A Candle in Her Room

I'm so pleased to have picked up A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur (Atheneum, 1966) at the book sale, despite (or perhaps because of) its dated cover. It's just the sort of book I would have been enraptured by as an eleven-year-old, one in which three generations of young women living in Pembrokeshire, Wales are haunted by a wooden doll. Even now I read it in a similarly rapt state on a rainy Saturday, and felt closer to my eleven-year-old self than I have in a long time!

I'm also pleased to have discovered the work of Ruth M. Arthur, who wrote a whole list of Gothic novels for girls in the 1960s and 70s, none of which I had previously read. How could that be? Anyway, A Candle in Her Room was the first of those, and introduces a lot of the conventions that Arthur seems to have returned to again and again: a female first person narrator; an evocative setting to which the narrator moves; a multi-generational (or parallel historical) plot; and an element of fantasy or magic, usually involving a talisman of some sort.

A Candle in Her Room actually has three narrators (they all sound remarkably alike). The first section is narrated by Melissa, whose family moves from London to the Old Court in Pembrokeshire sometime before WWI. Melissa has two younger sisters, Judith and Briony, and while it's Briony who finds the wooden doll, Judith--the artistic, sophisticated sister--is the one who becomes almost possessed by it. After Melissa falls off a cliff and is confined to a wheelchair, Judith runs off with Melissa's boyfriend Carew and the two of them are married in London.

Subsequent sections are narrated by Dilys, Judith and Carew's daughter; Melissa again, as she searches for Dilys's child following WWII; and Nina, who comes to live with Melissa at the Old Court. Dido, the wooden doll (her name is carved into her back) is a mysterious, malignant presence throughout: her origins are never explained, and ultimately Nina must destroy her and her hold on the family in a terrific bonfire (as seen on the cover).

While the plot of A Candle in Her Room is often melodramatic (I'm thinking of poor Dilys in particular), the narration of events is somewhat removed from the experience of them. There is a lot of matter-of-fact telling. Intentional or not, I think this tension only heightens the overall feeling of foreboding that makes this such a creepy book. 

Now I'm actively seeking out some of Arthur's other books, namely Dragon Summer (1963), Requiem for a Princess (1967), and The Saracen Lamp (1970). And if there are any Arthur fans out there, your recommendations are most welcome! In the meantime, it's nice to add an author to my most-wanted list for the next book sale.

[Margery Gill's distinctive pen-and-ink illustrations for A Candle in Her Room (she illustrated many of Arthur's other books as well) do a lot to enliven the text. This one is of Melissa examining Dido as Briony looks on.]

2014 Cybils Reading Challenge

One of my favorite things about New Year's Day is the announcement of the Cybils shortlists. In the past, after being on a first round panel in the fall, I've set myself a Cybils Reading Challenge of one new-to-me book in each of the other categories before the winners are announced on February 14. It hasn't caught on anywhere else, though, and this year I am abandoning it in favor of reading all of the shortlisted books in one category (my favorite): Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction.

I definitely missed being on the first round panel (I had other book award commitments and couldn't apply), but I like the list this year's panelists came up with--especially Jinx by Sage Blackwood (HarperCollins, 2013), which exemplifies the qualities of literary merit and kid appeal that the Cybils recognize. I read Jinx early last year (maybe even late the year before), so I might reread it now and then treat myself to the sequel, Jinx's Magic (Katherine Tegen Books, 2014), which comes out on Tuesday.

Anyone else want to try this year's version of the Cybils Reading Challenge? Here's the complete Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction shortlist:

Where would you start?

Books I Want: The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

The publisher's description of the 1962 Dutch children's classic The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, available now for the first time in English (translated by Laura Watkinson; Pushkin Press, 2013), is practically irresistible: 

It is the dead of night. Sixteen-year-old Tiuri must spend hours locked in a chapel in silent contemplation if he is to be knighted the next day. But, as he waits by the light of a flickering candle, he hears a knock at the door and a voice desperately asking for help. A secret letter must be delivered to King Unauwen across the Great Mountains – a letter upon which the fate of the entire kingdom depends.

[Me.] Now that's an evocative premise. Tiuri must open the door, because that's what a knight would do--but then he won't be knighted, so he may as well deliver the letter....

Tiuri’s journey will take him through dark, menacing forests, across treacherous rivers, to sinister castles and strange cities. He will encounter enemies who would kill to get the letter, but also the best of friends in the most unexpected places. He must trust no one. He must keep his true identity secret. Above all, he must never reveal what is in the letter…

[Me again.] What is in the letter? I must know. Thank goodness for Book Depository.

[Here's a review in the Irish Times comparing The Letter to the King to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, 11/3/2013].