The Witch of Blackbird Pond: A (Classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados to travel alone across the ocean to colonial Connecticut in 1687. She has no reason to stay in Barbados with her grandfather dead and buried. With nowhere else to go she undertakes the long boat trip on her own assured that she will be welcome with open arms by her aunt’s family.

Her arrival doesn’t go as expected. Kit’s uninhibited childhood in Barbados has left the sixteen-year-old wildly unprepared for life among her Puritan relatives. Her cousins covet her beautiful clothes even while her uncle looks at the bright colors and luxurious fabrics of her dresses with scorn. Kit barely recognizes her aunt, struggling to see any hint of her own mother in her aunt’s weather worn face.

When she discovers a beautiful meadow near a pond, Kit finds some much needed solitude and a break in the monotonous drudgery of life with her relatives. Kit also finds an unexpected friend in Hannah Tupper, an old woman who is shunned reviled by the community for her Quaker beliefs and rumors that claim Hannah is a witch.

As she learns more about Hannah and her life by the pond Kit will have to decide what, if anything, she is willing to give up for a chance to belong in The Witch of Blackbird Pond (1958) by Elizabeth George Speare.

Find it on Bookshop.

Have you ever had a visceral reaction to a book. The Witch of Blackbird Pond is that kind of title for me.

This Newbery award winner came to my attention after my aunt gifted me a copy from her days working at Houghton Mifflin when I was in grade school. Like a lot of books back then I motored through it, eventually donated my copy to my school library, and didn’t think about it again for years. But because I became a librarian and worked briefly at a bookseller, I encountered this classic title again as an adult.

Every time I saw it on a shelf I would feel that jolt of recognition. Yes, this book was one that meant so much to me as a child. It also, if you pay attention to book editions, has had some hideous covers over the years. My most recent rediscovery of The Witch of Blackbird Pond happened when The Book Smugglers featured the book in their Decoding the Newbery series. I enjoyed reading Catherine King’s thoughts (and share many of them) but what really jolted me was the cover. Because finally it was the cover I had first read so many years ago!

Finding and purchasing that edition prompted me to re-read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I discovered a lot of the things I remembered loving when I read the story the first time: Kit’s determination and perseverance not to mention her friendship with Hannah Tupper. I also love the push and pull Kit has both with her cousins and her suitors. This story is more purely historical than I remembered and Speare’s writing is starkly evocative of Puritan New England.

For readers of a certain age, The Witch of Blackbird Pond needs no introduction or recommendation. Younger readers will also find a smart, character driven story. Perfect for fans of historical fictions and readers hoping to discover (or rediscover) a charming classic.

Possible Pairings: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry, Chime by Franny Billingsley, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Conversion by Katherine Howe, Salt and Storm by Kendall Kulper, Witch Child by Celia Rees, The Caged Graves by Dianne K. Salerni

Wuthering Heights: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

When Mr. Earnshaw, a man of means, brings a dark, ill-mannered foundling into his home he has no idea that his one good deed will alter the course of his family forever.

Taken into the Earnshaw home only to be cast out abruptly, Heathcliff is intent to avenge himself on those who have done him wrong through any means possible. Even his oldest friend and companion Catherine is not beyond reproach.

Lockwood knows nothing of the scandal and unrest that surrounds Wuthering Heights when he leases Thrushcross Grange from Heathcliff for a season. Scandalized by the residents of Wuthering Heights and shocked by the blatant disregard for common courtesy and propriety, he soon endeavors to unearth the whole story from his housekeeper, Nelly Dean.

The story Nelly reveals is one of unresolved passion, haunting obsession, and a connection that even death cannot deny in Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë.

Wuthering Heights is Brontë’s only novel.

Groundbreaking for its time, Wuthering Heights is a divisive novel that is more often regarded with love or hate rather than indifference.

Some claim Brontë’s gothic novel is a sweeping romance that spans not just years but death itself. Written in the first person with a framing story around the main drama of Catherine and Heathcliff’s doomed relationship, Brontë creates an evocative story filled with Yorkshire dialect and harsh lanscapes.

At the same time, this book is a study in human cruelty. Catherine and Heathcliff are horrible people and, even while proving their love for one another, they do unspeakable things.

If you can get past the basic meanness of almost all of the characters, Wuthering Heights is an atmospheric story filled with chills and menace sure to linger after the last page is finished.

Possible Pairings: Frost by Marianna Baer, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Leverage by Joshua C. Cohen, The House of Dead Maids by Clare B. Dunkle, Swoon by Nina Malkin, Fury by Elizabeth Miles, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, Between by Jessica Warman, The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Persuasion: A (Classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Persuasion by Jane AustenAnne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth once meant a great deal to each other. But that was years ago before Anne’s well-meaning friend and her less-than-good-intentioned family discouraged the acquaintance and Anne was convinced to give Frederick up.

With years to think of her decision and years to consider all that Wentworth has accomplished without her, Anne has little hope of seeing him again or changing things between them.

That is until a change in her father’s circumstance forces the family to rent their estate. Given the identity of the new tenants, it seems inevitable that Anne and Captain Wentworth will see each other. It even seems inevitable that Wentworth will be angry and Anne hurt. Only time will tell if they can once again be something more to each other in Persuasion (1818) by Jane Austen.

Persuasion is Austen’s last novel. It is also a favorite among several of my friends.*

With a book that is already such a large part of the public consciousness and the literary canon, there isn’t a lot to say in a review that hasn’t been said before.

Jane Austen is one of my favorite classic authors so it is not, perhaps, especially surprising that I enjoyed Persuasion. In addition to a story that kept me on my toes,** Persuasion features a lot of strong, or at least interesting, characters. Wentworth is appropriately dashing even at his worst. Then we have Anne who is a delightfully forward heroine for a novel from 1818. It was invigorating to watch Anne come into her own as the novel progressed and she developed her own agency and the wherewithal to pursue her own wants and needs.

Like many classics Persuasion is a book many people will read on the merits of its reputation (or for school) or it’s the kind of book they won’t touch. One review might not change whatever opinion you might have but Persuasion is an obvious must read for romantics and anyone who likes their heroines level-headed and ready to stand on their own two feet.

*Though one does add the caveat that Pride and Prejudice first has to be taken out of the equation as Pride and Prejudice is arguably everyone’s favorite Austen novel.

**My only experience with Persuasion before this reading was Diana Peterfreund’s post-apocalyptic retelling For Darkness Shows the Stars. I had never even seen a movie version so I really had no idea what to expect from the story. At. All. It made for a pleasant surprise while reading.

Possible Pairings: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banksby E. Lockhart, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

Prom and Prejudice: A (Valentine’s Day) Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.

Prom is a seriously big deal at Longbourn Academy. It’s everything a girl could dream of and, after winter break, the only thing most girls can think about.

Prom is the farthest thing from Lizzie Bennet’s mind. Yes, she is single but she is definitely not a girl of high standing at Longbourn. A scholarship student, she is the subject of hazing, ridicule, and even outright hatred. All she wants is to survive by keeping up her grades and practicing her piano playing to maintain her tenuous place at Longbourn.

Lizzie tries to put on a strong face for her best friend Jane by going to parties and pretending to have a good time, but like everything else school related it usually ends in disaster. Jane is thrilled when Charles Bingley comes back from a semester abroad. And Lizzie tries to be too because Charles is really nice. But his friend Will Darcy is another story. Snobby, pretentious, and downright obnoxious–Darcy is a complete jerk to Lizzie and drives her to distraction.

Still, there’s something about him. There must be if everyone else likes him so much. But Lizzie still has her doubts. Will Lizzie’s pride and Darcy’s prejudice keep them apart forever? Or will they realize they might be a perfect match in Prom and Prejudice (2011) by Elizabeth Eulberg.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, Prom and Prejudice is a retelling and reinterpretation of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice.

Tinkering with a classic is always risky but Eulberg makes it look easy. Prom and Prejudice delivers a charming story that manages to stand on its own while also staying true to the spirit of Austen’s much-loved original.

Narrated by Lizzie herself, Eulberg offers readers a unique view of a story they might already know as Lizzie herself tells readers everything she hates (and perhaps eventually comes to love?) about Darcy. Aside from providing a most excellent title the focus on prom updates the story while keeping all of the urgency and tension Austen herself created. (Setting the story in a boarding school also allows Lizzie to have “sisters” around without them being actually related–so clever.)

Lizzie’s breezy narration and many mishaps, not to mention her myriad misunderstandings, will draw readers in from the familiar opening line right down to the surprise ending. Eulberg creates a delightful story that is both romantic and captivating in Prom and Prejudice.

Novel Novice also has a full playlist for the book!

Possible Pairings: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Unearthly by Cynthia Hand, Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, Paranormalcy by Kiersten White

Exclusive Bonus Content: First and foremost, you all must see Elizabeth Eulberg in person if you can. She is one of the funniest most charming authors I have ever seen. Hearing Eulberg reading from the book was hysterical because she did voices for all of the characters. Her editor, the inimitable David Levithan, was also his usual dynamo self at the release event I attended with my friend Nicole, the Book Bandit.

Second, I wanted to mention the cover. Some reviews have mentioned that it’s too pink or not their cup of tea. I, for one, love it. The pink of the background is actually my favorite color. I also had a prom dress almost like the one on the cover. What I really like is the person holding up the dress is ready to cut the strap. The cover is subtle–very straightforward with the prom dress but also subversive with that small gesture with the scissors. I thought it was a nice counter part to the book itself–a straightforward Jane Austen adaptation but with a clever twist. (And if you take off the dust jacket you’ll find an inlay of a silhouette of the prom dress on the cover. How cool is that?) This jacket, like many others that I praise here, was designed by Elizabeth B. Parisi (she also masterminded the covers for the Hunger Games and Green Witch books).

Tuck Everlasting: A (classic) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie BabbittTen-year-old Winnie Foster is frustrated with her boring,  respectable life. Her mother and grandmother never let her do anything. It’s the first week of August and Winnie can’t even sit in her front yard telling her troubles to a toad without them worrying about her staining her stockings or getting heat stroke.

More than anything Winnie wants a chance to be by herself and do something all her own–something that will make some kind of difference in the world. Winnie isn’t exactly sure what that something would be, but she knows it would be interesting. And she knows the first step is leaving home, even if it is just for a little while.

Running away from home proves much simpler than Winnie expected, at least until she enters the woods next to her house and stumbles upon a spring with very unusual water. And a family claiming they drank from the spring 87 years ago and haven’t aged a day since. She soon finds herself caught up in the unbelievable lives of this family, the Tucks, as they try to show Winnie the importance of keeping this enormous secret. Not talking about the spring is one thing, but given a chance to live forever, will Winnie be able to forget about it all together in Tuck Everlasting (1975) by Natalie Babbitt?

Find it on Bookshop.

Tuck Everlasting is widely, and probably fairly, viewed as a classic. Because the novel is set so far in the past (1880) it is also fairly timeless. All the same, it was deeply irritating for me that Winnie was only ten years old*. She sounded older and much of her behavior felt older. The immediate infatuation she and Jesse Tuck share makes very little sense to this modern reader when Winnie is a mere ten years old and Jesse is seventeen (or 104 depending on how you look at it).

The ending also seemed unbearably melancholy. The fantasy genre is filled with immortals and fountains of youth. But never have I encountered any as isolated and alone as the Tucks. The idea that they live on after the end of the book indefinitely, unable to ever really connect with anyone in a proper sense, is crushing.

That is not to say that Tuck Everlasting lacks charm. The story goes by quickly and is often quite fun. Babbitt clearly wanted to say specific things with the story about life–eternal or not. Which she did. It’s just that the particular devices she used to make her points made parts of the book problematic.

*In the movie adaptation Winnie is actually fifteen instead of ten. I saw trailers for the movie before reading the book which might have created a bias, but it just makes more sense to me with Winnie being a few years older.

Possible Pairings: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones, Everything All at Once by Katrina Leno, Snowfall by K. M. Peyton, It Wasn’t Always Like This by Joy Preble, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by Natalie Babbitt, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (a review!)

I have been meaning to read Hitty: Her First Hundred Years (1929) by Rachel Field (illustrated wonderfully in what I assume is pen and ink by Dorothy P. Lathrop) for a rather long time.

Find it on Bookshop.

Several years ago my mother bought me a reproduction Hitty doll by Robert Raikes (big deal carver of dolls and bears though he no longer seems to be making Hitty dolls). His Hitty is shown in the picture at left.

After buying the doll, and doing a bit of research, we found an edition of Field’s novel with the original 1929 text and illustrations. There is another, newer, edition with updated text by Rosemary Wells and illustrations by Susan Jeffers. The newer book came out, I believe, to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of Field’s original novel. I never read this version, actually sending it back upon realizing it was an adaptation, but other reviewers’ outrage at the changes suggest I was right to do so. If you haven’t guessed already, Hitty fans are numerous and loyal.

Hitty, amazingly, was real. Hitty.org is but one site dedicated to chronicling the life and history of this amazing doll. The site includes this picture of a Daguerreotype actually mentioned in the novel as well as a variety of other interesting photos and well-researched facts:

As the subtitle suggests, Hitty is already a centenarian at the start of Field’s fictionalized account of her adventures. Safely ensconced in a New York antique store equipped with quill and paper, Hitty decides it is high time to begin setting her story down for posterity. What follows is a children’s novel that truly deserves the Newberry Medal it received in 1930 for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

Hitty begins her life as a lucky piece of mountain-ash wood carried by an old peddler. In exchange for lodging during a particularly bad Maine winter, the Old Peddler decides to carve his piece of wood into a doll for the family’s seven-year-old child, Phoebe Preble. Hitty and Phoebe have their share of adventures during their time together. More, it might be argued, than one doll could manage (including a section that reads very much like part of Moby Dick geared to a much younger audience). But, as readers realize soon enough, Hitty is no ordinary doll. As the story progresses, Hitty passes through many hands and a variety of owners. Like most things, some owners prove better than others in the same way that certain events of Hitty’s life are more worthy of space in her memoirs than others.

When you realize that this book is from 1929, well before any other doll novels were published, it becomes clear that Hitty is something special because Field did it first. At first, I thought the novel might come off as dated since it was written so long ago. But I was happily proven wrong and found that the text stood up to my modern standards as well as Hitty’s chemise survives her first century. Many of the insights that Hitty expresses throughout the book remain very accurate to this day. Hitty’s calm demeanor and buoyant spirit also help to make this doll downright lovable.

Field’s prose is wonderful. Even though I knew Hitty was safe in the antique shop, each new peril left me fearing for Hitty and in a state of suspense until I found out if she had survived. The people that Hitty passes during the course of her first century are equally well-realized in the text. In terms of classic children’s literature (especially for a younger child), I can’t think of many better examples.

If, you want still more Hitty, you can check out Gail Wilson’s website. This very talented (and expensive) doll makers features her own version of Hitty available both ready-made and as a kit. Here are two examples:

The Eyre Affair: Looking at literature from the inside out

The Eyre Affair by Jasper FfordeJasper Fforde (with two F’s, really) is a superstar in the world of contemporary literature. The Eyre Affair (2003) is the first in Fforde’s series of Thursday Next novels which, with the release of Thursday Next: First Among Sequels last year, recently came back from a publishing hiatus. My general opinion is that anyone who reads books in English should pick up a copy. The book’s refusal to fit neatly into one genre (I’ve seen it catalogued as sci-fi, mystery, general fiction, and young adult fiction) supports my feeling that The Eyre Affair has something for everyone. (Find it on Bookshop.)

The novel is narrated by a woman named Thursday Next who lives in England. The year is 1985. But Thursday’s England is not one that many readers will recognize. To name but a few differences: Cloning has been viable since the 1970s when home cloning kits for Dodo’s were released, cheese is illegal, and Wales is still an independent republic.

Law enforcement in Fforde’s novel also takes a unique turn with the Special Operations Network that was created to “handle policing duties considered either too unusual or too specialized to be tackled by the regular force.” There are thirty departments in the network ranging from SO-12—a unit called the ChronoGuard that polices time travel and “chronuption” while trying to maintain the Standard History Eventline—to SO-27: the Literary Detectives who have to deal with problems like Baconians who preach that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays along with more mundane problems like “illegal traders, copyright infringements and fraud.”

Thursday Next is a Literary Detective.

The real problems for our intrepid heroine start when Archeron Hades (the third most wanted criminal in the world) begins kidnapping characters from great literary works. When Jane Eyre disappears from the pages of her novel, thereby leaving it unreadable, the pressure is on to rescue her before one of England’s greatest novels is destroyed forever.

As that summary might suggest, Fforde packs a lot into this tome (the hardcover runs 374 pages). The beauty of all of The Eyre Affair is that he makes it look so easy. The Thursday Next novels work together with a dynamic almost unheard of in other contemporary series as Fforde seamlessly connects plot points and refers back to past events between novels to create a tight, engaging narrative that remains entertaining long after the first read.

Furthermore, Fforde isn’t afraid to have a little fun. Everything is up for grabs in this novel where vampires, time travel, and literature all play their part in the narrative. Fforde also takes known historical and literary facts and turns them upside down (as with Wales not being a part of the United Kingdom). It sounds like this tinkering would make the book confusing for readers without the proper background, but it really doesn’t. Some of the story’s subtleties might be lost but the main story doesn’t suffer in the least.

Part of the allure of The Eyre Affair and the rest of the series is that Fforde asks the hard questions about literature. Later novels look at the writing and reading process in such an inventive way that the adjective “mind-blowing” is a justified description. At the same time, Fforde looks at plot points in classic novels like Jane Eyre and tries to explain the reason behind the strange bits such as Jane and Rochester’s fortuitous reunion at the end of the story—often with the help of the characters in question. (Jane Eyre and Rochester both make appearances here.)

In the world of novels, this one is something completely new combining satire, sci-fi, mystery, and a touch of pop culture to create a book like no other. Fforde uses clear, succinct language to create an utterly convincing alternate England that readers will want to visit again and again (don’t worry, the series has five more novels with the promise of more to come).

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Geek Fantasy Novel by E. Archer, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn, Kind of a Big Deal by Shannon Hale, My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows; Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, Or What You Will by Jo Walton, Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld