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REVIEW:  Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

REVIEW: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

“Barbara Buncle is in a bind. Times are harsh, and Barbara’s bank account has seen better days. Stumped for ideas, Barbara draws inspiration from fellow residents of her quaint English village, writing a revealing novel that features the townsfolk as characters. The smashing bestseller is published under the pseudonym John Smith, which is a good thing because villagers recognize the truth. But what really turns her world around is when events in real life start mimicking events in the book. Funny, charming, and insightful, this novel reveals what happens when people see themselves through someone else’s eyes.”

Dear Readers,

It is the new cover for this book that caught my eye at Netgalley and lured me into reading the description. Then I realized that it had been republished by Persephone Books (who brought us “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”). Now Sourcebooks is making it available. Based on my response to “Miss Buncle’s Book” I have my fingers crossed that we’ll get access to more of D.E. Stevenson’s works. This is a lovely, sweet, gentle book that is at times funny, charming and then deliciously wicked. The humor is subtle and all the better for it. More a sly wink and a nod and a delighted chuckle though some bits are LOL funny. Stevenson uses human nature at its best, or worst, to engineer the comic bits but it is only ever truly skewering to the puffed up people who think more highly of themselves than they ought to. Only the ones who make themselves ridiculous end up losing out here.

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. StevensonHer publisher’s change of the book title to “Disturber of the Peace” certainly fits the contents and how it impacts the lives and loves of the people of Silverstream. It even changes Barbara in a fairy tale way – she emerges from her cocoon a little more confident, a little more smartly dressed, a little more … more. Barbara never sets out to change people – unlike Heyer’s heroine Sophie – but she has an unerring eye and naturally picks up on little clues that point the way to probably outcomes as in the romance between Dorothea Bold and Col. Weatherstone. But she isn’t totally perspicacious in that she missed Sally and Ernest’s romance and the ridicule heaped on Mr. Bulmer that got him to sit up and notice how awful his home was due to his actions which then caused him to change.

It’s funny but also a little sad that no one, not even her closest friends and acquaintances ever imagine that Barbara could be the one behind this pointed book. It’s a lesson to us all not to overlook people merely because they don’t wear brilliant plumage or are a bit shy in public. People have hidden depths and Barbara hid hers well in her shabby clothing even as she avidly soaked up details like a sponge for her writing.

At times I’m not exactly sure about Barbara. She’s totally honest – something that amazes her publisher Mr. Abbot – which helps in her writing but also fairly naive. Even he wonders if she’s too sly for words or just hopelessly innocent. She does get wiser as a result of the effects the book has on the people around her, which shows in the second book she writes, but she also loses a touch of the openness and innocence that made her such a nice person. She’s a little toughened now, a hint harder. It will be interesting to see how she changes in the second book of this series. Though I love that Barbara is like a moth coming out (no, she’s not quite a butterfly), that she grows as a more confident person and that she finds love (though a restrained sort that will probably have her calling her husband Mr for a while) I’m slightly disappointed that said man who loves and admires her as she is, is happy she’s not quite as smart as he. I do like his way of proposing – very novel, if you’ll pardon my pun.

I was struck by how the publishing industry and publishers worked then vs now. Not too much difference actually. Mr. Abbot thinks that the public are generally like sheep in their reading – they follow the crowd and often need for things to be highlighted for them in order to “get it.” Abbot is also crafty in how he manipulates Barbara. Not meanly but in a way that initially puts his business first as he tries to get her to write and then keep her focus on a second novel – since the first is such a bestseller

In her novel, Barbara is kindest to the kind people of Silverstream and the two I enjoyed the most are Dr. Walker and his wife Sarah. Down to earth, unflappable and quietly but deeply in love. Sarah is also one smart cookie who immediately cottons on to the fact that the book is about her village and the people there – though even she can’t see beyond her own prejudices to believe that Barbara wrote it. Dr. Walker is a dear too, and so devoted to his intelligent wife – a woman of whose intelligence he is fully aware.

“Miss Buncle’s Book” also shines a spotlight on a now gone preWWII era when even middle class people had at least one – if not three – domestics in service, rose late in the morning to breakfast in bed, had tea served with a silver service, dressed for dinner, wrote copious letters and notes and had the Daimler brought around when they wanted to go out. The social classes were more strictly separated and servants still felt they were part of the household family and were willing to put up with their employers’ foibles. Though they can and did make some pointed comments about their “betters.”

I enjoy the little aspects of a book which strictly set it in one place and time. Here I learned about Marie biscuits and Benger. It also shows how specific social status was then – Mrs. Featherston Hogg commands people to her lousy At Homes – despite the undrinkable tea and awful tea sandwiches – merely because of her status. How? No one is quite sure but the situation is almost unquestioned. It also shows the less salubrious aspects of the era in that women were sheltered/stifled – note Sally’s and Miss King’s educations and how Mr. Bulmer tyrannizes his family. Lots of “there, there, let the man take care of you” patronage.

If you like “Miss Pettigrew” or gentle books about bygone times which were actually written in those times and which take their time to set up the action, then this might be for you. Watch as Barbara Buncle blossoms and finds within herself the strength that’s always been there, just waiting for its chance. B+

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REVIEW:  Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

REVIEW: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Dear Ms. Wein,

I had not heard of your book before one of our posters mentioned it in glowing terms. In a way that managed to catch my attention yet not sound like fawning praise, she described it and urged people to try it. I bought it but then set it aside as I had just finished reading another book featuring Nazis and felt I could use a break. I knew ahead of time that not everything is as it seems but I deliberately didn’t read any other reviews or details about the plot. This turned out to be a wise decision as the full impact of the book could hit me as I read it. And hit me it did.

I won’t attempt a run down on the plot so as not to inadvertently give anything away. Instead I’ll just steal this from Amazon:

“Oct. 11th, 1943—A British spy plane crashes in Nazi-occupied France. Its pilot and passenger are best friends. One of the girls has a chance at survival. The other has lost the game before it’s barely begun.

When “Verity” is arrested by the Gestapo, she’s sure she doesn’t stand a chance. As a secret agent captured in enemy territory, she’s living a spy’s worst nightmare. Her Nazi interrogators give her a simple choice: reveal her mission or face a grisly execution.

As she intricately weaves her confession, Verity uncovers her past, how she became friends with the pilot Maddie, and why she left Maddie in the wrecked fuselage of their plane. On each new scrap of paper, Verity battles for her life, confronting her views on courage and failure and her desperate hope to make it home. But will trading her secrets be enough to save her from the enemy?”

code name verity elizabeth weinIn your (love the “chapter” headers used in the book) Author’s Debriefing, you mention that it pains you to admit that [Verity] and Maddie never existed but are only products of your imagination. I hate it too because these are two unforgettable characters. They’re so real. They’re multi-dimensional, richly textured and so damn real. If I’m pressed to mention a flaw it would be that Maddie’s speech doesn’t sound very Manchestarian (is that the right adjective?). But beyond that and a few small niggles about the mission and some people in Ormaie…..honestly, I couldn’t come up with much more. Maybe tomorrow after I’ve come down from the emotional rush of the book but not right now.

This is a book that merits keeping on with it. At first I wasn’t too sure about a book of one character narrating the whole story and that character seemingly a weak one at that. After all, she’s the protagonist. She’s supposed to be invulnerable to anything the Gestapo throws at her, right? She’s also not even narrating in first person but rather writing about herself in third person in broken intervals mixed with a few instances of what was going on in between her treasonous confessions. Could this really be sustained for the entire book and did I want to stick it out? I needn’t have worried because pretty soon I was as caught up in what she’d write next as the Germans appeared to be. I was also deathly afraid for her even as I was in awe of her sang froid and black humor. It was like watching someone literally laugh in the face of death then spit in its eye.

Knowing a character is in the hands of the Gestapo who want information from her and is also close enough to an interrogation room to hear how they attempt to get details from other prisoners pretty much puts the kibosh on this being a feel good book. Still I’d only rate it about a 6.5 on the squeam-o-meter. I think you made the right choice in that most of what happened is mentioned obliquely in past tense or merely hinted at thus leaving the reader free to mentally fill in the blanks – or not – as wanted. There’s no way to get around the fact that torture occurs in the story, to Verity as well as to others, but the way you handle it is enough for the reality to be understood without making it too much for readers to stomach.

I wavered back and forth, trying to guess how the book would end. Was there actually a chance for Verity to make it out alive? Perhaps she deliberately got herself caught in order to get inside the prison? Maybe she had a plan up her sleeve that would be every bit as resourceful as she’d shown herself to be throughout the story. After all, surviving for 6 weeks in a Gestapo prison was no mean feat. The resolution of her imprisonment didn’t completely take me by surprise. But it still hit me like a hammer. I felt drained and disbelieving and yet totally understanding of the way it comes about and the why behind it. As with another character, it would also have filled me with a white hot hatred and need for revenge. Which is neatly accomplished by seeing that Verity’s original mission is carried out.

“Code Name Verity” is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. A good book is one I enjoy as I’m reading it. A great book is one that will stick with me and, in ways, haunt me. This is a great book. A-