Seeing Rightly: In Search of the Little Prince [Book Review]

I finally made time to read In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and I’m glad I did. This picture book biography tells the life of Saint-Exupéry and his never-flagging passion for flying.  It also reveals some of the real-life inspiration for his beloved The Little Prince.

Tonio, as his family called him, delivered mail by plane in Morocco and Northern Africa, and it was on one of those stopovers that he tamed a desert fox.  He loved poetry at a young age and preferred flying to any other job. He called himself “a farmer of the stars.”

The flat, almost one-dimensional watercolor (?) illustrations were not to my personal liking, but delightful photographs of Saint-Exupéry line the front endpapers.

Antoine and his siblings, 1907. Antoine is second from right.

 

Antoine in France, 1921

The best part of the book was this quotation:

 

It’s a short read, intended for children, and the child in everyone will appreciate this book.

 Illustrated by the author.

 

Landmann, Bimba.  In Search of the Little Prince: The Story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Books For Young Readers, 2014. Print.

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The Janus Stone [Book Review]

Janus Stone

That I missed the first installment of the Ruth Galloway Crime series wasn’t a deterrent at all. In her follow-up The Janus Stone, Norfolk [England] police find a child’s body under a threshold at a demolition site and a cat skeleton elsewhere at the same location. What links the two sets of bones: headless. No skulls. An archaeological dig outside of town provides a nice counterpoint and plenty of information about Roman and Celtic burial rites and sacrifices. Janus is the two-faced Roman God, simultaneously looking forward and backward, the god of doorways and boundaries; once sacrifices were offered to him, buried under doorways. Hence the title. But the bones at the construction site are much more recent. Forensic archaeologist—bones expert—Ruth Galloway is called in to consult.

Part mystery/detective story with a healthy splash of soap opera, The Janus Stone is a fast, intelligent read. The relationship elements (which guy for Ruth? Police detective Nelson? Archaeologist Max? Druid Cathbad? A question complicated by her first-term unrevealed pregnancy. . .) are mostly dramatic seasoning and only occasionally stray into comedy/melodrama, as in the climactic scene when the three leading men all join forces to confront the villain.

The present-tense voice is fresh and the multiple characters’ viewpoints are expertly handled.  Griffiths portrays an England where Protestant/Catholic tensions and biases are still acknowledged, counterpointed by Ruth’s scientific agnosticism and Cathbad’s paganism, painted in wry humor. (“You don’t have to be religious to be Catholic,” Nelson claims at one point [45], and Ruth is disinterested in what she calls “the age-old struggle between Catholic and Protestant.” Although, she concedes, “Catholicism has nicer pictures” [79].) Priest Father Hennessey is portrayed sympathetically, which is to say as human.  Even Ruth’s staunchly Born-Again parents come around to compassionately accept her illegitimate pregnancy. It’s a nice balance, completely free of authorial bias.

Although Cathbad might be the most interesting character of the lot. Generally clad in purple druidic robes, he has an uncanny sixth-sense and susses out Ruth’s pregnancy—and the identity of the father—with an unexplainable intuition. In the penultimate dramatic scene, as Nelson and Cathbad are racing to rescue a kidnapped Ruth, Cathbad is preternaturally calm:

                        Nelson reaches forty miles an hour before he has backed out. . .but, beside him, Cathbad is calm and serene. He is the only person Nelson has met who is not terrified by his driving . . . . Nelson puts the siren on and they weave madly between lanes . . . [while] . . . Cathbad hums a Celtic folk song (292).

He even puts on a black shirt for the funeral which follows identification of the child’s body: none of the religious characters are caricatures.  It’s wonderfully refreshing.

Smart, humorous, and well-paced, with an appropriate and intriguing subplot (although again, the subplot veers toward soap operatic), The Janus Stone is a good read. The focus on relationship elements skews it more to a female audience, but it is nowhere near the romance genre and is firmly a female-oriented who-dunnit.

One quibble: no self-respecting druid would celebrate Imbolc on May 23, even if Cathbad does acknowledge that “the weather’s been so bad . . .I don’t expect Brigid will mind” (50).  I assume that the author is trying to tie [saint and/or goddess] Brigid’s threshold connections to Janus in order to provide thematic unity. As bloggist Jan Richardson reminds: “Brigid was known as a bridge-builder and a threshold figure, symbolized in the story that tells that her mother, Broicsech, gave birth to her as she crossed through the doorway into her house.” And despite my neo-pagan familiarity, I can’t actually confirm if pagans really do dance around a bonfire (so is it possible there is a touch of caricature—or merely that everyone loves bonfires?) but the inclusion of families and children at the bonfire was realistic.  Bonus: they didn’t dance ‘skyclad’ or as my friend would say ‘bucky tale nekkid’.

A strong, entertaining read.

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

A- as an magical alternate world with a fairy-tale feel. There aren’t enough girl ‘buddy’ stories: B+ as a good female friendship story. B- for plot: the teen protagonist seducing the mentor is questionable because real-world high school teachers would get fired for sleeping with a student (even if the student initiated it). A+ setting: the menacing forest and battles therein are fresh and original.

 

3 out of 5 stars.

Uprooted_Novik

Some Kind of Fairy Tale [Book Review]

“It was Christmas Day of that year and Dell Martin hovered at the double-glazed PVC window of his tidy home, conducting a survey of the bruised clouds and concluding that it might just snow; and if it did snow then someone would have to pay out.”

Not the first line, but it should be, of Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale.

Art by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Photo by Angus R. Shamal used for the cover of the North American edition. From his website http://www.angusrshamal.com/graham-joyce-some-kind-of-fairy-tale/

Twenty years ago, a daughter/sister/girlfriend went missing. No traces. Presumed dead or some other tragic end. If she was all right, she would have called. Even if she’d run away, she would have written. For twenty years her loved ones have been stifled by the inpenetrable grief of not-knowing.

Then Tara Martin reappears on Christmas, young and slight, looking not a day older, unable to account for her whereabouts. She makes up a story about traveling but eventually discloses her truth: she had spent time—in her mind only six months—with the fairies.

Doctors are brought in; dental records are checked. She meets with the local psychiatrist who explores amnesia, traumatic memory loss, and confabulation. Tara’s tales of the fairies’ sexual exploits are presumed to be projections of her own repressed self. But questions remain: Is the girl who she claims to be? Why hasn’t she aged?

This novel presents a deft handling of the faerie mythos. Set in “the deepest heart of England,” it is a welcome addition to modern Fairy Tale lore. Author Graham Joyce has a familiar knowledge of faerie story tropes and carries his premise to its logical conclusion: what would happen if someone today were taken to and returned from Faerie?

The clash of modernity with traditional folklore is accentuated by Graham’s frequent epigraphic references to the Bridget Cleary case. In 1895 near Tipperary, Ireland, twenty-six year old Bridget Cleary was burned and murdered by her husband and family who believed she was a changeling, a fairy imposter, a fairy in disguise. Ten of Bridget Cleary’s relatives and neighbors were tried for murder. To Graham, the Bridget Cleary case illustrates the ascendance of law and rationality over superstition.

Now, in his novel written and set over one hundred years later, he explores a parallel question: how would modern society respond if the folklore proved true?

A true gem for the faerie and fairy tale enthusiast.

Joyce, Graham. Some Kind of Fairy Tale. London: Orion Publishing, 2012.

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

Cover for the British edition (the edition I read.)

 

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

Spread the Word About The Secret Place

Tana French is back with her fifth book in the “Dublin Murder Squad” series, The Secret Place. This time, teen Holly Mackey brings detective Stephen Moran a clue on a year-old murder at her private boarding school, St. Kilda’s. Holly is the daughter of detective Frank Mackey from French’s previous book, Faithful Place, in which we also saw Stephen Moran first debut as a supporting character. New York Times book reviewer Janet Maslin predicted in 2010, “If Ms. French keeps chain-linking her novels together, so that a supporting character in one becomes the protagonist of the next . . . Stephen will star in a book of his own some day.” The Secret Place is Stephen Moran’s big break to make it off the cold cases department and into the murder squad.

secret place cover

            One year earlier, Chris Harper, a handsome and popular student at the neighboring boys’ school was found dead, overnight, in a cypress grove at the girls’ school. The case had languished until Holly brings in a note from the anonymous-secrets bulletin board, the titular Secret Place, that claims that somebody knows who-done-it. Detective Moran teams up with the previous detective on the case, the maligned no-nonsense Antoinette Conway who is fighting sexism and the sting of being unable to solve her first murder.

The book is well-plotted and suspenseful (so suspenseful that I stayed up late reading it even though I was ill and exhausted) and has a dash of the uncanny or supernatural. French has a gift for characters and fully develops the primary suspects, eight teenage girls. Both the four girls from the popular clique and Holly and her three friends, the ‘weirdos’ or independent non-clique, are uniquely created. I stress: that’s a true gift to make eight teen girls into individuals! Equally as compelling is Moran’s interviews with all eight witnesses, in which he takes a different tack and approaches each girl according to her own ego needs in order to get at the truth.

As with the other Murder Squad books, department politics forms a strong subplot as Moran’s and Conway’s careers are on the line as they search for a solve. Frank Mackey even makes a larger-than-cameo appearance.

Gripping, insightful, and full of delightful teen and Irish slang, this is a strong addition to French’s series, although this book also stands alone. (The series is loosely linked.) A small downside is that because it is set in a self-contained boarding school, we American readers and lovers of all things Irish don’t get a vicarious view of the rest of Dublin.   Double bonus points for nick-naming a character “Father Voldemort” (the priest and Head of the boys’ school).

Craft Notes: A must-read for writers interested in creating multiple unique teenage characters and members of cliques who don’t blend together indistinguishably. This is an alternating narrative switching between the teenagers’ points of view from a year earlier and Moran’s present-day investigation. Moran’s interviews are also notable for dialogue or insight into police interviewing.

 

 

For Further Information: Tana French’s website

To purchase on Amazon

Book Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Grossman, Lev.  The Magicians. NY: Viking: 2009. (Reading Level: Adult)

Narnia meets Hogwarts slams head-on into hell.

Take some treasured childhood memories, a sincere and earnest belief in magic, and add more than a dollop of gritty realism. What Alan Moore’s The Watchmen did for superheroes, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians does for alternate-world juvenile fantasy.

Quentin Coldwater has all the self-conscious, oblivious nerdliness of Oscar Wao, with an obsession with the childhood books about the fictional Fillory, a Narnia-like series he never quite got over.  In a series of hair-whitening adventures he learns that even with magic, even in paradise, you can’t escape from yourself.

Witty, fun, and heart-wrenching. A book you can’t put down, and never want to end.

 A sequel, The Magician King, was published in 2011.