Saturday, August 31, 2019

She's the Worst by Lauren Spieller

Title: She’s The Worst
Author: Lauren Spieller
Publication: Simon & Schuster, hardcover, September 2019
Genre: YA
Plot: Sisters April and Jenn haven’t been close in years. Jenn’s too busy with school, the family antique shop, and her boyfriend, and April would rather play soccer and hang out with the boy next door.

But when April notices her older sister is sad about staying home for college, she decides to do something about it. The girls set off to revive a pact they made as kids: spend an epic day exploring the greatest hits of their childhood and all that Los Angeles has to offer.

Then April learns that Jenn has been keeping a secret that could rip their family—and their feuding parents—apart. With only one day to set things right, the sisters must decide if their relationship is worth saving, or if the truth will tear them apart for good.

Giveaway: Win one of two finished copies (8/28-9/16/19, US only) here: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Favorite Quotes: April: “Maybe I was listening,” I tell Jenn, “but it’s only because you were so sneaky.” When she doesn’t stop glaring at me, I add, “I could barely hear anyway.”

April: “Jenn started talking about how she wanted to go away to college even though she’d only just graduated from middle school. Back then she wanted to go to Michigan or Illinois or something, which I remember thinking was really far. Like, why not go to Antarctica while you’re at it? But then she got very serious all of a sudden, and said we should promise each other that in four years, when she was leaving for college, we’d spend the entire day together. Just us. To, you know, say goodbye. So we did a pinkie swear . . . and that was it.”

April: Nate’s voice sneaks its way into the back of my mind. Don’t assume the worst. This might work out if you give it a chance. I take a deep breath, and try my best to put my faith into Nate’s imaginary advice. Tomorrow is going to be good. Better than good. It’s going to be great. I’m going to get my sister back. I just have to give her – give us – a chance.

Jenn: I don’t know what surprises me more. That April remembered the pact we made as kids, or that she actually wanted to do it.

Jenn: I know April’s mad, but even though she doesn’t understand why I did what I did, surely she can see how important this is to me. How badly I need to get away. How sick I am of being in charge of everything, how much I hate constantly taking care of Mom and Dad, how sometimes my life here makes me want to scream –

Jenn: Except there's also another possibility.  They could listen.  If that happens, then they'll know the truth.  They'll be forced to start it in the face and grapple not only with how they've been making me feel, but how dysfunctional things are between them.  I know that's the whole point of telling them - to clear the air so we can fix things.  But sitting here, watching them make dinner, I'm not sure I can do it.  I've spent so long keeping the peace between them.  If I shatter it now and everything falls apart, it'll be my fault.
Author Lauren Spieller (Dave Cross Photography)
My Impressions: This is a very readable and convincing story, which explores the complications of family over slightly more than a day.  Jenn and April are about as different as sisters can be, and Spieller captures the dynamics of sibling relationships, the miscommunications and distorted memories of the same events, as well as how good intentions can go awry. It was particularly poignant how some of April’s recollections of things she had done with Jenn were incomplete: for example, the Ferris Wheel ride that April remembered as magical had actually ended with her vomiting on her sister. As the sisters grew apart in adolescence, there were faults on both sides.  There wasn't much romance (two very unsatisfactory male characters offset by a very sweet boy next door) but it was refreshing to have the focus of a YA book be on the family relationships.

The sisters in my family were all more like Jenn than April, organized, academically focused, and goal-oriented, so I identified more with Jenn and was exasperated with her parents. I was impressed that Jenn filled out all the financial aid forms for Stanford on her own. Jenn’s and April’s parents were over the top awful. Ignoring their inability to stop arguing in front of their children and customers, their poor business skills, their neglect of April and insensitivity to Jenn, they lack any kind of thought for their children’s future. Even if they had good reasons to insist that Jenn stay close to home for college (and finances could have been one of them), the idea that someone should turn down Stanford to attend community college seemed absurd.   (It's also implausible that Jenn could have gotten so close to college move-in day without having paid her room and board - I hate loose ends like this.)

Purchase Links: IndieBound * Barnes & Noble * Amazon * iTunes * Book Depository

Off the Blog: It is Labor Day weekend and I am filling out my Summer Reading Bingo card. Aren’t you glad summer reading isn’t just for children?

Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and the Fantastic Flying Book Club for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Crystal Snowstorm by Meriol Trevor

Title: The Crystal Snowstorm (Letzenstein Chronicles #1)
Author: Meriol Trevor
Publication: Bethlehem Books, trade paper, 1997
Genre: Children’s Historical Fiction
About the Author: Meriol Trevor (1919–2000), who graduated from St. Hugh’s College, Oxford in 1942, was a prominent 20th-century Catholic writer of adult and children’s fiction, having converted as an adult. She is best known for an award-winning biography of Cardinal Newman. As a child, she and her best friend created imaginary islands with complicated royal genealogies, which later inspired the Letzenstein Chronicles, although this series was not published until Trevor was in her 70s. Like C.S. Lewis, she used fantasy to show the values of her faith and religion. Scott, I see she is on your list, so I will be interested to see what you think of her adult work (when you get there).

TBR Challenge: This is the sixth of twelve books that are part of my 2019 TBR Challenge, inspired by Roof Beam Reader, who encouraged me to look at books on my shelves I had purchased but not yet read.

Plot: In 1847, when young Catherine Ayre is summoned from her quiet life in England to meet her grandfather, the Grand Duke of Letzenstein, a small country near Germany, she does not know what to expect. Her mother was Princess Teresa, the Grand Duke’s only daughter, who eloped with a British officer and was disowned. The young couple went to serve in India, where Catherine was born, but they died of cholera (like the Lennoxes) and Catherine was brought up in Kent by a great aunt. Now the Grand Duke believes his son and rightful heir Constant has been encouraging democracy, which is antithetical to his rule, and is considering making 13-year-old Catherine his heir instead. This plunges Catherine into a maze of political unrest in a country where she has to figure out who are friends and who are enemies, and navigate accordingly.

My Impressions: This is a delightful Ruritanian adventure story with lots of lively characters. Catherine is an intrepid orphan, and while she seems a little passive at first, that is due to her sheltered upbringing. Soon she quietly musters her wits, makes friends, tries to use her inadequate French (the language of the Letzenstein court is French although the locals speak a German-based dialect), begins to understand her Uncle Constant’s support of liberté and égalité, and develops enough discernment to accurately assess the true nature and trustworthiness of her new acquaintances.

Constant has been living in Canada, which gave him a taste for wide open spaces and egalitarian government, but loves Letzenstein so much he returned, despite knowing his father resents and might even imprison him. Constant is kindhearted, and the only member of her new family who remembers Catherine’s birthday: he gives her a small crystal snow globe which has a small castle inside and at once becomes her favorite possession. Catherine lacks political knowledge but gradually realizes that her grandfather’s autocratic rule is passé and that Constant’s concern for the needs of the duchy’s inhabitants reveals a true leader.

Noblesse oblige is also a theme of A Coronet for Cathie, another novel with a teen heroine I read recently. There are some similarities, including the orphaned heroines’ name, the fact that they learn unexpectedly they are part of wealthy families, and their need to mature in order to handle the responsibilities of inheritance or blood. Cathie inherits a vast estate that is probably larger than Letzenstein in size but she is not in danger like Catherine and her friends. Unlike Cathie, Catherine is not the actual heir and does not want to be; however, she learns to love her new uncle and learns more from Constant than her grandfather about the obligations of a “modern” monarch. On Epiphany, Catherine attends a special ceremony in the cathedral for Letzenstein’s Knights of the Order. Constant has told her how much this means to him:
“It was founded when knights still fought, and I suppose it doesn’t mean to people nowadays what it once did. Yet it remains a way of dedicating our lives and our work to God, and it recalls to us the ideal of faithful service, rather than the privileges of power.” 
Witnessing the dedication of those participating in this ceremony is an important part of Catherine’s assumption of her heritage.
Meriol Trevor
Off the Blog: This week I attended Six the Musical, which was amazing. It is about Henry VIII’s six wives, told as a singing contest from the perspective of the wives. Some know that my love of history resulted from seeing the Six Wives of Henry VIII on PBS as a child, so I was a little apprehensive but I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Source: Personal copy. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book.  I would have enjoyed it even more at 10 but it was fun to read as an adult and I am glad to learn it is the first of a four-book series. I have already requested the second book from ILL.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Mystery of Black Hollow Lane by Julia Nobel

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

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

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

Source: Boston Public Library

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Set in Stone by Robert Goddard

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

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

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

Source: Personal copy

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Personal copy