A Treat At the Sign of the Sugared Plum

At the Sign of the Sugared Plum by Mary Hooper is a story of a young woman, Hannah, in an unusual setting: London in the time of the plague. She comes from her home in the country to London, to work with her sister Sarah in her confectionery shop. Unfortunately, Hannah arrives in London just as reports are starting to surface about people becoming ill and dying of the plague. The story weaves in friendships with a girl from Hannah’s hometown, Abigail, as well as a new friend, Tom, who works for the local apothecary. The story balances three elements, development of Hannah as the protagonist, descriptions of working in the confectionery  and descriptions of the implications of the emergence of the plague among the people of London. The story is well told, with only one serious shortcoming for me: the ending seemed rather abrupt and unfinished. I was both surprised and disappointed when I turned the page and realized I had come unexpectedly to the end of the story.

When I first began this review I had intended to give it a warm but not outstanding review. My opinion has been changed for the better based on a few factors. First, I learned that the author writes for young adults. One of my issues was that the writing was straightforward and simple; when I learned that this was a book for young adults, the level of sophistication and complexity made sense. Second, the author included a section “Notes on London’s Plague, 1665” that provided additional context and richness for the circumstances she had captured in the story. Third, the author included a glossary of terms in the book. I always enjoy learning new words well used in a book, and this had several including milch-ass (donkey or ass kept to provide fresh milk) and marchpane (variant of marzipan). There were a few additional words that I might have looked for there: gabbled, purples (in the context of disease, i.e. “spotted fever and purples”), lychgate (doorway into a churchyard) – but these are terms that might be more common to a contemporary reader in the UK. The final factor that caused me to feel more kindly towards this book: the author includes recipes for some of the treats sold in the shop! It was a delightful surprise to find recipes for the sugared plum, sugared orange peel, candied angelica, marchpane fruits, and frosted rose petals that featured so prominently in Ms. Hooper’s story.

I recommend this book, particularly for young adult readers, and for those interested in a glimpse into the difficulties of life lived during the time of the Black Death.

“The Peculiars” by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Thank you, Maureen Doyle McQuerry, for the three gifts you have given a reader of The Peculiars: an interesting story well told; new, fun words to look up or words used in ways I’m not used to using them; and characters for whom I developed such affection that it made me a little wistful to reach the end of the story.

First, I was drawn into Lena’s adventure right off and was eager to return to see it through whenever I would have to set aside the book. The storyline skirted artfully through what is normal and what is not; through surprises and disappointments; and through failings of the characters and their redemption.  With two of McQuerry’s principal characters at the threshold of adulthood, the conflicts and challenges were universal (that is, as universal as they can be in a steam punk fantasy world) and appropriate for young adult readers.

Second, as for the words, the first one that made me stop and sound it out while enjoying it was – goblinishness.  Meeting it was like taking a bite of a scrumptious dessert in many layers – you know what it is, you know you like it, but it takes a while to taste and get its feel in your mouth. And then there were more words that helped stitch the story to its setting, words like bandylegged, wimple, spumy, riprap, and mullioned. How could I not know these words? How is it they aren’t already friends? Even better than meeting unfamiliar words was discovering McQuerry’s turns of phrase that suited her scenes so well: “contentment was not a familiar companion,” and “Margaret’s words were slippery,” and ”a reverberation of fear”. Lovely, just lovely.

Third and finally, having been drawn in nearly half way through and then unable to extract myself to attend to other should-have-been-more-pressing chores, I finished the story, flipped through to the last page, and read the last words.  While saying a mental farewell to Lena and Jimson and the others, I couldn’t help but wonder if McQuerry has finished the sequel yet, and when would I be able to rejoin the friends and their adventure?