Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen.
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few believe
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve
“Come; see the oxen kneel
“In the lonely barton by yonder comb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
by Raymond A. Foss (2006)
Small voices, raised to the rafters
singing their hearts out in the familiar story
the tale of the babe and his parents
sharing his birth with donkeys and lamb,
with shepherds and wise men from the east
marveling at the wonder of his birth
in that humble place so long ago
hearing the words of the story again
richer perhaps in the telling with little voices
echoing throughout the sanctuary
a bit noisier perhaps; but a wonderful
place to be
by Thomas Hood
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds -
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When she was sixteen, living on her family’s farm outside of London, Laurel Nicolson saw her beloved mother committing the murder of a stranger. Although Laurel’s own testimony established that it was done in self defense, her parents never fully explained why it happened. Now Laurel, a successful actress, is in her 60′s, and her mother is dying. This is her last chance to discover the truth about this dark family secret.
The Secret Keeper is wonderfully labrynthine novel, which, as it progresses through its various stages, is told and retold from the perspectives of three women. There is Laurel herself, speaking mostly in the present time, explaining things as she understood them then and how she interprets them now. Her mother, Dorothy, relates her own version of events as they unfolded during the Blitz in WWII. An alternate version is provided, also from 1940′s London, by Dorothy’s glamorous friend Vivian. All three are remarkably captivating individuals, and, every step of the way, author Morton surrounds them with an array of vibrant supporting characters. The bulk of the action takes place in wartime London, which comes alive in all the life and death peril of the bombings.
Although some reviewers have remarked that the secret was a fairly easy one to guess, I was unable to figure everything out until close to the end. When the truth becomes apparent, it’s very bittersweet, and very satisfying. Having read all three of Kate Morton’s earlier books, I feel confident in describing her writing as literary, elegant and eloquent, and she creates memorable stories bursting with life. She’s a terrific novelist, well worth reading.
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Morality Play by Barry Unsworth
Young priest Nicholas Barber is AWOL, having deserted his work as a scribe to taste the pleasures of spring. Now that winter has arrived, his solitary sojourn is less enjoyable and more dangerous. Nicholas encounters a troupe of traveling players on the road, and, since one of the actors has just died, is invited to join them. They carry the corpse to the nearest town, in search of a Christian burial for him, and while there, propose to stage a play to earn some much needed shillings. When their leader, Martin, learns about the murder of a young boy, he takes a daring step, quickly composing a play about this deeply disturbing incident.
Nicholas is the narrator of this tale, speaking in language very reminiscent of morality plays themselves. Never very brave, he makes an unconventional hero, one who ponders the experience of “playing”, the nature of pretending, and the relationship between actors and audience. Most of all, he immerses readers into the muddy, superstitious, and disease-ridden past (1390), in which survival is never a given, but cruelty surely is. At only two hundred pages, Morality Play is complex but terse, containing not a single detail extraneous to its plot.
Barry Unsworth died in 2012, having written seventeen historical novels, several prize winning. Ray Bradbury died the same day, and the Wall Street Journal wrote “Mr. Bradbury invented the future; Mr. Unsworth invented the past.”
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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of how or why he came to be there. No sooner does he regain consciousness than a mysterious, spiky haired woman in leather bursts into his room with her gun blazing. She misses Langdon, but, sad to say, kills his doctor instantly. Once again, Langdon goes on the run, accompanied by the beautiful Sienna Brooks, who is also on his medical team. Bit by bit, she informs him of a plot by a mad geneticist, who will shortly release a virus upon the world, one that promises to curtail population growth just as the Black Plague used to do naturally. Clues left by the geneticist are excerpted from one of the most famous poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It’s up to Langdon to decipher them and save humanity from disaster. His quest will take them to Venice and Istanbul, where he’ll be required to search within the holiest shrines of the Christian and Muslim cultures.
OK, as usual, the exploits, close escapes, and intellectual feats of hero Langdon are over the top, incredibly so. But that’s what makes Brown’s series so much fun. With Inferno, Brown has tightened up his writing style, producing a novel with less unnecessary window dressing and more substance. The fate from which the madman is trying to save the world is a true one, which most realistic scientists agree will probably begin wreaking havoc very soon. Brown weaves in information about architecture, literature, medicine, genetics, and population growth while managing to keep the action speeding right along. And, darn it, Langdon’s such an appealing kind of guy. So pack away your common sense and literary pretensions, and enjoy another wild ride with Robert Langdon. Great literature? Nope. Great entertainment? You bet. And the movie is already in production.
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by Emily Dickinson
A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Nordic Summer Evening, Richard Bergh (public domain via Wikimedia)
Which solemnizes me.
A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth — an Azure — a perfume –
And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see –
Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle — shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me –
The wizard fingers never rest –
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed –
Still rears the East her amber Flag –
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red –
So looking on — the night — the morn
Conclude the wonder gay –
And I meet, coming thro’ the dews
Another summer’s Day!
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are few Elizabethan figures more infamous and mysterious than John Dee, the Virgin Queen’s personal astrologer. Author Phil Rickman imagines a young John Dee, and sends him to Glastonbury, reputed resting place of King Arthur, on a secret quest. Rickman ups the ante by making Dee’s cohort none other than Robert Dudley, the queen’s favorite suitor. It isn’t long before a kidnapping, a gruesome murder, and a blossoming love affair make this quest a perilous one.
Any novel set among the ruins of a famous abbey and Glastonbury Tor would promise intrigue, magic, and mystery, but throw in solid historical research, brilliantly drawn characters, skillful plotting and evocative period detail, and you’ve got a winner. Not since Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) have I encountered as dastardly a villain as the one who holds dominion here, and the touches of the paranormal, never over the top, add to the aura of eeriness. Phil Rickman never fails to deliver, and The Bones of Avalon is one of his best.
Recommended for fans of first rate historical fiction, first rate mystery, and first rate writing.
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by Emily Bronte
Tis moonlight, summer moonlight,
All soft and still and fair;
The solemn hour of midnight
Breathes sweet thoughts everywhere,
But most where trees are sending
Their breezy boughs on high,
Or stooping low are lending
A shelter from the sky.
And there in those wild bowers
A lovely form is laid;
Green grass and dew-steeped flowers
Wave gently round her head.
by Henry Van Dyke
When to the garden of untroubled thought
I came of late, and saw the open door,
And wished again to enter, and explore
The sweet, wild ways with stainless bloom in wrought,
Young Girl at a Garden Gate, by Mildred Butler
And bowers of innocence with beauty fraught,
It seemed some purer voice must speak before
I dared to tread that garden loved of yore,
That Eden lost unknown and found unsought.
Then just within the gate I saw a child, –
A stranger-child, yet to my heart most dear;
He held his hands to me, and softly smiled
With eyes that knew no shade of sin or fear:
“Come in,” he said, “and play awhile with me;”
“I am the little child you used to be.”