We Three Fossils

After watching the BBC film adaptation of Neol Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes (2007), I was very eager to read the novel.

Ballet Shoes is the story of three special Fossils–Pauline, Petrova, and Posy–orphan girls adopted by an adventurous fossil collector.

When Great-Uncle Matthew, Gum for short, sets off on his latest adventure, his niece Sylvia and her Nana expect that he will break his word and send more fossils to their already cluttered home, but they never imagined that those fossils would arrive in the form of baby girls. Pauline, the eldest, was rescued from a shipwreck and delivered by Gum to the house on Cromwell Road. Petrova was found in Russia, the daughter of a poor man who was unable to care for her; she was sent by post, as the reaction to Pauline’s arrival decided Gum against any more personal deliveries. While Posy, the daughter of a poor dancer, is delivered with a pair of dainty ballet shoes. Left to their own devices, Sylvia and Nana do the best they can to raise the girls while their guardian is away, finding ways to keep the girls happy, healthy, and educated with the money left to Sylvia in trust.

When money becomes scarce in the Fossil household, Sylvia decides to take in boarders to supplement the household income, but the ragtag group of strangers soon becomes a family. The girls soon find themselves the object of everyone’s concern when they enroll as charity students at the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training, where Pauline and Posy soon find their niche, though Petrova would rather be a mechanic than a dancer. Vowing to put their names in the history books (because it is their own and no one can say it is because of their grandfathers), Pauline, Petrova, and Posy find that sometimes it takes hard work to make your dreams come true.

Ballet Shoes is the sort of book that I would have adored growing up. It has everything that I loved in children’s stories–girls facing great odds and coming out on top, orphans (oh boy, did I read a lot of books about orphans), acting and dancing, and the idea that children can learn to be themselves without their parents telling them what to do. This was such a fun read; in many ways the Fossils reminded me of the Mortmains in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (one of my favorites), though slightly less dysfunctional. A great read for little girls and little girls at heart.

The Price of Silence

I received an ARC copy of Julie Klassen’s The Silent Governess through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. The book was published in January. This review is based on an unedited galley proof.

Every month I browse through the LT review books and select anything that sounds interesting. The Silent Governess captured my attention because it was described as a cross between Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, so that was enough to pique my curiosity. I did not know at the time that it was published as Christian fiction, which may have skewed my perception and made me turn away; however, I am glad that I was unaware of this because the novel was a delightful surprise and not at all the moralistic treatise that my personal prejudice would have led me to expect.

Miss Olivia Keene, schoolteacher, faithful daughter, and mathematical genius, has but one ambition–to open a school for girls, until she becomes tangled in a series of events that will make her question her very identity and change her life forever.

When Olivia witnesses a man attacking her mother, she rushes to her aid. Thinking only of saving her dear mother’s life, Olivia strikes the man with a fire-iron and sees him drop to the ground, wounded and unconcious. Certain that she has murdered him, she flees at her mother’s urging, seeking shelter in the woods and planning to travel to St. Aldwyn’s School for Girls, where she hopes to find shelter and a situation. But one complication inevitably leads to another and Olivia encounters a group of poachers in the woods and comes under attack herself before a grizzled, haggard man named Croome secures her escape.

With nowhere to turn, Olivia wanders into the town of Arlington and makes the acquaintance of the local vicar, who offers to assist her and help her on her way. After a run-in with the local earl, Lord Bradley of Brightwell Court, Olivia becomes curious and decides to take a look at Brightwell Court. It is just her luck that she happens to overhear a conversation that can destroy Lord Bradley’s position as an earl and his future as a peer. Caught by the manor’s gamekeeper, Olivia is imprisoned in the local gaol in a cell with one of the poachers that threatened her during her journey through the woods. When the poacher tries to strangle her, Olivia is saved just in time, but temporarily loses her voice as a consequence. Not trusting her to keep his dreadful secret, Lord Bradley takes her into his home and assigns her a position in the nursery, looking after his two young step-cousins. Olivia’s strength and integrity, and her innate generosity make her a favorite among the members of the household, but when her voice returns, Lord Bradley refuses to believe she will not divulge his secret and ensures that she will stay on as a governess.

No longer a member of the staff, Olivia’s position places her above the other servants, but beneath the family. It is a lonely life that she leads as a governess, until she unexpectedly finds a friend in Lord Bradley, who comes to view her in a new light when he learns that Olivia also has secrets she would rather keep.

A touch of romance and mystery lend suspense to the tale in a way that would make the Brontes proud, while the manners and setting are Austenian indeed. The plot is fast-paced and the characters genuine. I was afraid that Olivia would be a self-effacing, highly moral miss (Christian fiction, silent governess… my prejudice again), but she was smart and daring, and defended her honor with untiring grace. Lord Bradley’s admiration for Olivia evolved naturally, and the bond between them emerged in a manner similar to Jane and Mr. Rochester’s, a pair of flawed equals. The mystery subplot was engaging and kept me guessing throughout, while the glimpse of life in a country house added to the idea that Olivia and Lord Bradley were part of a community filled with individuals, each of whom had their own story to tell.

Olivia’s experience of life as a governess reminded me of the series “Berkeley Square,” and the epigraphs at the head of each chapter (quoted from documents and texts concerning the lives of governesses) were particularly insightful. Overall, a great read for any Regency fan.

True North

Edith Pattou’s East first came to my attention when I was browsing through the very small YA section of my university’s library. After writing my thesis on “Beauty and the Beast,” I became fascinated by the many versions of the tale and the retellings thereof. I had never heard of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” until a fellow lit student mentioned it; I was just starting my research for my thesis and was immersing myself in every version of the “Beauty and the Beast” that I could find. East is Pattou’s extraordinary retelling of the Norse fairy tale.

East begins with the mysterious contents of a box found in an old attic. The discovery reveals a series of objects and a selection of writings–a record of a most fantastical journey to the ends of the world and beyond.

Eugenia knows that she will have seven children, as surely as she knows that the sun will rise in the east. One child for each point of the compass rose, except North. Her husband does not put much stock in her superstitious beliefs regarding birth-directions, but he humors his wife and shares in the joys of family life; what does it matter the direction a child is facing when they are born? Seven children are born and Eugenia’s wish is met, until one of the girls is lost. There must be an East in the family and Eugenia will do whatever she must to ensure that this is so, even lie.

Ebba Rose, Ebba for East, is born to replace Elise. She knows this and finds it difficult to replace her patient, East-born sister when she feels a constant restlessness and desire for adventure. Rose dreams of the adventures that she will have in the company of her imaginary white-bear, but what if the adventure is more than a dream?

Rose’s tale is told by five distinct voices: Rose, her brother Neddy, her father, the White Bear, and the Troll Queen, each adding a different perspective to the narrative. The voices blend together seamlessly to add depth to the tale, resulting in what is one of the best fairy tale retellings I have read since Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter.

Rose is a brave and strong-willed heroine, her character developing as she journeys to the frozen north on a quest to find the land that does not exist. The story is comparable to Cupid and Psyche, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Beauty and the Beast. The combination of myth and realism make Rose’s tale stand out as a sort of history of events; the reader almost imagines that these events might have happened.

From beginning to end, I was enchanted by the novel and could not put it down! I was almost sad to reach the end and know that the story was over, but like the best of fairy tales, I know that this is a story that I will return to again and again.

My copy of East was a gift from Amanda of The Zen Leaf during the Book Lovers Secret Santa gift exchange.

Historical Novel Reviews

My reviews of Elena Maria Vidal’s The Night’s Dark Shade and Jack Hussey’s The Ghosts of Walden have been published on Historical Novels Review Online (February 2010 reviews).

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte

I selected Syrie James’s The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë as my third reading selection for the All About the Brontes Challenge. I was intrigued by the premise behind the novel and found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.

What if Charlotte Brontë had recorded her feelings, accomplishments, and disappointments in a diary? How much more would we know about the author of Jane Eyre? And what would we learn about her relationship with Arthur Bell Nicholls? James imagines the answers to these questions in her carefully researched novel and the result is a clever and believable narrative that brings a fresh perspective to the story of Charlotte Brontë.

Laura, creator of the Brontë challenge, recently noted the similarity between Charlotte’s relationship with Mr. Nicholls, as portrayed by James, and that between Lizzie Bennet and Mr. Darcy. I noticed the connection as well and was amused by the possibility of Charlotte and Mr. Nicholls experiencing the sort of pride and prejudice that marked Lizzie and Darcy’s relationship, particularly in light of Charlotte’s views on the lack of passion in Jane Austen’s prim and proper love affairs.

James’s portrayal of the relationship between the Brontë siblings was very illuminating. I have read the Brontës, but I knew little about the circumstances surrounding their writing or the hardships that they experienced. Reading the novel has really sparked my interest in learning more about this fascinating group of writers; I am now curious to read Mrs. Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë and Charlotte’s letters. I am also interested in reading the sisters’ poems and Charlotte’s unfinished manuscript, Emma (perhaps I’ll give Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown a try).

I am glad that I chose to read this one after reading the Brontës’ novels, particularly Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. James weaved so many incidents from the novels into the story to show how Charlotte and her sisters borrowed from life to create their narratives that I gained a new understanding of the novels.

What I’m reading on Monday

monday reading listI’m currently reading:

The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James

Last week, I finished:

Shirley by Charlotte Bronte (REVIEW)

Next, I want to start reading:

so many to choose from, but I think it will be East by Edith Pattou

Best Wishes to J. Kaye as she passes on the Monday meme torch!