The Winter Witch

The Winter WitchThe Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a sucker for pretty much anything set in Wales, good or bad, but this book turned out to be a loving tribute to the landscape. The author has a lyrical way with words, and was able to create a strong sense of time and place, helped by the use of Welsh language words throughout. Morgana was an interesting character, and without the imposition of magic and witchcraft this could have been a 5-star historical romance. While I enjoy a good paranormal or fantasy story, I struggled a bit with it here. I wanted to be immersed in historical Wales, so every time magic was introduced it just didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few historical quibbles – the use of the famous song Calon Lan, for example, which wasn’t written until 1890 probably at the earliest. It was interesting to learn something about Welsh cattle droving which died out in Wales after the introduction of railroads in the 1840s and 50s. Aside from the language (no glossary provided, which wasn’t an issue for me, but those who don’t know some basic Welsh might wish it had one), other elements of “Welshness” seemed contrived – let’s throw in some references to Welsh cakes and bara brith and carving love spoons. And corgis, of course. The author does live in Wales, and obviously loves her country. Despite my nit-picking here, I enjoyed the book enough to give it four stars. It’s a sweet love story, a tribute to Wales (especially the language and the landscape), and the triumph of good over evil.

Book Description: In her small early-nineteenth-century Welsh town, there is no one quite like Morgana, who has not spoken since she was a young girl. Her silence is a mystery, as well as her magic. Concerned for her safety, her mother is anxious to see her married, and Cai Jenkins, a widower from the far hills, seems the best choice. After her wedding, Morgana is heartbroken at leaving her mother, and wary of this man, whom she does not know, and who will take her away to begin a new life. But she soon falls in love with Cai’s farm and the wild mountains that surround it. Cai works to understand the beautiful half-tamed creature he has chosen for a bride, and slowly, he begins to win Morgana’s affections. It’s not long, however, before her strangeness begins to be remarked upon in her new village. A dark force is at work there — a person who will stop at nothing to turn the townspeople against Morgana. Forced to defend her home, her man, and herself, Morgana must learn to harness her power, or she will lose everything. (from book jacket)

About the author: Paula Brackston lives in a wild, mountainous part of Wales. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and is a Visiting Lecturer for the University of Wales, Newport. Before becoming a writer, Paula tried her hand at various career paths, with mixed success. These included working as a groom on a racing yard, as a travel agent, a secretary, an English teacher, and a goat herd. Everyone involved (particularly the goats) is very relieved that she has now found a job she is actually able to do properly. (from author’s website)

The Hollow City

Hollow City (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, #2)Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ll continue to be generous with this series and give it 3 stars, which is still a huge drop from the first book. I didn’t dislike it, but it had none of what made the first book such a memorable experience. I suppose for one thing, the world-building has been established, so we don’t have the mystery of figuring out what is going on. And while I still find the odd photos intriguing, the story is too much contrived by the photos instead of being an accompaniment to the story. While Jacob seems a little older and wiser in this book, there is not really any character development. The whole love story angle is very flat. I’m not a fan of cliff-hanger endings. It worked in the first book, and despite being a cliffhanger there was a sense of completion. This book just feels like “filler” material to me – enough to make a movie out of, but a pretty shallow plot for a book. Ransom Riggs writes well enough, and the historical setting is good, but I hope he will give more attention to plot and characters in the 3rd installment.

Description: Jacob Portman and his newfound friends journey to London, the peculiar capital of the world. There, they hope to find a cure for their beloved headmistress, Miss Peregrine. But in this war-torn city, hideous surprises lurk around every corner. And before Jacob can deliver the peculiar children to safety, he must make an important decision about his love for Emma Bloom.

Guest Post – The Well-Read Dragons, February 2014

Patrick O’Brian’s first novel makes a splash with the Well-Read Dragons
Guest post by Robert Minish
On February 1, [2014,] the Well-Read Dragons held their bi-monthly meeting at Black Bear Crossing at Como Park [in Saint Paul, MN.] Testimonies, originally published under the title Three Bear Witness, gave rise to a stimulating discussion.

Many St. David’s members, no doubt, as well as a few of our book club members, are familiar with the bulk of O’Brian’s works, the Aubrey/Maturin nautical historical novels. Those are vastly different from Testimonies, which is set in North Wales, where O’Brian and his first wife lived from 1946-1949.

The setting of the novel closely resembles Cym Croesor, a remote valley. Jim Perrin, writing in the New Welsh Review, tells of rereading three books, Testimonies, first published in 1952, John Wain’s A Winter in the Hills, and The Welsh Girl. He describes the three as “markedly similar in settings among the agricultural/industrial interface along the northern and western margins of Eryri: sheep country; slate country; Kate Roberts Country.” Croesor

Our group found Testimonies to be a very compelling description of the dark side of life that can be found in some small rural communities. Though the main character, Joseph Aubrey Pugh, and the heroine, Bronwen Vaughan, fall deeply in love, their relationship is never consummated, and, they may have thought, had been kept hidden. The locals, stirred by a malevolent minister, Pritchard Ellis, jump to the conclusion of adultery and ostracize the two lovers, but especially Bronwen. Perrin observes that “O’Brian excels in the use of the unspecified to add imaginative force.” This technique is apparent at the end when Bronwen either is poisoned or poisons herself.

Our discussion brought forth many quotations showing O’Brian’s mastery with words and his observations on Wales and the Welsh.

“Where’s the Welsh Gentry? It is either extinct or anglicized.”

“You know the great importance of the chapels here, and the prestige and influence a deacon has: you can hardly overestimate in the high farming valleys where there is no other authority or public opinion—where public opinion is integral and undiluted, I should say.”

That quotation prompted Austin to tell about a chapel in Wales where the deacons acted as little gods. There was a time when a local garbageman was elected a Deacon. The head Deacon welcomed him and said they would be pleased to accept his contributions, though they doubted that there would be many. The garbageman replied that he was always sent to where there was rubbish to be collected.

“His wife [Bronwen] was a big help to him. She was very pretty when she was young; she came from the same part of the country as he did but I had not known her before she came to our valley.”

“They said she was not very great as a housekeeper; however that may be, she was a great help to him.” Clearly, her failure as a housekeeper was a fault not fully overcome by her being “a great help to him….working before the light and after it.”

“There is Rousseau’s saying that every man is inwardly sure he is the most virtuous being alive. But how far down can that go? All the way to an atheistic parricide who lives by robbing the blind? Or is there a point where it must be abandoned, and if there is, what does it feel like after.”

The Preface by Delmore Schwartz praises the quality of O’Brian’s writing: “At first one thinks the book’s emotional power is remarkable enough for the beauty and exactness of phrasing and rhythm which can only be characterized by quotation:….But the reader soon forgets the style as such—a forgetting that is the greatest accomplishment of prose—in the enchantment and vividness of the story.”

What Schwartz quoted was the opening paragraphs of the “testimony” of John Aubrey Pugh. Jim Perrin in his review also quotes from the opening paragraph. What better way to encourage people to read this novel than to repeat the first few sentences from the beginning of Pugh’s testimony:

It was September when I first came into the valley: the top of it was hidden in fine rain, and the enclosing ridges on either side merged into a grey, formless cloud. There was no hint of the two peaks that were shown on the map, high and steep on each side of the valley’s head. This I saw from the windows of the station cab as it brought me up the mountainous road from the plains, a road so narrow that in places the car could barely run between the stone walls.

With that quality of writing, Perrin is “grateful for the one ‘Welsh’ novel O’Brian did write before the rigging of his imagination became entirely salt-encrusted.” I believe all members of the Well-Read Dragons would agree.

My 2014 Reading Goals

Yes, it’s already March, but I set out my 2014 reading goals last November or so. Just thought I should get around to saying what my goals are, and what sort of books I might be reviewing this year. 48 books was my overall goal last year, and I reached 47. So I’m not going to increase it this year. 4 books a month is about all I can manage!

12 of these are determined by my face-to-face book club called the Daytimers. We read a different genre every month although our categories may change slightly from year to year. I joined this group in order to read things that are outside of my comfort zone, but since I select all the books for the group, I can tweak it to suit myself! No “Harlequin” romances for example! I’ll pick a love story with some literary merit…for example, The Shoemaker’s Wife, which we read for February this year. Other categories include a children’s book, mystery, historical fiction, a prize winner, a classic, a Minnesota author, a biography or memoir, etc.

The next 12 I am calling leftovers from last year. That includes more books related to Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and the Tudors.

A new challenge is to read 12 or so books that include “Wife” in the title. I just thought that would be fun and different. It seemed like there have been a lot of such books lately: The Paris Wife, The Aviator’s Wife, The Tiger’s Wife, and of course, again, The Shoemaker’s Wife. So you’ll see that as a running theme this year.

I am hoping that 6 or so books will actually have something to do with Wales! For a long time, I have meant to post some guest reviews along those lines, as well. Our local St. David’s Society has a book group that meets bimonthly. I have not been participating, but I do have permission to post their reviews from the Society’s newsletter.

And finally, I want to revisit some of my favorite books from childhood and young adulthood – books that made a deep impression, and that I still remember after all these years. My very first favorite book was a picture book about a baby bunny who decides he is tired of carrots and goes around asking the other animals about what they eat. I remember he is quite dismayed by the dog’s bone. Eventually he decides it’s okay to just be a bunny and goes back home to his very worried mama. I’ve always thought the title was something like The Naughty Bunny or The Runaway Bunny. But it is NOT The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown nor is it The Naughty Bunny by Richard Scarry. I have searched for this book for 40 years, with no luck. So if it rings a bell with someone, PLEASE let me know. The illustrations were realistic, but cute, kind of like Garth Williams. I used to think it was a Golden Book, but I have searched the entire Golden Book catalog without finding it. It had to have been published before 1960, possibly well before then, since a lot of family books were gotten from book sales and yard sales. I haven’t given up hope of finding it, but I have been looking for a very, very long time.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar ChildrenMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Five stars may be a bit generous, but I was completely absorbed in the story from the beginning and it didn’t lose my interest. Impossible to categorize – it isn’t exactly fantasy, nor a mystery, nor a horror story. It reminded me a bit of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with elements of Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland. Geeky 16-year-old boy is sent on a coming-of-age journey by his dying grandfather. I won’t say any more than that, because half the fun of this book is going along on the journey not knowing any more than the protagonist. I loved the blend of paranormal explanations for historical events. The horror and violence are relatively mild, but I wouldn’t recommend this book for younger children. The vintage photographs are certainly strange and thought-provoking. The perfect test for my Nook Color, and it came through with flying colors! (No pun intended.) Warning: There is a bit of a cliff-hanger ending, so hopefully that means there will be a sequel! 20th Century Fox has bought the rights, so a movie is in the works. And a note for you Welsh-o-philes: Cairnholm Island is fictional and not based on any real island off the Welsh coast.

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.