Mid-April Reading Notes: Tey and Collins

April 19, 2009 @ 8:18 pm | Filed under:

Well, it hasn’t all been Nick Hornby this month. Last week I read two of the books from my March TBR stack and both of them were the kind of book you fall into headfirst and feel dazed when, hours later, you come up for air. That’s about the only thing they have in common. The first was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I bought a copy last year when Jane was reading a lot of books from the Ambleside Year 7 list. We don’t “do” Ambleside but we mine those booklists for all we’re worth. (Thanks again, women-behind-Ambleside, for putting treasure in our path once more.)

Jane has probably read Daughter of Time half a dozen times in the past year. Now I see why. I’m enormously impressed that Tey was able to pull off having a mystery novel take place entirely in one room—in one hospital bed, really—and have the mystery revolve around a five-hundred-year-old bit of English history, and wind up with not one millisecond of dull moment in the whole book. That’s quite a feat.

It’s hard to say anything about this book, and how fascinating it was, without giving things away. I think I can safely say this much: the novel is about a Scotland Yard policeman, Alan Grant, who is convalescing from a serious back injury after an on-the-job fall. He’s bored and irritable, and his actress friend—aware of his interest in faces as revealers of character—brings him a stack of portraits of historical figures connected with mysteries of one kind and another. Grant’s attention is captured by a portrait of Richard III—you can see the very one here—whose serious and sensitive expression does not gel with Grant’s understanding of the man as a monster who ordered the murder of his nephews to secure his own place on the throne. Despite being stuck flat on his back, subject to the ministrations of businesslike nurses, Grant-the-policeman opens an investigation, as it were. He wants to know the facts behind the case against Richard III.

Have I said too much? I hope not. The real magic of this novel is the gradual unraveling of the ancient mystery, the poking through old letters and town records to get at the truth. (Grant ropes in a volunteer to do the leg work, and here I felt a sharp stab of deja vu, because that’s exactly how I managed the research for Little House in the Highlands. Jane was stuck in the hospital, getting chemo, and I had a researcher in Edinburgh who would take my daily battery of questions and go look up the answers for me, and then she’d send me sheaves of articles and impenetrable scholarly documents to pore through at night beside my baby’s hospital bed. So Grant’s fascination, his obsession really, rang very true to me. There’s nothing like a treasure hunt to get you through long days and nights in a hospital.)

About the mystery (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers)—did we all know this already? I was blown away by the revealed truth. But then, everything I knew about Richard III I learned from Shakespeare, and now I realize Shakespeare got the Tudor-approved version of the story. Not that Shakespeare was ever particularly interested in accuracy. He was after compelling drama, and that he certainly succeeded in creating with his version of Richard III.

After Daughter of Time, I turned to Suzanne Collins’s recent YA thriller The Hunger Games. Wow. Going just on its premise, I wasn’t sure I would be recommending it to Jane, but by the end of the book I was as eager for her to read it as she’d been for me to pick up Daughter of Time. I’m thinking it’s too dark for my sensitive Rose, at this point (she’s only ten anyway; not exactly the YA audience).

All the kidlit bloggers were raving about Hunger Games this past year, but I didn’t read any of the reviews. You know how I feel about spoilers. What I gathered from skimming past was that it was grim and gripping and well written, and that it was about (click away right now if you don’t want to know) a future dystopia whose government hosts mandatory annual ‘games’ in which 24 teenagers (chosen by lottery) must fight to the death. As if that weren’t chilling enough, every moment (as the publisher’s website blinks at us in creepy TV-static text) is televised. So, yes, as you’re fighting for your life in a wilderness arena, liable to fall victim to starvation, dehydration, wildfire, wild beasts, or treacherous terrain if your teenage competitors don’t brain you first, your family back home is watching. Grim is too weak a word.

But it was great storytelling and, in these days of creeping privacy erosion and reality-show entertainments, there is much food for thought in this novel. Jane and I (and Scott read it too) have been discussing it for days. The ending leaves you hanging a bit, just a warning. I figure if you’re still reading this post, you’re the kind of reader who appreciates a warning.

I believe The Hunger Games is being made into a movie, and if I have any complaints about the book, it’s only that it felt self-consciously cinematic, as if the author were keenly aware as she wrote that the story was a shoo-in for film adaptation. But I want to say (to myself) that that supposition is actually a too-shallow reading of the cinematic quality: the self-consciousness is part of the point. The heroine knows she is being filmed, knows her reactions to arena events will affect her audience in certain ways and will in fact have a material affect on her own situation. If her anonymous sponsors like what she’s doing, they may choose to send her food or supplies. Her fight for survival, therefore, happens on two levels. She must literally fight her opponents in the arena, but she must also fight her fears and fatigue and desire for privacy and even, sometimes, her sense of honor and decency, in order to turn in the right sort of performance, because her life depends as much on audience approval as anything else. This is complicated stuff, and it’s part of what makes the book so powerful.

So: highly recommended, but, you know, with caveats for the very young or very sensitive. After all, it’s kids killing kids because their government makes them do so. Not exactly the stuff of which bedtime stories are made.

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27 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Kathryn says:

    I’ve had The Daughter of Time on my shelf for ever but have never read it. Must add it to my list.

  2. Sara says:

    Your book reviews are so amazing that I want to read practically everything you read. That is, if you liked it! I re-read A Girl of the Limberlost last week and was at a total loss as to how to describe it on my blog. I’m obviously NOT a writer. Just a reader!

    My 13 yo son has just finished both MBS books and enjoyed them thoroughly. He read those big books in 2 days each!

  3. radmama says:

    I just read and loved Daughter of Time, thanks to your blog. Cannot believe I had not discovered Josephine Tey before now! Thank you.

    Also devoured Austenland, which I found here and Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.. was that also one of your reads?

  4. Kelly says:

    The sequel to Hunger Games (Catching Fire, I think) will be out in September. Cannot wait! And now I need to read Daughter of Time, which I own and have not yet read. You’re the second person to talk about how fantastic it is and now I feel left out.

  5. Kay says:

    Yes, thanks again. Both my kids were in a community performance of Richard III this winter and after 17 shows they were ready to let all the dead people go:)
    Anna played one of the smothered Princes of the Tower and returned as a ghost, as well as Clarence’s daughter. Will was cast in many small roles but too got killed in the final battle. Stage choreography was the fun part for him and after seeing three of the shows I finally was “enjoying” the play.

    With that said Daughter of Time is a fantastic follow up for our understanding of Richard III. Shakespeare was so much a politician and knew where his pay check came from.
    So great Daughter of Time crossed your reading table to end up in your blog. I too love your reviews and follow the trails with pleasure. They are always a great “fit” for our family.
    Thank you.

  6. Kay says:

    Hi, Forgot to mention Daughter of Time also turned into a facinating research project on Tey.

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kay, that sounds really interesting. I’d love to hear more!

    Kathryn, I think Daughter of Time would be right up your alley, given your love of English history and literature.

    Radmama, yes, I read Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict earlier this month. I didn’t like it much. Thought Austenland was much better. What did you think? I did enjoy the dip into Regency England; that’s always a treat. But I kept waiting to hear that Jane’s father had made a similar journey to another time. I thought maybe that’s where he picked up on abstract painting.

  8. Marsha says:

    oh no!! You know I havve this little addiction to YA books? Good ones, that is. I read Cynthia Lord’s book recommended by you, and now I’m off to find the two mentioned here, at least the first one!!

    (I read all of Gene Stratton Porter’s when I was young, and am recreating that library now as well)

  9. Theresa says:

    Those both sound great. Adding to the list!

  10. Meredith says:

    The Tey’s been in my bedside basket for weeks, I can’t wait to read it, pre-reading for my Violet too :))

  11. MelanieB says:

    Oooh two books I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m glad though that I got to them before you did. I read both of them with no prior knowledge and preconceptions and I like the raw experience. Then I like finding reviews afterward by sympathetic minds so I can compare notes.

    Daughter of Time set me off on a Tey binge last year. I’ve enjoyed all of her books; but it’s still my favorite. Like you I love the way she pulled off the one-room location and the depth of the historical quest. Interesting parallel with your Martha research.

    I got the Hunger Games as an Amazon Vine review copy so had no information about it except the publisher’s blurb that made me pick the book from the list. I didn’t every realize it was a YA book until I was part way in. I think I might have experienced it differently if I’d come across it knowing it was a much discussed item on the kid lit blogs. Maybe I’ll have to go and hunt up other reviews. I don’t think I thought about it nearly enough as I read, partly because I had no one to share it with. It was another of those gulped books and it does merit further attention.

  12. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melanie, you’ve hit upon my central dilemma in blogging about books. Like you, I like to encounter a book without knowing too much, so that I often avoid reviews about books I think I might want to read. But I really love and thrive on discussion about books—both reading it and writing it—and so there’s that constant dance, trying to read just enough of a recommendation to let me determine whether I want to add the book to the pile, but not enough so that my experience of the book itself is altered by foreknowledge.

    (I do tend to read Hornby’s entire discussions in advance, because he picks so many books I’ve never heard of, and I enjoy his commentary quite as much as I’d likely enjoy the books themselves.)

    Also like you, I love to read reviews & commentary AFTER I’ve had a chance to read a book and ponder it a while.

    But with such strong personal preference for, as you put it, the raw experience of the book, I find myself completely at sea in the question of ‘to blog or not to blog’? Blogging is such a great medium for sharing one’s book enthusiasms. But in writing these posts, am I robbing readers of the chance to have their own raw encounters with the titles I recommend? LOL. Well, I figure it’s up to each of us as individual readers to set and guard our own spoiler limits.

    Regarding Hunger Games—for about the first half of the book, I kept looking up from its pages and muttering to Scott, “I don’t get why this is YA. It’s so grim.” But in the end, I do think it belongs in that genre, just as The Giver does. Adolescence is a time when many readers want and indeed *need* to dive into heavy issues.

  13. Beck says:

    I went through a big Josephine Tey kick a while back. I did disagree with what she ultimately decided about Richard III – note my tactful, non-spoiler-giving way of saying that!

    Hunger Games sounds interesting, too.

  14. radmama says:

    I just finished a political theory class that fit nicely with Confessions, but I had mixed feelings about the book. I can see what the author was trying to do with regards to conceptions of identity and time,which was distracting. Mostly, it felt unfinished.

    Austenland was a fun read. The unfortunate part of both was that any Austen fan could predict the resolution very early in the book. you Not sure if I love either book, but they were entertaining.

    I just finished American Bloomsbury. Disappointing writing, fascinating facts. Now resuming to work through a load of L’Engle before my maternity leave ends.

  15. jen says:

    I’ll skip reading closely to keep the mystery, but wanted to say that I had moved Daughter of Time around the house for awhile after getting it as a bargain book years ago, but never read it. I’ll have to find it and give it another try.

  16. Beth says:

    I am thoroughly enjoying your book-reading posts, and just wanted to let you know. Feel free to write more! We’re going through a rough time, here, and I can settle to very little, though I could use the respite, and these posts are strangely suitable.

    I read Daughter of Time when I was in my teens — my grandmother read it after her heart attack and loved it and gave it to me, and I loved it as well. Perhaps it would be the thing to reread now …

  17. Melissa Wiley says:

    OK, Beck, I’m totally intrigued. Would love to hear your take on it. Perhaps in cryptic tweets so as not to spoil mysteries for anyone. 😉

    Beth: thanks for your kind words. And sending a hug your way.

  18. radmama says:

    Did you recently read The Thirteenth Tale or is that on the TBR pile?

  19. Melissa Wiley says:

    It’s still in the pile. Actually it had moved to the top spot, but then all these libraries books came in and bumped it back down.

  20. Sherry Early says:

    I love Daughter of Time; it’s on my best fiction ever list. And Hunger Games was a compelling read.

    I must say that I get that “cinematic” feeling from a lot of books written in the last twenty years or so. Quick scene changes, very visual descriptions, lots of dialog, cliffhangers, etc. I think some writers can’t decide whether they’re writing a screenplay or a novel. Sometimes it’s distracting, but I didn’t notice it so much in Hunger Games.

  21. radmama says:

    I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to your review.

  22. hopeinbrazil says:

    Thanks for lovely reviews on two books I’m barely familiar with.

  23. DebD says:

    coming over from Semicolon’s blog:

    I read Daughter of Time a few years ago and agree with your review – loved it. Hunger Games looks very interesting. Thanks for the review.