Archive for August, 2013

the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.

*****

Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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the secret adversary agatha christie 2The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie ~ 1922. This edition: Bantam, 1986. Paperback. ISBN: 0-553-26477-X.  215 pages.

My Rating: 7/10

Setting: Mostly London, with a few excursions into the countryside; immediately post Great War, 1919.

Detection by: Thomas Beresford (TOMMY) and Prudence Cowley (a.k.a. TUPPENCE)

Final Body Count: 2

Method(s) of Murder: POISON – death #1 from an overdose of chloral , and death #2 by cyanide

100 Word Plot Summary:

Who is Jane Finn, and why has she vanished after escaping from the sinking Lusitania with a secret document entrusted to her by its doomed courier? That paper could have changed the course of the war, but why is the British Secret Service still keen to recover it now, 5 years later? Why the competing hunt by a group of Bolshevik anarchists, led by the mysterious “Mr Brown”? Tommy Beresford and “Tuppence” Cowley, newly demobbed and desperate for jobs, join forces and market their services to Jane Finn’s rich American cousin, whose interest in her seems just a little overenthusiastic…

*****

Agatha Christie’s second published work is a slightly more ambitious story than The Mysterious Affair at Styles; and it’s changed in style as well: dramatic thriller rather than sedate country house murder mystery. The tone is breathless, the plot improbable, the villains all degrees of wicked (urbane to thuggish), and the “women in question” suitably mysterious – as well as stunningly beautiful. What a grand little period piece of colourful writing, silly though the whole scenario is.

Here’s the devious (and exotically lovely)  Mrs Vandemeyer, who, incidentally, knows more about “Mr Brown” than is healthy for her long-term survival:

A woman was standing by the fireplace. She was no longer in her first youth, and the beauty she undeniably possessed was hardened and coarsened. In her youth she must have been dazzling. Her pale gold hair, owing a slight assistance to art, was coiled low on her neck, her eyes, of a piercing electric blue, seemed to possess a faculty of boring into the very soul of the person she was looking at. Her exquisite figure was enhanced by a wonderful gown of indigo charmeuse. And yet, despite her swaying grace, and the almost ethereal beauty of her face, you felt instinctively the presence of something hard and menacing, a kind of metallic strength that found expression in the tones of her voice and in that gimlet-like quality of her eyes.

Gimlet eyes and indigo charmeuse; obviously up to no good. Beware!

Young adventurers Tommy and Tuppence are a rollicking change from the pompous Poirot and sober Hastings of her first novel; Agatha Christie was to follow The Secret Adversary with four other books featuring the pair, spaced throughout the years, with the characters aging appropriately.

Though I found this an amusing enough read, with plenty of nostalgia value, I couldn’t quite buy into the whole Bolshevist plot side of things; too many vagaries and improbabilities. (Even at my first reading as a young teenager, I recall a feeling of cynical disbelief; this was never one of my favourite Christies.) But so much scope of course for all sorts of shenanigans – secret identities, people vanishing, other people being tied up in windowless rooms, threats of torture, beautiful girls, invisible ink, car chases, shots fired that just miss our heroes – it’s all in here.

An early dustjacket - possibly from the first edition. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of "Mr Brown"!

An early dustjacket – possibly from the first edition*. Note the red flag and the Russian bear behind the mask of “Mr Brown”! (February 2017 – A reader has just commented that this is not the first edition cover; that one apparently has a picture of a woman – presumably Jane Finn? – on it. I’ll keep an eye out for that one in my internet travels.)

Another early dustjacket, with "Mr Brown" as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Another early dustjacket, with “Mr Brown” as the chess master moving his human pieces about the board.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a string of pearls; her companion much more appropriately tousled, considering the revolver covering them both... I'm guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback jacket.

Tuppence with a tidy hairdo and a sedate string of pearls; her companion just a wee bit more appropriately tousled – though not much, considering the threatening figure in the foreground!  I’m guessing 1950s for this dramatic paperback cover.

Another view from behind the handgun.

Another Pan paperback, this one for the North American market, and possibly released a few years later than the one just above. Great villains-eye view from behind the handgun.

I couldn't resist including this gorgeous paperback cover, from a French edition.

I couldn’t resist including this rather elegant paperback cover, from a more recent (I’m guessing 1970s or 1980s) French edition.

And from 2008, the cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

And from 2008, this attractive poster-like cover of a graphic novel version, playing up the Lusitania connection.

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Here’s a brief personal note for those of you who have I have come, over the past year or so, to think of as my long-distance friends.

As some of you may know, I am possessed of an elderly mother in frail physical health. She has been managing to live alone in her own house, with assistance from family and drop-in Home Care services, though it was becoming apparent to all of us that this was an increasingly precarious situation.

A week ago Thursday Mom had an early morning tumble. She was unable to get up, and, having struck her head when she landed, somehow did not collect herself enough to make the attempt to push her LifeLine call button which she wears 24/7 for just such a situation. She was on the floor a good five hours before we twigged that there was something wrong – when she missed her regular morning check-in call to me – and by the time we found her she had lost a lot of blood and was hypothermic.

She was ambulanced in to the hospital, warmed up and stitched up and rehydrated and given several units of blood; luckily nothing was broken, though she was very sore and bruised all over. She was coming along reasonably well – sitting up in bed, complaining mildly about the hospital food, and zipping through a book a day, and we were looking into convalescent arrangements for her, when she (not unexpectedly – she’s been rather crackly in the lungs even before her fall) developed pneumonia. She’s now on a course of antibiotics which seems to be helping limit the progression of her infection, but she’s very tired, has no appetite, and is generally not looking very chipper at all. She’s still reading a bit, which is a good sign, but her progress is now just a few pages per day.

Needless to say we are all feeling a bit helpless; we’re at “wait it out” stage right now, to see which way things go. Mom’s had a previous serious bout of pneumonia, but she rallied from that after being given up on by her doctor, so we’re hoping she’ll tough this one out, too. But, realistically, she just might not.

She’s fairly comfortable, has great care in the hospital, and we’re trying to get into a new routine of balancing time at the hospital with the relentless progression of summer jobs on the farm. I am doing a lot of sitting around waiting, and am finding that there is definitely some reading time – blessed books, what a good escape from our worldly woes! – but somehow the focus on writing for the blog is harder to attain.

I have a whole slew of posts started; these will be appearing as I’m able to get them finished off; I do have bits of quiet time here and there and focussing on talking about books is a refreshing change of pace, all things considered.

So that’s where I’m at right now. Things could change at a moment’s notice if Mom has a sudden downturn, or it could be one of those long, prolonged, everything-in-limbo situations. So this post is all I’ll say (at least for now) about the situation; my book posts will likely not reflect much of this, though it will of course be constantly there in my thoughts!

It had looked like this summer would be quiet and uneventful, but life changes in a moment sometimes, setting all of our trivial human plans awry…

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Inspired by this morning’s post over at Gudrun’s Tights discussing best reads of the year to date, I went ahead and picked out my own personal “Top 5”, but, sadly, could not get my reply to come through. (Apparently the comments have been acting up on the blog; I’m wondering if that’s why I can’t seem to get mine up.) So, since I already typed it all out, here is my list.

Picking a top 5 for the first half of 2013 was easy/hard. I did read some rather outstanding books. A few more than 5, actually, but here are the ones that really stood out.  I’ve only reviewed three of these; the others deserved more review time than I could spare at the time of reading, so they’ll be under more focus in future.

  •  All the Little Live Things (1967) by Wallace Stegner – Two couples at differing points in their lives become neighbours and friends in a rural California setting. The book examines love in various forms – romantic, platonic, parental – as well as the different ways individuals deal with emotional traumas and the brutal realities of too-early deaths. Sounds grim, but it is a hauntingly presented story which I found powerful, thought-provoking and ultimately comforting in its examination of ways of embracing grief and going forward. (Not reviewed yet.)
  • The Joyous Season (1964) by Patrick Dennis – another farcical period-piece (the period in question being 1960s, upper-class New York) by  Auntie Mame‘s author. Two children cope with their parents’ proposed divorce in a very “civilized” way. Mostly humorous, with a truly poignant ending.
  • The Sisters Brothers (2011) by Patrick DeWitt – I missed reading this when it was all the rage a year or two ago, but now I get what all the buzz was about. A rather twisted saga of two brothers employed as contract killers in the 1850s. Very dark, very clever, very funny. (Not reviewed yet. I might not review this one; it has been so popular that it seems a bit pointless to add my words to the many that are already out there. Can I just say that I loved this book, and leave it at that? 😉 )
  • Crewe Train (1926) by Rose Macaulay – a highly unusual, absolutely stoic English girl who has grown up in an isolated Spanish village is brought back to England by her upper-class relations after she is orphaned. The resulting cultural clashes are highly entertaining, and highlight the foibles of “accepted behaviour” in a rather cunning way.
  • Hostages to Fortune (1933) by Elizabeth Cambridge – a quiet domestic drama centered around a doctor’s wife, her marriage, and her motherhood. A keen-eyed examination of a common experience which has many parallels to family life today. The essentials never change.

To answer the other question, regarding weekend plans, oh yes – I do indeed have those! Let’s see…

Yesterday I (unexpectedly!) bought a piano in the big city several hours away; today will be devoted to getting it home. There’s also a huge family reunion going on this weekend just a few miles away; all of my husband’s relations will be convening, so I’ll be cooking for that, and attending, of course, PLUS my elderly mother who is at present incarcerated in the hospital after a bad fall last week (she’s on the mend) will need multiple visits; she’s in the small city an hour away. So driving, talking, cooking, eating – in that order – are my themes for the upcoming long weekend! (Not much reading time, I fear.)

Hope you are all having a good summer. And what have your outstanding reads been this year to date?

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