Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel

Title: The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane
Author:  Julia Nobel
Publication: Sourcebooks, hardcover, 2019
Genre: Children’s Fiction/School Story
Plot: When Emmy’s child-psychologist-expert mother gets an opportunity to host a reality show, she ships Emmy off to boarding school in England called Wellsworth, which has ornate buildings and a secret society with an ominous history.   Just before Emmy leaves Connecticut, she receives a mysterious letter that leads her to an ornate box that belonged to her father containing 12 ornate medallions.  Emmy is intimidated by her new school and obnoxious roommate but is befriended by classmates Jack and Lola.  Their suspicion that someone odd is going on at Wellsworth coincides with Emmy’s search for information about her father who disappeared when she was three.  Is it possible that the disappearance of Emmy’s father is connected to the mysteries at Wellsworth?

My Impressions: This is the first in a series by a debut author, and combines several popular topics: boarding school and mysteries.   Emmy is a shy but determined heroine, with a mother too dreadful to be believable.   Not only does Dr. Willick send Emmy away to boarding school in the middle of a semester but she forbids her to play soccer (football), although Emmy is talented and loves the sport (and it would be a good way to make friends).  Luckily, Emmy joins the team anyway, although I am surprised such a traditional school would not have the girls playing field hockey, lacrosse, or netball.

I can see the temptation for aspiring writers to create Harry Potter-like school stories against a backdrop of secrets/danger but it does not seem very original and I did not warm to Emmy or feel most of the characters were well developed.   Still, I think the younger generation would like this book and American girls of 10 or so would enjoy imagining themselves at a school that looks like a cathedral.  I always remember that my first job in publishing was answering letters from fans who wrote to Bantam Books asking where Sweet Valley High was so they could transfer!  I wondered why they couldn't find a better use for someone with an MBA but it was more fun than looking at spreadsheets.
Betty Buckley in Hello, Dolly (photo credit Julieta Cervantes, Washington Post)
Off the Blog: Great fun with my eldest niece tonight as we saw Betty Buckley in Hello, Dolly at the Opera House in Boston!

Source: Boston Public Library

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Set in Stone by Robert Goddard

Title: Set in Stone
Author: Robert Goddard
Publication: Corgi Books, Paperback, 2000 (1999)
Genre: Literary suspense
TBR Challenge: This is the fifth of twelve books I am determined to read by the end of the year. Thanks to Roof Beam Reader for suggesting that we focus on some of the books we own and haven’t made time to read.
Plot: Recovering from his wife’s unexpected death, Tony Sheridan goes to stay with his sister-in-law Lucy and her husband (his best friend), and becomes obsessed, as they are, with their new home in the country, Otherways. The house is strikingly designed as a circular stone house with a narrow moat but has a dark history that affects its current occupants. All three experience vivid and unnerving dreams, not only about each other but also about a murder committed there in 1939. Tony is attracted to Lucy, who reminds him so much of his wife, but leaves her to investigate the circumstances surrounding the old murder – believing it is the key to the house’s dark secrets.

My Impressions: Goddard is known for literary thrillers, usually involving a very complicated mystery with origins in the deep past, and is sometimes compared to Daphne du Maurier for his intricate plotting and storytelling. Every time you try to absorb the revelation of a secret he reveals another. Trying to keep up with his multi-layered plots can be exhausting and I am still not sure I completely understood the ending of this one or appreciated the supernatural elements.  If you read John Verney’s Calendar series in your youth, you are well prepared for this author!
Several publishers have got behind Goddard in the US but he has never become as popular here as in the UK, which is a pity, because there are a lot of commercial thrillers but not a lot of literary suspense and he does it very well. I have been hooked since finding one of his first books, In Pale Battalions, in Bantam’s International Department in my first week of publishing (he is still published by Corgi. Last year, when I visited Topping & Co. Booksellers in Ely, I was excited to learn they were hosting Goddard for a booksigning a week or so later. I was tempted to request a personally autographed copy of his newest book but felt it would have been more meaningful if secured in person.

Off the Blog: A most unfortunate collision between my oven and my beloved cake carrier has left my house smelling like melted plastic, with no one to blame but myself.

Source: Personal copy

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: From Life After Life to The Luckiest Girl

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month it’s a wild card – the chain begins with the book that ended our July reading, which means that my starting book is Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013).

I reviewed Life after Life last week.  It is an unusual novel told against the backdrop of two wars, World War I and World War II, and includes an attempted assassination on Hitler.   My first link is WWII.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (2015) combines several of my interests: historical fiction, WWII, and evacuation.   For those unfamiliar with this era, when the Germans began heavily bombing England, urban families and families on the coast were told to send their children to safety.   In the summer of 1939, with more than 3 million children removed from London and other cities in the first four days of evacuations alone.  Some went to relatives in England, the US, or Canada but most wound up with strangers, some welcoming, some not.  For heroine Ada, evacuation means escape and freedom, although there are many challenges ahead.   This is the kind of book that is so good I bought one copy for myself, one for my 11 year old niece for her birthday, and another for some lucky person in the future.

My second link is orphans or quasi-orphans being sent from London to the country, which brings me to a book I love dearly, Flambards by K. M. Peyton (1967).  Orphaned Christina is forced to go live with her Uncle Russell, and his sons, Mark and Will, at their home, Flambards, in the early 1900s. Mark and his father are obsessed with horses while Will is obsessed with machinery and aviation.  To her surprise, Christina becomes deeply attached to Flambards, although her relationship with these three strong willed men is unpredictable and stressful.   This is the first of four books and there was also a surprisingly good BBC adaptation.
My third link is aviation.  I found Flambards in my elementary school library about the same time I read A Girl Can Dream by Betty Cavanna (1948).   This is a book about a slightly awkward teen who admires the cool kids at school (especially one particular boy) but most of all she yearns to fly.   When she enters and wins a contest for flying lessons, it changes her life.  (I got in trouble for being in the school library reading this book when I was supposed to be in social studies with Mrs. Aucoin).

My fourth link is Concord, Massachusetts, which is where Betty Cavanna lived with her second husband.  Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1881) is a classic 19th century rags to riches story written by Margaret Sidney, who lived in the Wayside in Concord where Louisa May Alcott once resided.  The saintly Mrs. Pepper, unfortunately known as Mamsie, who lives with her five children in the Little Brown House, is the moral compass of this poor but happy family.  They have good times, despite their poverty, and eventually are given an opportunity to move to New York to a more affluent life.   I read this whole series at Pomroy House where I took sewing classes for years.  More on Rebecca Romroy another time!
My fifth link is nepotism.  Margaret Sidney’s books were published by her husband’s publishing company, D. Lothrop, and On to Oregon by Honoré Morrow (1926) (aka Seven Alone) was published by her husband, William Morrow.   However, their books merited attention, so I won’t hold it against them!   On to Oregon is the fictional version of the real life Sager family who left Missouri for Oregon in 1844 (Henry Sager was as restless as Charles Ingalls) but the parents died during the difficult journey, leaving their seven children orphans, although they are ultimately taken in by missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman.  I vividly remember my fourth grade teacher, Miss Sandra Barnes, reading it to the class and we were all enthralled.  Too bad my youthful thirst for research then inspired me to find a book on the Whitmans, only to learn they had been massacred!   There’s a lesson for you!   

The sixth link is Oregon.  Beverly Cleary grew up there, famously in Yamhill, but attended college and settled in California, the setting of my favorite of her books, The Luckiest Girl (1958).   For those who know Cleary best as the author of the Ramona and Henry Huggins books, this is a YA novel about a girl who spends a year in California with family friends and makes friends, gains confidence, and figures out who she wants to be.  Yes, there’s some romance, as Shelley falls for a handsome athlete, ignoring the charms of the smart journalist.   She’ll learn!  Shelley owns a raincoat with a black velvet collar and when I found such a raincoat at Filene’s Basement many years ago, I bought it at once (although mine is purple, not pink) and am still wearing it.

Now I am reading The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane (2019). We’ll see what the rest of August has in store!  

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Title: Life After Life 
Author:  Kate Atkinson
Publication: Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction
TBR Challenge:  This is the fourth book I have read in my self-selected 2019 Challenge, created by Roof Beam Reader.

Plot: Born in 1910, Ursula Todd is the third child in an English family who experiences every scenario possible in the first half of the 20th century, with a twist.   Ursula is doomed to live her life again and again, each version ending in unexpected death through a variety of sometimes (but not always) avoidable scenarios.   For example, in one episode, an obnoxious friend of her brother’s kisses her on her 16th birthday, leading to all sorts of disaster, including spousal abuse.  In other lives, Ursula sometimes has a strange sense of déjà vu, so the next time this guy tries to manhandle her she pushes back, thus avoiding that particular fate but, of course, creating another.  The entire book is about fate and how it is unavoidable in one form or another, all unpredictable.

My Impressions: I really Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books but found Life After Life somewhat disappointing, although it was acclaimed when published and I have been saving it for the right moment.   It contains all of Atkinson’s quirky understated humor and in-depth observation of people but Ursula spends so much time dying and starting over again that she did not seem very well developed as a character.   I enjoyed it but not as much as I had hoped.

The narrative carries the reader along so quickly there isn’t time to wonder what is going to happen next or sometimes to recall exactly what she should do differently to avoid dying - although it is annoying, every time one gets caught up in the story, to have it suddenly come to a violent stop, which I suppose is part of Atkinson’s goal – the other part being that if you avoid one fate, the others may be worse.   

Unlike Groundhog Day, there is no consistent learning curve, although Ursula’s propensity to occasionally anticipate bad things that happened in previous versions of her life and act upon it is, of course, baffling and unnerving to her mother, who drags her to a psychiatrist in an era when this was a stigma.   I suppose Ursula’s seeming precognition is why her mother dislikes her but that is unclear; the mother goes from charming to waspish without much explanation. I did like the relationship between Ursula and her sister Pamela, but overall I prefer Jackson Brodie.  I also prefer the English cover (above right) which shows the snow, which I forgot to mention, is always falling when Ursula is born.

Off the Blog: Today is the long-planned celebration at my library which is scheduled to close for a much needed $10.2 million renovation, but the Friends of the Library just learned it won’t actually shut until October.   Oh well, we’ve written speeches and solicited raffle prizes and ordered food (and rescheduled hair cut) so the show must go on!

Source: Personal copy

Saturday, July 27, 2019

A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner

Title: A Fall of Marigolds
Author: Susan Meissner
Publication: Penguin, trade paper, 2014
Genre: Fiction/Historical Fiction
TBR Challenge: This is the third book I have read from the 2019 Challenge, created by Roof Beam Reader.
Plot: In this novel, Meissner weaves together two tragedies, nearly 100 years apart yet connected by an unusual scarf of marigold-patterned Indian fabric. Taryn Michaels is a textile expert who lost her husband on 9/11 just as she was about to meet him at Windows on the World to tell him she was pregnant, while Clara Wood is a nurse who, back in 1911, witnessed the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Both women were traumatized by their experience and survived by devoting themselves to their work. Clara takes a job on Ellis Island, nursing immigrants not considered well enough to disembark immediately, and caring for a patient whose deceased wife owned the scarf. Taryn brings up her daughter quietly, while working at a fabric store on the Upper West Side. She tries to forget the events of the terrible day of World Trade Center attacks, including the client who consulted her about a rare scarf. Both women seem to be in a holding pattern, while friends and family want them to move on with their lives.

My Impressions: I am a big fan of books set in dual time lines and, fortunately for me, a number of authors have embraced this sub-genre. In my opinion, the most successful of these writers is Susanna Kearsley but in Secrets of a Charmed Life I was impressed by the way Susan Meissner weaves historical elements into her fiction. Several years ago, at a book signing in Rhode Island, Kearsley mentioned that it is difficult to make the two different time fames (usually one historical and one present day) equally compelling to the reader, which is interesting to contemplate, although the situation in this well-written book by Meissner was somewhat different. Here, I was impatient with both heroines’ prolonged melancholy, despite recognizing each had been through a tragic experience from which it would be hard to recover. And although it echoed my own feelings, I was annoyed by characters, particularly the doctor who works with Clara on Ellis Island, who pushes her to forget the tragedy she experienced, not realizing that recovery does not happen on a set time frame. While this story is meant to convey the possibility of hope and loving again, the overwhelming sense of desolation that permeates most of the book somewhat exhausted this reader.
Off the Blog: I am visiting my sister on Cape Cod for a few days, writing from a deck that radiates serenity despite the Marco Polo cries from nearby nephews and nieces.

Windows on the World:  My friend Shelia was asked to speak at a conference at Windows on the World the morning of 9/11 but she declined because of a business trip.  When her trip got canceled, she forgot to tell the organizers she was now available so witnessed the events of that day from her nearby office instead of being there.  We were supposed to meet for a drink that night and she had purchased a box of Scotchmallows for me, which she remembered to snatch as she fled from her office that morning amidst all the horror . . .

Source: Personal copy. Thank you to Ellen Edwards for recommending this author.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Withering-by-Sea and Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell

Title: Withering-by-Sea and Wormwood Mire
Author and Illustrator: Judith Rossell
Publication: Atheneum, hardcovers, 2016 and 2017
Genre: Middle grade historical fantasy
Plot: In Withering-by-Sea, we meet Stella Montgomery, an eleven-year-old orphan being brought up by three disagreeable aunts and their spiteful maid Ada in the Hotel Majestic, somewhere in Victorian England. Stella longs for adventure but the closest she has come is reading about the Amazon in the Atlas she cherishes. When a desperate visitor to the hotel gives her something to hide, Stella is plunged into danger, forcing her to flee from a magician who wants to harm her. In the process, Stella makes friends (courageous Gert, part of a dancing act, and Ben, the unwilling assistant to Professor Starke) and starts seeking the truth about her own background.

In sequel Wormwood Mire, the aunts have sent Stella away in disgrace to the old family estate, Wormwood Mire, to live with two unknown cousins and their governess. Despite the gloom of the mostly abandoned estate and meals consisting mostly of bread and jam, this seems an improvement in Stella’s situation. Strideforth and Hortense are friendly, and the eccentric governess is kind although preoccupied with her botany studies. Soon Stella begins to have flashbacks to her childhood, and remembers that she, her twin, and her mother once stayed at Wormwood Mire, but the villagers stare at her strangely and refuse to talk about it. The discovery of a secret room and the disappearance of a child are just some of the secrets that stand between Stella and her true identity.

My Impressions: Writing in the tradition of Eva Ibbotson and Joan Aiken, Australian author and illustrator Judith Rossell is a welcome addition to middle grade fantasy. Her illustrations have an Edward Gorey flavor that add a delicious gothic element to her stories. The two books were quite different: Withering-by-Sea is far more dramatic and frightening. The man who shared his secret with Stella is dead, and she is being pursued by an evil magician. Wormwood Mire is creepier – there is a sense of decay in the old house and fear of the creatures lurking in the lake; in addition, Stella is trying to decipher the tragedy of her childhood (which will take a third book).

Stella is an intrepid heroine, an orphan (✔) who likes to read (✔) unappreciated by her relatives (✔) ready for adventure (✔), capable of friendship (✔), brave yet vulnerable (✔). Some of my friends observed that Rossell has merely assembled some of the traditional elements of gothic fantasy and is not particularly original, but I think my ten-year-old self would have enjoyed these uncritically. While Rossell may not possess Ibbotson’s poignance or Aiken’s ability to create quirky characters, her books are entertaining and several of the characters are well portrayed and appealing: particularly, courageous Gert in the first book, and invention-loving Strideforth in the second. I especially appreciated A Garden of Lilies, the improving book given to Stella by her aunts, which is filled with aphorisms to intimidate any fun-loving child, such as:
Misfortune always comes to those/Who go to fairs and puppet shows.

Off the Blog: Tonight I attended a lovely party for the Boston-area Duke freshmen leaving for college in 5 weeks.  It was so nice to see these young people meeting each other for the first time.  I wondered if they were basketball fans and whether any lifelong friendships started tonight!   I only saw one alumnus I knew but it was still a pleasant evening.

Source: Library copies. Thanks to Betsy-Tacy listren Katie Watts for the recommendation. I hope Jon Anderson and his Atheneum cohorts publish the third book in the US soon!

Images copyright to the publisher

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

Title: The Travelers
Author: Chris Pavone
Publication: Broadway Books, trade paperback, 2017 (2016).
Genre: Suspense
TBR Challenge: This is the second book I have read from my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, sponsored by Roof Beam Reader. I need to accelerate or I won’t make my goal!
Plot: Will Rhodes is a travel writer for The Travelers, a magazine that sends him all over the world for stories about ex-patriates living in exotic locations. However, like most people in publishing, he and his wife, Chloe, are underpaid and trying to get by. They live in Brooklyn, where they have been trying to fix up a brownstone. After Will is tempted into a one night stand with a beautiful stranger, everything starts to go wrong for him. His secrets come between him and his wife, and between him and his boss. Suddenly, the exotic locations he used to enjoy turn into dangerous places where he doesn’t know if he is the hunter or the hunted. Can Will extract himself from what seems to be an international conspiracy before it destroys him?
Brooklyn brownstones
My Impressions: This is the third book I have read by Chris Pavone, and falls between the other two in appeal. The Accident, which I read in 2014, was about a mysterious manuscript that could provide fame and fortune – or possibly death – to those seeking to publish it, but I found the characters so unlikeable it was the publishing background that primarily motivated me to finish. The Expats is about Kate Moore, living in Luxembourg as an expat wife who is hiding a secret about her past. She also appears briefly in The Accident. I found her a convincing and entertaining character. Here, the pace is slow and it took me a long time to care much about Will Rhodes, who seemed to me to have asked for all the trouble that comes his way. Fortunately, the book accelerates once Will starts being chased around the world and the second half of the book takes place at quite impressive speed. It wound up being suspenseful and a good summer read.
Off the Blog: I baked delicious banana cake for my mother's birthday!  I wish you could come share the leftovers.

Source: Personal copy