like most women, she got on with it. She returned to Oxford, where life had proceeded without her, and where the young people who had been less affected by the war didn’t want to hear about it.

The rest of the book covers most of the rest of her life – her graduation from Oxford, receiving one of the first degrees granted to women, her work around women’s suffrage and feminism, her long, close friendship with Winifred Holtby (which was the subject of a second memoir, called Testament of Friendship), her conviction, like Virginia Woolf that

Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a ‘living happily ever after’; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitations of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster, and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterested intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profession.

Brittain had a career as an author and journalist, but Testament of Youth is nearly the only thing that survives.

I doubt that I will be able to revisit this book in the future. The experience of reading it was intense, especially the middle section, that memorializes her experiences in the war. If I were to go back to it, it would likely be for the post-war section focusing on women’s rights and her relationship with Winifred Holtby. I read South Riding, by Holtby, a few years ago and loved it. I will likely seek out Testament of Friendship at some point, but it’s more difficult to source than this one.

It took me three tries to get past the first 30 pages, but I’m so glad that I persevered this time. This was a worthy way to close out the 1930’s in my Century of Women project.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

When the great statesman Lord Slane dies, everyone assumes his dutiful wife will slowly fade away, the paying guest of each of her six children. But Lady Slane surprises everyone by escaping to a rented house in Hampstead where she revels in her new freedom, revives youthful ambitions and gathers some very unsuitable companions. Irreverent, entertaining and insightful, this is a tale of the unexpected joys of growing older.

My second book by Vita Sackville-West for my January deep dive was published in 1931. It tells the story of Lady Thane, 88 years old and recently widowed. It was really a treat – there are so few books that focus on, not just an elderly woman, but a frankly old woman, and how they look back over their lives. Lady Thane has lived a life that, by most measures, was one of great import and success – she was the Vicereine of India and the wife to a Prime Minister. She raised 6 not-entirely attractive children who have become successes in their own right. She has grand-children and, even great-grand-children.

But all of her identity is wrapped up in her relationship to someone else: wife, mother, grandmother. And now, at 88, at the death of her husband, she is ready to take stock of who she is in relationship to herself.

This feels like a very gentle book, but it is, in some ways, quite savage. Lady Thane does not regret her life, but she does recognize that what she wanted to be when she was young is quite lost to her forever. That by marrying, she took a very conventional path which led her in directions that, had she had greater agency, she almost certainly would not have gone on her own. She wanted to be an artist.

Even this is interesting, because Lady Thane is entirely untrained. The reader has no idea if she would have been a good artist at all, much less a great one. Lady Thane, as well, really does not know the answer here. “Artist” was a path that was so unavailable to her, that she can never been sure if she would have succeeded at it at all. She cannot begin to know if she really lost anything by marrying because she wasn’t even allowed to ask the question, much less seek an answer.

All Passion Spent felt like it had a very universal application to the lives of women. It left me filled with compassion for all of the Lady Thanes throughout history, who lived lives that appeared on the surface to be entirely satisfying, but which masked a deep well of regret and sadness for opportunities denied.

The last part of my deep dive into Vita Sackville-West is A House Full of Daughters, which I started last night. It is written by her granddaughter, Juliet Nicholson, who has a very easy to read writing style. I haven’t gotten to Vita yet – I’m reading now about her mother, Victoria – but I will get there soon.


January, 2022 Wrap-Up

I had an outstanding reading month, finishing a total of 16 books.

With respect to my various reading projects, I read 3 books from my TBR cart: Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark Is Rising, both by Susan Cooper, and My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather. I read 7 books which fit the Century of Women project, which had an average rating of 3.93 stars, and 4 books from my Classics Club 2.0 list, with an average rating of 4 stars.

I DNF’d one book – I finally pulled the plug on The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan around the middle of the month. I haven’t concluded that I’m never going to give the series a try again, but I lost interest and found myself avoiding reading it. This is always a clue to me that it’s time to DNF.

Using the book database, I am able to pull a lot of interesting analytics. I won’t go through all of them every month, but a few of the more interesting pieces of information from January are as follows:

My longest book, The Priory, was 536 pages, and my shortest book, My Mortal Enemy, was a mere 112 pages.

I spanned 100 years with my reading this month, breaking down as follows (I would note that this only adds up to 15 books – I obviously forgot to complete this term for one of my entries):

In addition, 12 out of 16 books were new to me, and 4 were re-reads. This is the first time in many months, I would suspect, when I actually read more print books than kindle books – 7 books were read on kindle, 9 in print. 10 books were from the public library and 6 came off of my shelves.

Finally, with respect to ratings, I ran the gamut, but spent the most time between 3.5 stars (29%) and 4 stars (29%); I had 2 5 star reads: The Dark is Rising and This House of Brede, and 2 4.5 star reads: The Priory and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent. The book I liked the least this month was My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather.

I think that I have gotten my book database terms organized the way that I want it to be able to track the information I want to track. I’ve decided to enter my reading from 2021 into the database because I’m curious about what a comparison of this year against last year will look like. I really wish that I had all of this information going back the full 10 years that I have been tracking my reading on the internet, but the idea of creating the database is pretty intimidating.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

The Thorn BirdsThe Thorn Birds
by Colleen McCullough
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: classic, fiction, historical fiction
Pages: 692
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

The Thorn Birds is a robust, romantic saga of a singular family, the Clearys. It begins in the early part of the 20th century, when Paddy Cleary moves his wife, Fiona, and their seven children to Drogheda, the vast Australian sheep station owned by his autocratic and childless older sister; and it ends more than half a century later, when the only survivor of the third generation, the brilliant actress Justine O'Neill, sets a course of life and love halfway around the world from her roots.

The central figures in this enthralling story are the indomitable Meggie, the only Cleary daughter, and the one man she truly loves, the stunningly handsome and ambitious priest Ralph de Bricassart. Ralph's course moves him a long way indeed, from a remote Outback parish to the halls of the Vatican; and Meggie's except for a brief and miserable marriage elsewhere, is fixed to the Drogheda that is part of her bones - but distance does not dim their feelings though it shapes their lives.

Wonderful characters people this book; strong and gentle, Paddy, hiding a private memory; dutiful Fiona, holding back love because it once betrayed her, violent, tormented Frank, and the other hardworking Cleary sons who give the boundless lands of Drogheda the energy and devotion most men save for women; Meggie; Ralph; and Meggie's children, Justine and Dane. And the land itself; stark, relentless in its demands, brilliant in its flowering, prey to gigantic cycles of drought and flood, rich when nature is bountiful, surreal like no other place on earth.

I’ve decided to enter all of the books read in 2021 into my database, and have realized that I can probably make some significant progress in my Century of Books project if I backtrack and include the ones that fit. I haven’t decided yet if I will go back further than 2021. Adding books & reading logs isn’t a ton of work on an individual basis, but when I’m adding 175 to 200 additional books, it adds up. I’m really intrigued by the analytics that I can run using the book database, though, which is why I decided to see how much work it was to bring 2021 up to date.

Anyway, that’s all a long explanation about why I’ll be posting about some books that I read, in some cases, more than a year ago.

I don’t think that I ever read this one around the time that it was published, although I know that my mom owned it, and I distinctly remember a lot of my friends being deeply enamored of Father Ralph, mooning about over him when we were around 13 or 14 years old. I was 11 when it was published. There was also a very dramatic and moody television mini-series that was aired in 1983 that re-animated the mooning.

I picked this book up because I was really wanted to read a 1970’s sweeping epic – something like The Far Pavilions, but that wasn’t necessarily The Far Pavilions. I devoured this book – reading all 692 pages in less than 24 hours. It is a whacking good story.

I admit that I do not like the romance between Father Ralph and Meggie. I found it to be extremely unappealing, especially since he seems to glom onto her when she is about 10 years old. In these post-Catholic-Priest-molestation-years, his obsession with young Meggie is . . . off-putting. Father Ralph stole Meggie’s life, so to speak, and just considered it his due because of his awesome manly manliness. Not my jam, at all.

But forget about the forbidden romance – the long family saga and Meggie’s life story, that was great. The relationship between Paddy and Fiona, Meggie and Fiona, was so interesting – I found myself incredibly frustrated by Fiona. I also really loved the setting of the Outback sheep station. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. This was an immersive, engrossing and very fast read.

2022: Book 13 – My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

My Mortal EnemyMy Mortal Enemy
by Willa Cather
Rating: ★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1926
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 112
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, classics club round 2

"Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: 'Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'"

Willa Cather's protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.

This book fills 1926 for my Century of Women project, and also qualifies for my Classics Club, Round 2. It’s one of my very last remaining books by Willa Cather – the only novel I have remaining to read is Shadows on the Rock and I also have her Collected Short Stories on my bookshelf. I may try to finish Cather this year, but the idea of a future with no new Cathers to read is bleak, indeed.

This book is very short – really a novella, at about 112 pages. It is not Cather’s best, but it’s still something to admire, nonetheless. It’s the story of Myra Henshawe, who famously thumbed her nose at her wealthy guardian and married for love against his wishes. She was a wild creature in her youth.

The book is told from the perspective of a young niece who visits Myra in New York City, where she lives in a rather bohemian life, when Myra and Oswald are in their thirties. She reconnects with them in San Francisco, where they have descended into genteel poverty. All long marriages are complicated, and the marriage between Myra and Oswald is no different.

It’s not a particularly likeable book because Myra is a difficult woman. It’s a lesser Cather, and recommended for completists, but would definitely not be a good entry point into her work.

2022: Book 12 – The Priory by Dorothy Whipple

The PrioryThe Priory
by Dorothy Whipple
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1939
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 536
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, back to the classics, classics club round 2

The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself - and many changes begin.

This was my 1939 book. I thought it finished out the 1930’s for my Century of Women, but a closer look reveals that I still have 1933 to read, so that was a bit of a disappointment. I was very excited to close out a decade.

This book, though – not at all a disappointment. I have been meaning to read Dorothy Whipple for years, and I actually own a Persephone edition of Someone at a Distance (published in 1953), so when I saw that she had a title published in 1939 and my library had a copy, I decided to give her a try.

There was something about this book that reminds me of Dodie Smith’s beloved I Capture the Castle. It’s probably the utter uselessness of the prominent male figures – Major Marwood, in this one, spends all of his extremely scarce money on cricket, badly neglecting his obligation both to his home and his family; Mr. Mortmain, from I Capture the Castle, is a feckless writer suffering from writer’s block who would just as soon his family starve than engage with the world to feed them. I find this type of adult male character to be unbearably frustrating, especially in books set during the time period when women are unable to just get down to it and rebuild the family fortunes on their own.

However, like I Capture the Castle, there was a lot about this book that really charmed me. All of the characters were very complicated – except Major Marwood, who could have been hit by a bus and no one would have really lost anything. The two daughters, Christine and Penelope, were both interesting. I preferred Christine to Penelope – Penelope, as it turned out, had a lot of her father in her. But Christine, ultimately, finds a work ethic and some inner strength that I don’t think anyone would have expected to her to possess. I also really liked Sir James and Sarah, although Sir James, at least, provides quite a bit of domestic tension and has a lot of growing up to do for a man in his probable fifties.

I had a mixed opinion of Anthea; I liked her show of independence and strength a lot, and being married to Major Marwood would have been wildly infuriating, but she was really annoying about the twins. I’ve borne two children, and women who act like they are the first people on the planet to get pregnant, or that giving birth is some major accomplishment just irritate me. All mammals give birth; get over yourselves, ladies.

Anyway, it’s a testament to the quality of Whipple’s writing that I was so deeply engaged in an over 500 page book in which very little happens that I read it in less than a day. This is a book that I will ultimately buy after I return it to the library, so I can have it on my shelves and return to it again and again. I wish that she had written a sequel, so I could find out how Sir James’s new venture at the end turned out, and hear how these characters survived the war. I haven’t stopped thinking about them since I closed the book.

2022: Books 7, 10 & 11 – Unexpected Night, The Dark Is Rising & The Wee Free Men

This is just going to be a quick multi-book catch-up post! I didn’t have enough to say about these books to warrant a full review, but I don’t want to forget about them, either.

Unexpected NightUnexpected Night
by Elizabeth Daly
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Henry Gamadge #1
Publication Date: January 1, 1940
Genre: mystery
Pages: 216
ReRead?: No
Project: American mystery classics

The discovery of young Amberly Cowden's body at the base of a cliff, as well as the strange events apparently related to the impoverished acting troupe at the Cove, disrupt Gamage's restful golf retreat.

This is the first book in the Henry Gamadge series by Elizabeth Daly. I stumbled on the series last year and enjoyed the one I checked out. I put the first book on held. This is a pretty clever little mystery from the golden age, by an American author.

The Dark Is RisingThe Dark Is Rising
by Susan Cooper
Rating: ★★★★★
Series: The Dark is Rising #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1973
Genre: fantasy, YA
Pages: 244
ReRead?: Yes
Project: Mt. TBR 2022

On Midwinter Day and his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers he is the last of immortal Old Ones dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark. He must find six magical Signs for the final battle.

I pulled this off the TBR cart to follow Over Sea, Under Stone, which I read earlier this month. I plan to complete the series this year – I have previously read the first three, and this is my favorite of them. I really like this book, and had forgotten that it was set over Christmas/Epiphany, so it was really perfect for this time of year.

The Wee Free MenThe Wee Free Men
by Terry Pratchett
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Discworld #30
Publication Date: October 6, 2009
Genre: fantasy, YA
Pages: 404
ReRead?: No

Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching needs magic--fast! Her sticky little brother Wentworth has been spirited away by the evil Queen of Faerie, and it's up to her to get him back safely. Having already decided to grow up to be a witch, now all Tiffany has to do is find her power. But she quickly learns that it's not all black cats and broomsticks. According to her witchy mentor Miss Tick, "Witches don't use magic unless they really have to...We do other things. A witch pays attention to everything that's going on...A witch uses her head...A witch always has a piece of string!" Luckily, besides her trusty string, Tiffany's also got the Nac Mac Feegles, or the Wee Free Men on her side. Small, blue, and heavily tattooed, the Feegles love nothing more than a good fight except maybe a drop of strong drink! Tiffany, heavily armed with an iron skillet, the feisty Feegles, and a talking toad on loan from Miss Tick, is a formidable adversary. But the Queen has a few tricks of her own, most of them deadly. Tiffany and the Feegles might get more than they bargained for on the flip side of Faerie! Prolific fantasy author Terry Pratchett has served up another delicious helping of his famed Discworld fare.

I initially gave this four stars, but on reflection, it’s probably 3 1/2. I know that there are a lot of Terry Pratchett super-fans out there, but I am apparently not one of them. I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. While I very much enjoyed Tiffany Aching and thought that the pictsies were a hoot, the last section of the book, set in Fairyland, just didn’t click with me at all. I didn’t get it. I own the whole Tiffany Aching subseries, and I’ll probably read it, but I have come to the conclusion that a lot of the signature Pratchett elements just don’t work for me.

Project Update: A Century of Women

I thought that it was a good time to take stock of this reading project. I started it several years ago, but have gone in fits and starts. I opened the tracking page on 9/30/2018, which means I’ve been working on the project since approximately the same time that I started my second Classics Club project.

I have read a total of 36 out of 100 years, which puts me just over 1/3 done. I’m not terribly surprised that most of my success has been concentrated in the decades of the 1930’s and 1940’s, since I’ve had a strong leaning towards books published in those years. I am a little bit surprised at the number of books from the 1960’s that I’ve finished, though.

Overall, I have shied away from the early decades, with only two books from the 1900’s – 1900 and 1902, both by Edith Wharton; I have read zero books from the 1910’s, and a mere two books from the 1920’s – 1922 was The Lark by E. Nesbit and 1924 was The Secret of Greylands by Annie Haynes, both books that have been re-issued by Dean Street Press. I would note that I could fill a number of these slots with Christie mysteries, but I didn’t want to fill the entire project with Agatha Christie, so I have given myself leave to use only one Christie – N or M – as the primary book for 1941.

I do notice that I have not had the same scruples with respect to D.E. Stevenson, whose books I have used 3 times previously, so I may end up lightening up a bit with respect to Christie.

The 1930’s and 1940’s are almost completely filled in – I only have 1939 to finish and the 1930’s will be concluded, and I am over half-way finished with the 1940’s, with 1942, 1945, 1947 & 1949 left. I have read 4 books in the 1950’s, but have nearly completed the 1960’s, with all but 1960 & 1966 (my birth year) accounted for. Beyond that point, I haven’t fared well with zero books from the 1970’s, 2 from the 1980’s and 3 from the 1990’s.

It is probably unrealistic to finish this project in 2022, but I’d like to get to at least the halfway point this year, and hopefully more like the two thirds mark so I can reasonably expect to finish it in 2023. In that spirit, I am going to try to finish out the 1930’s and the 1960’s in January/February.

For 1939, I have settled on The Priory by Dorothy Whipple. This is a Persephone book, and I have put a hold on it at my library;  my Classics Club yields two cross-over books: The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, published in 1960 (available as an ebook through my library system) and The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, published in 1966. I have mixed feelings about reading the Rhys book because I have heard really mixed things about it, so I may end up giving it the heave-ho and going with the (probably) far more entertaining The Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann, or, possibly what looks to be more interesting – Jubilee by Margaret Walker, which I just put on hold at the library, although there appears to be a short wait.

Once I finish those decades, I will regroup and probably try to knock out a few years at least in 1900-1929, as I expect that these will be more difficult than 1970-1999.