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Ivanhoe

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Title: Ivanhoe

Author: Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Tor

Pages: 531

Format Read: Paperback, Mass Market

Some books, for inexplicably inexplicable reasons, stay on with you for years. Ivanhoe, for me, is one such book. The first time I read it was many years ago and it has stayed with me since – that story of knighthood and jousting and romance and its intricately immersive medieval world that was fascinating . And frankly, the story of Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s redemption was an exciting one.

You follow the feuds and rivalry between the Normans and the Saxons in Ivanhoe. The evil prince John of England wants to crown himself king in the absence of the righteous Richard. And Richard returns from the Crusades, discovers the plot, and must defend his throne. Only he needs allies, and he finds one in Wilfred of Ivanhoe.

The story is pretty fast paced and full of adventure, although I confess I had to read a few pages to really get used to the style. It is a little archaic but eminently readable. Once you do get going though, you’re plunged into a world of bloody feuds and battles, knights and outlaws and a dash of romance. Ivanhoe, that fallen hero, holds strong in his darkest moments and his quest to reclaim his lost glory is as engrossing as it is exciting.

The characters are very well defined, from the tragic heroine Rebecca and the intrepid Richard to the fiery Rowena. As for Ivanhoe, he is a typical knight – chivalrous and loyal and righteous and sometimes infuriating in his steadfast, almost zealous devotion to knightly honour.

And perhaps that is one reason, and the main one, that really hooked me to Ivanhoe – you experience a range of emotions reading the work. The characters (and the events of the story) exasperate, sadden, and draw your sympathy. Some events cheer you up, others not so much.

Through it all, Ivanhoe remains an exciting tale that I enjoy rereading. And that, I think, is what makes this book so very likeable and a classic.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring

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Title: Girl with a Pearl Earring

Author: Tracy Chevalier

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 248

Format Read: Paperback

This is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Set in 17th century Holland, the novel follows Griet, a girl who receives a couple of surprise visitors one day. She is, she is told by her mother, to work as a maid for a certain painter, and the painter and his wife have come to see her. The wife is a little short of temper, pregnant, and difficult. The painter notices that Griet arranges vegetables for her soup in a methodical fashion, and asks her about it, much to her surprise.

That painter is, of course, Johannes Vermeer.

Griet learns to work at his household that is full of children with more on the way. She learns how to deal with the older housekeeper, Tanneke. She meets the formidable mother of Catharina, Vermeer’s wife. She learns how to clean Vermeer’s studio without making it seem that she’s been in there at all.

And then she becomes a part of Vermeer’s world and the subject of a painting of a girl with a pearl earring.

Griet and the events surrounding her employment at the painter’s household are fictitious, but Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fascinating novel. The historical world of the Delft is brought to life in simple prose without the ponderous verbiage that sometimes accompanies historical fiction novels. Griet comes across as impetuous yet courteous, curious without being overbearing, and is a well-drawn out character. It is easy to sympathise with her as she navigates this new world of art and the painter’s peculiar attention to her. Vermeer himself is rarely named, and simply alluded to by Griet as ‘he.’ Which is, actually, an interesting way of referring to him. Naturally, Catharina is impatient with her, Tanneke is annoyed and a little jealous, Maria Thins (Catharina’s mother) does not know what to do with her. And then there’s Vermeer’s daughter Cornelia, who, despite her youth at the beginning, manages to get Griet into all sorts of trouble.

There are also some other…problems that Griet must learn to deal with. Uncomfortable problems, like van Ruijven, Vermeer’s patron. Griet is just a maid, now, isn’t she? And thus, van Ruijven thinks he can take liberties with her, putting her in a perilous situation, considering her station and his influence.

I thought this a very interesting novel indeed.

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The Blue Castle

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Title: The Blue Castle

Author: Lucy Maud Montgomery

Publisher: e-artnow

Pages: 235

Format Read: Kindle

L.M. Montgomery is best known for “Anne of the Green Gables” – the story of that redheaded, talkative, imaginative child called Anne (whose name is spelt with an ‘e’). This was a book I read and really, really enjoyed. Montgomery’s writing was beautiful, and Anne was a spirited little girl with her head full of dreams and magic stories. It was hard not to like her. “Anne…” was originally published in 1908.

“The Blue Castle,” published first in 1926, introduces a grown-up protagonist, Valancy Stirling. Valancy is twenty nine, socially awkward, and low in self-confidence, and, in what is considered quite scandalous, unmarried. She is unattractive, her bossy mother likes to remind her. She is strange, her aunt and cousins like to tell her. There is also, much to Valancy’s chagrin, a younger, exquisitely beautiful cousin called Olive who is graceful and articulate and engaged to a wealthy young man.

As an escape, Valancy conjures up a ‘blue castle’ in her mind, where she is the lady of the house. A place where everybody likes her and she has an endless stream of suitors.

The atmosphere at home is oppressive, and Valancy, in a shocking revelation, is told that she has a fatal heart condition. The doctor’s terse letter explaining her illness to her shakes Valancy up – and she finds courage that she never knew she had. She moves out of her home (ignoring her family’s hysterics) and takes up residence with the terminally ill Cissy Gay and her father.

With Valancy’s new found independence also comes a romance with the notorious Barney Snaith. Naturally, Valancy’s family is scandalized, and to their shock, Valancy just does not care. That she is now as notorious as her husband in the little town of Deerwood does not concern her at all.

The fictitious town of Deerwood is beautifully described – you can almost see the beauty of the landscape through Montgomery’s lyrical use of prose. The author also makes some astute observations on human nature. Valancy is a relatable, flawed heroine, a young woman who manages to break free from those who constantly tell her she can never, ever succeed. And her happiness, she discovers, is entirely of her own making, without the shackles of negativity that dogged her throughout her life.

An inspiring, gentle story of self-discovery that is masterfully told.

 

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Wildwood Dancing

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Book:  Wildwood Dancing

Author:  Juliet Marillier

Publisher: Knopf

Pages:  432

Format Read: Paperback

Jenica, or Jena, fifteen and the second oldest of five sisters, has a secret. She and her sisters know of a portal that opens during the Full Moon. And that portal, in all its magic, leads them, and her, to a Dancing Glade, where faeries gather for their moonlit revel. There is dancing, and music, and, as Jena discovers as the story progresses, hidden secrets and danger lurking in the shadows.

Set in Transylvania, “Wildwood Dancing” vividly depicts the old castle Jena and her sisters live in, and the woodlands surrounding the castle are steeped in magic and folklore. I found the setting mysterious, and Marillier’s prose fluid. Jena’s father leaves his daughters for a few months on the doctor’s orders – he is ill, and needs rest away from home, somewhere warmer. That leaves Jena, who must manage his business and his merchant trade, until her rather bigoted and narrow minded cousin Cezar arrives to take it all away from her.

All that keeps Jena going is the promise of the Other Kingdom and its Dancing Glade. Until that too causes her worry when her older sister Tatiana decides to pursue a dark suitor from the realm beyond. There’s nothing Jena can say, or do, to prevent that forbidden romance.

Jena finds solace in Gogu, her best friend. And a frog. A talking frog, except nobody can hear him other than her.

Woven through the story is also a childhood tragedy, that of Cezar’s cousin Costi who drowned in the nearby Deadwash. His death has apparently driven Cezar to near madness and a maniacal need for control. Whoever heard of girls doing business anyway? That’s his argument for anything Jena tries to do. Besides, she’s too assertive for his tastes, and so, naturally, in his own words, a shrew.

I found this book deceptively simple. The story has many threads running through it – enchantments, lost lives, romance, mystery and magic – and all of them are brought together to form a strange and unexpected conclusion. Cezar is incredibly annoying and believes in the inferiority of the female mind. Jena, intelligent and mature beyond her years tries to make the best of a horrible situation. Tatiana is…well. Tatiana is simply in the throes of her romance. Gogu, Jena’s frog, is sweet tempered and supportive, and not quite what he seems.

“Wildwood Dancing” is an enchanting book with a beautiful cover. I’m glad I read this one.

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Jamaica Inn

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Book: Jamaica Inn

Author: Daphne du Maurier

Publisher: Virago

Pages: 302

Format Read: Paperback

“Jamaica Inn” was originally published in 1936, a couple of years before Daphne du Maurier’s iconic novel “Rebecca.” I read this one the first time a few years ago, and found it a fascinating tale of dark suspense. Since then I’ve reread it a few times and enjoyed each reread.

Twenty three year old Mary Yellan finds herself alone after the death of her mother, and, having no other family left, decides to move in with her Aunt Patience at the mysterious Jamaica Inn. And the Inn stands alone in a hauntingly desolate moor. It’s a place most people avoid. At least, most honest folk steer clear of the inn.

“Jamaica Inn” is a gothic tale of romance and mystery. It is also very atmospheric, with an undercurrent of shadowy deeds. du Maurier’s descriptions are masterfully done, and while “Rebecca” takes these a little further, “Jamaica Inn” does really well on its own.

The moor, in all its lonely glory, comes to life as Mary tries to adjust to her new life at Jamaica Inn. Her Aunt Patience, married to the innkeeper of Jamaica Inn, is jittery and nervous and really very odd. She’s not the woman Mary remembers from her youth – and she’s trying to keep secrets that are obviously driving her over the edge. Her uncle Mary learns to avoid – but he’s up to something and curiosity gets the better of her, leading her to truths she would rather avoid. And of course, there’s the romance, with the innkeeper’s younger brother Jem taking an interest in Mary. He is also a dubious character, and a horse thief in the bargain.

It’s a complicated plot in “Jamaica Inn” that leaves you guessing until the end. The innkeeper of Jamaica Inn has his reasons for staying so far away from civilization. Mary is a little too curious for her own good. Patience likes to block out thoughts of everything around her and behaves like a child. Jem is peculiar, rough and strangely attractive to Mary. Never mind that he has some of his brother’s traits. That was a little disturbing.

“Jamaica Inn” is dark and eminently readable, a novel I really like going back to every now and then.