The premise of Barnaby Mayne drew me in when I first read about it, pre-publication–a mystery set amongst the curio cabinets of an 18th-century English collector of natural history. So I was elated to get my hands on a library copy in December–perfect timing for a cozy mystery.
Tag Archives: fiction
It strikes me that Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger, shares a few elements in common with Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield (click here to read our review of the latter). It is set in a small town on a body of water (Lake Superior) and draws its cast of largely sympathetic characters from this cohesive community. Both books begin with a resurrection, of sorts, and end with a wedding. And in both cases the “death” preceding the resurrection takes place off stage, with essential details withheld until the appropriate moment. A subtle aura of mystery crops up here and there in both books. They’re the sort of happenings you accept at first and then say, “Wait–what did he say?”
Since my daughter and I and our book club just finished Heather Vogel Frederick’s Home for the Holidays, it seemed like a good time to review this series that we have been enjoying for more than four years now.
I stumbled across Much Ado about Anne (book two in the series) while looking up L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books at the library. We quickly fell in love with Frederick’s highly relatable characters and situations and their Concord, Massachusetts, setting. Not unlike the Harry Potter series, the books begin with the main characters in sixth grade, covering one year per book (with a couple of exceptions) and seeing them through high school. Since my daughter was a fourth grader at the time, we took a couple of breaks to let her catch up with age of the book characters.
Several years ago my daughter and I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse (1946), said to be a childhood favorite of Harry Potter author JK Rowling. Goudge’s mix of whimsy, fantasy, and light-handed moralism intrigued me, as did her blend of Catholic and pagan imagery (not unlike C.S. Lewis’s employment of Greek mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia). Seeking more, I discovered Goudge (1900-1984) had written almost twenty adult novels, in addition to short stories and children’s books.
I decided on The Rosemary Tree (1954), a novel set in post-WWII England. As with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the protagonist is a mild-mannered minister–a kindhearted soul who doesn’t quite have a handle on family life. When a native son, back from the war, wanders onto the scene, John befriends him. Before long we learn this lost soul was once engaged to John’s wife.
About ten years ago a good friend, a Baylor honors professor, spoke of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) as “the most nearly perfect novel ever written.” Intriguing. I was compelled, of course, to read it.
My initial response? “Huh.” I was not so much disappointed as mystified. In what, precisely, lay the perfection? And what was it really about? I concluded my education had not properly prepared me to appreciate it.
Many people, I have since learned, respond similarly to a first reading of Brideshead. When another friend told me, three or four years ago, that she was reading it alongside a Close Reads discussion podcast, I decided to give it another go. This time, whether thanks to the Close Reads commentary or my own heightened awareness of where the book was heading, I got it.
The musical Hadestown first came on my radar early in 2019, a few months into my middle schooler’s Hamilton obsession. I was duly impressed with the latter’s theatrical and historical merits. But after a steady diet of the Schuyler Sisters, I was ready to see what else was on the contemporary Broadway scene.
But it wasn’t until about six months ago that I actually cued up a Hadestown playlist on YouTube. I was immediately swept away by the haunting melodies and intricate harmonies, but most of all, by the sense of yearning. I told my daughter, “You’ve got to listen to this.”
It seems natural to follow the foregoing review of Grace, by Natashia Deon, with a review of Some Form of Grace, by Dee Dee Chumley. The settings and stories differ widely, but, as the titles indicate, similar themes run through both books.
At the outset of Some Form of Grace, Gracene is about to be released from a minimum security prison in Oklahoma City. Her mother, she tells us, used to say that upon first laying eyes on her baby she knew the child’s name must be “some form of grace.”
“[The name] ‘suited’ me like a tutu suits a giraffe or like ballet slippers suit size ten clodhoppers,” Gracene contends.
I met Natashia Deón at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She spoke to a standing-room-only conference room on how to deal authentically with faith issues in a post-modern, pluralistic society.
Deón said much that was both practical and inspiring. But the overwhelming impression left by her presentation and my brief personal interaction with her is respect. It was the value with which Deón, a devout Christian, advised writers to handle all faiths. It was the ethic with which she invariably treated her listeners and fellow speakers. And it was the sentiment inspired by her humility, integrity, and clear thinking.
You will never read a book about perfect people in a perfect world. If you happen to stumble upon and launch into such a book, I predict you will put it down by chapter 2, if not before.
But why, exactly, is that? If we long for world peace, why don’t we enjoy reading about it?
A thorough investigation of that question could fill volumes and venture into the realms of psychology, philosophy, and myth, among others. But one accessible explanation is that we need characters we can relate to. And none of us is perfect.
Certain masterpieces shock us with unapologetic images of human nature at its worst. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment , William Golding’s Pincher Martin, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor come to mind. The latter wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Fiction is my first love. Duty, however, seems to dictate my reading more often than preference. So when the opportunity to curl up with a work of fiction arises, the question of what to read is critical.
Not short story; I want the immersive experience of a novel. Not escapism; it’s like being given a satin sheet when I need a down blanket. But neither do I crave a burlap bag of rocks—nor even marble busts. One year I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in mid-winter. It’s a masterpiece. But I didn’t read the sequel, and since then I have carefully culled my cold-season reading to exclude war, politics, family drama, and apocalypse. Admittedly, that narrows the options considerably. But with millions of books in print, one must narrow the options or drown in the literary flood.
I began Once Upon a River, on the recommendation of my author aunt, in late August. The first chapters unsettled me. Not because the content was disturbing. But because the prose was too transporting, the river too alluring, and, above all, the characters too captivating.