Snow and Winter Reads, Part II

Since I wrote about my first batch of wintry reads in early February, it’s turned much more spring-like here in southern England, with blue skies and the daffodils blooming. Still, temperatures continue chilly and some nights I’ve had trouble falling asleep because of the wind tearing down the street and flapping the bin lids. With meteorological spring due to start tomorrow, I’m bidding farewell to winter with a few more snow-covered reads: a children’s classic, a modern classic from the 1990s, and an implausible but enjoyably rollicking thriller.

 

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1962)

Aiken’s books were not part of my childhood, but I was vaguely aware of this first book in a long series when I plucked it from a neighbor’s giveaway pile. The snowy scene on the cover and described in the first two paragraphs drew me in and the story, a Victorian-set fantasy with notes of Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre, soon did, too. In this alternative version of the 1830s, Britain already had an extensive railway network and wolves regularly used the Channel Tunnel (which did not actually open until 1994) to escape the Continent’s brutal winters for somewhat milder climes.

One winter, the orphaned Sylvia travels by train from London to the north of England to live with her cousin Bonnie and her parents, Sir Willoughby and Lady Green. But dodgy things are afoot at Willoughby Chase: Miss Slighcarp, a distant cousin, has been hired as the girls’ governess but, just as soon as Bonnie’s parents leave on a long trip, she sets about taking over the house. Bonnie and Sylvia, exiled to a workhouse, rely on a secret network of friends and servants to keep them safe and get them home via an intrepid journey.

Miss Slighcarp is just one of the novel’s Dickensian villains – balanced out by some equally Dickensian urchins and helpful adults, all of them with hearts of gold. There’s something perversely cozy about the plight of an orphan in children’s books: the characters call to the lonely child in all of us, and we rejoice to see how ingenuity and luck come together to defeat wickedness. There are charming passages here in which familiar smells and favorite foods offer comfort. I especially loved their friend Simon’s cave and his little rituals. This would make a perfect stepping stone from Roald Dahl to one of the actual Victorian classics.

My only quibble with the book overall would be that the wolves seem unnecessary: they only truly appear once, for a climactic scene during the train ride, and the rest of the time are just a background menace. From fairy tales onwards, wolves have gotten a bad rap, and we don’t need to perpetuate myths about how dangerous they are to humans.

 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (1994)

My first 5-star read of the year! It certainly took a while, but I’m now on a roll with a bunch of 4.5- and 5-star ratings bunching together. I remember the buzz surrounding this novel, mostly because of the Ethan Hawke film version that came out when I was a teenager. Even though I didn’t see it, I was aware of it, as I was of other literary fiction that got turned into Oscar-worthy films at about that time, like The Shipping News and House of Sand and Fog.

The novel is set in 1954 on San Piedro, an island of 5,000 off the coast of Washington state. A decade on from the war, the community’s chickens come home to roost when a Japanese American man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is charged with murdering a fellow fisherman, Carl Heine. The men had been engaged in a dispute over some land – seven acres of strawberry fields that were seized from the Miyamoto family when, like the rest of the country’s Japanese population, they were rounded up in internment camps. Meanwhile, Ishmael Chambers, who runs the local newspaper and lost an arm in the war, stumbles on a piece of evidence that might turn the case around. Still in love with Hatsue, now Kabuo’s wife but once his teenage obsession, he is torn between winning her back and wanting to do what’s right.

Guterson alternates between trial scenes and flashbacks to war service or stolen afternoons Ishmael and Hatsue spent kissing in the shelter of massive cedar trees. The mystery element held me completely gripped – readers are just as in the dark as the jurors until very close to the end – but this is mostly a powerful picture of the lasting effects of racism. All the characters are well drawn, even minor ones like elderly defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. Even though I only read 10 or 15 pages at a sitting over the course of a month, every time I picked up the book I was instantly immersed in the atmosphere, whether it was a warm courtroom with a snowstorm swirling outside or a troop ship entering the Pacific Theater. This has the epic feel of a doorstopper, though it’s only 400 pages. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton (2015)

Ten-year-old Ruby and her mother Yasmin have arrived in Alaska to visit Ruby’s dad, Matt, who makes nature documentaries. When they arrive, police inform them that the town where he was living has been destroyed by fire and he is presumed dead. But Yasmin won’t believe it and they set out on a 500-mile journey north to find her husband, first hitching a ride with a trucker and then going it alone in a stolen vehicle. All the time, with the weather increasingly brutal, they’re aware of someone following them – someone with malicious intent.

The narration is in short segments, alternating between Ruby’s first person and a third-person account from Yasmin’s point-of-view. There are many interesting elements here: Ruby is deaf so communicates via a combination of sign language, voice recognition software, blogs and social media, and describes things synesthetically; Yasmin is a physicist drawing metaphors to scientific concepts, but can’t explain her own mystical certainty that Matt is still alive; and there is an environmentalist message behind the fracking cover-up plot.

But starting with the first page, there are so many improbabilities in play, from a 10-year-old having a Twitter account to Yasmin managing to drive a big rig on ice roads in a foreign country. I knew from reviewing Three Hours last year that Lupton writes addictive thrillers. This one was perfectly readable, but not as good. It’s our book club read for early March, and I expect I won’t be the only one to find it hardly believable.

 

Plus a skim:

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)

This was my first time trying the late Lopez. It was supposed to be a buddy read with my husband because we ended up with two free copies, but he raced ahead while I limped along just a few pages at a time before admitting defeat and skimming to the end (it was the 20 pages on musk oxen that really did me in). For me, the reading experience was most akin to The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen in that both are about a literal journey in an extreme environment, yet what stands out are the philosophical musings. Where Matthiessen was animated by Buddhist ideas about selfhood and loss, Lopez takes the secular long view of human life and responsibility in light of potential extinction. The epilogue, in particular, is endlessly quotable. It’s depressing to encounter books like this now, though: 30+ years ago, literary nature writers were issuing clarion calls about climate disaster, and we didn’t listen.

Some favorite passages:

“Whenever I met a collared lemming on a summer day and took its stare I would think: Here is a tough animal. Here is a valuable life. … If it could tell me of its will to survive, would I think of biochemistry, or would I think of the analogous human desire? If it could speak of the time since the retreat of the ice, would I have the patience to listen?”

“The cold view to take of our future is that we are therefore headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws. A more productive, certainly more engaging view, is that we have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.”

“One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way. The struggle to do this is a struggle because an adult sensibility must find some way to include all the dark threads of life. A way to do this is to pay attention to what occurs in a land not touched by human schemes, where an original order prevails.”

 

Did you read anything particularly wintry this year, or are you and your book stack moving on to spring already?

37 responses

  1. I remember Snow Falling on Cedars was our very first read in my very first Book Group, maybe 20 years ago now. It was a good choice, and provoked good discussion. Don’t know the others though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It would indeed make a good book group read (though try getting my group to read 400 pages of fairly dense type…).

      I wondered if you would know the Aiken series yourself or from your kids. I don’t have a sense of how well known they are or if they’re still read. It was part of a Vintage Classics series a neighbour was giving away.

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      1. They are still read, still well known. I don’t quite know how this classic slipped away from us

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  2. The Guterson is one I’d love to re-read, having read it when it first came out over 20 yrs ago.

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    1. I will certainly be hanging on to it to reread. I also nabbed a free copy from a neighbour for my husband to read, too.

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  3. I’ve read one Lupton, which I quite enjoyed but might try another one if I return to her!

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    1. Sister is the one I’ve heard most about. I will read that one, too, I think. I don’t often pick up a thriller but hers are very readable and have interesting themes.

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      1. That’s the one I read! I quite enjoyed it.

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  4. I love Joan Aiken’s alternative history novels, devoured them as a child and like re-reading them now! I don’t think I’ve read anything particularly wintry and keep catching the baleful gaze of the light Christmas novels I didn’t get to last December!

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    1. Books are patient; they’ll wait for you until this December! How do the rest of the Aiken novels compare to this one? I’ve assumed I wouldn’t read any more.

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      1. Oh they are all excellent. And the short stories.

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  5. I love Joan Aiken and find her quite Christmassy ever since my family read Midnight Is a Place aloud one year! I read some of the alt-history novels: The Cuckoo Tree, Black Hearts in Battersea, Dido and Pa, and The Stolen Lake, in particular, though Fantastic Fiction informs me there are loads more I didn’t know about!

    Definitely keen on Lopez, colleagues of mine love him.

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    1. According to Goodreads, The Wolves Chronicles is 11 books long! I never would have guessed this was the first in a long series.

      I have another Lopez on the go now, Crossing Open Ground. This is in short essays and much more digestible.

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      1. I don’t think they’re all very tightly interconnected – the books featuring Dido Twite are all related but I don’t think her adventures have any connection, plotwise, to The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Perhaps it’s just that they all take place in the alt-England of James III!

        His most recent book, Horizon, I meant to give my brother as his Christmas present (but the parcel bounced back – so he’ll have to wait!) He seems a good author for people keen on the connections between travel, nature and human society, though.

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      2. I think he had a big impact on the current crop of nature and travel writers. I’m behind the curve to only be experiencing him now.

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  6. The Quality of Silence is the only Lupton I’ve actually enjoyed 🙂 I find all her thrillers unbelievable (both Sister and Afterwards have some totally improbable medical scenarios, which bothers me a lot more) but I liked the originality of The Quality of Silence.

    I never got on with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase as a child, but remember really liking some others by Aiken, especially The Stolen Lake.

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    1. The Quality of Silence was good fun most of the way through, but I think it’ll get torn apart at book club on Thursday 😉

      The Stolen Lake sounds like a popular one. I’ll have a look!

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      1. I guess it depends what you find implausible. I kind of read the driving sequence as ’99 out of 100 times she would have died, this is the one time she didn’t’ which I can get on board with – other kinds of implausibility bother me more. I can see that it wouldn’t go down well as a book group read though…

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      2. It’s possible we should have gone with Sister instead, but I was swayed by the wintry setting.

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  7. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was on the school syllabus here in Australia when I was at primary school in the 1990s. I loved it then and still have my treasured and battered old copy (a Puffin edition printed in 1968) as well as a few other Joan Aiken books awaiting a reread. The Arabel and Mortimer series, featuring a girl and her pet raven, is a hoot!

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    1. How interesting! A pet raven is very appealing.

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  8. Hah! You must’ve subconsciously planned your review of the Aiken for the eve of 1st March: this is the birthday of another urchin, Dido Twite, who features in most of the remaining books following The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the Wolves Chronicles, a series I’ve been reviewing and discussing for the last half decade! Your points about wolves are spot on, Beck, but my suspicion is that the sequence is as much about (if not more about) the wolfish villains, with the roaming lupine packs only making occasional appearances.

    I’ve read several books this winter where the season has a walk-on part, but nothing as specific as your other titles. Anyway, today’s the meteorological beginning of spring so I shall banish all Winter’s cares! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love hearing how beloved the series is among adults.

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  9. I saw the film of Snow Falling on Cedars recently. It’s a wonderful film – highly recommended.

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    1. I would love to see it.

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  10. Alyson Woodhouse | Reply

    I loved the Wolves of Willoughby Chase as a child, but never got round to reading the rest of the series. It’s never too late I suppose.

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    1. True! I’m not sure the rest of the series is drawing me now, but maybe another time.

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  11. It’s been ages since I read Snow Falling on Cedars, but I’ve never forgotten that gorgeous setting Guterson describes!

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    1. I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, but I felt I could imagine it while reading the book.

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  12. How I loved Snow Falling on Cedars. It’s been so long now since I read it I bet I could reread it and love it just as much. It’s tempting!

    I read Joan Aiken’s short stories when I was young. I loved the cover, because it had a rainbow on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see it being a rewarding one to reread. I can’t believe it took me this long to read it for the first time!

      Ah, interesting to hear that she is known in North America as well. I somehow never came across her.

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      1. I have no idea how popular she was here, but I remember that one book. My mom might have been more likely to actively seek out books for us than other moms…

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  13. […] instead. A wintry novel I recently loved was Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (review here), which is doubly appropriate for this chain because I noticed the pretty rare word […]

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  14. You know that I love Aiken’s Wolves; it’s probably the childhood classic that I’ve reread most often as an adult (partly for loving it, but also because many of my other childhood faves are longer and not wintry). And though I agree with you about the abundance of anti-wolf (and anti-rat, for that matter) stories, I think that Aiken is intending us to notice that what we believe to be a threat OUTSIDE of the family home is nothing compared to what dangers lurk INSIDE. The other books all take place in the same world (Calmgrove’s posts are amazing…definitely worth checking out, especially if you read others in the series). Was your family into Jeopardy when you were growing up? Apparently Alex Trebek’s favourite animal was a musk-ox. Now, see, didn’t you need to know that. Y’know…in case you’re ever on Jeopardy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sure, but even that cover — why try to scare children, and why make wolves even the lesser baddies? I don’t think I’d give a child the book nowadays.

      Oh yes, I loved Jeopardy as a teen but lost touch with it after that. Did you read his memoir? Is that how you know that bit of trivia? A former book blogger you might remember, Carolyn Oliver of Rosemary and Reading Glasses, was on Jeopardy just a year or two ago, while Trebek was still the host.

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      1. I doubt most of today’s young readers would be interested in Aiken anyhow but, if they were, a care-giver could discuss all of those issues along the way, just as so many of the attitudes and creative decisions in books, older and newer alike, are worth discussing.

        That’s cool, I do remember her and didn’t know that she’d been on the show! I haven’t read his memoir but it would probably be interesting; I knew the muskox thing from a random comment he made during a show and it was such an unusual choice that it’s lodged in my brain.

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  15. […] of Sackville’s research sources was Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, a work I recently skimmed for a winter post. Two passages that stood out to me apply equally well to Rapp’s […]

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