Book and TV Review: Father Brown

I’ve been watching the TV series Father Brown (a BBC series, available on Netflix) for many months now, and it’s quite delightful.  I thought I’d try the original stories, written by G. K. Chesterton, and got The Innocence of Father Brown. the first collection of short stories, from the library.  It was an engaging book with some clever mysteries–though not quite the Father Brown I was looking for.

Father Brown is a Catholic priest in England, with a knack for solving mysteries.  Many of the short stories in this first book feature Hercule Flambeau, first as a criminal and then reformed into a detective.  The setting is mostly London, I think in the late 1800s.  Some of the stories relate to Father Brown’s activities as a priest, though less than you might expect.  The connection is more through the insights Father Brown has gained as a priest than through plot connections.

The TV show, on the other hand, moves the setting to the Cotswolds in the 1950s, where Father Brown is pastor of St. Mary’s Church.  Here his parish work is much more integral to the stories, as usually some aspect of his priest work brings him into contact with the crime–nearly always murder.  The TV show adds in additional supporting characters: Mrs. McCarthy, parish secretary and quite proper; Lady Felicia, local aristocracy and not so proper; Sid, chauffeur to Lady Felicia; and, in later seasons, Bunty, Lady Felicia’s very modern niece.  There’s also an ongoing parade of local police chiefs, none of whom appreciate this priest interfering in the world of crime.

The short stories were interesting and engaging, but the TV show is charming and delightful–so it probably didn’t set me up that well for the short stories!  The tone just feels very different.  The Cotswold setting is a big part of the charm (though one does have to wonder about the number of murders happening in this idyllic rural village!) Continue reading “Book and TV Review: Father Brown”

Book Review: The Go-Between

Based on anecdotal evidence, you likely have never heard of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, but you might know its opening line: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”  I picked the book up recently because Michael Crawford (of Phantom of the Opera fame) starred in a musical play based on the book–which was why I went to England last September! (I’d have gone eventually…but that was why it happened then.)  The play was wonderful, Crawford was magnificent, and the book was pretty good too.

The Go-Between centers around Leo Colston, an older man remembering the summer he turned thirteen.  He spent it with a school friend’s family, at an estate much above his own social class.  There he had his first crush, on his friend’s older sister Marion, and became the go-between for Marion and Tom, a local farmer.  And while it all seems quite cheerful at first, we know something went horribly wrong.

This is one of those charming, terribly British books that manages to be incredibly discreet, while centering the entire plot around a scandal.  Marion and Tom are of course carrying on a torrid affair, despite the class difference, despite Marion’s coming engagement–but even though the affair is at the center of everything, I don’t think Hartley ever once says so!  But I like that–because we all know what’s going on, but Hartley is subtle and clever about conveying it.  And it also is a good mirror for Leo himself, who is (somewhat out of his own desire) in the dark for most of the book. Continue reading “Book Review: The Go-Between”

Book Reviews: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Crispin

I accidentally paired two Newberys lately, and found myself reading two books about small medieval villages in a row.  Which actually worked out well, as a lot of historical elements paralleled and supported each other.

First I read Good Masters, Sweet Ladies: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz.  An unusual format, this is a collection of monologues (and two dialogues).  Each speaker is a different character from the same village, each speaking about his/her life.

Considering the presentation, I was impressed by how vividly the characters and world came to life.  Originally written for a school pageant (giving each child a good part), all the characters are children.  They’re a wide range of classes and life situations, from the Lord’s son to the beggar boy.  Altogether they depict the society, its rules and hierarchies throughout the village.

I liked best the monologues that built on each other, as when the Lord’s daughter spoke about having a clod of mud thrown at her and her confusion…followed by the monologue of the girl who threw it, and her hard home life, envy of the Lord’s daughter, and ultimate remorse. Continue reading “Book Reviews: Good Masters, Sweet Ladies and Crispin”

Book Review: Kira-Kira

Continuing the pattern of last year, I’m making a good run through the Newbery winners.  I picked Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata in part because it also serves my diversity challenge, centering on a Japanese-American family living in Georgia in the 1950s.  There was some exploration of that dynamic…but it was also the most unrelentingly depressing Newbery I’ve read yet!

The narrator is Katie Takeshima, but the story really centers around her beloved older sister Lynn.  Lynn is brilliant, loving, a force in the family and full of dreams for her future.  You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  Lynn is one of those too good to live characters, and sure enough—as the book goes on Lynn is vaguely and sporadically ill…then less sporadically…then fatally.

I don’t like stories about children dying.  I’m just going to put that out there, and admit that this makes it harder for me to judge if this was a good story about a child (well, teenager) dying.  I especially hate stories about children dying in slow, lingering ways, which this definitely was.  I love The Bridge to Terabithia, but that’s not a book about death—it’s a book that contains a death.  Kira-Kira is largely focused on Lynn’s slow decline and death, and how Katie handles it. Continue reading “Book Review: Kira-Kira”

Book Review: Mansfield Park

I recently reread (via audiobook) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen, one of my favorite Austen novels–although it rather surprises me that it is a favorite!  As sometimes happens, rereading gave me a few more insights.

Our heroine is Fanny Price, a penniless child taken in by her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir and Lady Bertram at Mansfield Park.  She grows up beside her cousins, becoming particularly close with Edmund.  As all the young people reach adulthood, Austen takes us through courtships and scandals of the Bertram family and their possibly questionable friends Mr. and Miss Crawford.

It’s a bit difficult to summarize Austen, because it’s not really a plot-driven book.  I freely admit that Mansfield Park meanders–or perhaps I should say it strolls along a country lane.  The book is a long series of incidents of family life, all of which last longer than they would in a modern novel and often only vaguely build upon each other.  And yet–it’s just such a pleasant read!  I like an exciting story too, but sometimes a country stroll is very appealing. Continue reading “Book Review: Mansfield Park”

Book Review(s): Bud, Not Buddy and A Single Shard

I don’t set out to read thematically-similar Newbery winners in a row, but sometimes it happens.  Today, two books about orphan boys looking for a place to belong.  Both good–but I think I’d better read one with a heroine next!

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Set during the Great Depression, Bud is a ten year old orphan, bouncing from orphanages and foster homes ever since his mother died when he was six.  When things go badly at another foster home, he seizes the opportunity to run away–and to travel in search of his father, based on slim evidence and personal conviction about who his father might be.

This is a book that’s made by its main character.  Bud is a tough kid, but not as tough or grown-up as he thinks he is.  He has a fierce streak of independence, but he also has impeccable manners, a good heart, and a nice sense of humor that lightens what could have been a very grim book.  It also helps that he mostly meets good people.  Not everyone, and rough things happen, but mostly people are at a minimum well-meaning (if not always effective). Continue reading “Book Review(s): Bud, Not Buddy and A Single Shard”

Classic Review: Banner in the Sky

Somehow or other, rock-climbing has come up in a few different conversations recently.  I respect people who want to try that, but I’m not one of them.  But when I do find myself with any urge to climb a mountain, I have a favorite go-to book I pick up instead.

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I want to begin this review by saying that I have never been mountain-climbing.  Nor do I ever plan to go.  The truth is, I don’t even like steep hills (which, believe me, can be a problem if you live in San Francisco).  I can walk very happily for miles on flat ground, but give me a hill and it’s all over.  But this is why I love books.  I love that they let me live lives I would never actually live, whether that involves casting magical spells, visiting a distant planet, or climbing a mountain.

That last brings me to Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman.  You’ll notice I have a picture of Third Man on the Mountain.  Walt Disney changed the title for his movie version, and then they reprinted the book with the new title.  I like Banner in the Sky better–for one thing, I’m not sure what Disney’s title is even supposed to mean!

With either title, the book is about Rudi Matt, and about the Citadel.  Rudi is a teenager living in a small village in the Alps in the 1800s, and he dreams of climbing the Citadel.  It’s the one unconquered peak, the one no man has ever reached the top of.  No one has tried for years, since the failed expedition that killed Rudi’s father.  Rudi’s mother has forbidden him to become a mountain climber (and I do understand her viewpoint!) but when an Englishman comes determined to lead an expedition up the unclimbable mountain, Rudi is determined to go.

The book is as much about Rudi’s growth as it is about the mountain.  He learns that there’s more to climbing a mountain than just scrambling over rocks, learns about things like trusting others and never leaving a comrade.  He learns to follow his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.  My best guess on Disney’s title is that Rudi becomes a man on the mountain, rather than a boy–but I can’t quite figure out how Disney calculates him as the third one.

This makes it all sound like it’s deep and reflective, and occasionally it is–but there’s also plenty of scrambling over rocks, and getting caught on ledges, and even an avalanche or two.  It’s an exciting story as well as a meaningful one.

It reminds me a little bit of stories about Scott’s expedition to the South Pole.  Not because of the snow similarity, but because they’re both about men trying to achieve a feat that has been considered unachievable.  They’re about pursuing the impossible dream.  And while I personally don’t have any desire to climb a mountain or ski to the South Pole, when the story is told right, I can get very enthused about someone else’s dream.

Why does someone climb a mountain?  “Because it’s there” is always a good answer.  Because it’s there to be conquered.  For Rudi, it’s because he wants to take his climbing staff and his father’s red sweater, and plant them as a flag at the top of the Citadel–a banner in the sky.

Even though I need a good reason to climb a steep hill and can’t imagine climbing a mountain, Banner in the Sky makes me believe in Rudi’s dream, makes me see it as vital and important for him, and makes me want to see him succeed.