Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier

I recently came across an article with a list of “best pirate books” and this one, by Daphne du Maurier, was included.  Even though I’ve read several of her books (years ago Rebecca  and, more recently, The House on the Strand) I had never encountered this particular du Maurier book.  In the mood for something completely different than the other novels I’ve read recently, I decided to give it a go.

Lady Dona St. Columb lives a life of leisure in Restoration-era London with her husband, Harry, and their two small children.  While Harry fills his time with card playing and hard drinking, the jaded Dona chafes under the societal constraints imposed upon her as a wife and mother.   One night she joins with friends to play an unkind prank on an elderly woman.  As she explained to Harry, ” the ridiculous prank on the countess was only a thwarted, bastard idea of fun, a betrayal of her real mood; that in reality it was escape she wanted, escape from her own self, from the life they led together; that she had reached a crisis in her particular span of time and existence, and must travel through that crisis, alone.”  Soon she’s off to Cornwall with the children, leaving Harry behind in London.

When she arrives at the country estate Navron, she finds a new kind of freedom, romping and playing with the children, getting dirty and enjoying the outdoors.  One day while exploring the nearby creek, she comes upon a ship at anchor in a secluded cove.  She has discovered the hiding place of La Mouette, the pirate ship of the frenchman, Jean-Benoit Aubery, who has been terrorizing the coast of Cornwall.  Befriending the ragtag group of pirates, she is drawn into their world and is soon falling for the frenchman himself. 

Will Dona choose freedom, excitement and romance, or will she do the “right”  thing and return to her children, husband and family responsibilites?  We are kept wondering til the end.

Reading a classic such as this one is always a pleasure on several different levels.  There is the pure enjoyment of a story that has stood the test of time, but adding to the experience is knowing that this book was written nearly 70 years ago as du Maurier lived alone in Cornwall while her husband was away during World War II, a time when women were just beginning to gain new freedom and independence.  It has been said that she may have written this particular book to explore her own fantasies of escape from a life of children and a chilly marriage to a distant husband.  Whatever the motivation, this book is filled with du Maurier’s beautiful, evocotive writing which lifts it head and shoulders above a typical pirate romance.

My Rating: 

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Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

Mary Anning truly was a remarkable creature.  Born in 1799, she was struck by lightning at the age of one and survived.  Living with her family in the village of Lyme Regis on the southern coast of Britain, little Mary spent many hours on the beach with her father searching for “curies” or “curiosities” which were in fact fossils of many prehistoric creatures such as ammonites, crinoids and belemnites.  To Mary and her family, “curies” were a way to put food on the table.  They collected the specimens and then sold them to the tourists who visited the coastal resort each summer. 

When the three spinster Philpot sisters move from London to Lyme Regis, Elizabeth Philpot takes an interest in Mary and her fossils.  A collector herself, Elizabeth joins Mary in scouring the beaches and uses her connections in aristocratic circles to help her sell her finds.  When Mary discovers a “monster” embedded in the rock, she unknowingly uncovers the first documented dinosaur, the first of many finds to come, and Elizabeth must fight to see that Mary gets the recognition she deserves.

Chevalier has taken a real life person in Mary Anning and fictionalized her life and accomplishments.  At the time that Mary lived, science was a man’s world and hunting fossils was not considered a suitable pursuit for women.  It was seen as “an unladylike pursuit, dirty and mysterious.”   Although she made major contributions to the world of paleontology, Mary was never given the credit she deserved and was mostly forgotten, though several of her finds are still on display in museums today. 

Alternating between the voice of Mary and the voice of Elizabeth, the chapters emphasize the class differences between the two women and highlight their unlikely friendship, including both mutual admiration and, at times, barely disguised envy and jealousy.  Not just a book about fossils, Remarkable Creatures is also an examination of the roles of women in society, and in the world of science, at a time when being a spinster at the age of 25 or spending time in “unladylike” pursuits such as fossil hunting were looked upon with suspicion and derision.

My Rating:  

Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon

Lil lives a quiet life, working each day in a dusty used book shop in Manhatten,  then returning home to her lonely apartment each night.  We soon realize, godmotherhowever, that Lil is not just any old woman.  Home after a long day of work, she draws a warm bath, undresses and sinks into the welcoming warmth.  “I was alone, finally, completely free.  I leaned forward and unclenched my back.  A pure feeling of bliss moved through me.  My wings unfurled.  White feather by white feather, curving out and up toward the ceiling, spreading to their full span, like two halves to one heart, until they tapped the walls.”

You see Lil is a fairy.  A very famous fairy.  Imagine a Cinderella story where the fairy godmother botches the big night with tragic consequences.  Banished in disgrace  from the fairy world, Lil finds herself living amongst the humans in New York City, old and lonely and longing to return to her world.   One day in the book store she sees a book  with photos of the Cottingley fairies  and becomes convinced that the familiar fairy faces she sees in the photos are a sign that if she can just complete the assignment that she botched hundreds of years before, she can return to her world.  One day beautiful, quirky Veronica walks into the bookstore and soon Lil is on a mission to match her with the “prince” who owns the bookstore and send them to a  charity ball at the Pierre Hotel. 

Turgeon gives us a darker take on the familiar Cinderella fairy tale with some unexpected surprises.  Moving back and forth in time between the Cinderella story and the modern day story, we grow to love Lil and feel her sadness, loneliness and isolation.  We root for her to successfully accomplish her mission and find redemption and a way back to her world.  The story ends with a twist that may leave you feeling a bit disappointed, or maybe even a little bit cheated if you expected the typical “happily ever after” ending, but overall I found the whole story quite enchanting.

 

My Rating: 

 

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

*****SPOILER ALERT:  If you have not yet read The Hunger Games this review contains spoilers of that book.*****

  This is the second book in a  planned trilogy by Suzanne Collins centered on The Hunger Games.  The Games have ended and Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 as heroes, being the first tributes to ever defy the Capitol and figure out a way for more than one participant to survive the Games.  As they travel around the country to promote their victory, it becomes evident that they have sparked dissent amongst the downtrodden citizens of the 12 Districts of Panem.  Through their defiance, they have inspired others to stand up against the repression and cruelty of  the Capitol.  As the unrest spreads, Katniss and Peeta become unwitting symbols of the rebellion and the Capitol must scramble to come up with an even more twisted way to keep the districts under their control and quell the uprisings that threaten to erupt.

This being the “middle child” in the trilogy you might not expect much.  But though this installment starts out a bit slowly, it gathers steam and becomes almost as gripping as the first installment even though we know much more about what to expect this time around.  The love triangle centered around Katniss, Peeta and Gale is a bit disappointing since Gale is such a peripheral character this time, but most likely it will all play out in the third and final book which will follow our characters into the mysterious District 13 and the inferno of rebellion that is “Catching Fire” in this segment.

Can’t wait for the third book and also the movie which is due out in 2011.  Word is that Suzanne Collins is writing the screenplay and if you read The Hunger Games it no doubt crossed your mind what a fantastic movie it would make. 

My Rating: 

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Dorrit Weger has reached her 50th birthday and is about to embark on a new life.  She’s moving to a place where she’ll have her own apartment in a beautiful community with every recreational opportunity you could imagine, beautiful gardens, great restaurants and trendy boutiques all at her fingertips.  The best part is that none of it will cost her a dime.  It’s all being taken care of by the government.  There’s just one catch.  There are surveillance cameras everywhere, even in the bathroom, and once you become a resident of  “the unit” you never leave.  Your world is literally under a huge glass dome where even the dew on the grass is artificial and the seasons never change.

“The unit” is the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material.  Women who reach the age of 50, or men who reach the age of 60, and are single and childless with jobs in areas that don’t support economic growth become classified as quite literally “dispensable” and are sent to the unit.  Once there, they participate in various scientific experiments and become walking organ donors, providing a kidney, cornea, or whatever else is required to keep the “needed” citizens healthy.  Most last 4 or 5 years before making their “final donation”. 

The creepy thing (well one of the creepy things) about the unit is the way people, even dispensable people, accept it as a normal part of society.  In fact, the unit was established after a referendum was voted on and passed by the citizens.  Everything is done in such a humane and downright cheerful manner.   Dorrit arrives feeling slightly nervous, but the lavish welcome party thrown by the staff soon has her making new friends, dancing and feeling a part of the community.  It’s not long before Dorrit finds something that eluded her in the outside world — love.  As the experiments and organ donations continue,  obedience and compliance  turn to helpless horror at the inevitable ending.

Holmqvist draws you in from the first page and keeps you moving  forward with short chapters that make it impossible not to want to read just one more (or two or three)  before you put it down.  Creepy good read.

My Rating:

Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

If you pick up this novel expecting a story along the lines of the 2006 film Tristan and Isolde, or the Wagner opera by the same name, you may be surprised to find that this one is nothing like a courtly medieval romance despite the cover blurb that mentions friendship turning to love.  Elliott returns to the earliest versions of the Arthurian legends and weaves a story that is part legend and part original fiction.  Isolde is mourning the death of her husband, King Constantine, who was King Arthur’s heir to the throne of Britain.  The petty kings are scrambling for position, eager to fill the empty throne of the High King.  Isolde suspects that Con was murdered by Lord Marche, a character so obviously the “bad guy”  that he might as well be wearing a black hat.  Isolde, known for her healing skills, meets up with  wounded mercenary Trystan in the prison cells of  castle Tintagel and they team up to try and save Britain from both the evil Marche and the invading Saxons.

I appreciate the research that went into the writing of this novel and the fact that Elliott put a new twist on an old story.  Where it fell down for me was in the writing and editing.  In this world “tightness around the mouth” represents every emotion from anger to pain to alarm.  Faces are “tight with weariness”.  Isolde must tend to the wounds of literally every character in this book with mind numbing repetitiveness.  Castle walls “stand out black and jagged as broken teeth against the black of the sky.”  Huh?  Black stands out against black?  Where was the editor when the word “trail” was used for “trial” twice in the space of two pages?  There were quite a few of these mistakes throughout the book and once I started noticing them it was hard not to start actually looking for them.  Unfortunately they weren’t that hard to find.

This is the first in a planned trilogy of books, the next being Dark Moon of Avalon due out in the spring of 2010.

My Rating: 

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

I believe this is the most recent book by Patricia McKillip (published in late 2008) and it is my third McKillip book.  While I did enjoy it for the most part, it was the least satisfying McKillip book to date for me.

The story centers around a crumbling manor house in the small town of Sealey Head, perched on the cliffs above the sea.  To all outward appearances, not much happens at Aislinn House where Lady Eglantyne lies on her deathbed.  The only sign that things are not as they seem is the mournful tolling of a bell as the sun goes down each day.  No one knows where the bell is or what it signifies.  It has been a part of the lives of the residents of Sealey Head for so many years that many don’t even notice it any more.

It soon becomes apparent that there is another side to Aislinn House which only a select few people know about.  Emma, the housemaid, sometimes opens what seems to be a closet door or a door to an unused bedroom and finds instead a parallel world of princesses and knights entangled in some sort of bizarre ritualistic existence unchanged for year upon year.

The entire idea of the story is fascinating and as I said before I did enjoy the book, but the ending was a bit of a letdown with many questions left unanswered (for me at least).  The mystery is wrapped up rather quickly and anticlimactically (is that a word?).  Of the three McKillip books I’ve read, this one seemed to have the least of the enchanting and poetic language that initially drew me to her work when I read In the Forests of Serre

Still, I would recommend this one to McKillip fans and those who have not discovered McKillip yet and enjoy “world within a world” fantasies.  As always, the artwork on the cover by Kinuko Y. Craft is extraordinary as well.

My Rating: