Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Heavenly Chocolate Pie

Back in the 60s my aunt Justine had a temp job at Nestle's headquarters in White Plains, NY where they gave her a slender chocolate cookbook with wiro binding as a thank you.  Because she did not cook, she gave it to my mother who tried the recipe for Heavenly Chocolate Pie, which became a Christmas Day favorite in our house.  This morning was my first time making it and it turned out beautifully:
Because short on time, I used a store-bought graham cracker crust which must be a little more shallow than what we usually use - I had enough filling left for four tartlettes. Normally, the crust is not hard to make.

Heavenly Chocolate Pie

Crust:
1 1/2 c. graham cracker crumbs
1/3 c. melted butter
1/4 c. brown sugar
Mix together and reserve 2 tablespoons for topping. Press the rest on bottom and sides of 9” pie plate. Chill while making the filling.

Filling:
Melt 1 6-oz package semi-sweets.  Cool approximately 10 minutes.
Blend 1 8-oz pkg cream cheese, 1/2 c. brown sugar.  Beat in 2 egg yolks. Stir in cooled semi-sweets.
Beat the 2 egg whites until stiff.  Beat in 1/4 c. brown sugar.  Fold into chocolate mixture.
Whip 1 c. heavy cream.  Fold into chocolate mixture along with 1 teaspoon vanilla.
Pour into pie shell. Sprinkle reserved crumbs on top. Chill several hours or overnight.

Over the years, my mother has decided the pie has the best consistency if you make it the night before.  Don't let the egg yolks scare you - we have eaten this for years with nothing but deliciousness to show for it.  The cookbook fell apart due to overuse although I can't remember what other recipes we made from it (I didn't remember what the cover looked like until I looked in Google Images).
Yesterday when I got home from work this green gadget was waiting for me with the mail.  At first, I couldn't imagine what it was (clearly, not a Christmas tree ornament).  Then I remembered my mother had said she was going to drop something off to help me make the pie.  I found her email and learned it was an egg separator.  Although I think of myself as a very nimble egg separator, I found this gadget very helpful.

Enjoy!  Merry Christmas!

(recipe copyright to Nestle)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Seduction of Miriam Cross (Book Review)

Publication Information: E-Lit Books, paperback, 2013
Genre: Mystery
Plot: Delilah Percy Powers is a private investigator heading an all-female agency.  A former client asks Delilah to investigate the mysterious murder of her aunt, Miriam Cross, a bestselling author.  Miriam had cared enough about her battered niece to offer her a home and financial support, and was also a committed human rights activist, but had no known enemies and the police have abandoned their inquiry into her death.  Delilah decides to add a computer forensics expert to her staff, Matthew Anderson, to help analyze Miriam’s background and online presence for clues and is slightly distracted from her investigation by “Anders'” intensity and charm.   Drawn into a web of lies, secrets and sexual obsession, the agency gets close to the truth behind Miriam’s death but in so doing the women find themselves in great danger. . .

What I liked: This is an unusual mystery with quirky and amusing characters.  Delilah and her unusual staff are determined to solve the secret of Miriam’s death regardless of personal danger (perhaps they should be also little more mindful of the client’s safety as they carry out their investigation – I am not sure I would hire them!) and the reader is definitely curious about future Percy Powers cases.  I also enjoyed the Philadelphia setting.

What I disliked:  Delilah has never recovered from the death of her father when she was 12 or the loss of her fiancĂ©, whose body was never recovered from a kayaking accident.  Her melancholy casts a shade over the book but it is no excuse for her short fuse and rudeness to pretty much everyone with whom she comes into contact.  She is not a likeable heroine, although the feisty women who work for her are appealing in their different ways.  It is not totally clear to me why Miriam hid from her pursuers instead of turning them in to the authorities, although I suppose it was related to her sexual obsessions, which I found tedious.

Source:  Overall, this was a fun read.  I received the book from TLC Book Tours and you can visit other stops on the tour listed below.   TLC is providing a copy for me to give away - please leave a comment if you'd like it!  If there's more than one request, I will do a lottery.

W. A.  Tyson’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, December 2nd:  From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, December 4th:  Book-alicious Mama
Thursday, December 5th:  Bewitched Bookworms
Friday, December 6th:  Not in Jersey
Monday, December 9th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, December 10th:  Simply Stacie
Wednesday, December 11th:  No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, December 12th:  Reading Reality
Thursday, December 12th:  Kahakai Kitchen
Friday, December 13th:  Bibliotica
Monday, December 16th:  Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, December 18th:  Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Thursday, December 19th:  A Chick Who Reads
Friday, December 20th:  Broken Teepee
Monday, December 23rd:  Bookchickdi

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bletchley Circle (TV Review)

Last spring I was captivated by a three-part series from the UK called Bletchley Circle.  I assumed it would be about the brilliant men and women who worked secretly at Bletchley Park during WWII to decipher intercepted German radio broadcasts and turn the deciphered messages into intelligence reports.  Winston Churchill referred to these individuals, led by brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, as "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled."  In 1941, when the top Codebreakers wrote to him that they were starved of resources to do their essential work, Churchill ordered, "Action this day!  Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done."

However, Bletchley Circle was different from the “women in war” theme I was expecting and enjoy.  It did start out showing four women working at Bletchley – Susan, an inspired puzzle solver; Lucy, who has a photographic memory; Millie, gifted at languages and strategy; and Jean, who appeared to be their boss during the war and seemed to know where to go to get information at all times – then jumped to seven years after the war.  The women have lost touch and Susan has married (Tim, who does not know of his wife’s past as a code breaker because she and many others had signed the Official Secrets Act and can’t tell anyone – it is amazing how these people respected their pledge) and is raising two children, dealing with post-war rations.   Slightly acquainted with a woman who was murdered, Susan starts following newspaper reports of her death which turns into coverage of a serial killer.  Susan notices a pattern which she thinks the police have missed and insists on bringing her concerns to Scotland Yard.   The detective is polite at first but can’t find anything to back up her theories so sends her home.   Frustrated but convinced she is right, Susan hunts up her old friends and convinces them to help her investigate the killer.  They are reluctant, and in Millie’s case, a bit hurt that Susan gave up their plan to travel the world to marry and settle down, but soon they also believe it is their duty to catch the killer to prevent additional deaths.   However, while the police scoff at them, the killer becomes aware of their efforts and recognizes in Susan an intricate mind worthy of his respect.   In one chilling scene, after Susan’s husband, Tim, has suggested she do crossword puzzles rather than worry about silly old murders, Tim picks up the newspaper and said, “Look, you managed to get all of this one done quickly!”  Susan looks at the nearly completed crossword on her breakfast table and realizes the killer was in her home and that she has put her family into grave danger.

As with Homefront, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, this series shows the displacement certain women who had made significant contributions to WWII experienced afterwards, here relegated to housework and childrearing (Susan – which would be fine if she weren’t so bored by it), waitressing (Millie, despite all her language skills), ironing (Lucy, who also gets beaten by her husband).  Only Jean seems to have established a career, working as a librarian.   Perhaps it is implausible that the women could have obtained the information that enables them to solve the mystery (as I said to my sister, a modern version would include a hacker to get the needed data), but it was very enjoyable despite that.  The only flaw was that Susan, the most interesting and most important character, was hard to understand.  I think the rapid-fire way words came out of her mouth was supposed to show how urgent she considered the issue and to contrast with her somber demeanor.   However, I wished she had enunciated more clearly!   I was pleased to read that more episodes have been commissioned.   You can still watch the series on PBS.com and Bletchley Park is now a museum, which I hope to visit on my next trip to England.

If you are interested in this topic, here are a couple books you would enjoy:

Nonfiction





Fiction

Enigma/Robert Harris

I feel as if I have read other fiction in which young women were sent to Bletchley Park (and had exciting adventures once there) but I can’t remember specific titles.  Survivors of Bletchley were legally prohibited from discussing their work for many years and have criticized Enigma and other novels as inaccurate.   Agatha Christie, having named a character Major Bletchley, in a 1941 mystery, caused some concern to British Intelligence as it wondered if she had heard about their secret operation.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Forgotten (Book Review)

Title: Forgotten
Author: Catherine McKenzie
Publication Information: HarperCollins, trade paper, 2012
Genre: Fiction, Chick Lit
Plot: Recovering from her mother’s death, Emma Tupper, an overworked litigator, goes on the African vacation her mother always longed for and is trapped for six months without access to the real world.  When she comes home, everyone has assumed she was dead, including her employer and boyfriend.  Worst of all, the employer takes it as an affront that she has returned from the dead and has to be coaxed to take her back while the boyfriend chose Emma’s law firm nemesis as his next girlfriend.  In this poignant but sometimes funny book, Emma is forced to deal with her sorrow and decide what kind of life she wants to create with her second chance.

What I liked: Admit it, haven’t you always wondered what would happen if you disappeared for an unspecified amount of time?  Would your family and friends sufficiently mourn you?   Here, Emma’s loyal friend Stephanie is the only person who refused to believe she could have perished and – worst of all – Emma’s enemy Sophie snagged Emma’s boyfriend Craig (who, admittedly, didn’t wait a decent amount of time to move on and showed very poor judgment in allowing himself to be snagged). Sophie has also been Emma’s rival in her attempt to make partner (at a law firm even more inhuman than the ones I have worked at). The only person who seems to offer a comforting shoulder is the photographer who moved into Emma’s apartment, Dominic, and he has issues that prevent him from being more than a rebound relationship…  Lots of people tell Emma this is a meant-to-be opportunity to rewrite her life (I can see why she is annoyed) but she is the only one who can decide what she wants to keep from her old life and where she needs to start fresh.

I enjoyed the minor characters in this book, particularly Emma’s friend Stephanie, her secretary Jenny and her law firm pals, the Initial Brigade.  They provided much needed warmth and humor to offset Emma’s isolation.  This is the third book by McKenzie I have read – each very different but all very enjoyable.

What I disliked:  There was an overwhelming sadness to this book relating to the heroine’s loss of her mother and her uncertainty about her career and personal choices.  While understandable, I felt that the uplifting finish was a long time coming.   I didn’t enjoy the flashbacks to the six months she spent stranded in an isolated village in Africa, although clearly these were essential to her recognition of how she wanted to live her life after her return.  Also, I didn’t see quite why the law firm was so unpleasant to Emma.  Even if they had reassigned all her cases (not unreasonable), she had been there a number of years doing good work.  Even if they were still mad at her for going on an extended vacation it shouldn’t have been so difficult to get her staffed up again.  However, this gave her more incentive to fight to regain her old status.   Also, couldn’t Emma’s friend have rescued her possessions before the landlord dumped them all?  Reminder to self: must draft a will.

Source:  I heard about McKenzie’s book Arranged in a review by an Anne of Green Gables fan back when her work was only available in Canada, and tried unsuccessfully to find it when I was visiting my brother in Montreal two years ago (eventually buying it online).  I am glad her books are now readily available in the US and I recommend them.
Query:  I read another book about an Emma Tupper long ago: Emma Tupper's Diary by Peter Dickinson.  I found his novels memorable but unnerving (especially Eva) and never reread any but I wonder if Catherine McKenzie was paying tribute to that heroine the way she paid tribute to Anne Blythe in Arranged?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie (Book Review)

Publication Information: Little, Brown & Co., hardcover, 1982; Lizzie Skurnick Books, trade paper, 2013
Genre: Young Adult    Setting:  1956, United States

Plot:  Sylvie is a pretty, movie-magazine-obsessed, mature-looking 15-year-old who has lived in foster care since she was 7, and the last three foster families have included a lecherous father.  Sylvie learned the hard way that no one takes her fears of these men seriously so she has saved every penny to run away to Hollywood where she expects to be discovered.  Naturally, some creep on the bus steals her savings and Sylvie is forced to use her wiles to continue her journey to stardom.
What I liked: How I love Ellen Conford’s books!  Dear Lovey Hart, I am Desperate; We Interrupt This Semester for an Important Bulletin; and The Alfred Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations are three of my all time favorites.  Sylvie is a poignant rather than funny heroine, so yearning for affection that it breaks the reader’s heart.  The humor so pervasive in Conford’s other books is replaced by a vivid description of 50s suburbia and a heroine whose escapism into movie fandom completely informs her world view.   Carrie Wasserman is self-deprecating and appealing; this book has a lot of amusing moments but Sylvie is not intentionally funny:

That hatbox was one of the very few things I’d bought for myself out of my savings.  It was beautiful, ivory-colored simulated leather, and even though it cost $14.99 on sale, I knew I had to have it.  I’m very realistic and practical, and I knew it might take me a while after I got to Hollywood to get my first break in the movies, so I figured I would do some modeling until I was discovered.  A lot of movie stars start that way, and models make sometimes $35 to $50 an hour.  And all the models go from job to job with their stuff in a hatbox, just like mine.  It’s a model’s trademark, her hatbox, and if I had one, they’d know I was a professional just by looking at me.

Amusing to the reader but sad too.  At times this book seemed more like a YA problem novel from the 70s than my beloved Ellen Conford.  I don’t recall reading it before although I knew exactly when Sylvie was going to be robbed on the bus (memory or instinct?).  I like that this is dedicated to Susan Beth Pfeffer – isn’t it fun to think of authors you like being friends?   I met Ms. Conford once in 1986 and she signed A Royal Pain for my sister at the old Eeyore's Bookstore.  She was a bit taken aback by my enthusiasm and said, "Aren't you a little old for my books?"  I guess that was before YA adult readers were out of the closet! 
Source:  I bought this book, and am delighted it is back in print from Lizzie Skurnick’s new imprint to join my Conford collection.  And I love the new cover!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sense & Sensibility (Book Review)

Publication Information: HarperCollins, 2013, hardcover
Genre: Fiction    Setting: 21st century England

Plot: As in the Jane Austen novel that inspired this book, when Mr. Dashwood dies, his estate passes to his son, John (and son’s detestable wife Fanny), leaving his second wife and their three daughters virtually penniless.  John ignores the promise he made his father to support his relatives and feels put upon rather than guilty.  Belle Dashwood has no choice but to move with her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, to a small cottage in Devon on the estate of a generous Dashwood cousin, Sir John Middleton.  It is Fanny’s much nicer brother Edward who comes up with this plan, and of course, he is Elinor’s love interest (it is a pity I see Hugh Grant’s perpetually slack-jawed face when I think of Edward Ferrars) while her overly-emotional sister Marianne is enamored of local bad boy John Willoughby.  Once settled in their new home, Elinor is assisted in finding a job by Sir John’s kind friend, Bill Brandon, who yearns for Marianne although he and Elinor have far more in common.  The family’s financial concerns are acute but no one seems to pay any attention except sensible Elinor, and even she is consumed by love.
What I liked: I have been reading Joanna Trollope since the early 80s when she wrote historical fiction under the pen name Caroline Harvey: Leaves from theValley and Parson Harding’s Daughter, among others.  Then in 1995, a miniseries was made in the UK of a contemporary novel called The Choir which she had written under her real name.  That put her on the map.  Even a CD of music from the series became a bestseller.  I enjoy her contemporary fiction, which is more upscale than Helen Fielding and such imitators.   Unlike her illustrious great-great-great-great-great uncle, her books are not connected and for the most part reflect relatively normal situations among the late 20th or early 21st century British middle class.  I listened to her most recent, The Soldier’s Wife, about a family coping with the rigidly military father’s return from Afghanistan, about a year ago.  Trollope really understands family life and interrelationships, and reveals her keen insight to the reader by creating vivid characters and showing us what they are thinking.

The real Sense & Sensibility was published in 1811. At that time, young ladies of gentle birth such as the Dashwoods had virtually no career options.  The difficulty of using this plot in contemporary fiction is that one wonders exasperatedly why Elinor and Marianne and their mother can’t get jobs.  Trollope deals with this by having Marianne barely out of secondary school and Elinor in the middle of an architecture degree.  I guess it had been a long time since I read the real book: I had completely forgotten the youngest sister, Margaret.  She is a complete pain in this book, seeking attention and making no effort to economize.  Of course, Marianne is also annoying but I appreciated her use of 21st century technology: checking Facebook compulsively to see if her married ex has changed his status from ‘single’.
Jane Austen is everywhere and her popularity shows no signs of ebbing, as Joanna Trollope has noted.  England finally recognized her with stamps in early 2013.  Even Nightline sent one ofits goofier reporters to a Jane Austen convention the other night and pointed out how intellectual her fans are.   Trollope also recommends several books about Austen for those curious.  

What I disliked: It's not that I don't enjoy Austen-inspired fiction -- in fact, I actively seek it out, and enjoyed this book very much but it does somehow seem a waste of Trollope's talent.  On the other hand, I suppose she is coming full circle, given the first books of hers that I read were Austen-inspired historical fiction set in the early 19th century.  This book is part of The Austen Project which is assigning six contemporary authors to rewrite Austen (create Austen homages?).  Next will be Val McDermid with her own version of Northanger Abbey.  That should be interesting given her usual dark style.

Source: I received an advance reading copy of this book from HarperCollins in return for a fair review.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Buying In (Book Review)

Title: Buying In
Author: Laura Hemphill
Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 2013
Genre: Fiction             Setting: NYC

Plot: Sophie Landgraf, a recent Yale grad, landed a coveted analyst position on Wall Street, but she is unprepared for the competitiveness of her (mostly male) coworkers, the long hours and ambiguity of her assignments, the unrealistic expectations and unceasing pressure, and the knowledge – shared by everyone at Sterling – that they are only one failed deal away from losing their jobs.  The people Sophie should be able to rely on, her boyfriend, Will, and her father, back in western Massachusetts, are both very critical of her job and believe she has changed since selling out to capitalism.  As her work becomes even more stressful and all-absorbing, Sophie has to figure out what is most important to her because it doesn’t appear she can Have It All.
What I liked:  There are lots of books about young women starting jobs in the big city (whether it is New York, as here, or London or wherever) but most of them ignore the actual work allegedly being done and focus on the personalities.  Hemphill writes vividly about a world she clearly knows well, and I couldn’t put this down.  I have a much better understanding of what investment bankers do all day than I ever did before, and she did a great job showing how Sophie becomes consumed by her job and by the alpha personalities there.   Although I have never worked in investment banking I have worked in jobs with hideous hours so I sympathized with Sophie’s predicament: no one on the outside ever understands what it is like.

Sophie is improbably unsophisticated despite having spent four years at Yale*, but it is satisfying for the reader when her cluelessness is an asset, such as when she sends one of her father’s weird sculptures to a client.  This endears her to him although he sees right through Sterling’s Managing Director, and it saves her job.  

* My Yale sister will appreciate the mention of dancing at Toad’s.

What I disliked (and a spoiler):  None of the characters was very likeable, except Sophie’s hometown friend Kim.  Sophie creeps around snooping in her coworkers’ desk drawers (occasionally stealing) and deserves to get caught.  I understand her stress level but she rarely thought about anyone but herself.  On the other hand, I thought her boyfriend was kind of a jerk not to be more sympathetic when she is nervous and exhausted.  I was glad the author didn’t replace him but instead shows that Sophie has no time for a boyfriend and a job, and wants the job more.  To me that was what made the book fiction rather than chick lit like The Devil Wears Prada and others of that ilk.
Source:  I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours, and recommend it for those want fiction that is entertaining but less predictable than Lauren Weisberger and Sophie Kinsella.  You can buy a copy through this link.  Even better, I have a copy of the book to give away: please leave a message if you are interested and I will pick a winner on Thanksgiving.  You can read other reviews from the Tour here:
Monday, November 4th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Tuesday, November 5th:  Entomology of a Bookworm
Wednesday, November 6th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Thursday, November 7th:  BookChickDi
Friday, November 8th:  Bibliotica
Monday, November 11th:  The Well Read Redhead
Tuesday, November 12th:  Tiny Library
Wednesday, November 13th:  Staircase Wit
Thursday, November 14th:  Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
Monday, November 18th:  Luxury Reading
Tuesday, November 19th:  Sarah’s Book Shelves
Wednesday, November 20th:  A Bookish Affair
Thursday, November 21st:  Walking with Nora
Friday, November 22nd:  Classy Cat Books
Monday, November 25th:  Reading Reality
Tuesday, November 26th:  Books and Movies

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Another Place Another Spring (Book Review)

Publication Information: Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1971
Genre: YA Historical Fiction      

Plot:  No one asked Marya Breshnevskaya if she wanted to accompany Countess Elena Temkova to Siberia, escorted by the harsh police Captain Boris Branov, but loyalty to her former master binds her, although she learns  that Elena and her mother are not worthy of her devotion.  Marya, a peasant from the Ukraine, was brought up more as a companion to the young Countess in St. Petersburg than as a servant.   Then, five years ago, Elena’s father was exiled to Siberia for his support of the Decembrist Revolutionaries, and now Elena’s mother has turned in her own daughter to the imperial secret police for cherishing her father’s letters.  More surprising, however, is Marya’s growing recognition that Branov is not her enemy as they share a dangerous yet intimate journey to Siberia, encountering foes and friends along the way.
What I liked:  This book reminded me of two much beloved books from my childhood, Masha and The Youngest Lady inWaiting by Mara Kay, also set in 19th century Russia (I was delighted to come across this link to background on Kay).  Masha is gently born but brought up almost in peasant poverty until her mother sends her to the Smolni Institute to be educated (tragically, ensuring a better life for the daughter she will never see again).  Later, she too, like Marya (even their names are the same), is caught up in the Decembrist Revolt.  In contrast, Marya is a serf’s daughter rescued by Count Pavel Temkov when she was orphaned, brought up generously by him practically as a lady, but never considered anything but a servant by Elena or her mother.  Both are brave young women, set apart from their peers, forced to rely on themselves for survival.  And you know I love books about orphans.

One is conditioned to expect a book about an aristocratic heroine, but Marya is the unexpected but admirable character who knows – as does the reader –  that her ungrateful mistress will not survive imprisonment without her.  The book took unexpected turns: I was really surprised to read about the 1812 Russian settlement at Fort Ross, California, which continued until early 1842 (and didn’t really believe in it until I looked it up).  For those interested in 20th century exile to Siberia, I recommend The Endless Steppe (which even has a Betsy-Tacy connection).

What I disliked:  There were a lot of very sad scenes, bleakest of which is when the spoiled Countess prevents Marya from sharing in the reunion with her father, the exiled Count Pavel. In addition, it is a bit hard to imagine someone escaping from Siberia, penniless, and winding up in California but that is what fiction is for.

Source: This book was recommended by author Sophie Perinot, and I got a copy via Interlibrary Loan from Fitchburg, MA.  It is one of those crossover YA historicals will satisfy an adult historical reader, and was definitely worth the wait. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Burning (Book Review)

Title: The Burning (Maeve Kerrigan, #1)
Author: Jane Casey
Publication Information: St. Martin’s/Minotaur Books Hardcover, 2011
Genre: Suspense/Crime Fiction  Setting: 21st century London
Plot: Maeve Kerrigan is a London detective with the usual challenges of solving crimes while dealing with annoying and condescending male counterparts.  They especially like to taunt her about being Irish and belittle her contributions to the murder investigation. I disliked them all, including, initially, the handsome Detective Constable Rob Langton who is working with her to catch a serial killer.   Another very intriguing character is Superintendent Godley, whose name denotes his seemingly inscrutable demeanor.  Godley sees Maeve’s potential but never seems to interfere in the squabbles of his staff.  I would say these detectives need workplace harassment awareness training from an employment lawyer such as myself but I am sure that would only make things worse for Maeve.  Her cohorts won’t change their ways until they are sued and/or forced to resign.

What I liked: I love heroine Maeve; she is tenacious and stubborn and sarcastic, doesn’t always know who her friends are, can’t manage her love life or her mother, and sometimes fails to recognize the killer until after I have.  She is one of those appealing law enforcement professionals who is dedicated to protecting victims, even if -- or particularly if -- they are dead and have no one else to seek justice for them.  Her boyfriend doesn’t understand her and isn’t supportive of her career; she deserves better but it is kind of funny to be forced to make that decision in the middle of a murder investigation.  Could you be any more annoying, Ian?

Crime Fiction: This is a genre I usually enjoy and fans of Tana French are likely to enjoy the Maeve Kerrigan books.  I finally read French’s four books last winter, and was enthralled by her dark depiction of Dublin.  Casey’s plots are at least as violent but the writing isn’t as dark or as bleak, and her books are enjoyable in a different way.  The reader knows nothing irrevocable is going to happen to Maeve: she often takes a licking but keeps on ticking (I suspect French would kill off a character without batting an eyelash).  Minette Walters is also very dark but in recent years her plots and characters have not sufficiently interested me.  The last Val McDermid I read subjected her heroine to such a violent rape I wasn’t sure I could even continue reading the series, although I like Carol Jordan and Tony Hill.  I hope that Casey can keep her readers fascinated without sacrificing her unusual heroine.

Source: My sister Clare recommended this series to me, and I got this book from the library, and read the second and third soon after.  SMP is about a year behind the UK pub schedule, so I had to order the fourth book and a recent YA title from England.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Debutante Hill (Book Review)

Title: Debutante Hill
Author: Lois Duncan
Publication Information: Lizzie Skurnick Books, 2013, trade paperback (originally published 1958)
Genre: Young Adult

Plot: Pretty blonde Lynn Chambers anticipates a fun senior year although her boyfriend Paul and her older brother Ernie have left for college.  Then a pushy neighbor organizes a debutante season of parties for the 12th graders from the more affluent part of town, the Hill.  Lynn’s egalitarian father persuades her not to participate, leaving Lynn depressed and excluded from the social whirl.  She tries to befriend hitherto ignored classmates with mixed results, and awkwardness ensues when a local bad boy, Dirk Masters, asks her out.  Loyalty to new friends causes a rift with old friends, including Paul.  Lynn’s compassion and integrity ultimately help her win through, as our mothers always promised (in a few cases, I am still waiting).

What I liked: I have been a Lois Duncan fan since I first came across Peggy, her book about Benedict Arnold’s wife, at my elementary school library in Newton, MA.  Next, I read A Gift of Magic, completely different but equally compelling.   She concentrated on suspense after that, which I read devotedly - although several, especially Daughters of Eve, were so scary I am still unnerved.  Reading Debutante Hill was delightful:  the development of characters and particularly Lynn’s self awareness were pure Lois, yet in other ways it was like going back in time to the Amelia Elizabeth Waldens and Betty Cavannas I always loved.   The introduction to this new edition is wonderful as it describes Lois’ early writing career and how she came to write this book.  Whether you are a long time reader or have never picked up a book by Lois Duncan, you will enjoy this book!

I liked heroine Lynn and her quirky, hard to predict sister Dodie, who is the only person Lynn can confide in.  I also appreciated that Lois avoided all the usual clichĂ©s – Lynn’s friend Nancy and the other debutantes don’t turn into mean girls when Lynn decides to forego their social activities.  The girls from the other side of the tracks are wary of Lynn’s overtures but don’t shun her.  The book isn’t preachy as Lynn’s growing maturity and ability to ignore peer pressure are offset by normal irritation with a younger sibling and all too human jealousy of an annoying classmate.  Best of all, Lois doesn’t fall into the trap of having Lynn end up with the wrong boy (although Lizzie Skurnick disagrees with me here). 

What I disliked: Dr. Chambers has the right idea about debutantes dividing the town into haves and have-nots so why does he allow Lynn’s brother Ernie to escort her friend Nancy to the deb events when he is home on break?  What a double standard!  And Lynn’s mother seems fairly oblivious to all the angst her daughter experiences.

Source: This book was the launch title in Lizzie Skurnick’s exciting new imprint.  I bought my copy from Barnes & Noble.com and it will reside with my other Lois Duncan titles.  I love the fact that the cover (very American Graffiti) actually has teenage Lois on it; a photo was taken by her gifted father.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Harvard at San Diego

Best Baby:  Willie Alford III
Best Band:  The makeshift band put together at the last minute by several Harvard alumni
Best Bar:  Clearly not in Old Town or at the hotel but it didn’t matter
Best Brothers:   Dave and Paul Scheper (Matt Foley was a no show, much to Jay's chagrin, so there was no competition)
Best Class:  1981
Best Cookie:  Saturday pregame tailgate (and there was no line)
Best Former Player I Hadn’t Seen in 32 Years:  Bob Woolway
Best Future Grandfather: Brian Hehir (checking that phone conscientiously)
Best Golfer:  I don’t think I heard who won but Tim Crudo assured me he was the worst
Best Hat:  Harvard hat with embroidery
Best License Plate:  My former roommate Loreen and I happened to park behind this car on Friday at a camera store miles from anywhere (see photo).  It turned out she knew the driver, a former baseball player named Dave Knolls.  He came to the party on Friday and the game on Saturday.  She also recruited him to be an alumni admissions interviewer!
Best Party:  Friday Night Reception
Best Plane/Adjacent Seat Companions:  Dan Mee going toward San Diego and Paul Brennan on the way back
Best Rate:  Marriott Courtyard (although I still think we need a hotel with a real bar - I liked the bar at the Marriott Coronado)
Best Roommate: Loreen
Best Score: Harvard 42-USD 20
Best Tee Shirt: See the onesie on Willie Alford III above (they should sell these at Dillon)
Best Trip for Golf: Paul Connors, returning to Atlanta for the Georgia Tech game
Best Victor: But I plan to continue calling him Orazio
Best View: From Wally Bregman’s infinity pool looking down into a valley (photo does not do it justice)

Best Weather: San Diego
Best Weekend: When can we do it again?  October 4, 2014 in DC

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Danger Calling (Book Review)

Title:  Danger Calling (Benbow Smith #2)
AuthorPatricia Wentworth
Publication Information:  J.B Lippincott Company, hardcover, 1931
Genre:  Mystery          Setting:  England and Paris 

Plot:  When Marian Rayne breaks her engagement to Lindsay Trevor a few days before the wedding, he is devastated. Everything is suddenly meaningless, including his job at a respected publishing house, which means it’s exactly the right moment for the mysterious Benbow Collingwood Horatio Smith to ask, “How would you like to die for your country?”  Wentworth fans know that Mr. Smith works discreetly in espionage for Britain and plays an important deus ex machina role in four books.   Here, he persuades Lindsay to disguise himself to take a job as private secretary to a flamboyant millionare, Algerius Restow, suspected of organizing a subversive movement to cause a war.  Just when Lindsay thinks Marian is gone from his life forever, he learns she is being blackmailed – but how can that be related to his investigation?
What I liked:  Lindsay Trevor is young and relatively serious; he served his country in the War and has written a well regarded book.  When Mr. Smith first propositions him, Lindsay is intrigued:

The whole business had a lure, and in other circumstances he would probably have jumped at it.  As it was –
“You’re offering me a job of some sort – a dangerous job?”
“Well—“ said Mr. Smith in non-committal tones….
“I’m afraid, sir, that I have got a previous engagement”….  Lindsay hesitated, and then put himself out of temptation’s way. “I’m being married next week, sir.”

A newly married man is not expected to risk his life for God and country but after the painful breakup with Marian is properly announced in the newspaper (now, I suppose the bride could merely change her Facebook status), Mr. Smith reaches out to Lindsay again and this time he accepts the assignment.

Lindsay’s finances are never mentioned but Marian is the heiress to an affluent uncle so he must be comfortably off or he would surely have been considered a fortune hunter.

What I disliked:  Well, it’s hard to like a hero named Lindsay, but how was Wentworth to know it would become primarily a female name?  The actual plot of this book is kind of silly, and Marian never comes to life as a character.  Even Lindsay does not have the sparkle of some of Wentworth’s later male characters – this book was written quite early in her career.  It is primarily the Miss Silver books that have been reprinted many times which is why this one is impossible to find.  Or is it because the story is so weak it was seldom reprinted?   Finally, I disliked all the snakes in the book.
Source:  I got this from the library while on vacation; I think it is one of the last copies in the country.  Thank you, CLAMS!

Click here for my other posts related to Patricia Wentworth.