Monday, December 26, 2016

Skating Shoes (Book Review)

Title: Skating Shoes (UK title: White Boots)
Author: Noel Streatfeild
IllustratorRichard Floethe
Publication: Random House, Hardcover, 1951 (currently available in pb)
Genre: Juvenile fiction Setting: London
Description: Harriet Johnson has been ill and her doctor is concerned about her slow recovery so recommends ice skating. The Johnson family is delightful but impoverished: father George makes an inadequate living running a London shop in which he sells random produce etc. sent up from the country by his brother, mother Olivia manages meals for six out of the merchandise no one will purchase, and Harriet’s brothers immediately come up with a plan to subsidize her skating. Once at the rink, Harriet is befriended by talented Lalla Moore, who literally pulls her onto the ice when she is in awe at just glimpsing a rink for the first time. Raised by an affluent aunt, Lalla has been groomed since age 3 to become an ice skating champion. Their unexpected friendship will change the lives of both families.

Audience: Readers about 8-11 and adults who love Streatfeild.
My Impression: One of my all time favorite books, and a top three Streatfield, along with Ballet Shoes and Dancing Shoes. Although perhaps best known for her young characters who aspire to performing arts careers, Streatfeild is also gifted at portraying normal family life: Lalla, who was quick, soon picked up Casino and found it the most exciting game….Certainly she had never seen a family card game with everybody trying to do down the rest of the family, and roaring with laughter when they succeeded. Streatfield also makes it clear that frugal tea with the Johnsons is more fun than the cake with pink sugar and chocolate biscuits served in lonely splendor at Lalla’s home. On the other hand, part of the appeal of this book is learning what it takes to become a skating champion and witnessing Harriet’s skating development.

The supporting characters, as in all Streatfeild books, are warm and appealing, from Lalla’s Nana who does not approve of “making a show” of Lalla and encourages the friendship with Harriet and her family; the governess, Miss Goldthorpe, who invites Harriet to join Lalla’s lessons; and Max, the moody skating instructor, who is frustrated by Lalla’s lack of attention to the compulsory figures then required of skaters. Most vivid of all are the descriptions of George Johnson’s shop. His brother eats “the best of everything he grew, caught, or shot” and sends up to London dozens of near-rotten eggs, hundreds of cabbages, and possibly edible toadstools that are difficult to sell. Unlike many poor but honest families in English fiction, the Johnsons really are scraping the bottom of the barrel. No loyal retainer manages the kitchen, and they don’t have two shillings to spare for renting skates (Toby, the quantitative brother, immediately wonders how much skates would cost to buy and whether that would be more economical). 

I always think about this beloved book on Boxing Day because that is how I learned about this British holiday. Harriet’s brother Alec gets a paper route with Pulton’s News Agents to pay for her skate rental. It pays 14 shillings a week (sigh for the long lost days of a morning and evening newspaper delivery) and when he gets paid Mr. Pulton says, “Twelve shillings for your sister’s skates, and two shillings for your dreams.” Alec is invited to stop by Mr. Pulton’s flat, above the newspaper shop on the day after Christmas, which American readers learn is Boxing Day, and offered plum cake and ginger-wine (I assume this is the ginger beer also drunk by the Swallows and Amazons). Mr. Pulton listens to Alec’s ambitions for a market garden and gives him a leather cash box for his savings. His quiet support keeps Alec determined to save even when he is tempted to buy other necessities. Unlike some books where there is comeuppance for a talented but conceited character and success for the underdog, both Lalla and Harriet are likeable in different ways. Lalla is spoiled and lacks Harriet’s consistent work ethic but despite her upbringing she is generous (except in chapter 13) and capable of real friendship. Harriet’s improvement as a skater is fun for the reader, whether a skating fan or not.
About the Author: Noel Streatfeild was the daughter of an English minister and her book, A Vicarage Family, is the first of three that are more or less autobiographical.   She attended the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and acted professionally for several years before beginning to write.  Ballet Shoes was the beginning of the "career novel" for children, and in the US many of her later books were retitled with "Shoes" to increase sales.   White Boots became Skating Shoes, which makes much more sense than Family Shoes (The Bell Family) and Party Shoes (Party Frock).

Source: For years I checked this out of the Newton Library with the original US cover shown above. I now own a hardcover and the Puffin paperback also displayed.  Highly recommended and Happy Boxing Day!

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White (Book Review)

Title: Some Writer! The Story of E. B. White
Author: Melissa Sweet with Afterword by Martha White
Publication: 2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover
Genre: Juvenile Nonfiction
Description: This is an illustrated biography of the beloved author of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan, created by a gifted artist of mixed media. It starts with his childhood and provides a vivid depiction of young Elwyn’s, later called Andy, childhood in NYC and first exposure to Maine. His love of country life in Maine gave him deep pleasure and enabled him to craft stories about anthropomorphic characters that have entertained generations of children.

Audience: The book is written with simplicity that makes it suitable for middle schoolers researching an author but with enough dimension to appeal to adults interested in E. B. White.

My Impressions: I don’t recall what review inspired me to put this book on reserve at the library but when I picked it up and saw it was a juvenile biography, I almost didn’t bother to read it. That would have been a big mistake, as it was one of the most charming books I have read in some time. I was not previously familiar with Melissa Sweet who is a well known picture book illustrator and Caldecott honoree, but I was entranced by her multimedia approach – taking actual memorabilia from E. B.’s life and creating replicas of other pivotal moments in his life, while using quotes from E.B’s own writing throughout. It clearly made White’s surviving family members happy to have a biographer who loves Maine and nature as much as E.B. himself.
This is a gem of a book which reveals E. B.’s humor and modesty, love of his family (the letter he wrote when he learned his wife was pregnant is especially poignant), and the development of his career. Established as a writer for adults, E. B. wrote an essay on children’s books that caught the eye of Dr. Seuss himself, resulting in the encouragement E. B. needed to begin work on Charlotte’s Web, which became his first bestseller (and my favorite). Sweet includes a picture of a manual typewriter and information for young readers who only know computers, understanding that most people interested in an author want to envision him or her in the process of writing. I especially enjoyed learning about the early days of the New Yorker, which would not have interested me as a child, and Ursula Nordstrom’s inspired choice of Garth Williams to illustrate Charlotte’s Web as his first children’s book (coincidentally, a biography of Williams also was published in 2016).

After I finished this review, I found an interview with Sweet on NPR's All Things Considered.

Source: I got this book from the Boston Public Library. Highly recommended. Some book!

Images copyright to HMH, 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Home Dec In-a-Sec...Not

About 18 months ago, I suddenly realized my dining room did not have curtains, only tired shades the previous owners had left behind.  I shopped for some time but it was impossible to find anything that seemed right.  Although I had not done much sewing recently, I found a pattern for valences that seemed simple and estimated two hours.   I chose the style in the bottom left:
The pattern was much more complicated than I expected.   I brought it with me to two of my favorite fabric stores for help figuring out how much fabric I needed and even these experts were perplexed!  I also emailed McCall's customer service for assistance and they explained which instructions to use (they also said the two hours applied to sewing time, not cutting, layout, or agonizing over the instructions).  As my brother would say, "Learning a lot about McCall's..."
I am sure I had spent at least 10 hours reading the pattern before I even found blue paisley I liked.  I bought the entire length of fabric because I knew that matching the paisley would be difficult (and it was).  Every time I was developing momentum, someone would come to visit and I would remove everything from the dining room table - the only surface big enough for all the fabric!   And then there was the day I reached page 8 and read:

Using a hack saw, cut metal bar to Width Between Brackets measurements minus 1"

Don't you think it's just a little passive aggressive to lure me into a deux heures pattern and just assume I own a hacksaw?   For the record, I do not, and I think there should have been a hacksaw warning on the package.   Reading that instruction still makes me laugh.  It took several months to find a plausible metal bar and to get someone to cut it, then to choose new curtain rods (when the first set were not sturdy enough) which the same guy mounted for me.  Try explaining to men in a hardware store what a valence is and why you need a specially cut metal bar!  And by now we are up to dozens of hours.  The windows are slightly different sizes which added to the complexity and the feeling I was doing everything twice and not making progress. But that scallopy look was tricky...
Still, all's well that ends well!  I added the last blue ties tonight and both valences were done, about a year after I bought the pattern!
What do you think?  


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Split Rock (Book Review)

Title: Split Rock
Author: Holly Hodder Eger
Publication: Trade Paperback, Conzett Verlag, 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: After inheriting a home in Martha’s Vineyard from a beloved aunt, Annie Tucker brings her three children to the popular summer destination while her husband is traveling for work in Asia. Lonely and grieving for her aunt, Annie becomes dangerously preoccupied with memories of a teenage romance that ended badly. When the former beau appears in person, Annie wonders if she is being given another chance at love and whether she should make different choices this time.

Audience: Fans of women’s fiction, including authors such as Kristin Hannah and Nancy Thayer
Lambert's Cove, Martha's Vineyard
My Impressions: I enjoyed this story of a seemingly perfect summer on Martha’s Vineyard where the protagonist is suspended in time between her happy adolescence and the sometimes tedious responsibilities of parenting. Eger does a great job at depicting the Island she so obviously loves, and throughout the book I longed to be walking (but not swimming!) down the paths she describes. Martha’s Vineyard is the real star of this book, and I am sure I am not the only reader determined to visit after reading this novel.

Heroine Annie is an interesting personality, and is surrounded by other characters as vividly drawn. I especially liked Freddy, the friend she and her children make at the beach, although his Yiddish phrases were a bit over the top and his back story was unnecessarily lurid. Annie’s self-absorption was at times annoying and it would be easy to dismiss her as being privileged and spoiled, dismissive of her practically perfect husband, and perplexingly unable to manage three well behaved children whom she appeared to have coped with perfectly well in Maryland (and if she has never yelled at them before this fateful summer, she must be doing something right). However, I forgave her these all too human flaws (plus, a novel needs fodder) because I was so intrigued by her near drowning experience and the way she reacts to it, and the way in which this episode (eventually) helps her became completely honest with herself and confront her past. And, after all, one can enjoy an imperfect heroine in the abstract but once you start to like her, you want her to face facts and move on.  An enjoyable read!
Aunt Faye?
Source: I bought a copy of this book at a party for the author. I thought she said she was inspired by an incident when her youngest child accidentally called the police, while playing with a telephone, so I was expecting to find that incident in the book. Maybe I missed it or perhaps it will appear in the sequel!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Ave atque vale, Gordon A. Martin, Jr.

As many of you know, I lost my father on November 1, 2016.   Those acquainted with him know he was a very loyal friend, as well as a loving husband and father.   It touched us deeply how many of his friends and ours shared their memories of him over the last two weeks, and although it is a cliche it does alleviate some of the pain.   Thank you for being there for him and for us during this very painful time.

With Dad at Fenway

Here are links to the Globe Notice, to his book, Count Them One by One, and his appearance on GMA.

Gordon, Stephanie, and baby Con
My brother Peter spoke very eloquently at the funeral Mass about Dad:

Remarks: November 5, 2016          St. Lawrence Church

On behalf of my mother and my sisters, I would like to thank all of you for coming today. In particular we'd like to thank all those who came from long distances to support us and show their feelings for my father.

A special thanks also to Fr. Brian, Fr. James and to the parishioners of St. Lawrence. When my parents moved here some years ago from the parish they loved in Newton Centre, they had no idea that they would find such a welcoming community of old and new friends and wonderful priests where they could praise God together. Fr. Brian, Fr. James and Fr. Lukasz all ministered to Dad during his final illness.

Thanks also to old friend Msgr. Helmick, who we are so pleased to have here with us concelebrating today, from St Teresa's parish in West Roxbury where Dad grew up. And Fr. Bill Schmidt - what a great surprise that you were able to come...thank you!

An important part of their experience here is the excellent music, and we would also like to thank our musicians here today, Lois Regestein, Chelsea Basler, Spencer Aston, and our special thanks to Warren Hutchison who couldn’t be here, but helped us so much over the last few days.

Our family is very important to us. We especially thank two of Dad’s first cousins, Ed Hennessy who came from New Jersey and Tommy Martin who came from Georgia to be with us today.
 
You'll notice that my sister, Constance, is standing nearby. Let me explain. If you're a Red Sox fan, you'll understand...this is like when you have Clay Buchholz start an important playoff game. You're hoping for the best, but you don't know what you'll get. During our run through we got a little emotional, so if I falter, we can go to the closer.

It's hard in brief remarks to do justice to a man who touched so many people in so many ways.
Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that compassion and an attention to those in need became core parts of his character. Dad lost his mother when he was only six. His father had personal issues and couldn’t play the role in my father's upbringing I'm sure he would have liked to. Dad saw him only a handful of times after his Mother’s death. Luckily, Dad’s aunt, his mother's sister, Lillian Hennessy, stepped into the breach and raised Dad. She sacrificed to send him to the Roxbury Latin School and gain him every advantage possible, even getting him a junior membership at Longwood in his teenage years, where he began his lifelong love of tennis.

From Aunt Lillian, from his Church, from other influences -- and from somewhere inside himself -- my father developed his zeal for public service and, as I tell my children, making the world a better place for others. In time, he developed a particular passion for racial justice and equality. The first song Dad taught Constance and Clare to sing was “We Shall Overcome.”

Dad's dedication for public service was informed by his steady, devoted faith in the Catholic Church and his fiery belief in the ideals of the Democratic party. My sisters and I grew up hearing about how Catholic social justice icon Dorothy Day had come to Dad's law school apartment for a meeting of the Catholic law students group, the St. Thomas More Society. We also heard about Mother and Dad's interactions with the repeat Democratic nominee for the Presidency, Adlai Stevenson. My sisters and I have heard from friends over the past few days who trace their interest in politics to conversations with Dad.

As many of you know, he met my mother through their shared love of politics. Dad was the president of the Harvard Young Democrats when he and his friends decided Radcliffe should start a chapter. I hope that they were interested in promoting women’s participation in the political process and NOT just looking for dates. Anyway, Dad got the names of three young women who were enthusiastic Democrats, hoping one would take charge. The first girl wasn’t home. The second girl was named Stephanie Lang, one of the very few Catholic girls at Radcliffe. The rest was history. They recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of their first date.

To recognize the essence of Dad's character, you have to look deeper, to more fundamental values. I think the most important of these was his unflinching loyalty. Loyalty to his wife, his children and his friends. My sisters and I never felt anything but total support from Dad. He came every event and performance we were in, long before it was common for fathers to turn up. He even brought Clare to her 6am figure skating practices…and he was NOT an eager early riser.

Dad had a unquestioned belief in our abilities and in our characters and was certain that we could do anything we set out to do. If things ever went badly for us he had no doubt that we would be able to bounce back.

It is a priceless thing to have someone in this world with this unrivaled belief in who you are and what you can do.

Dad was also unfailingly loyal to Roxbury Latin, Harvard and other institutions with which he was affiliated...and of course his beloved Boston professional sports teams, as well as the organizations that help Boston’s most vulnerable residents such as Casa Myrna Vasquez. We all grew up going with my parents to Harvard and BU hockey games, Harvard basketball games, and watching countless Bruins, Red Sox and Celtics games in person and on tv with Dad (and Mother, as long as the game wasn't too close and she didn't have to step out of the room to calm her nerves.)

Dad and Mother passed their love of sport on to us, and you won't find too many families who can rival us for sports passion.

As we looked at pictures over the last few days, there were an astonishing number of photos of Dad and various children and grandchildren with him at Fenway. Whether his grandchildren were in Boston, Rome or even New York (where they are proud Sox fans) they loved talking to Gram and Papa about the latest Sox game.

I think we love sports because at its best, it is about so much more than the wins and losses. And the only thing Dad may have liked more than watching one of his teams play was watching one of us compete. As I always tell my boys, my favorite tennis memory in my long tennis career is without a doubt the 1991 annual doubles tournament Dad and I won at Longwood.

He was committed to friends from every part of his life, many of whom are here today: classmates from Roxbury Latin, Harvard, and NYU. Those he worked with in the Justice Department in DC, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, law firms including the one he founded with two close friends, friends and colleagues from his 21 years as a Massachusetts Trial Court judge, friends from Longwood, and many more parts of his life. He made an effort to maintain friendship before the Internet and email made it easier to stay in touch. He had a kind word for everyone and brought us up to believe it was important to treat everyone with respect no matter what his or her station in life. And he led by example.

Dad and Mother did a great job raising us (now isn't the place to spill the beans on some of the things that Andrea, the youngest, got away with when our parents had gotten a little fatigued with child-raising). I told Dad in a Father's Day note a few years ago that I would consider myself a great success as a father if I could be even half the father to my children that he had been to me. And I meant it. But I was taken aback when one of my boys saw the card and told me he thought that was a reasonable goal for me!

And Dad has also been a devoted grandfather to his eight grandchildren, wherever they have been. They return not only love, but admiration for him and what he has done. One of them, 11-year-old James, made Dad the centerpiece of a school project on Civil Rights. And some have already read his book about his landmark voting rights case in Mississippi. If Dad had been able to do so, he might have made that a prerequisite for all of you entering the church today.

With the wonderful, important life that Dad lived for 82 years and with all the love and memories we shared with him and Mother, we should focus on gratitude rather than grief. His children, our spouses, and his grandchildren will all strive to further his legacy of love, kindness and social responsibility.

But it is hard to escape the fact that the world will be a poorer place without Dad's encouragement, his kind words and his hugs.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Mercury (Book Review)

Title: Exposure
Author: Margot Livesey
Publication: Harper Collins, hardcover, 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: Donald believes he knows all there is to know about seeing. An optometrist in suburban Boston, he is sure that he and his wife, Viv, who runs the local stables, are both devoted to their two children and to each other. Then Mercury—a gorgeous young thoroughbred with a murky past—arrives at Windy Hill and everything changes.

Mercury’s owner, Hilary, is a newcomer to town who has enrolled her daughter in riding lessons. When she brings Mercury to board at Windy Hill, everyone is struck by his beauty and prowess, particularly Viv. As she rides him, Viv begins to dream of competing again, embracing the ambitions that she had harbored, and relinquished, as a young woman. Her daydreams soon morph into consuming desire, and her infatuation with the thoroughbred escalates to obsession.

Donald may have good vision but he is slow to notice how profoundly Viv has changed and how these changes threaten their quiet, secure world. By the time he does, it is too late to stop the catastrophic collision of Viv’s ambitions and his own myopia (from the publisher).

Purchase Links

Audience: Readers of Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult, and Rosellen Brown.

My Impressions: I had read and enjoyed two books by Margot Livesey previously and so was eager to read her latest. Although I found the beginning slow, I soon identified with the quiet male protagonist whose grief for his recently deceased father felt very familiar to me as I struggle with the imminent loss of my own dear father. Although Donald is culpable in the disastrous events that affect his family, I was very sympathetic to him and infuriated by his self-centered wife, even though I recognize they were both suffering in different ways. What made the book for me was the way Livesey told the story from the perspective of both characters, first Donald and then Viv, told as flashbacks, as they move inexorably towards doom.

Livesey is a talented writer with a gift for creating memorable characters; here, the characters of Donald, Jack, and Donald’s long lost friend Robert, who appears briefly but significantly. She is Scottish-born, although lives in Cambridge now, and having visited Edinburgh last November, I especially enjoyed the references to Donald’s childhood in Scotland and subsequent trips back (even mentioning Deacon Brodie’s where I ate sticky toffee pudding!).
Menu from Deacon Brodie's

I couldn't decide between ice cream and custard sauce on my sticky toffee pudding so they generously gave me both!

She also memorably sets a scene in the Peacock Room of the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian. I was unfamiliar with this fascinating art and look forward to seeing it on my next trip to DC.

Having read many horse stories during my formative years (the author mentions Misty of Chincoteague but my favorites were (are) by K.M. Peyton), it was also interesting to see an adult obsessed by a horse.  If you can get past your conviction that you would never jeopardize your happy life so gratuitously, Viv's behavior is somewhat convincing.
Source: I was provided a pre-publication copy of this book by TLC Book Tours and the publisher for review purposes. Please visit other stops on the tour by clicking below:

Tour Stops

Tuesday, September 27th: Bibliophiliac
Wednesday, September 28th: The Reading Date
Thursday, September 29th: Real Life Reading
Friday, September 30th: Booksie’s Blog
Monday, October 3rd: Tina Says…
Wednesday, October 5th: Back Porchervations
Thursday, October 6th: Jathan & Heather
Monday, October 10th: I Brought a Book
Tuesday, October 11th: Bibliotica
Wednesday, October 12th: The Book Diva’s Reads
Thursday, October 13th: Art Books Coffee
Monday, October 17th: BookNAround
Monday, October 17th: The Ludic Reader
Tuesday, October 18th: Rebecca Radish
Thursday, October 20th: Sweet Southern Home
Friday, October 21st: Gspotsylvania: Ramblings from a Reading Writer Who Rescues Birds and Beasts

There was no sticky toffee pudding in this book but I enjoyed it despite that lack!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Shuffle, Repeat (Book Review)

Title: Shuffle, Repeat
Author: Jen Klein
Publication: Random House, Hardcover, 2016
Genre: Young Adult
Plot: June is a high school senior in Michigan who prides herself on her pragmatism and can’t wait for her real life to begin after graduation. Her classmate Oliver is an outgoing football player with his own car. When June’s mother decides they are moving to the outskirts of Ann Arbor, she and Oliver’s mother arranges for Oliver to give June a ride to school every morning. Even detached June can’t help noticing Oliver’s good looks and unassuming charm, and the reader is swooning by page 8. However, as June is dating the (boring) Itch and Oliver the inevitable cheerleader, they ignore any frisson of attraction by debating about the meaning of high school and create a carpool playlist by awarding each other points for winning arguments. Slowly but surely, June and Oliver begin to care about earning the good opinion of the other, and their friendship becomes more important than either is willing to admit...

Audience: Fans of YA authors such as Sarah Dessen, Susane Colasanti, and Maureen Johnson.
My Impressions: There is something immediately appealing about this book. I enjoyed June’s snarkiness and her quirky friends, especially her best friend Shawn who is out and accepted by his peers, and understands June as a best friend should. I liked that the friendship between June’s mother and Oliver’s mother has survived despite their different financial and marital status (and in contrast to June’s and Oliver’s friendship which ended when they were in kindergarten). Oliver’s friend Theo is so awful he is amusing in his own right. He is like every teenage boy you want to run a mile from.

The story is told from June’s point of view but she is not a perfect heroine: she is judgmental and does a poor job figuring out where her loyalties should lie. Oliver’s character is what makes the story so charming; in particular, the way he listens to June, hearing what she says and does not say (even when she is so busy assuming he is a dumb jock that she marvels at his vocabulary). An ongoing issue is that he keeps sharing details of a senior prank with her: each time she is critical of his elaborate plans, and he reluctantly comes to appreciate that she is right and ultimately conceives of a plan that is funny but does not cause gratuitous damage or harm.

The book made me laugh but there were some poignant moments as well, particularly regarding June's relationship with her father.
Mistletoe
Question for the Author: I understand that June is initially reluctant to admit she likes Oliver but I didn’t understand why (once she knows he likes her too) she  pretends that tequila and starlight are responsible for her behavior (271-275). Is she unwilling to do a conventional high school romance because of her aversion to high school? Did she think Oliver was on the rebound?
Hydrangeas and lilies
Does she distrust romance in general because of her father’s absence in her life (yet, if so, why did she date Itch – and further, it is recognizing her father’s limitations that seems to set her on the right path at the end)? I just didn’t get the need for the angst at the end.  It seemed manufactured to keep them apart.

Source: I checked out this book from the library, and highly recommend it.

Flower image from https://www.etsy.com/shop/SongsFromTheGarden

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Hidden Figures (Book Review)

Title: Hidden Figures
Author: Margot Lee Shetterly
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, 2016
Genre: Nonfiction/History/Women’s Studies
Plot: The phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space. Soon to be a major motion picture starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner, opening in January  2017.

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

 Purchase Links

Audience: Fans of narrative history, civil rights, inspirational women - but this practically reads like a novel!

About the Author: Margot Lee Shetterly grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where she knew many of the women in Hidden Figures.  She is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow and the recipient of a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities grant for her research on women in computing.  She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

My Impressions: I didn’t know much about this book before I started reading but was instantly hooked. I liked that author Shetterly became aware about these women and their history during an adult visit to her parents, learning her old Sunday School teacher had a personal story of such magnitude it simply had to be told. The book is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, and contains so many fascinating anecdotes that I kept reading aloud from it to my father, author of his own book about brave African-Americans making a difference (in his case, fighting for the right to vote). One of my favorite facts was that the black women working as computers (the word sounds strange to a modern audience but they were computing) were assigned to a cafeteria table that was labeled “Colored Computers” – the only group of employees with a designated seating area. Petite Miriam Mann kept making the sign disappear, causing her colleagues to fear there would be repercussions, but eventually some anonymous HR staffer gave up replacing the signs. I am sure I will enjoy the movie of this book as well, and it has a great cast.
Source: I received a copy of Hidden Figures from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow Books in return for a candid review. Thank you for the opportunity to read such a fascinating story!  For other stops on the Hidden Figures tour, see below:

September 6th: A Bookish Way of Life
September 7th: Doing Dewey
September 8th: Tina Says…
September 9th: Sapphire Ng
September 12th: Read. Write. Repeat.
September 13th: Kritters Ramblings
September 14th: Back Porchervations
September 15th: A Bookish Affair
September 16th: Reading Reality
September 19th: 100 Pages a Day…Stephanie’s Book Reviews
September 20th: In the Garden of Eva
September 22nd: View from the Birdhouse
September 26th: Man of La Book
September 27th: Gspotsylvania: Ramblings from a Reading Writer Who Rescues Birds and Beasts

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chocolate Thinsies (Recipe)

Chocolate Thinsies were always our 'go to' cookie recipe when I was growing up if we had unexpected afternoon guests and were out of eggs.  They are fairly quick to make, and we were usually well supplied with the other ingredients. Try them warm from the oven with a cold glass of milk!

Ingredients
1 cup less 2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Hershey's cocoa
1/4 teaspoon salt
dash cinnamon
1/4 cup margarine
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions
Cream shortening and sugar.  Add milk gradually. Mixture will look slightly curdled (this was always my favorite line from the recipe).  Mix dry ingredients together prior to folding them into the shortening mixture.  Stir until well blended.  Add vanilla.

Preheat the oven to 350°.   Spread the mixture about 1/4 to1/8 inch thick onto a greased cookie sheet.  Bake for 10 minutes.   Cut into squares while warm, using a spatula if necessary to remove them from the cookie sheet.

Enjoy!  I don't remember where my mother found this recipe but it used to be taped inside her kitchen cabinet for convenience.   I will add a picture over the weekend.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The City Baker's Guide to Country Living (Book Review)

Title: The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living
Author: Louise Miller
Publication: Viking, Hardcover, 2016
Genre: Fiction
Plot: When Olivia Rawlings, pastry chef at an exclusive Boston club, accidentally sets the historic building on fire with a flaming dessert, she more or less loses her job. Humiliated, Livvy flees for comfort to her best friend in Vermont and ends up employed at the nearby Sugar Maple Inn. The curmudgeonly owner is on a quest to regain dominance of a local apple pie contest, and Livvy is up for the challenge, even though they don’t always see eye to eye. Despite her flamboyantly dyed hair and distaste for the country, Livvy makes friends quickly, including a quiet farmer, Martin, and his family who may be the first to make her feel she really belongs somewhere. Can she find lasting happiness in rural Vermont?

Audience: Understood Betsy for grown-ups! Guthrie, Vermont also reminded me of Stars Hollow, although I believe that is supposed to be Washington, Connecticut. Readers who enjoy Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Elinor Lipman should appreciate this debut novel as well.

My Impressions: First of all, I loved the descriptions of food, although it is always a mistake to read a book about food when you haven’t had time to go to the grocery store for days - I was almost ready to gnaw on the book. Second, I loved the quirky, minor characters, including Alfred the chef (I enjoyed how at first they shared the kitchen and communicated without meeting; they communicated beautifully when collaborating as well); Dotty, who welcomes Livvy to family gatherings; Tom who delivers milk and devours Livvy’s cooking; and Margaret, whose gruff demeanor hides the hurt caused by an unrelenting Mean Girl. Finally, as a city girl myself I am always fascinated, if disbelieving, of young women who find fulfillment in rural communities. It is possible that Livvy’s transformation happened too quickly – also, in Boston Livvy wasn’t making enough money to pay her rent so how is that she could be solvent as a pastry chef in Vermont? Admittedly, she was living rent free in a cottage on the Inn’s premises.

The obstacles between Livvy and Martin seemed contrived, making the last 30% of the book less interesting and satisfying. Either Martin’s motivation was unconvincing or his character was not very likeable, I couldn’t decide which.  However, his parents were so sweet they compensated for his unreliability.  I was disappointed with Livvy for not valuing her friend Hannah more. Hannah is loyal in a way few friends are when the BFF and the husband don’t get along.
For another take on  Understood Betsy, try the most recent installment of The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick: Mother-Daughter Book Camp.

Source: I learned about this book when I saw it listed on my library website as an “in demand” new release.  I was convinced when I saw it had been edited by my former colleague, Pam Dorman, and I promptly put it on reserve. Later, I learned that Miller is a local author which made the book even more enjoyable. I am enjoying her Instagram posts as well. Recommended!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

First Star I See Tonight (Book Review)

Title: First Star I See Tonight
Author: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
Publication: William Morrow, Hardcover, August 2016
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Plot: A star quarterback and a feisty detective play for keeps in this sporty, sassy novel—a long-awaited new entry in the beloved, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author’s fan-favorite Chicago Stars football series.

Piper Dove is a woman with a dream—to become the best detective in the city of Chicago. First job? Trail former Chicago Stars quarterback, Cooper Graham. Problem? Graham’s spotted her, and he’s not happy.  Which is why a good detective needs to think on her feet. “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.”

Piper soon finds herself working for Graham himself, although not as the bodyguard he refuses to admit he so desperately needs. Instead, he’s hired her to keep an eye on the employees at his exclusive new nightclub. But Coop’s life might be in danger, and Piper’s determined to protect him, whether he wants it or not. (Hint: Not!) If only she weren’t also dealing with a bevy of Middle Eastern princesses, a Pakistani servant girl yearning for freedom, a teenager who just wants of fit in, and an elderly neighbor demanding Piper find her very dead husband.

And then there’s Cooper Graham himself, a legendary sports hero who always gets what he wants—even if what he wants is a feisty detective hell bent on proving she’s as tough as he is.

From the bustling streets of Chicago to a windswept lighthouse on Lake Superior to the glistening waters of Biscayne Bay, two people who can’t stand to lose will test themselves and each other to discover what matters most.

Purchase Links

Audience: Fans of Kristin Hannah, Rachel Gibson, and Jennifer Crusie

What I liked: I have been a big fan of SEP since an editorial meeting at Penguin around 1993 when talented editor Jennifer Enderlin handed me a manuscript and asked me to come meet the author and her agent the next day.  I loved that book, which launched her Chicago Stars series and introduced one of her most memorable couples. Another gifted editor, Carrie Feron at Avon, outbid stingy (among other things) Elaine Koster to secure the book, and eventually SEP became a New York Times bestseller for Avon/Morrow. I enjoyed working on her books when I was at Avon, selling them to Barnes & Noble and (now sadly defunct) Waldenbooks. Several times when Book Expo was in Chicago, the sales department enjoyed lovely dinners with SEP and her husband.

Although I no longer work in publishing, I never miss one of her books.  This book is a winner, with a very appealing hero who is a retired quarterback with a sense of humor, and will be enjoyed by existing and new fans.

Additionally:  This book was simply a fun read.  I have not enjoyed the Wynette, Texas series as much as the Chicago Stars series. Moreover, the last two books I read (Heroes are My Weakness, The Great Escape) featured the kind of hero who is a jerk to the heroine the whole book, and you are supposed to understand and forgive him once you know why (with Theo, I guessed why but still disliked him although enjoyed the homage that book paid to the gothic genre). Unless the author is SEP, my life is too short for such heroes and, really, I would prefer she avoid angry tattooed lead characters in the future. Hence, my enjoyment of First Star I See Tonight where the abusive males are not the hero.
Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.
Please join Susan Elizabeth Phillips, author of the Chicago Stars series, on other tour stops:

Wednesday, August 24th: Books and Bindings
Thursday, August 25th: Into the Hall of Books
Friday, August 26th: Booksellers Without Borders
Monday, August 29th: From the TBR Pile
Thursday, September 1st: Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, September 1st: A Soccer Mom’s Book Blog
Tuesday, September 6th: As I turn the pages
Wednesday, September 7th: Leigh Kramer
Thursday, September 8th: Queen of All She Reads
Friday, September 9th: Seaside Book Nook

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Whiskey Sea (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Whiskey Sea
Author: Ann Howard Creel
Publication: Lake Union Publishing, trade paperback, 2016
Genre: Historical Fiction, 1920s New Jersey
Giveaway: Thanks to the author and publisher, I have a copy of this book to give away to a US or Canadian reader! If you are a fan of historical fiction, please leave a comment telling me your favorite setting or time frame and I will pick a winner at or around the end of August.
Plot: Homeless when their mother (the town whore) dies, Frieda and her sister Bea are adopted by a kindly fisherman Silver. Frieda loves the sea and Silver’s way of life while the more delicate Bea excels in school. But Silver doesn’t approve of Frieda’s desire to join him deep sea fishing when she leaves school, so he sells his boat to a quiet young man named Sam Hicks who admires Frieda. Forced to think creatively about how to support her sister and adoptive father, Frieda persuades Hicks to teach her how to repair engines. Some of the fishermen are reluctant to trust a woman for such work and some people in town can’t forget her scandalous origins but Frieda scrapes out a living. When she is invited to help the skipper of a large boat smuggle liquor, her family and Hicks disapprove but Frieda sees not only a chance to make extra money as a mechanic but also finds excitement as the smugglers are often chased by the Coast Guard (trying to uphold Prohibition restrictions). Adding to the drama, Frieda falls for the handsome young Princeton alum who shows up to help with the smuggling as a lark - if he disappears as quickly, will he take her heart with him?

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, especially of feisty heroines longing for a non-traditional role in the world. Creel is also the author of While You Were Mine, set just after WWII.

What I liked: There are many books about this time period told from the perspective of flighty (or not so flighty) flappers, some of whom, like Frieda, yearn to escape the expectations of family but author Creel spotlights a very different heroine – one from a small town with little money and long memories – she is judged and found wanting due to her birth and sharp tongue. Frieda loves her adoptive father and sister but ignores their pleas to stop smuggling, justifying her actions as being done to support them. The descriptions of whiskey running are detailed, vivid and terrifiying, leading inexorably to disaster.
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Purchase Links

Amazon | Books-A-Million | Barnes & Noble

What I disliked: For most of the book, I found the heroine hard to like. She was ashamed of her mother’s behavior and reputation so it didn’t make sense that she would so easily succumb to the charms of a stranger. Plus, it annoyed me that she was such a pushover even while the author skillfully conveyed Charles’ magnetism. I was also extremely irked that after Frieda risked her life on multiple occasions to fund her sister’s desire to attend college and become a teacher, Bea was so willing to toss her dream away and, even worse, not be available when Silver and Frieda needed her.
Source: I received a copy of this novel from TLC Book Tours and Lake Union Publishing in return for an honest review.  Don't you like the cover?  Although Frieda looks a bit too fashionable...  Please visit other stops on the tour:

Monday, August 22ndMusings of  a Bookish Kitty
Tuesday, August 23rdYou Can Read Me Anything
Thursday, August 25thI Wish I Lived in a Library
Friday, August 26thThoughts on This ‘n That
Monday, August 29thBookNAround
Tuesday, August 30thBlack ‘n Gold Girls Book Reviews
Wednesday, August 31stCaryn, The Book Whisperer
Thursday, September 1stSharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Friday, September 2ndThe Warlock’s Gray Book
Monday, September 5thPatricia’s Wisdom
Tuesday, September 6thJust Commonly
Wednesday, September 7thReading is My Superpower
Thursday, September 8thWrite Read Life
Monday, September 12thBibliotica
Tuesday, September 13thMelissa Lee’s Many Reads
Thursday, September 15thView from the Birdhouse
Friday, September 16thFictionZeal
Monday, September 19thReading the Past