Thursday, December 30, 2010

More Betsy-Tacy Ornament Exchange

My older nieces always participate in the Betsy-Tacy ornament exchange with me, and the 11 year old wanted to share a picture of the replica of Miss Bangeter she received to adorn her Christmas tree:Miss Bangeter is the "tall, erect, and queenly" principal of Deep Valley High, originally from Boston, so a very suitable choice for an ornament to my family!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Little Con

Some of you know that my father's new book, Count Them One By One, is dedicated to me! It is not that I am his favorite child, she said modestly, but rather that when he moved to Washington DC to work for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department under John Doar, there were just three of us (above). One sister was born in DC while we were there, and the two younger siblings after we moved back to Boston.

Betsy-Tacy Annual Ornament Exchange

Every year for the past 13 years the Betsy-Tacy listserv has done an ornament exchange to commemorate the famous shopping expedition made by Betsy, Tacy and Tib in Chapter 10 of Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown. First organized by Elizabeth K and then taken over by energetic head elf Betsy Sundquist as a sort of Secret Santa, it is an event that is anticipated with great pleasure by Betsy-Tacy fans. The idea is to send an ornament that is somehow tied into a BT event or character. Some years I have very clever ideas and some I can barely get my sadly ordinary ornament mailed in time to be received by Christmas. For several years, I have included my nieces in the preparation. Although they have not read *all* the books, they were very familiar with Betsy and Tacy from an early age and have enjoyed choosing ornaments and composing notes to their recipients.

This year my ornament sender was incredibly creative! My package was addressed to Emily Webster, the heroine of Emily of Deep Valley, who comes to terms with missing out on a traditional college education when she becomes involved in Deep Valley activities as an adult. Among other things, she befriends the Syrian community, which begins when two boys, Kalil and Yusef, offer to sell her frogs' legs. When Emily realizes that these lively outgoing boys are having a hard time with their American-born classmates, she is determined to help them make friends with children their own age. When she visits their family, she is overwhelmed by the lavish hospitality.

My ornament package, which arrived most appropriately on Christmas Eve, actually included four small glass bowls full of the delicacies offered to Emily by the Syrian families: raisins, dates, nuts, and chocolate beans: Under these carefully wrapped glass bowls (which we unwrapped and immediately sampled) were three beautiful nested boxes (both my mother and I love little boxes so I can't wait to use these). My family watched with interest as each layer was revealed - my nieces and I often open our ornaments together but my parents had never participated in this holiday ritual before:
Inside the pretty boxes was a frog ornament, reminiscent of the frogs' legs sold to Emily Webster by Kalil and Yusef.
Here is the final decorated tree in my living room. After positioning it, I went outside to make sure the lights were visible from the street. Next year, I may try it in another room right in front of a window.

For thos unfamiliar with the Betsy-Tacy books, Emily of Deep Valley is more of standalone title about one of Betsy's younger friends. It is back in print, in a lovely new edition with a forward from Mitali Perkins, a talented author who has been a delightful recruit to the Boston area Betsy-Tacy fans. Even if you haven't read the other Betsy-Tacy books, Emily of Deep Valley will appeal to teen and adult readers who love a good coming of age story.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curious Cook


My dear friend Jeannette made and sent me this lovely apron to wear in my new home. Notice the clever way I am taking advantage of every inch of available counter top (the better to use every plate and pot in the house)(no wonder it took several days to get everything clean and back in the cabinets).
By the way, this picture was taken before I knew I had mistreated my drains - hence, the smile (although I think the devastation was really due to the previous owners dumping everything down the drain before they moved out). It would be several days before I smiled again...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Things that went wrong on Thanksgiving

Although I followed the directions, the turkey was not cooked in the middle;

Paula Deen’s potatoes would simply not mash (my mother said I should have relied on Mark Bittman instead, which is true, especially given that I have met him and supplied the rest of the family with HTCE);

The stuffing tasted good but didn’t hold together;

The sourdough bread was delicious but was frozen in the middle (I blame this on Wholefoods because again I followed the directions);

The salad was wilted (luckily, no one seemed interested in salad);

The items my mother prepared – her special spinach and sour cream apple pie – were delicious.

I made the first fire in my fireplace and it set off the smoke detector – and the home security system! (yes, I should have waited until the chimney man came to look at the flue; now I know it really does need that missing lever);

I swear I used every plate and every pot in the house, which was a problem because

The brand new disposal resented all the potato peelings and sent them back up the other side of the sink - every time I ran it or used the dishwasher;

The rod in the coat closet (a nice wooden one) broke due to the weight of the coats;

There was more, but these are the highlights.

Luckily, my parents are the opposite of critical, and didn't even complain about the frigid house.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Harvard - Yale

It was cold but sunny day for the Harvard-Yale game with fellow Kirkland House alum, Lamar Flatt, and his lovely family. Yale's men fought to the end but Harvard won.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Mockingbirds by Daisy Whitney

Alex is a junior at a prestigious boarding school, a dedicated musician, and the sort of person that rarely pays attention to the daily gossip and chit-chat of school life because she is so focused on her long term goal, which is Juilliard. All that ends when she is date raped by a classmate she barely knows, and becomes the unwilling subject of gossip and slurs. Although Alex wants to go on with her life and avoid being a victim, she has many questions about what really happened to her that night and to what extent she was complicit (if she was). Luckily, Alex has friends who care about her because it is pretty clear that the administration of the school would not be helpful and she does not want her parents involved. Instead, almost reluctantly, she turns to an underground school vigilante system called the Mockingbirds, founded, coincidentally, by her older sister. The Mockingbirds investigate her story (finding probable cause) and then put her rapist, Carter, on trial. By then the reader despises Carter and wants him to be judged by his peers.

I didn't know what this book was about when I started reading, and usually I avoid books about rape but I thought this was quite well done. My only criticism was that Alex seemed far too mature for her age and not as traumatized by her experience as I would have expected (although her efforts to avoid Carter were well described and it showed how little the school paid attention that she was able to skip meals for weeks without any administrators noticing - don't boarding schools watch for eating disorders in this day and age?). I was also a little surprised by Alex's graphic language, which made her seem tougher and more caustic than seemed in character, but this is not a book for younger teens.

I enjoyed the Mockingbirds (which turns out to be book 1 in a series) and the group's vision of justice, but of course I would not want to be on the wrong side of any group of self-righteous teens (as could happen if they got it wrong). I also liked the way Alex began to remember the details of the fateful night and did not conveniently remember a version she would have preferred but faced her demons squarely, both Carter and his cronies as well as her own memory - and finally found a trustworthy adult to confide in, although that was more for her own comfort than because the adult was going to "fix" the situation.

I received a copy of this book at NEIBA, the New England Independent Booksellers' Association.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The "New" Deep Valley Books

It was a thrill on many levels to get home from work tonight to find my first package since moving in less than two weeks ago - and it was the beautiful new edition of Carney's House Party and Winona's Pony Cart by Maud Hart Lovelace with foreword by Melissa Wiley (whose work I have recently got to know and admire). I have not been able to unpack any books in my new home so it seems particularly gratifying to have Carney, one of my very favorites, here with me. Another day I will describe why I like Carney so much but tonight I want to describe how overlooked Winona's Pony Cart has been. It was published in 1953, last of the Betsy-Tacy books and was illustrated by Vera Neville, rather than Lois Lenski, who had illustrated the first four books, and does not appear to have been reprinted as often as the other books, perhaps because Betsy and Tacy are not in the title. Winona Root is the lively and outspoken friend of Betsy, Tacy and Tib, whose father runs the local newspaper, the Deep Valley Sun. In later books, she is described as being full of the D. Clueless child that I was, I never guessed that D stood for Devil! Here, however, she is a spoiled but irrepressible girl about to celebrate her 8th birthday. Sometimes, instead of introducing children to Betsy-Tacy or Betsy-Tacy and Tib, I start with Winona's Pony Cart because there is something very universal about a child yearning for his or her birthday and party. Every child I have read this book to loved it and seemed to relate to Winona. Winona deeply admires her newspaper father and has been begging for her own printing press, but when this book begins she suddenly decides she wants a pony as well. Alas, her mother thinks she is enough of a tomboy already and discourages her coaxing, trying to distract her with a red party dress instead. Winona is cheered up by the dress but continues to yearn for the pony, joining her friends Betsy, Tacy and Tib in coming up with names for the prospective pony. Will she get the pony she wants?

The other big theme in Winona is who she will invite to her birthday party. Winona does not stick to the well behaved friends whose mothers socialize with Mrs. Root but considers even the most humble members of Deep Valley to be her friends, ranging from the children of her mother's laundress to the Syrian children - so Winona invites them all to her birthday party, ignoring the fact that her mother sent proper invitations to the children she deemed suitable. It is a tribute to the very proper East Coast bred Mrs. Root that she does not reveal her surprise at Winona's varied guest list and, in fact, one of the Syrian boys delights her by bringing baklawa just as the birthday cake is about to give out.

Adults who know Winona from the Betsy-Tacy high school books will enjoy this but it is also very suitable for second and third graders, whether or not they have read Betsy-Tacy. The back matter of this new edition has lots of information about Winona, and I was delighted to read that Mrs. Root was a member of the DAR and that Winona attended Northwestern University. But best of all is a section about illustrator Vera Neville, based on the wonderful research done by Teresa Gibson, whose presentation was one of many high points at the recent Betsy-Tacy conventions, and with help from Vera's niece, Patricia Neville Downe.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The New Homestead

One thinks of the word "homestead" solely in the context of Laura Ingalls Wilder, so I was surprised at my closing yesterday to be given a document entitled "Declaration of Homestead." Along with a mere $35 to the Commonwealth, I have established that I own it and am possessed by it. I am sure most new homeowners will agree about the "possessed by" part!When I drove over for the first time as a homeowner, I will admit it was a bit intimidating. The house was dark; I don't know where the light switches are; and I wondered if a killer lurked within. I hoped the neighbors wouldn't call the police on me but figured burglars probably remove items, rather than bring them at 10 pm, and it is a very safe neighborhood. I left the headlights on so I would have light as I fumbled with the key. There were no killers inside (have I been reading too many thrillers?), only one intimidating centipede in the kitchen sink which I drowned. Don't tell my favorite professor, Gary Francione!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Monday, September 13, 2010

Meeting Joan Aiken

In December of 1998, the Greater NY Betsy-Tacy Society (or representatives thereof) went to Books of Wonder where Joan Aiken (seated, center) signed books and chatted with fans. It was such a thrill to meet her, and as you can see, she graciously posed for a picture with the group. I think she was pleased to hear I was also a fan of sister, Jane Aiken Hodge.* I am so glad not only that I met Joan just a few years before she died but she encouraged me to write to Jane (more on that another day).

In this photo, left to right, front row: Laurie, JA, Elizabeth; left to right, back row: I am blanking on the woman on the left, then I, Linda, and Ilene. Joan signed several books for me including the only hardcover I had with me, below:

It took persistence but Books of Wonder has supported Betsy-Tacy, albeit never with the quantities I suggested (and, of course, I was their Scholastic/Penguin rep, not their Harper rep).
By the way, I am distressed that Houghton Mifflin does not appear to be reprinting Joan's books as needed. I had great difficulty obtaining a copy of The Cuckoo Tree, which I do not own, for my niece's birthday. Boo!

* I will never understand how a poet like Conrad Aiken could have had so little imagination as to name his daughters, Jane and Joan!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Universal Truths


I found this while I was packing. Apologies to the cartoonist: I must have cut off the signature.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

B&N at Lincoln Center

Having spent many years working with Barnes & Noble, several of my closest friends are people who were or are employed there and my years in NYC are inextricably connected to it and them. Even if I didn't love books and worry about their future, I would be concerned about the tumult going on in the industry and at B&N in particular. But I wasn't prepared for the acute pang of distress I felt several days ago when I heard the Lincoln Center store will close in January.
It is a store I have spent a lot of time in, and where I have met many authors, including Philip Pullman. I was there the night it opened on Oct. 20, 1995 (with Karen Patterson, and I think our friend Helen), and I remember I saw one of my worst enemies coming up the escalator and hoped she wouldn't ruin my night (she left quickly, too cheap to buy anything). I found a faced out quantity of some classic book on tractors published by Motorbooks, and complained indignantly that whatever car book I had at that time was woefully underrepresented. That was when I learned that tractors are very popular in New York! I never figured that one out - could they all have been gag gifts?
It makes me very sad. Am I the only person up late and worrying about books?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Miss Manners

Dear Miss Manners:

What is the proper response to someone who asks, "What do you do every day? What do you do with your time?"

This is an unfortunate attempt to start a conversation, as it implies that the person being queried might be useless. Should you not be willing to overlook this, Miss Manners recommends, "I lie on the couch and read trashy novels and eat bonbons."

I love Miss Manners - like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, she always knows!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I'd Know You Anywhere (review)

I was a fan of Laura Lippman even before I read her books. How can that be, you ask. She had written a delightful article for a Baltimore newspaper (which I saved but cannot find at the moment) some time around 1995, about her favorite children’s books, among which were the beloved Betsy-Tacy series. I had shared the article with the New York Chapter of the Betsy-Tacy Society. I was working at Avon Books at the time, and sitting in a monthly new title meeting when gifted editor Carrie Feron described a first mystery called Baltimore Blues. I recognized Laura’s name instantly and knew she must be the same person who had written the article because of the Baltimore connection. After the meeting, Carrie told me how much I would like Laura’s book and, as I tucked a manuscript under my arm, I persuaded Carrie, who had a toddler at the time, to read the first Betsy-Tacy book. It was my job to introduce Laura's books to Barnes & Noble. Baltimore Blues was the beginning of a great series, and my sister prefers the books about Tess Monaghan. I like Tess but also enjoy the bigger, standalone suspense that Laura has been writing most recently. I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura's brand new book, moves back and forth from the present, where Eliza is a competent mother of two, to 1985 when as a teen she was kidnapped by Walter Bowman. Now Walter is on death row for the death of another girl he kidnapped and when he contacts Eliza her carefully rebuilt world threatens to fall apart. This book has a has a different feel than other Lippman books because it is more of a psychological novel than an suspenseful thriller. It is primarily about Eliza’s recollections of the summer she spent with Walter, and at times one can’t help thinking she almost enjoyed the adventure despite her constant fear and obviously before the violent acts that ultimately result in Walter’s arrest. Eliza becomes haunted by the girls who did not escape from Walter and years later she cannot stop wondering why she alone survived. It is not just the serial killer in this novel who is unnerving: Lippman creates minor and major characters that are memorable and somewhat creepy. In particular, the mother of one of the murdered girls is heartbreaking. However, the intended suspenseful conclusion did not quite deliver.

I recommend I’d Know You Anywhere, which I read for the TLC Book Tour, but you should also go back to the Baltimore Blues and become acquainted with feisty Tess Monaghan. Here is a fun link to a Washington Post interview that my friend KC Summers did with Laura several years ago, exploring Baltimore. I also liked this link from Laura's website which describes some of Laura’s favorite children’s books (I love Edward Eager too and am glad my college remembers him with an annual creative writing prize). Laura usually mentions a kidlit favorite in her books, and here it is the Oz books.

Laura also wrote the introduction to the new 2-in-1 edition of Heaven to Betsy-Betsy in Spite of Herself. If you are an adult who has never read Betsy-Tacy, this is where you should start.
Late breaking news: congratulations to Laura - I'd Know You Anywhere debuts at #16 on the 8/27 New York Times list.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Anne Belinda (book review)

In 1917, John Waveney, recently released from the hospital and headed back to the trenches in France, goes to visit the part of England his ancestors came from. He encounters a girl of 15, and when she learns he is all alone in the world, she tells him she would be sorry if anything happened to him.

Somehow John survives the war, and some years later he learns he has inherited the ancestral home. Wondering about the girl he met long ago, he learns she is a cousin but is mysteriously missing: no one will mention her name and he is warned not to discuss her. Even her own twin sister refuses to do anything but sob when Anne Belinda is discussed. John feels a strange sense of loyalty to the one person who sent him off to war with a kind word, and he becomes determined to find out what kind of trouble she is in and find a way to assist her. Of course, once he meets her he falls in love with her courage and the humor she is nearly always able to maintain, despite great trials. Not the least part of Anne’s appeal is her determination not to be rescued.

While the actual plot of this book is extremely improbable and unconvincing, I found it very moving so it was easy to ignore the flaws. John and Anne are convincingly and sympathetically drawn so that the reader looks past the unlikeliness of Anne’s fall from grace and focuses instead on the way these two lonely but steadfast people are drawn to each other. It is appealing but dark, only occasionally relieved by humor, so is not the usual drawing room mystery made popular by authors like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham. Nor does it feature Wentworth's well-known sleuth, Miss Silver, so I can see why it is one of the Patricia Wentworths that was never reprinted. My copy was so old it was falling apart, and I returned it very reluctantly to the Dover Library, even calling to warn them it was too rare to circulate, although I was extremely glad to have the opportunity to read it. Highly recommended to those who like British mysteries – but you are unlikely to find a copy to read!

Anne Belinda by Patricia Wentworth was published in the U.S. by J.B. Lippincott Company in 1928.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Murderer’s Daughters (Book Review)

Lulu’s and Merry’s childhood is destroyed when Lulu, warned not to let her father into the apartment, responds to his drunken entreaties by opening the door. In a drunken rage, he murders her mother and nearly kills her little sister. From that day on, Lulu and Merry have only each other, as the remaining family members are either too frail or too indifferent to care for them. The Murderer’s Daughters follows the girls from ages 9 and 5 in 1971, through trials and tribulations to 2003.
What a compelling yet painful story! From the first page Lulu and Merry have distinctive voices, but Lulu has the added burden of knowing she is the sensible sister, and, moreover, at a very young age she knows she is responsible for Merry. Not only does she have to cope with guilt about the death of her mother and injury to Merry but she can never stop worrying about Merry’s well-being. It is no wonder that she copes by focusing on her immediate problems, refusing to visit her father in prison or even acknowledge that at some point in the future he may be released; instead coming up with a plan that will get both her and Merry out of a violent group home to a facsimile of a normal life.

Fans of Jodi Picoult, in particular, will enjoy this talented new author, who has vividly created memorable and complicated sisters who cope with their pain differently but cannot cope alone. You know you care about characters when you start talking to them, and begging them not to make certain mistakes! There were so many interesting, although at times disturbing, elements that I stayed up late two nights in a row to finish. In particular, I liked that the girls squabbled like normal sisters, rather than having some idealized relationship. It was a unique relationship but with its own unwritten rules – for example, that Merry will visit her father and try to talk about him to Lulu and Lulu will pretend he doesn’t exist and refuse to listen. I was also fascinated by the fact that once Lulu wangled a new home for her and Merry she was unable to relax and try to enjoy the situation, although she knew it would have been more comfortable for her, Merry, and the family that had taken them in, were she able to ingratiate herself a little bit, or at least, not antagonize her benefactors. Whether it is worry about her father that she bottles up inside or bitterness at feeling forced to be grateful, Lulu never takes the predictable route. Then, just when I hoped Lulu was taken care of, I had to start worrying about Merry, getting entangled with very inappropriate men, chain smoking! Couldn’t these sisters get a break? And that’s before the not-very-repentant father is released from prison . . . Meyers makes it clear there are no easy happy-ever-afters for survivors of domestic abuse. She does so in a way that is very convincing.

Without giving away any more of the plot, I urge you to find a copy of this book yourself. Prepare to cry when two little girls lose both parents, prepare to worry as Lulu and Merry grow up and deal with the scars of their childhood, and prepare to stay up late until you finish. . .
This is a first novel by Boston’s Randy Sue Meyers, and I hope there are more to come. I enjoyed the fact that part of the book was set in Boston, not far from where I live. My review was part of the TLC Book Tour, and I encourage you to check out other stops on The Murderer’s Daughters tour.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Quiz Time

Heyer fans, someone forwarded me this Georgette Heyer quiz - and even I who have read all of her books several times each managed to miss a question! Can you do better?

And what is your favorite Heyer? Mine are Devil's Cub, The Grand Sophy, Frederica, and Venetia. I am so pleased that Sourcebooks is reissuing them with lovely new covers (although there is no room for any more duplicates on my shelves).

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Bird in Hand (Review)

Alison and Claire grew up together in the South but their friendship has become strained even before Claire writes a tell-all novel, a loosely disguised memoir in which Alison is portrayed as an afterthought to the flamboyant heroine. Alison now lives in New Jersey with her husband Charlie and their two children, while Claire married Ben, and stayed in Manhattan. Driving home in the dark from Claire’s launch party, after several blue martinis, Alison hesitates and takes a wrong turn, ending up in a terrible car accident. The ripple effects of the accident and how it changes all four and their marriages form the basis of this novel.
The description made the book sound like a Jodi Picoult, now almost a brand of trauma/angst related fiction, but it was much more subtle than her writing, which is both a plus and a minus. Author Christina Baker Kline writes fluidly and carefully chooses every word – but at times the pace was too slow for me (and I am a patient reader) and I was frustrated by Alison’s passive personality. I thought novel was most effective in the flashbacks to the past, providing insight to the characters, particularly Charlie, who came across as very unsympathetic but at least the reader finally understood some of his motivation. I liked how the author provided a glimpse from each character’s point of view, and provided detailed minor characters too. I enjoyed the depiction of Alison’s parents, anxious to help in a crisis but doing so in their own inimitable way.

Of the four main characters, only Ben (an architect whose devotion to his work was very convincing) was really appealing, and it was therefore difficult to understand how anyone could fall out of love with him (although obviously I know this happens all the time). Similarly, because I didn’t much care for the other characters, I wasn’t invested in the outcome of the story.

There are a lot of themes in this novel that would lend themselves to good discussion at a book group (friendship, betrayal, city living vs. suburbia, how staying home with the children changes one, how one’s life can change in an instant, how different people deal with tragedy, etc.). However, while I liked it, I am not sure I would recommend it to people who only read one book a month (not that I approve of such people!). It took such a long time to get really into it, and I worry that some might get discouraged and not finish, which defeats the purpose of a book group. Those who wanted to see a lot of character development in Alison as she deals with the lingering effects of tragedy would be disappointed: she spends more time coping with her marriage (which may be more realistic short term, if not long term). This review was part of the TLC Book Tour, and I encourage you to check out other stops on the Bird in Hand tour. Thank you to Trish for including me and to Harper Collins for providing a copy of the book. I enjoy going back and forth between older books (this month I have been reading a lot of Patricia Wentworth, an English mystery writer from the early 20th century) and new releases such as this one.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Fellow Collector

Just came across this item that appeared in Shelf Awareness via BBC News back in December about former Harvard football player Pat McInally, who graduated in '74 and went on to a great career with the Bengals (I could add that his presence would elevate the current tone of the team but that might be unfair). I have always admired him from afar but never knew he also collected children's books! I would really like to know what inspired his collection. Although the Friends of Harvard Football needs money, I must say I sympathize with his desire to add to his Winnie the Pooh collection (and wonder if he dislikes the Disney version as my family does). I hope he comes to Cambridge some time so we can discuss our collections - although I can imagine the looks we would get. But how many former NFL players do you think read for pleasure, let alone collect rare books? Perhaps more than one would think . . .

Former Cincinnati Bengals football player and children's book collector Pat McInally will put several rare early editions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland up for auction. The books, including a copy that once belonged to 10-year-old Alice Liddell herself, are "expected to fetch up to £90,000 (US$147,416)," BBC News reported.

"I think it is the most important children's book ever written... so finding a book given to Alice by Lewis Carroll was really exciting," said McInally, who is parting with his copies to make room for the real focus of his collecting--Winnie-the-Pooh books.

"I'm hoping to use some of the money I get from this sale on more books by A.A. Milne at a sale coming up soon in London," he added.


McInally is also renowned, in certain circles, for having achieved a perfect score on the Wonderlic test, which is given to NFL prospects.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Walk With Care (Book Review)

Walk with Care by Patricia Wentworth (Benbow Smith #2)

Rosalind Denny is a sorrowful young widow, still in mourning for her husband, Gilbert, formerly Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs with a promising career ahead of him. Eighteen months ago Gilbert committed suicide and Rosalind does not know why but she is certain he was blackmailed. She is unaware that other young men in similar political positions have been disgraced in similar ways, but when Gilbert’s former assistant, Jeremy Ware, is targeted by an unknown enemy Rosalind is forced out of her depression to help him clear his name.

Patricia Wentworth is best known for her elderly sleuth, Miss Silver, a retired governess turned private detective, and her standalone mysteries were reprinted less frequently so I had never come across this one. Because Rosalind still depressed from the loss of her husband she is not a fun or lively heroine, which casts a cloud over the novel. As it turns out, the plot is fairly predictable but enjoyable as are all Wentworth's books. In addition, this book is notable because of two recurring characters.

Mr. Smith (Benbow Collingwood Horatio Smith) is an eccentric older gentleman who lives in London at 11b Caradoc Mansions with his outspoken parrot, Ananias. Ostensibly, he is the author of a book called The European Problem, and he is renowned for his expertise on the issues facing post WWI Europe.* In reality, he is connected to the Foreign Office and is often consulted on issues related to Britain’s national security. He appears in several Wentworth titles, including Rolling Stone, which I read earlier this month, and Danger Calling#. Both Mr. Smith and his parrot are astute judges of character, luckily, in this instance, for Jeremy.

There is also a recurring villainess, Maud Simpson. She has two very useful talents for a criminal – an ability to mimic voices so well that even their nearest and dearest are fooled and an incredible ability to disguise herself. She also appears in Rolling Stone and others.

This extremely rare Patricia Wentworth title, published in 1933 by J.B. Lippincott, came from the library and is really too fragile and valuable to be in circulation, although I was delighted to read it for the first time and recommend it to fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

# Copies available range from $60 to $500.
*As Encyclopedia Brown would remind you, there had only been one World War when this book was written, so naturally references are to “the war” not to WWI.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Legacy Place

There is a beautiful new Borders in Dedham called Legacy Place, where I went recently for an Anita Shreve reading. Although I have enjoyed her books for years, I had not known she attended Dedham High School (followed by Tufts) and lives in Massachusetts. She looked much more glamorous now (due to Oprah-related success, no doubt), reading from her new book, A Change in Altitude, than when I had first met her in 1992, when she was the relatively unknown author of Eden Close. At that time NAL hosted a lunch for her to which I was invited as the New York sales rep and she signed Strange Fits of Passion, then new, for me. Later, I became a huge fan of Where or When, and included it as one of my top ten in an article for Romantic Times.Anita was very pleasant and gracious to the large group of fans who lined up to have their books signed. She recommended some favorite authors and books, including The Transit of Venus, which several in the audience tried to buy in the store without success, and I have now recommended to my book group.
In fact, I was eager to use some 40% off coupons Borders had sent me for the store opening but this lovely new store did not have any of the books I wanted to buy! No Betsy-Tacy (horrors), which I wanted for my dentist's daughter; nothing by Lauren Snyder, although Any Which Wall was newly out in paperback, very appropriate for summer reading; nothing by Mitali Perkins although her new book, Bamboo People, is garnering great reviews and word of mouth. The store's computer purported to have one copy of The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages but no one could find it. So much for a book that won an armful of awards! While a pleasant young woman duly offered to order any of these books for me from Borders.com, she explained that she could not honor my coupons, and while I understand that Borders is in great financial difficulty it should not allow a customer to leave empty handed. Even a token 10% off an order for these books at Borders.com would have been a good customer service move because of course I did end up ordering them elsewhere. I wish I were still in touch with the children's buyers for Borders because they are missing out on some viable titles.
I tried to think of something else to buy and certainly the store was full of lovely books (especially the history and cookbook sections) but as I am hoping to move this summer it did not really make sense to buy a nonessential that I would simply have to pack.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dryads but no Naiads

Inexplicably, there were dryads wandering around the lobby of my building today, and one posed for a picture with me:
Mr. Tumnus told her about the midnight dances and how the Nymphs who lived in the wells and the Dryads who lived in the trees came out to dance with the Fauns; about long hunting parties after the milk-white stag who could give you wishes if you caught him . . .

Monday, July 5, 2010

June 2010

June was a good month for suspense fiction but less memorable in terms of the children's books I read. I recommend Robert Goddard and Linwood Barclay, and I always suggest Patricia Wentworth as a comfort read for mystery fans. Here are my June reads, and a look below at the beautiful bookplate used by the Concord Public Library many years ago. I had been there a couple times before but it is always a pleasure to be in such a historic library. Concord is a delightful town even apart from the thrill one gets from being near the homes of Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jane Langton. I drove by the Diamond in the Window House on my way home...
Adult Fiction
House Rules, Jodi Picoult - I nearly always enjoy Picoult and thought this was better than her last few books (having worked for many publishers, I am always suspicious that the pressure to make authors produce books on a regular basis and/or annually results in poor quality) although several of the plot elements were way too obvious.
Name to a Face, Robert Goddard - Perhaps not his best but still impossible to put down, with nonstop twists and turns. Many of the characters were very unlikeable, however, which definitely changes one's attitude when they are murdered!
Never Look Away, Linwood Barclay - This author is a great new talent in suspense fiction, edited until recently by my gifted friend Danielle Perez.
Touch and Go, Patricia Wentworth - Having recently participated in the Golden Age of Detection Fiction tour, and been disappointed by Margery Allingham, I picked up a Wentworth I had never read before at the Concord Library and it immediately made me want to do a complete reread of all her books.
Two for Joy, Patricia Scanlan - ordinary chick lit I picked up at the library for $.50 several months ago.
Savor the Moment, Nora Roberts (third in a series) - Pretty much anything by Roberts is entertaining and this series is pleasant but no new ground for her.
Nothing but Trouble, Rachel Gibson - I have enjoyed this author of contemporary romance since Avon first started publishing her, especially those books with a hockey theme. This was improbable and not one of her best but still a fun read.
Time of Wonder, Maisie Hampstead - This was a complete waste of time; a very poorly written regency with a dreary and predictable plot.

Nonfiction
My Life in France, Julia Child - I liked this very much, even the description of food I would never willingly eat! I wish I had made an effort to meet her while she was alive, as she was living nearby and apparently very friendly to fans she encountered while shopping, etc.

YA
Sunnycove, Amelia Elizabeth Walden - this was part of my loosely conceived plan to give Walden a little overdue attention. She was a trailblazer in YA fiction in the 50s and 60s but is mostly forgotten now.
Sisters Red, Jackson Pearce - A first novel from a talented new author, although I suffered from a little fantasy overload when reading it.
The View from the Top, Hillary Frank - this bored me and reminded me not to pick a book by its cover.

Children's
The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, Erin Dionne - while pleasant enough, my sister and I both found it completely improbable. In addition, the target audience was hard to figure out. It seemed too unsophisticated for YA and perhaps is best suited to a 5th grade audience. I have lent my copy to the nieces.
Palace Beautiful, Sarah Williams - I probably would have liked this as a child but found it dull as an adult.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Regency Detective

Talks are under way with broadcasters over a TV detective series set in Bath during Jane Austen's time. The Regency Detective has been created by Bath-based scriptwriters David Lassman and Terence James and is billed as showing the darker side of the period. It would be set in the period between 1800 and 1805 when Austen lived in the city. The director, Giles Foster, was responsible for the recent Northanger Abbey mini-series.

What do you think? If done properly, it might be delightful. . .

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sisters Red

While I found the three main characters and the relationship of the sisters convincing and moving, I confess my other reaction is simply supernatural overload. I like YA fantasy as much as the next person but despite appreciating the Red Riding Hood theme of this book I am getting tired of characters that spend a whole book fighting vicious bad guys, only to be confronted (they and I) with a sequel at the end. The angst never ends! In addition, Scarlett's situation seemed so bleak - having saved her sister's life but becoming mutilated in the process - she attracts pity or horror from strangers. Not to impose real life solutions on a fantasy but I couldn't help thinking rather than shunning everyone in Ellison, where they live, Scarlett needed plastic surgery and counseling . . .Overall, I liked it but am not sure I would be first in line for more in the series. You know what they say, so many books on my floor, so little time . . . This one came from the library.

A Long Way to Go (Book Review)

Children abandoned far from home and forced to elude adults who may not have their best interests at heart? Right away this reminded me of Homecoming by Cynthia Voight, which I believe spawned a whole series. I only read the first one, in which Dicey’s mother abandons her four children, and Dicey leads her siblings on foot, first to a relative in Connecticut and finally to their grandmother in Virginia. I thought that book was pretty dark and gloomy but A Long Way to Go is bleaker yet even more compelling. Like the Tillerman children, Ashley (10), Brett (8) and butterfly-like Shane (6) who plans to be a dancer, are abandoned. They are left at a Florida motel where they were staying with their parents. Ashley and Brett are unnerved when they realize their parents haven’t returned from a day out without the children, having left them with a counselor. Shane is mostly annoyed because she had wanted to go swimming before dinner. The children are uncomfortable with the way the hotel staff want to escape from the problem they create and wonder what to do: '”Something must have happened.” They had arrived again at the fateful words.’ Once they overhear the hotel staff talking about juvenile authorities, they decide not to wait around, but instead sneak away from the motel and begin a journey of 600 miles home where they are hopeful their parents will be waiting.

The personalities of the children are what make this book so interesting on many levels. Author Borden Deal makes the children very distinct: Ashley is the oldest, a worrier, bossy, not always able to control her siblings; Brett is brilliant but unnerving to adults because of his many inconvenient questions; and Shane is self-centered and spoiled. Ashley is portrayed as heavy-set and asthmatic, and she also has a weak foot, but as the oldest and the best at interacting with grownups she is the leader of the group. Oddly, Deal named the children in the book after his own real-life children – presumably with their physical descriptions and failings (even more oddly, it appears he had four children – so why leave one out? Perhaps born later with his second wife). And I am quite sure I would never forgive my father for describing my weight in a book, if I had been an overweight child (although days of interminable walking and meager rations work as a miracle diet on Ashley, maybe just as annoying to the real life version).

As they make their way home to Alabama with agonizing slowness, Ashley and Brett learn to consult each other and work as a team, coping with their fear and worries, and even Shane becomes more responsible and loyal. Their progress is slowed down by animals they acquire along the way, somewhat inconveniently, but adding comfort to their lonely trip. Somehow they avoid dangers in their travels – one chapter in particular where they are aided by perverted circus clown is as unnerving as the most gory scene in a serial killer novel – but the real question (which I will not reveal) is what happened to their parents and how parents of such resourceful and appealing children could ever have left them.

Although I used to think I knew every children’s book ever written, I had never encountered this 1965 novel until my friend Lisa told me it was one of her favorites, inspiring me to buy my own copy from Alice Billheimer's magical trove. It was a great read, very hard to put down, and I recommend it. I do wonder if Voigt (born 1942 in Boston and a Smith alumna, which I did not know) ever read it and how she would compare it to her own work.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sunnycove

In this 1948 YA novel, Sunnycove, by Amelia Elizabeth Walden, Vicky Lind is a quiet teen from a West Virginia mining town where even the families who own their homes do not have running water. Vicky has something priceless, however, an older brother who recognizes her acting talent and is determined she will get her chance in the real world - the chance he wasn't talented enough to pursue. Gus returned to Pittstown after college to teach, and gave Vicky drama lessons every day. After she graduates from high school, it is Gus who secures her place at Sunnycove Playhouse in Connecticut for the summer where she will have the opportunity to appear in student productions and possibly earn a role with professional actors.
In contrast to the polished young men and women who have come to Sunnycove to hone their skill, Vicky arrives with a small suitcase filled with second hand clothes and no little apprehension. Vicky worries that she is too plain to be an actress, although Gus has told her, “I don’t know what beauty is if it’s not something that’s inside a person, that sort of shines through everything they say or do. A pretty face couldn’t add anything to that kind of beauty. And not having one couldn’t take anything from it.”

Inevitably, there is a beautiful, ambitious girl at Sunnycove who is less talented than Vicky and resents her for it. Donna spoils Vicky’s debut by sending a faux bouquet – of coal, with a cruel note. She also taunts Vicky about her looks. Fortunately, Vicky makes a friend, Peter Bradford, a young man who grew up sailing and teaches Vicky how to swim. On stage, Vicky’s talent and humility earns her opportunities although there are disappointments along the way. Gus is there when she gets her chance at a starring role but it is Peter’s influence that shows Vicky she cannot let her desire to succeed prevent her from being compassionate.

Walden’s characters have endearing human flaws – Vicky lacks self-confidence and she harbors bitterness towards the young woman who laughed at her and stole her part – but Walden also gives them good instincts and ultimately the ability to recognize their potential and to fight to be true to themselves. There is usually a male figure (sometimes annoying and condescending) who keeps the heroine grounded: unusually, in this book, that role is shared by her older brother, Gus, and her boyfriend, Peter. In Sunnycove, Vicky’s development as an actress and person as well as the behind-the-scenes glimpse of summer theatre is enjoyable.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Amelia Elizabeth Walden

I thought few people remember Walden’s teen novels these days so I was surprised and pleased when I read last fall on Kristin Cashore’s blog that she had been nominated for the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents’ (“ALAN”) inaugural Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award. I read every one of Walden’s 40 books I could find in the 70s and enjoyed them, although admittedly some were very formulaic. They are quite dated now and at times seem sexist because while her message ostensibly is that young women can do anything, her male characters often belittle them and say that until they learn how to be womanly women they cannot truly be successful/know themselves/succeed, etc. Despite this, which annoyed me even as a teen, I liked her books a lot. She wrote several different genres: spy novels, sport themes (of these my favorite is My Sister Mike), drama theme (I enjoyed a trilogy about a young woman named Miranda, although the man she ends up with was one of the most condescending creatures ever, her director/producer), and a few general (Waverly, about a girl who leaves her beloved family ranch to attend the all women's college her deceased mother had loved so much). Her characters love the outdoors and, long before Title IX, enjoyed sports ranging from skiing, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, softball, swimming, field hockey, and scuba diving.

Walden was born in New York City in 1909, and attended Norwalk High School in Connecticut, where she later taught English and Drama. She also attended Danbury State College, Columbia University, and the American Academy for Dramatic Arts. Her first writing was for local theatre groups in Norwalk. She described herself as a “reluctant writer” in More Junior Authors (1963). She wrote that her writing was inspired by “1) the urgency of things within me that needed to be said; 2) the insistence of persons surrounding me who have told me I must write.” Her husband and friends encouraged her to write, and she wrote her first book as “a good story and was surprised upon finishing it to learn that I had written a book slanted toward the young adult market.” Her first book, Gateway, was published in 1946 and her last book, Heartbreak Tennis, in 1977. Some fall into the genre of Malt Shop books. I wondered whose idea it was to honor this author, and then read she had endowed the prize herself! Well, it’s like buying one’s own brass bowl – if you want something, sometimes you have to plan it yourself. Amelia wanted the annual $5,000 prize to go to a book that exemplified her own positive approach to life, requesting that submitted titles should:

•treat teen readers as capable and thoughtful young people
•offer hope and optimism, even when describing difficult circumstances
•have a credible and appropriate resolution
•portray characters involved in shaping their lives in a positive way, even as they struggle with the harsh realities of life

In 2009, the first winner was Steve Kluger for My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park (I remember selling his Last Days of Summer to B&N in 1998). I wish I could be on the Award Committee. Perhaps ALAN needs a lawyer and I could barter my services. . . In the meantime, I recently found a duplicate copy of My Sister Mike, which I will send to someone who would like to try this vintage yet trailblazing author. It's one of those Berkley Highland paperbacks with the plaid corners I like so much.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Devils at the White House

The Duke Blue Devils visited President Obama today to accept his congratulations on being NCAA champions and to show him how to fill out his bracket. . . I was glad to see the president enjoying himself as I am sure that is rare these days.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Golden Age of Detective Fiction

When I saw the Classics Circuit was doing a tour of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I wanted to participate because I am a big fan of the genre. But what to choose? I have read all of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Patricia Wentworth, and less prolifically of a few others. I decided it was time to try Margery Allingham, known for her detective, Albert Campion, one of those sleuths who hide their intelligence behind a deliberately foppish and dimwitted exterior. "Allingham regarded the mystery novel as a box with four sides - 'a Killing, a Mystery, an Enquiry and a Conclusion with an element of satisfaction in it.' Once inside the box, she felt secure: the genre gave her the discipline she felt she needed, while allowing her imagination full play to provide the 'Element of Satisfaction.' This she abundantly did from her first crime novel in 1928 to her last in 1968." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 77: British Mystery and Thriller Writers 1920-1939.

One reviewer wrote, "Miss Allingham's strength lies in her power of characterization, in her striking talent for painting the social background against which she shows her characters, in her skill in the use of words whereby she paints so vividly the scenes she describes." Guardian.

The Crime at Black Dudley (1929) is the first book to feature Campion (and I always insist on starting at the beginning of a series). The setting is classic: a house party in a mysterious house in a remote English town and a lighthearted game that unexpectedly turns into murder. However, I found the plot and characters somewhat disappointing. Campion, at least in this book, lacks the charm of other "silly ass" detectives (and in fact, it is someone else who solves the murder). Yet Mary Jean DeMarr in In the Beginning: First Novels in Mystery Series believes that Campion's development as a character in later books "offers mystery readers a unique opportunity to consider what makes a mystery/adventure hero and what characteristics must be carried over from one novel to others in order to create the continuity necessar for a successful series... What inherent qualities does he have in his first appearance in Black Dudley and Mystery Mile that led Allingham to make him the focus of nearly a score of novels and a number of short stories?"

I definitely need to buy DeMarr's book, and she has convinced me to read more Allingham. My copy of The Crime at Black Dudley came from the Lexington library, so I am sure the rest will be readily accessible.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Queen of Palmyra

I suspect that most readers’ first reaction to this book is to marvel at the contrast between the beautifully written, descriptive prose and the dark violence of the story within. Author Minrose Gwin depicts a small town in 1963 Mississippi that is full of secrets, and ten year old Florence Forrest, who spends time on both the white and black sides of town, is exposed to most of those secrets, although she is oblivious to many of them. Gwin’s vivid description of the relentless heat of a Mississippi summer almost helps explain the inertia that affects even the decent people in town: those who know about the violence that goes on after dark but ignore it because they don’t want to get involved. I felt every trickle of sweat and scratchy layer of clothing. When I heard about this book, I was interested for several reasons: first was that I had heard about but not read The Help, and wondered if it had inspired a subgenre of civil rights era fiction; second was that I had recently heard noted Justice Department attorney, John Doar, speak about some of the lesser known heroes of the civil rights movement, and I wondered how the characters in Millwood, Mississippi would compare; and finally, most of what I know about this era comes from reading nonfiction or juvenile fiction such as The Empty Schoolhouse or Patricia Crosses Town, so I was curious about an adult novel billed as “a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.” It did not disappoint.

Some of the secrets in Millwood are painfully obvious to an adult reader – that Florence’s father is a member of the Klan and that her mother drives around in the darkness warning local black communities on the nights of the raids; that her grandparents recognized Florence’s father was white trash from the beginning but feel they cannot interfere in a marriage, even to protect their daughter and granddaughter (and perhaps they do not realize how serious the danger is); and that something dreadful is going to happen, not just to Medgar Evers but to the innocent newcomer, Zenie’s niece, Eva Greene.

Eva tells a shopkeeper on the black side of town that change is coming: “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but a change going to come. Look at Harmony, over in Leake County. They brought in Medgar Evars and the NAACP and the Justice Department people, and they’re finally starting to get registered.” I am proud that my father, Gordon A. Martin, Jr., was one of those Justice Department lawyers, working for Robert Kennedy and John Doar, assisting courageous men and women in Hattiesburg, Mississippi prepare testimony in pursuit of their right to vote. My father tells their story in Count Them One By One: Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote (coming next fall from the University Press of Mississippi), the story of the United States v. Theron Lynd, an important civil rights trial in Mississippi which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - which my father calls the greatest civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction. Like fictional Eva, these real and very brave witnesses risked their lives for a cause they believed in more than personal safety.

One of my greatest fears, as I read Queen of Palmyra late at night, was that no one would step up to protect Florence from her increasingly violent father, although I was unsure whether he would kill her or rape her. One of my favorite parts of the book was when a character I had dismissed as weak and willfully blind mustered her wits to protect Florence. In the novel’s greatest irony, it is Zenie, her grandmother’s maid, who realizes Florence is being physically abused by her father, although Zenie is unable to protect her own niece from that same individual and Florence's own family has ignored her struggles.

Is this a novel of hope or of shame? Is Eva Greene, the catalyst of the violent events of the summer, or would they have occurred anyway? I don’t want to spoil the story for those who haven’t read it so I will leave these questions for the moment, and instead recommend the book highly for those interested in a novel that is painful yet irresistible. I think it is a perfect book group selection as there are so many issues to discuss.

This review is part of the TLC Book Tour. Thank you to HarperCollins (publisher of the beloved Betsy-Tacy books) for providing me with a copy of this book (although I wish it had come with a slice of Florence's mother's lemon cake with divinity icing!). I look forward to more from this author.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going to the Great Library in the Sky

Two obituaries caught my eye this morning as I read my Boston Globe on the way to work because both women's love of books was highlighted:

Joanna Griscom spent years volunteering at the Cary Memorial Library in Lexington, MA (where my former author Cynthia Johnson is a librarian - I keep meaning to call her) among other activities. The library director was quoted in the article, describing Ms. Griscom as unsung hero for her work on the board of the library foundation.

Another obituary, for Candy Jenkins, a historical preservation professional and Smith alumna, stated that she was "[a] voracious reader. . . [she] had three library cards, for Belmont, a statewide network, and libraries on Cape Cod." Books "came in and out of [her home] in wheelbarrows."

It is comforting that the friends and family whose memories inspired these obituaries recognized how important books were to these women. I hope when it's my turn people can describe my books without mentioning messy piles on the floor (perhaps by then they will be shelved with beautiful Dewey Decimal precision).

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Brontë Power

In case you haven't see this funny Youtube video on the Brontë Sisters. . . (my computer does not want to cooperate with the umlaut but will allow me to cut and paste it)

For information on the Brontës and related Society, there is a comprehensive website.
If you are not in a Gothic mood, I also recommend The Return of the Twelves, a novel about the wooden soldiers given to Branwell Brontë, which he and his sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne played with and wrote stories about the kingdoms of Angria and Gondal.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Carriers of Civilization

Tonight I attended the 40th Anniversary celebration of David Godine Publishing, and David read a quote from historian Barbara Tuchman I really liked:

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill."

I have always been a big fan of Barbara Tuchman, who like me, majored in History and Literature at Radcliffe. Now I see she may have cribbed this quote from Henry David Thoreau, which is not proper historian behavior (although it is not unknown historian behavior)! Perhaps the quote was simply wrongly attributed to her.

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself than this incessant business." Thoreau
(1817 - 1862)

Seriously, is anyone going to say her Kindle is a carrier of civilization?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Winter Sea (book review)

Susanna Kearsley is such a gifted writer I cannot figure out why her books are not better known. I sometimes wonder if it is because she is Canadian and there has been no major publicity machine behind her (as Alex Beam noted in the Globe today, although there are talented Canadian authors their bookstore bestsellers are all US imports). Like Mary Stewart (although perhaps without her warm humor), Kearsley creates a vivid sense of place and as Stewart did in Touch Not the Cat, she moves effortlessly from present to past, telling each story so compellingly that the reader forgets there is any other. The Winter Sea is Kearsley’s best book since Mariana. The contemporary story is told in the first person by Carrie McClelland, a writer of historical fiction, trying to figure out how to approach her current topic, early 18th century Jacobite uprisings in Scotland and those behind the plots to restore the Old Pretender to his rightful throne. When Carrie visits her agent in Scotland, she accidentally (but we know there are no accidents in fiction!) finds her way to a ruined castle, Slains, and begins to experience vivid dreams that inspire her novel. Carrie’s visions or memories are of a distant ancestor, a quiet young woman, Sophia Paterson, an orphan who is taken into the household of the Mistress of Slains Castle, the Countess of Erroll, and becomes involved in the Scots’ plotting through the kind relatives who have given her a home. Sophia is recovering from family tragedy and remains somewhat emotionally detached from the intrigue until she falls in love with a man who has dedicated his life to the Jacobite cause. She is a fascinating character (more interesting, in fact, than her creator, Carrie).

Experiencing Sophia’s memories inspires Carrie’s best work, although she cannot explain her connection to her ancestor, why her visions are historically accurate, and why she suddenly knows more about Sophia than her genealogist father. Just like Sophia, Carrie becomes somewhat involved with two men. But Carrie’s romance seems secondary to her writing, and she won’t be satisfied until she knows how Sophia’s story ends – happily or not…

My library got me The Winter Sea (UK title Sophia) from Vancouver but I plan to order my own copy soon. I have enjoyed all of Kearsley’s books, including a recent suspense novel she wrote as Emma Cole, Every Secret Thing, and recommend them enthusiastically. Oh, this book made me want to visit Scotland!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's sister

Well, not really. Betty MacDonald, known also as the author of The Egg and I, was merely the gifted creator of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. However, her sister, Mary Bard, was also a writer. The dust jacket of Best Friends at School provides this photo and bio below:The oldest daughter of a mining engineer, Mary Bard was born in Montana. Her father's work caused the family to move so frequently that she went to kindergarten in Mexico City, first grade in New York and second grade in Colorado, and did not complete one uninterrupted year of school until she was thirteen. Later, she studied at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In addition to her "Best Friends" books for young readers, Mary Bard is also the author of three books for adults: Forty Odd, The Doctor Wears Three Faces, and Just Be Yourself (a memoir about her experiences as a Girl Scout leader).

The author and her doctor husband have three daughters and live on Vashon Island near Seattle.

Thanks to Peter Sieruta and his blog, Collecting Children's Books, for sharing news of these and so many other authors I enjoy.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Library Books

An appealing and diverse armful of books was waiting for me at the library tonight, but I already had Stairway to a Secret with me for the gym so haven't started on them yet . . .

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Grand Sophy

I am pleased to be hosting the Georgette Heyer Classics Circuit today, discussing The Grand Sophy, one of my all time favorite books. My mother introduced me to Heyer when I was in junior high, and I checked them out one by one from our shabby old library in Newton Corner (and started again at the beginning once I had read them all). Some of those hardcovers were the original US editions with beautiful Arthur E. Barbosa covers (see below). Sophy is appealing for a variety of reasons: first, she is a vivacious and entertaining heroine, and the reader never knows what she will do next. Second, this is one of Heyer’s most amusing books, containing humorous situations and quirky characters as well as a heroine who appreciates both and encourages others to see the funny or less expected side of situations. Heyer uses Sophy’s unpredictability and humor to turn the conventions upside down repeatedly in this novel. Finally, as someone who likes to organize people, I have always appreciated Sophy’s tendency to meddle – undertaken, as she says herself, with the best of intentions! When Sophy, 20, arrives in London to spend a Season with her cousins, the Rivenhalls, she is more mature than the average Regency miss due to having grown up in diplomatic circles in Europe as the hostess of her father, Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy. At first, she wonders how she will keep herself entertained while her father is in Brazil but she soon perceives that the Rivenhalls, while welcoming, harbor many secrets. Her uncle, Lord Ombersley, is carelessly indifferent to the fact his gambling has brought the family nearly to ruin. Her father’s sister, Lady Ombersley, is worried about her children but completely ineffective. Charles, Sophy’s eldest cousin, is engaged to a disagreeable girl who is having a negative effect on his personality. Cecilia, the cousin closest in age to Sophy, is warm and affectionate but has fallen in love with an ineligible poet, ignoring the most attractive man in the book, Lord Charlbury, who at first appears to be more suited to Sophy herself. The younger cousins are pert and poorly behaved, while Sophy soon realizes that Hubert, a not-very-serious student at Oxford, is in serious trouble that he is too ashamed of to share with anyone.

Sophy believes that “a little resolution is all that is wanted to bring matters to a happy conclusion,” and her schemes are delightful even if they do not always turn out exactly as she has planned. She is intrepid, carrying a small but serviceable pistol in her muff as protection in the most controversial part of the book, in which Sophy takes on an avaricious money lender. Modern readers are often offended by the anti-Semitic depiction of the money lender. While regrettable, it is otherwise a delightful scene, and I believe it would be wrong to let this lapse by author, a product of her time, spoil one’s enjoyment of the book, which was published in 1935. In fact, the message of that chapter – and, indeed, of the whole book - is that Sophy, while outwardly effervescent and merry, is the one person in the family perceptive and caring enough to extract confidences and solve problems. Ultimately, her loyalty and sense of responsibility win over all (or nearly all) who know her.

As Heyer states in Chapter Three, “Sophy would never be a beauty. She was by far too tall; nose and mouth were both too large, and a pair of expressive eyes could scarcely be expected to atone entirely for these defects. Only you could not forget Sophy, even though you could not recall the shape of her face or the colour of her eyes.” Romantic heroines are usually beautiful: Sophy is very attractive but that is not what people remember about her, another way in which Heyer challenges her readers.

I hope those who have not read Heyer will try The Grand Sophy. I also recommend Jane Aiken Hodge's book, The Private World of Georgette Heyer. In 1988, I wrote to Mrs. Hodge about her own books (particularly Savannah Purchase), mentioning I also liked this one and she very kindly sent me an autographed copy, which I cherish along with her letter. Somehow I missed the sad news that she died last July. I like this sentence from the obituary: Hodge was enchanted with the reviewer who described her novels as having “all the lightness of Georgette Heyer, with an added substance besides.”

Thank you for visiting.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reflections on Elizabeth Bird's List

Several weeks ago I submitted my recommendations for Elizabeth Bird's, a NYPL librarian, top ten list of middle grade novels. I could easily have chosen ten books that were beloved but not known by anyone other than me (and my family) but I tried to pick a mixture of books that were popular favorites and not just hidden gems. It was impossible to rank them properly and in some instances it was very difficult to pick one title by an author I love (such as Edward Eager or Maud Hart Lovelace). The minute I sent my list to Betsy, I thought of several I had inexplicably forgotten (The Mixed Up Files, The Sherwood Ring, an E. Nesbit). There are some books I have reread dozens of times like The Wizard of Oz or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or Swallows and Amazons that never occurred to me to include (perhaps because hidden from view on my overcrowded book shelves).
To the surprise and delight of many book lovers, Betsy has been counting down from 100 to 1 all the books that were voted on and her installments are eagerly anticipated. She has done an amazing job of including background on books and I also love the assortment of cover treatments she has included. Inevitably, her list has caused me to make my own lists: books I forgot to include, books I need to reread, books I never read, one book I never even heard of! Although her countdown is not done, I assembled a list of the books I have not read thus far. It was more extensive than I expected. Some are books that were published relatively recently. My nieces have read several I have not and helpfully lent me a couple they owned. I hope to have all 100 read before Betsy has the energy to ask for our top ten YA favorites (that list, I think will be more heavily skued toward recent pubs).

Here is my unread list (partial) of the Top 100:

97. Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane/DiCamillo #
96. The Witches/Dahl #
91. Sideways Stories from the Wayside School / Sachar #
80. Graveyard Book / Gaiman
77. City of Ember / DuPrau (I never even heard of this book!)
76. Out of the Dust / Hesse
68. Walk Two Moons/Creech #
67. Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher/Coville
64. A Long Way from Chicago / Peck
61. Stargirl / Spinelli
55. The Great Gilly Hopkins / Paterson #
54. The BFG /Dahl #
53. The Wind in the Willows /Grahame
52. The Invention of Hugo Cabret /Selznick *
50. Island of the Blue Dolphins / O’Dell #
49. Frindle/Andrew Clements #
47. Bud Not Buddy / Curtis
46. Where the Red Fern Grows/ Rawls
37. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry #
34. The Watsons Go to Birmingham #
26. Hatchet /Paulsen (other than Arthur Ransome, I don't really like books with too much nature in them)

I really have no interest in The Wind of the Willows and did not like Harriet the Spy (which I sense will rank pretty high), so it may be a challenge to read all 100 but I am motivated. . .

# Indicates a book read by one or more nieces: nice for them to provide reading guidance to me for a change.
* My younger sister has read this so there is some partial family credit.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Mardi Gras

"Julia and Betsy . . . observed Lent rigorously for a time. Julia gave up dancing, a sacrifice Betsy could not very well make as the Crowd had not yet started going to dances. She equaled it, however; she gave up candy; she gave up fudge." Heaven to Betsy

There are nine mentions of fudge in Heaven to Betsy, so you know how important it was to Maud Hart Lovelace, but even before I brought the Betsy-Tacy books home for the whole family to read, my mother always gave up candy for Lent, and it was a tradition that we made fudge on Mardi Gras. To me that was just as important (not to mention religious) element of the Easter season as anything! We always used the recipe from the Mystery Chef, a popular radio cooking host from the 40s to whom my grandmother used to listen - long before the Cooking Channel was envisioned.

Homemade Fudge

Ingredients:

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar
1/2 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease an 8 by 8-inch pie plate with butter. In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the sugar, chocolate, and milk. Over medium heat, stir until sugar is dissolved and chocolate is melted. Increase heat and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 6 minutes, add butter, simmer for another 6 minutes. Begin testing a tiny spoonful in a custard or tea cup of cold water as mixture continues to cook. It may take several times before it forms a soft ball. Remove from heat, cool until it's just barely hot, add vanilla and beat until well-blended and the shiny texture becomes matte. Pour into the prepared pan. Let sit in cool dry area until firm.

Don't put the fudge outside to cool or those Deep Valley boys might swipe it!