Review of “Fairer Than Morning” by Rosslyn Elliott

I enjoy reading historical fiction, and I take particular pleasure in it if I know something about the time period (so I can mentally fact check details as I read). Because of this, I was excited to finally get a chance to read “Fairer Than Morning” by Rosslyn Elliott, because it was ‘based on the life of Bishop William Hanby,’ about whom I know quite a bit. In fact, I have been a volunteer docent at The Hanby House (a historical site in Westerville; check out their website) for a while now, and have always admired the Bishop’s role in local history. He was an indentured servant who escaped from a harsh master, eventually paid off his indenture, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helped found Otterbein University (one of the first colleges to accept women and non-whites as students), and was vocal in the Westerville Whiskey Wars of 1875 and 1879. All of this he did while supporting his family as a circuit riding minister (and later, a Bishop), the editor of a religious journal, and a saddler. Due to his generous loans (which were never repaid) and the loss of his livelihood (his saddle shop was burned during the Whiskey Wars), Bishop Hanby died nearly pennilous, but with words of praise on his lips. He was a remarkable man, with a significant place in local history, and I was excited to read the fictionalized account of his life, as imagined by Ms. Elliot.

“Fairer Than Morning” is the first in Elliot’s series about the Hanbys (called The Saddler’s Legacy), and focuses primarily on Bishop Hanby. The second novel, “Sweeter Than Birdsong” is about his eldest son, Ben (best known for composing the Christmas song ‘Up on the Housetop’), and the third, “Lovelier Than Daylight,” is about the Hanby’s involvement in the Whisky Wars. I’m pretty sure that’s where the series will end, because Bishop Hanby died soon after those events, but maybe Ms. Elliot plans to write about the other Hanby descendants. Who knows? At any rate, “Fairer Than Morning” was a hard book to put down, and I look forward to reading the next two books with relish. I will admit, however, that I had to turn off my ‘fact checking’ in order to fully enjoy the novel.

Don’t get me wrong; Elliot obviously did a great deal of meticulous research for her series, and it shows, but at the end of the day, she was trying to write a historical romance, and some of the facts had to suffer in order to make the story work out the way she wanted it to. That won’t be a big deal for most readers, although some of my fellow Hanby House guides were up in arms about ‘the things she got wrong,’ and we’ve had some guests who have read it ask us questions about this or that incident (did it happen the way it did in the book?) and we’ve sometimes had to disappoint them with the truth. As for me, once I decided to think of it as separate from the Hanby story I know, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There was suspense, romance, good versus evil, and some very likeable characters (plus a villain who was every bit as despicable in real life as he was written to be).

My advice: read the series, and then, if you live in (or plan to visit) central Ohio, stop by the Hanby House in Westerville (or at least check out the website) to get the real stories. Sometimes, truth is better than fiction, but fiction is still a lot of fun to read!

– Becky

The Joys of October

If you ask me what my favorite season is, I will give you a different answer almost every time. This is because every season in Ohio has its charms, but they always seem to last just a bit too long, and sometimes refuse to follow the calendar (for instance, I cannot consider March to be the beginning of spring when there is still a foot of snow on the ground, and I hate to call September autumn when it is over ninety degrees outside).

October is the month that makes me love autumn when I declare it to be my favorite season. The weather here is generally crisp and pleasant, and for me, it’s a huge party month! It starts with our annual weenie roast, and the neighbors typically have a huge tailgating party later on the same day, so we usually stop by after our guests have gone home. The next Saturday features a birthday bash (my son and his best friend often share a celebration) which is followed this year by a friend-of-a-friend’s Halloween extravaganza (hundreds of people and a live band are involved). The following weekend is the traditional pumpkin carving party, preceded by our yearly trip to the local pumpkin patch, which has a huge play zone for the kids, so it is hours of fun before we even get to the party, where there’s way more happening than just the creation of jack-o-lanterns. Then the month concludes with Trick-or-Treating (I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow costumes and candy).

All of these October events have the benefit of fun traditions associated with them (including special foods and activities that only happen once a year), without any of the stress of the upcoming holiday season. There’s no need to schedule a special dinner around four families who all want to have their meal on Thanksgiving (or Christmas) day. Plus, the food at these events is always low-key and pot-luck, so nobody has to come up with an entire meal that can feed two vegetarian in-laws, two meat-and-potatoes couples, someone with diabetes, someone else with a wheat allergy, and several finicky children. Besides, there are only two presents to buy (plus costumes and candy), so I never feel the money pinch like I do in December. I think one of my favorite parts of October, though, is the décor. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas decorations (which go up during Thanksgiving weekend at our house), but there’s something slightly satisfying about putting zombies, skulls and witches all over the house and getting in touch with my inner Morticia Addams. If you don’t already celebrate October as a pre-holiday-season anti-stress inoculation like I do, I highly recommend you try it. Happy October, everyone!


Review: The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

I am an aspiring World War I buff–a chance comment in a memoir of someone traveling Europe the year before the war began set me on a journey to learn just how much we aren’t taught about this conflict, especially in the U.S. So when I heard about a series of mysteries set just after The Great War, and that one of them took place in an English Country House, I was intrigued. The manor house mystery has become such a cliche, but for me it hasn’t lost its appeal. Ever since I watched Gosford Park I’ve been alive to its possibilities–both comic and tragic–and for a working-outside-the-home mother there can be no greater fantasy than a story where servants clean up every mess but the characters STILL can’t keep themselves from being murdered. So I was in a very receptive frame of mind when I picked up The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. And, indeed, there is a lot to like. Elizabeth Speller gives us a fascinating setting, where there’s a church full of pagan symbols, a family with a truly horrifying set of skeletons in the collective closets, and a detective whose sense of disconnection with the life he has come to lead since the war makes him makes him sympathetic and realistic. But. This book starts at a deliberate, almost langorous pace. Then, about half-way through, the writer evidently decided that events were happening too quickly and nearly brings things to a (not-so-screeching) halt. By then, unfortunately for me, I was hooked. There was a missing child (from a decade before), a missing teen-ager (from a chapter before) and a body somewhere it did Not Belong. There were also a lot of torturous young men agonizing over their relationship with one of their number who did not survive the War. All this angst led to a lot of unfinished sentences and not much progress on solving the actual mystery. Or mysteries. The resolution, when it finally came, emerged in a series of small scenes very few of which held the drama or satisfaction promised in the beginning. I was pleased to know the fate of some, but shook my head over the others. I’m not sorry I read it, but it was a very uneven book. This is the second book in a series, and I hope that as things progress the author develops a better sense of pace. There are too many Good Things here for her to stop improving as a writer.–Lorien

Childhood Favorites

The other day, my daughter was going through the pile of library books I’d just picked up, when she came across The Screwtape Letters (which I haven’t actually read yet–save it for a later blog).  “Hey, Mom,” she said, “this is by the guy that wrote those Narnia books.”  When I was a child, I used to read that series from beginning to end, then go back to the beginning again.  I skipped The Last Battle, though, for reasons that really didn’t become clear to me until adulthood (again, another blog).  But the rest of them kept me entranced.  Tolkien’s universe has held onto me longer, but Narnia was a favorite place for me to visit as a child.  So why is it that my children, while they have heard of CS Lewis and seen the movies, haven’t actually read the series?

Part of it is choice.  I don’t want to be THAT MOM, and shove things I loved down their little throats.  When my elder daughter turned 11, I tried briefly to get her to read The Dark is Rising, another childhood favorite, only to be told politely that it was not that interesting.  I try not to censor their reading too much or direct it too much, in the hopes that what is now a pleasure doesn’t become a chore.  So I swallowed back my disbelief and let her put it on the shelf.  Maybe the younger one will “get it” when she turns 11.

Part of it, undoubtedly, is age.  I don’t remember how old I was when I first read the Narnia books, but the style of writing that was popular back then is not so accessible now.  It has slower pacing and is a lot wordier.  It may seem a better “fit” when my kids are older (if this sounds like a rationalization, read on…)

Part of it is availability.  I was a bookish child living in rural Ohio.  There weren’t that many books to read, and I think I read them all at least once.  The ones I liked, I read again and again to a certain extent because there was nothing else.  Kids now have so many more things to do with their time, and so many more things to read that are targeted to them…sadly, often for marketing purposes.  Would I have loved Narnia if I had known Harry Potter back then?  I’d like to think so, but it might have taken me longer to discover it.

And finally–most telling, I think, is the way our family works.  I have taught reading before, and while I am happy to give my children help with reading any way I can, at the end of the day I want to be their mother, not their teacher.  We read Tolkien together, but their dad and I did the majority of the reading.  The Narnia books are more accessible, but still a little challenging (at least for my younger one).  Maybe I’m reluctant to stress the fragile joy of family reading time.  Often my kids pick the books and do the reading.  We read a lot of picture books they outgrew long ago but we still love.  We are holding on to them and to each other, to this short time we are blessed to spend together.  I think I am afraid that too many words sounded out or meanings questioned will change this time into something different, something more grownup and far away.  But change, of course, is inevitable.  And how sad would it be if we never shared things that were special to us because we thought they would change the people around us?  Isn’t that what made them special in the first place?  Soon, I think, now that the nights are getting longer and cooler and encouraging us to snuggle down together, I will introduce them to the wonderful, flawed Narnia of the books, with all its complications and unspoken prejudices and lengthy words.  I will see what they make of it.  I am sure I will come to see it all differently, too.


Reading with Kids

I love to read, and I always have. I don’t actually remember learning how to read, I just remember always having a book in my hand. It’s funny, though, because I don’t remember my parents having any books in the house (besides a study Bible and a set of Encyclopedias), and I never saw them reading anything but newspapers, trade magazines, or textbooks. As a child, the only bonding moment (in regards to reading, anyway) I ever had with my mom was when she gave me her hard-bound copy of Marguerite Henry’s King of the Wind, which she had won in an elementary school essay contest. We never discussed it (or any other book), but it made me feel connected to my mother in a new way. I knew that she had been a model student (eventually becoming valedictorian, although I didn’t find that out until I was in college), and I presumed that she had enjoyed reading, but I had to guess her interests based on the stories she told about her childhood.

When I had my first child, one of my daydreams involved reading and discussing books with him someday (others involved a full night’s sleep, but that’s beside the point). Everything started off well; he loved being read to, and he liked hearing stories, but then things went downhill for a while. My son had to struggle with reading from the moment he first entered school. When he was in first grade, he would cry when he was asked to read out loud, claiming to be ‘scared of the words’. Spelling tests were a special kind torture for everyone, involving hours of practice and repetition just to scrape up a passable grade, and getting him to read an entire book, (even an ‘easy’ book) seemed impossible. I was stymied! I am not a reading specialist, so I don’t have any idea how to teach reading, and it was endlessly frustrating to watch my son not ‘get’ something that I had always considered to be as easy as walking.

It turns out that my son has dyslexia. Once we identified the problem, things seemed to improve, and now he is good enough at reading that he enjoys it (no more word phobias!). It has gotten to the point that I have had to start previewing books before letting him read them; unlike my parents, we have lots of books all over the house, but not all of them are appropriate for a ten year old to read! Finally, though, we have started reading some of the same books, and have had some interesting discussions about them. At the end of this summer, I offered him the Dragonlance trilogy to read. It was my favorite book series as a high school student, and he is named for my favorite character, so I always knew that I would let him read the books someday. There was a time when I worried he might never be able to read them by himself, but he’s doing quite well (although he can’t pronounce some of the names; phonetics is still a mystery to the boy), and I look forward to a good discussion once he’s finished. I can honestly say, it’s a dream come true. My parents have no idea what they were missing!


A literary life…

As long as I can remember, I’ve been an avid reader. Since my parents chose my name from Lord of the Rings, it’s no surprise that those were some of the first books I ever read, and some of my most beloved books. My name is Elvish but I definitely resemble a hobbit more with each year that passes. The comforts of home, good food,and a quiet life…murder mysteries are about as far down the excitement road as I care to go, most days. Well, and B-grade horror movies, but that’s for another blog.
At no time do I feel more like a hobbit than when we go apple-picking. Every year we mark the transition from summer to fall by picking apples at a nearby orchard. And every year I feel the simple magic of sun and warm earth, the cidery smells, the heavy fruit. Every year the patchwork of green and golden fields, the rows of gnarled trees seem more, well, beautiful. Not exotic. Not relaxing (certainly not for the farmers who spend so much time working in those fields!). But I am reminded every year that in the religion of my birth, Paradise is a kind of garden.
The Lord of the Rings is a decidedly old-fashioned set of stories. I can’t discuss their literary merits or lack thereof; I’m too close to them for that. Too much of what is in them is now in me, speaking with the voice of my childhood. The books in my life have definitely helped me to define myself, to find my own voice and my own words to tell my story. As I watch my children find books they love, I hope that they can find stories that have as much meaning for them. –Lorien

A cast of thousands!?

Last night (okay, in reality, it was early this morning) I finished reading “A Feast for Crows,” book 4 of A Song of Ice and Fire, and then dove right into book 5, “A Dance with Dragons” and read until 3am, when my eyes were too bleary to see anymore… I have since vowed not to pick the book up again for at least a year in order to better savor the series (as mentioned previously, I worry that the author will die before he finishes writing the final two books ), but that is all beyond the point. My beef today is with Mr. Martin’s penchant for continually introducing further characters (and their plotlines) to an already convoluted series with a cast of thousands. Every time he does this, it makes my head spin (although, admittedly, this might have more to do with my unfortunate late night reading habits than anything else), and I have to rack my brain to remember if this is a new character, or simply one that has resurfaced after a period of relative obscurity. I am tempted to reread the first three books in order to get all the characters straight in my mind again, but I can’t afford to continue to forgo sleep in favor of reading (as tempting as it may be), and I really should be doing something more productive with my time. Instead, I think I may just check out all of the character information on Wiki; L. suggested this as we discussed the book earlier today, and I have a feeling that I’m about to waste some serious time online… Well, at least it should take less time than re-reading all of the books!

I think what bothers me most about the constant influx of new characters is that I don’t know what’s going to happen to them, and I don’t want to get too attached in case they die horribly. This might seem strange (especially to those who haven’t read Martin’s books yet), but hear me out… With most book series, there are a core set of characters (both heros and villains) whom the reader gets to know, and there is a sort of understanding that most of these people (except maybe the villains) will survive. With Mr. Martin’s cast of thousands (and his willingness to kill off anybody), I never know who will make it until the end of a book!

*SPOILER ALERT* I thought (at the beginning of the series) that the story was going to be about Starks versus Lannisters (with various characters siding with each), and that the good guys (in this case, the Starks) would win. When Ned Stark was killed at the end of book one, I was fairly surprised, but when Catelyn and Rob Stark bit it too, I was shocked! Then, new characters kept showing up only to get killed off (Renly!), and some of the major villains (Joffrey, Tywin, and The Mountain, to name a few) suddenly died, only to be replaced by previously minor characters (like Biter, and The Bastard of Bolton) who were seemingly even worse. I have no idea if any of the remaining Starks are going to make it, or if Daenyris will (as I hope) ever get to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne. That’s okay to a point, because I don’t like to be able to predict everything that’s going to happen in a book (otherwise, why read it?), but I’ll admit that it takes me out of my comfort zone not to be able to predict anything that’s going to happen! Well done, Mr. Martin. Now, please get back to work so you can finish writing the last two books!