Gems of 2014

It’s time for an end-of-year roundup! With this post, I’m introducing the Emerald City Book Review Gem, to be awarded to my favorite books of the year in various genres and categories. (Note that books were read and reviewed, but not necessarily published in 2014.) Click on each title to be taken to my original review, or click here for a page that lists all of them. Visit Top Ten Tuesday for many, many more best-of-2014 lists.

2014 Releases: Fiction: Hild   Nonfiction: In the Kingdom of Ice

Rereads: Witch Week

Fiction: My Brother Michael

Classic Fiction: Barchester Towers and The Brandons

Historical Fiction: The White Witch

Fantasy: The Islands of Chaldea

Children’s: All-of-a-Kind Family

YA: A Solitary Blue

Memoir/Biography: Strings Attached and My Life in Middlemarch

Nonfiction: The Age of Wonder

Do you have a Best of 2014 list? Please share it in the comments!

In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)


For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.

When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization.  I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.

The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.

The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.

In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.

Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:

Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List


Witch Week Day Six: Readalong of Witch Week

Diana Wynne Jones readalong
UK paperback, Mammoth

We’ve arrived at the fifth of November, known as Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night in the UK, and the last day of Witch Week according to the book of that title by Diana Wynne Jones — which, appropriately, has been our readalong selection for this event. This being the first time I’ve hosted anything like this, I’m curious to find out whether anybody else has actually been reading along! Did you read Witch Week for the first, or fifth, or twentieth time? What were your impressions, whether this is a new book for you, or an old friend? Did you have favorite scenes or characters, or were there perhaps aspects of the book that disturbed or puzzled you? If you were rereading, how has your experience of the book changed over time? Please comment below. . . and readers, be aware that spoilers are not prohibited from here on out.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read Witch Week, but at least one of them was to a rapt audience of fourth, fifth and sixth graders. I know that when I first read it I was much closer to my own school experience, which in many ways paralleled that of Nan Pilgrim in the book. Like her, I was pudgy, hopeless in gym, disdained and sometimes tortured by the popular kids, and given to describing things. Thus I sympathized with Nan even as I laughed at her predicaments, such as when she thought she was climbing the rope in gym class when actually she was just making hopeful motions with her eyes closed, or when she vividly described the horrible school food while sitting next to the principal. I felt her delight when she found that she did have a talent, even if it was for forbidden witchcraft, and her vindication when she was able to transform that talent and the whole world along with it, through the creative power of storytelling.

But there is more to the book than the parts that resonate with me personally, and when I re-read it this time the darker elements came more to the fore. Witch Week, which was originally published in 1982, created a magical dystopia before it was fashionable to do so, and I think that current writers in the genre could learn much from its construction. Its depiction of a world like our own, with one important difference — witchcraft is both common and punishable by death — is subtly horrific, forming a weighty counterpoint to the comic scenes. These play upon themes we all know from our school days, like useless journal-writing exercises and teachers who think their private affairs are invisible to their students. But these schoolkids are not just threatened with being sent to detention or even being menaced by bullies; they are in serious danger of losing their lives.

bonfire night fireworks
An oddly appropriate Guy Fawkes scene (Historical Society)

Witch Week is in many ways the “anti-Harry Potter,” as Emma Jane Falconer astutely describes it in her DWJ zine, and its portrayal of evil is far more nuanced and real than the cartoon villainy of Voldemort — perhaps coming too close to home for some readers. Maybe that’s why when I looked for some other reviews, I found many that called it unpleasant and depressing. This is partly due to the fact that Charles Morgan, the second main child character in the book, is in danger of losing not just his life but his very soul as he turns toward the darker side of magic. I think that readers who are merely repelled by him are missing the point, though. A society that generates fear and hatred, and suppresses the creative human spirit, will ultimately destroy itself. Charles is a victim of that society, and his ultimate self-transformation is as important as Nan’s, though less obvious — it may be that some readers miss it altogether, in the rush of the story’s conclusion.

For me, rereading Witch Week was a delight as usual. I remain impressed by Diana Wynne Jones’s ability to create a story with so many different layers, combining farce and tragedy in a way I believe to be quite rare. Plus I still adore Nan, and cheer for her as she finally gets to ride (awkwardly) on a splendidly eccentric broomstick. Her triumph enriches all of us.

(If I haven’t mentioned that DWJ’s well-known recurring character Chrestomanci comes into the story, perhaps it’s because I find him more peripheral than in the other novels in which he appears. He plays a decidedly supporting role, even though it’s essential to the plot. If this is your first Chrestomanci book and you are a bit baffled by him, do seek out the others. It will all make sense, I promise.)

But enough from me! What are your thoughts? Please share them below, and remember that you can also link up your own reviews at the master post. Plus, don’t neglect to enter the giveaway before midnight tonight for a chance to win the above-mentioned DWJ zine! Tomorrow, a summary and preview of next year.

A Traveller in Time: Hild

Nicola Griffith, Hild (2013)


Hilda historical Whitby fiction

Hild is not a novel for everyone. If you are put off by the thought of a dense, slow-moving narrative largely preoccupied with political machinations in a remote period of British history, populated by a large cast of characters whose every other name seems to begin with Os- or Aeth- or Ed-, you might want to look elsewhere. But readers for whom this sounds like an intriguing challenge rather than a form of literary torture will be rewarded by a rich and immersive experience of that alien land, the past, and by the chance to encounter an unforgettable central character.

Who is Hild? She is based on a real person, the daughter of a displaced king in seventh-century Northumbria. She became known to history as Saint Hilda, founder of the important abbey of Whitby, a teacher of bishops and advisor of kings. In nearly 600 pages, the novel only deals with her early years, bringing her just over the threshold of womanhood. Only a few fragments of fact-cum-legend remain about this period of Hild’s life, tiny seeds that in Griffith’s imagination have blossomed into a comprehensive vision of an extraordinary girl growing up in a dangerous and revolutionary time, when petty kings fought for territory with ruthless brutality, and a strange new religion became another weapon in their wars.

Though baptized at thirteen as part of the general conversion of her uncle King Edwin’s court, the Hild of the novel sees the Christ as “just a god like any other.” This new god displaces Woden more through political expediency — he has powerful mortal allies in kings, bishops and archbishops, and the pope — than through any kind of inner moral transformation. Two more novels are projected to continue the story, and I am very curious to see how Hild will develop into the woman revered as a crucial figure in the development of Christianity. Will Christ come to mean anything more to her than just the god who happened to come out on top in the religion war?

It’s quite an ambitious task, this attempt to get into the minds of our hybrid pagan-Christian ancestors, and while she may make some missteps Griffith largely convinces us through the sheer vitality and piercing precision of her language. Passages of lyrical beauty bring the natural and sensual world to life, making us feel that we see through Hild’s eyes into a world unimaginably different from ours yet strangely familiar. Here’s her response to hearing a new kind of music, brought by one of the Christian deacons with his choir:

The music, when it came with a rush, a gush of voice seeking its note, ripped away her indifference and tore through her as sudden and shocking as snowmelt.

She forgot the floor. Forgot the queen. She felt hot, then cold, then nothing at all, like a bubble rising through water, then floating, then lifting free.

It was cool music, inhuman, the song stars might sing. Endless, pouring, pure. Were it water, it would turn any bird who drank it white.

The music soared. Hild soared with it.

In a wonderful article in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books, Nicola Griffith wrote, “For me a good novel is one that draws me in and puts me right there, right then, with the characters: I walk where they walk, feel what they feel. I live their lives, just for a little while, and come back increased.” I certainly feel increased by having had the opportunity to live with and through Hild for a time, and I can’t wait to walk with her again.

For those who just can’t get enough of Hild’s world, Nicola Griffith blogs about her research and associated matters here.


Darkness in Delphi: My Brother Michael

Mary Stewart, My Brother Michael (1960)

Mary Stewart is rightly acclaimed for creating wonderfully robust settings in her books, which serve as much more than mere stage backdrops to the action. So strong is the sense of place, sometimes, that the setting almost becomes a character or a plot device in its own right.

Such is the case with My Brother Michael, which I picked up in honor of Mary Stewart Reading Week. The place is Delphi, on the slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece, once considered the navel of the world and still one of the most numinous sites of the Western world. While telling one of her thrilling tales of mystery and danger, Stewart also manages to evoke the spirit of Greece, both ancient and modern, in a strikingly vivid way. From a memorable scene of the difficulties of passing a bus on a mountain road, to explorations of the god-haunted landscape of Parnassus, to stories of some of the tragedies incurred during and after the Second World War, she makes us feel that we have encountered this brilliant, desolate land, and experienced some of its treasures — and its burdens.

I said, “It’s this confounded country. It does things to one — mentally and physically and, I suppose, morally. The past is so living and the present so intense and the future so blooming imminent. The light seems to burn life into you twice as intensely as anywhere else I’ve known. I suppose that’s why the Greeks did what they did so miraculously, and why they could stay themselves through twenty generations of slavery that would have crushed any other race on earth.”

To summarize the plot of a Mary Stewart novel is to spoil many of its surprises, so I’ll just say that our heroine, Camilla, traveling alone in Greece after the breakup of a bad relationship, gets into more than she’d bargained for when she takes an unusual opportunity to transport herself from Athens to Delphi. After she meets up with our hero, an Englishman hunting for some clues to still-unanswered questions around the death of his brother during the war, she definitely loses her right to complain that “Nothing ever happens to me.” One is reminded to be careful what one wishes for — the gods may be listening.

One quibble I had with the narrative was that Camilla is supposed not to understand Greek, yet she reports in great detail conversations that were held in that language, with every nuance of emotion and expression included. This is supposed to be because they were translated for her afterwards, but that explanation is not terribly convincing; indeed, she often is more engaged with what is going on than she should be, were she really as ignorant as she is supposed to be. There is one major plot point that turns on her lack of understanding of the language, but perhaps that could have been dealt with in another way. I know that highly detailed first-person narratives generally require some suspension of disbelief, but this extra bit of implausibility bothered me just slightly.

As in another Stewart novel with a Greek setting, The Moon-Spinners, the romance in My Brother Michael was more implied than explicit. I tend to like them that way, since instant attraction seems more plausible to me than instant falling-into-arms and declaring undying love. (There is never much time in these novels for anything other than instantaneous romance, since the action moves at a pretty fast clip, and most of the time our hero and heroine are busy with pursuing bad guys and other distractions.) Here, aside from a charming teaser at the end, much is left to our imaginations. Sometimes it’s better that way.

Overall, this was one of my favorite Mary Stewart books so far, with its seamless integration of plot, setting and character, and one that I would definitely pick up again. If you’re looking for an intelligent, entertaining and suspenseful read, this is a good place to start.



A Song of Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

Cynthia Voigt, A Solitary Blue (1983)

I owe Cynthia Voigt an apology. When she won the Newbery Medal for Dicey’s Song in 1983, beating out my favorite book at the time (The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley), I retaliated by refusing to read it or any others in what came to be an acclaimed seven-book cycle about the Tillerman family and their friends. But when A Solitary Blue, the follow-up to Dicey’s Song, came again to my attention through the Phoenix Award list, I thought I would give it another chance after 30 years. And I found that the award committee has a point: this is a beautifully written, deeply affecting book, with much insight into the painful process of loving and accepting one another and ourselves, while knowing when and how to walk away from unhealthy relationships.
To be fair, I doubt I would have enjoyed or appreciated it as a teenager. At the time, McKinley’s thrilling tale of adventure and magic in the desert was exactly what I wanted, not a slowly-paced story about a boy abandoned by his mother and learning to understand and live with a distant father. So maybe it’s a good thing I waited until now.

As a parent myself, I was already engaged–to the point of anger–from the first page, when seven-year-old Jeff Greene reads a letter from his mother telling him that she has to leave him in order to help other people, and stifles his tears because his father, whom he calls The Professor, doesn’t like emotion. How could they do that to him? Wouldn’t he be completely messed up?

Over the course of the novel, we find out how they could do that to him: how Jeff’s mother, Melody, could be so selfish and self-deluded as to think she could pick up and drop a child at her own convenience, and how his father could deeply care for his son and yet be so ignorant of children’s needs as to neglect him almost to death. The Professor actually learns from his experiences, and his gradual growing into relationship with his son is moving and real. Melody, on the other hand, is basically pure evil: a modern-day witch holding out a poisoned apple of false love to Jeff. We gain insight into the way her twisted mind works, but not into how she got that way, or into some remnants of humanity in her that we might be able to sympathize with. This one-sidedness creates a flaw in what is otherwise a rich portrayal of character and emotion.

Of course, Jeff himself is the core of the novel, and as we live through his experiences (which do mess him up quite thoroughly), we grow to know and love him in his weakness and his strength. How he finds healing and redemption in the face of serious challenges, finding his way from desperate isolation to community, is a quietly compelling tale. The setting, which moves from Baltimore to South Carolina to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, comes to life through Voigt’s carefully crafted prose, and the natural world holds a strong presence in Jeff’s healing process.

Another element is his relationship with Dicey Tillerman, who comes into the story only near the end, another wounded soul struggling toward the light. Without any gooey sentimentality, it becomes clear that she is important to Jeff and that their friendship will develop further. Her story is more fully told in the earlier and later books in the cycle, which I’ll be sure to seek out now.

A Solitary Blue reminded me that real literature has no age limits. A book that is right for one person at age 14 may be right for another at age 44. Though we tend to want to label books by age or genre, or simply as being “not for me,” when we set aside our prejudices we can make some wonderful discoveries. This was one for me.

Classics Club List #2
2003 Phoenix Award Honor Book


Five of a Kind: All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family (1951)

Sydney Tayor family story

I don’t know why I never read All-of-a-Kind Family when growing up, but I was reminded that I needed to thanks to The Midnight Garden’s Classic MG/YA Readalong. I was very glad to finally get to know this beloved account of five girls growing up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.

Often compared to other period family stories like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family has far less conflict than either. The girls get scarlet fever, but nobody dies; there are no wolves, panthers or bears to menace their cozy home. Each chapter is a small domestic drama centering around incidents that may seem trivial to an adult — a lost library book, a trip to the beach, a search for a birthday present for Papa — yet are exactly the kinds of events that loom large in the life of a sheltered child. With her loving descriptions of festivals such as Purim and Passover, and of settings from street markets to Coney Island, Taylor brings us into the heart of a Jewish family with sensitivity and grace, and evokes a vanished way of life that was full of poverty and hardship but also rich in warmth and human connection.

There is little indication of the social struggles going on in the wider world. It’s stated several times that the family is poor, but though their food is simple they don’t go hungry, and they enjoy penny candy and special Sabbath meals. They don’t complain about the hand-me-down clothes that make them “all of a kind,” or about having to all sleep in one room. Unlike Jo March and Laura Ingalls, they seldom long for things they cannot have. Under the wise guidance of ever-serene Mama and hardworking Papa, they live contentedly and unquestioningly, and larger troubles of prejudice, class consciousness, or impending war do not disturb them. Occasionally the adults’ perspective is taken, with its heavier load of cares and responsibilities, but the focus is still on problems of the home (getting the girls to do their chores, or dealing with a spell of contrariness). In this small-scale narrative, it’s the details of daily life that fascinate.

In real life, Sydney Taylor was the middle child, “Sarah,” of the book (she changed her name as a teenager). She originally told these stories of her childhood to her own daughter, who was a lonely only child, then wrote them down and forgot about the manuscript until her husband submitted it for a literary award. It won the award, and the rest is history.

Written simply and unpretentiously, without literary flourishes but with a storyteller’s sure sense for the ear of her child audience, All-of-a-Kind Family retains its appeal for a new generation of readers. The four sequels have just been taken up this year by the new Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint, which is a good thing — once you’ve met this family you won’t want to say goodbye.

60th Anniversary article in The Tablet
An article by Lizzie Skurnick 


A Reader’s Journey: My Life in Middlemarch

Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (2014)


criticism biography literature

Why aren’t there more books like this? Rebecca Mead takes us on a deeply personal, yet wide-ranging tour of one of her life’s touchstones, Middlemarch by George Eliot. In the process we learn about Eliot’s own life and times, gaining insights into the origins of the book’s characters and themes, and into how a great book can transform and teach us.

Mead does not erase herself from the book, unlike literary critics or biographers who try to achieve “objectivity” (impossible, yet expected) in their works. She tells us what aspects of the book had significance for her and how those changed through her life; she takes us along with her as she visits Eliot-related sites and people, giving us not only facts but her emotional response to the experience of trying to connect with the past. Yet she does not turn the book into a narcissistic exercise, a “this book is really all about me” kind of narrative. The focus remains firmly on Middlemarch, throwing more light upon this great novel so that in turn it can illuminate our own lives even more.

An experienced journalist, Mead is skilled at linking her thoughts and observations and creating connections between ideas. She organizes the book by naming her eight chapters after the eight parts of Eliot’s original novel, which bear titles like “Old and Young,” “Waiting for Death,” “Two Temptations.” She expertly crafts each piece to touch on relevant themes — how the unmarriageable Eliot found love and fulfillment with George Lewes; her relationship with her three stepsons; a somewhat creepy epistolary pursuit by a persistent fan — interspersed with Mead’s own experiences with love, family, and literary endeavor. It all flows easily and readably, concealing the craft that went into making a book that plays so many roles into a seamless whole.

If you’ve read and loved Middlemarch, or even if you haven’t, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book, which celebrates and brings greater understanding to our love of reading. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.


Delighting in Absurdities: Barchester Towers

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)

Barsetshire novels classic TrollopeFor me, the key to Barchester Towers was found near the end, in this passage:

The sorrows of our heroes and heroines, they are your delight, oh public! Their sorrows, or their sins, or their absurdities; not their virtues, good sense, and consequent rewards. 

Indeed, Trollope’s gift lies in creating errant and uncongenial characters who nevertheless delight us, making us laugh in recognition of follies and foibles that persist to this day — in our neighbors, at least, if we be not honest enough to see them in ourselves.

I don’t necessarily agree that virtue and good sense can never be interesting in fiction, but it’s certainly true that the sympathetic and right-minded characters in this novel — noble Mr. Arabin, poor misunderstood Eleanor Bold, humble Mr. Harding — form only a rather drab background against which the others — slimy social-climbing clergyman Mr. Slope, crippled femme fatale Signora Neroni, the spineless Bishop Proudie, and the immortal, indomitable Mrs. Proudie, to name but a few — play out their comedy composed of “sorrows, sins, and absurdities.”

The main plot of Barchester Towers can be told fairly briefly. When a new bishop is appointed in the cathedral town of Barchester, and brings new notions to town along with his attendant chaplain (Slope) and a wife who is the real power behind the throne, it quickly leads to “war” with the established clergy. In his efforts to gain more power and influence in the diocese, Slope starts to wangle a choice appointment for a crony of his — but he discovers that Eleanor Bold, daughter of the man who formerly held the place* and has a moral right to it, is a rich widow as well as a lovely young woman. He abruptly shifts tactics, trying to woo the widow by soliciting the appointment for her father, which leads to further complications and his own inevitable downfall.

It takes about 500 pages to get there, though, and readers with little patience for drawn-out character histories, conflicts based in long-outdated social hierarchies, or frequent authorial digressions, will not make it far into BT. If you lack such patience, however, what are you doing reading a nineteenth century novel? Trollope’s novel rests comfortably within the conventions of the day, and he knows them well, even halting his narrative periodically to poke fun at them. He reassures us that Eleanor will not marry Mr. Slope, and advises us that creating suspense is not a proper function for a novel; in the passage just following the one quoted above, he tells us that happy endings are really terribly boring, but he’s going to give us one, because that’s what we demand of him. This meta-fictional touch may amuse or annoy you, depending on your temperament, but it also is part of what gives the reassuring sense that normality is going to return to Barchester in the end. There’s an author in charge of it all, and he won’t let us down.

Trollope’s observant eye, which captures the perfect bit of dialogue or action to reveal a character’s inner essence, is what makes reading all those pages worthwhile. He’s particularly good at portraying the clash of different personalities, as when Mr. Slope and Mrs. Proudie memorably come up against one another. In between the bits of action, with wickedly delicious turns of phrase, he skewers various aspects of human nature:

No experience of what goes on in the world, no reading of history, no observation of life, has any effect in teaching the truth. Men of fifty don’t dance mazurkas, being generally too fat and wheezy; nor do they sit for the hour together on river banks at their mistresses’ feet, being somewhat afraid of rheumatism. But for real true love, love at first sight, love to devotion, love that robs a man of his sleep, love that “will gaze an eagle blind,” love that “will hear the lowest sound when the suspicious tread of theft is stopped,” love that is “like a Hercules, still climbing trees in the Hesperides” — we believe the best age is from forty-five to seventy; up to that, men are generally given to mere flirting.

Still, I wonder if Trollope ever succeeded in creating a sympathetic character who was as fascinating as the subjects of his ridicule. I confess to feeling somewhat distanced from the comedy of Barchester Towers — though I found it entertaining, it didn’t touch me deeply, or move me with more than a mild interest in the fates of most of its characters. This is perhaps a judgment on me rather than the book, but Trollope and I haven’t quite made the connection yet. I’m willing to give the other Barsetshire novels a try, though, and see where they may take me.

* See Trollope’s previous novel The Warden for more information.

A few links of note:
Essay on Trollope and the Clergy from the Trollope Society
Review from Catherine Pope 
Reading Barsetshire at The Captive Reader

Review copy source: Print book from library
Classics Club List #11


White Magic: Thornyhold and The White Witch

Mary Stewart, Thornyhold (Morrow, 1988)

Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch (Coward-McCann, 1952)

I was inspired by many recommendations to pick up one of Mary Stewart’s romantic novels at the library this week, and chose Thornyhold, the story of a young woman who unexpectedly inherits her cousin’s house in Wiltshire and finds that said cousin seems to have been the local white witch … or was she? And is Gilly really expected to step into her shoes, or is the magic she’s being offered of another kind?

Thornyhold is pure wish fulfillment: an 18th century house, full of benign magical influences, and complete with amenities including a modern bathroom, a fabulous garden, a handsome and available neighbor, and convenient proximity to Stonehenge? Yes, please! The mild suspense provided by the plot, which mostly involves a nosy cleaning lady who may or may not have occult leanings, seemed only an excuse to spend time in this lovely setting, and if it also sounds attractive to you, you probably will also enjoy Thornyhold as a pleasant, light read.

Coincidentally, just as I was starting this book, Mary Stewart’s death on May 9 prompted an outpouring of appreciation from many quarters. I’ll definitely be looking into more of her writing. The romance in this one was somewhat boring, and I wonder if any of her other novels are more developed in this regard.

The “white magic” theme reminded me of another book I read a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. It has similar warm-hearted, comforting undertones, with lush descriptions of English homes and countryside, while being much more ambitious and wide-ranging in scope: a historical romance set during the English Civil War. The White Witch of the title is Fronica, a half-gypsy herbalist with ties both to the family of the local Puritan squire and to Royalist/Catholic sympathizers. Several different intertwined stories of these individuals, representing many different points of view, combine to give a rich and rewarding picture of a turbulent time in history.

Without knowing much about the era, I thought that Goudge excelled at sympathetically presenting characters on both sides of the conflict, bringing out the human struggles behind the “Puritan” and “Royalist” labels. The glimpses of Gypsy life and lore were fascinating, and seemed less sentimentalized or idealized than is often the case. As in Thornyhold there’s a “black” witch as counterpart to the “white,” and this story thread is also explored with depth and complexity, giving a multi-layered look into the workings of evil and the mysterious powers of good.

As is usual in Goudge’s writing, Christianity is explicitly invoked, which might irritate some non-believers, but which seems to me to be necessary in portraying an age of faith, and is generally sensitively done. Though Goudge is clearly a believer, even her most saintly characters (in this case, the wonderful old Parson Hawthyn) are portrayed as rounded human beings, rather than proselytizing tools to hit readers over the head with; and she also does an outstanding job of getting into the head of a religious fanatic in a way that causes us to pity rather than loathe him. While the story might seem slow to those used to the current trend toward sexy whiz-bang historicals, the varied cast of characters is the strength of The White Witch, and if you’re like me, will live on in your mind long after you put the book down.