A Stitch in Time

As an only child, Maria can have intelligent conversations with her parents and other adults, and can quietly and respectfully spend time by herself, but a summer vacation at a Victorian house by the sea when she is ten years old becomes the key to opening up not only new adventures but also her own possibilities.  In A Stitch in Time, British author Penelope Lively captures that magical time between childhood and young adulthood that offers child-like adventures and the promise of becoming grown up.

With careful attention to describing the old house and its surroundings, Lively creates the sense of being in the lovely British countryside.  Maria narrates through her thoughts and anxieties as she quietly converses with the cat.  When she meets her first real friend, Martin, she manages to emerge from her solitude to engage with his rowdy family of brothers and sisters, discovering her interest in fossils and maps, and changing from a frightened lonely girl to one who learns how to have fun.

Although the story proceeds slowly, episodes of strange sounds and visions that only Maria can experience – the sound of a barking dog, the creaking of an old swing – tease you into wondering if this is a ghost story.  Lively maintains the suspense with Harriet, a ten-year old girl who lived in the house over one hundred years before.  After finding the sampler with the swing and dog included in the art, that was finished by Harriet’s sister, Maria begins to imagine Harriet’s life and death at a young age.  Harriet seems to come to life within Maria when she swings, and, at times, Maria thinks she can see the other girl.   The ending includes a tense episode on a seaside cliff that solves the mystery but leaves the door open to interpretation.

A Stitch in Time is one of Penelope Lively’s older books targeted for a younger audience.  The pace is slow but calming.   The story is available as an audiobook, and it seems the perfect candidate for listening – for children or adults who need to remember the child within.

“…in a funny way we {adult and child} both go on being here forever, aged ten or eleven one summer, because we once were…”

Lively is a prolific writer with an elegant Old World style; winner of the Man Booker prize in 1987 for Moon Tiger, she has a new book I am looking forward to reading – this one for adults.

Chime – the real National Book Award Finalist

After the National Book Award committee’s very public mistake – identifying the wrong book as one of their five finalists – I wanted to read the book that almost missed out for a clerical error.

Fran Billingsley’s Chime is a fantasy with a teenage witch as the heroine. When not spouting Old World jargon, Briony produces intuitive gems that will ring true with teens struggling to go past childhood, into a new world of being grown-up. Briony carries heavy baggage in her attractive frame: her mother died in childbirth, her twin sister is mentally disabled, her father is emotionally distant, and her stepmother blamed her for everything – pouring guilt and fear into Briony’s susceptible mind before mysteriously dying of arsenic poisoning.

When handsome and personable Eldric arrives from London, teen romance and first love seem inevitable. Eldric’s father is the engineer assigned to drain the swamp – where most of Briony’s otherworldly creatures live. Draining the swamp will also change the town, not a popular concept with the citizenry who would prefer not to participate in the Industrial Revolution.

If the power of anger and wishing evil can cause bad consequences, Briony may be a witch, as she believes – thanks to her stepmother’s cruel indoctrination. Billingsley cleverly creates a feisty character that could influence the action with or without supernatural powers, and she sprinkles the story with imaginative creatures that only Briony can see and communicate with.

Billingsley sets the action at a time when women with red hair are hanged for being witches and uses rural English period language that is difficult to follow at first. The plot sometimes get lost in the translation. But, the story has a universal appeal with a satisfying ending, and a main character worth knowing. Chime deserves it nomination.