Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Heavenly Chocolate Pie

Back in the 60s my great 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:

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 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:



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.

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. 

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.

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.

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. 

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:  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?” 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Saracen Lamp (Book Review)

Title: The Saracen Lamp
Author: Ruth M. Arthur       
Illustrator: Margery Gill
Publication Information: Atheneum, 1970 Hardcover
Genre: YA, Multigenerational

Plot: The book begins in 1300 when a French girl, Melisande, prepares  for her marriage to an English knight her father met on (the Ninth) Crusade.  Her trusted friend, Joseph, a Saracen servant, makes a beautiful lamp, gold with stained glass, to take with her.  Part I of the book is about Melisande’s life in England as she adjusts to married life and a new country, tries to keep peace with her disapproving mother-in-law, Lady Constance, has a family, and copes with tragedy.  Toward the end of her life, Melisande becomes aware of the presence of a young girl, in a chair with wheels.  She guesses/hopes the child is from the future and will one day live in Melisande’s beloved Littleperry Manor.
16th century Alys takes over the narrative in In Part II.  

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Early Literary Work

I hope my prose has improved since First Grade!  My artwork has definitely not made much progress.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Through a Brief Darkness (Book Review)

Title:  Through a Brief Darkness
Author: Richard Peck
Publication Information: Viking Press hardcover, 1973
Genre: Juvenile Suspense / Young Adult Suspense
Plot:  Ever since sixth grade, Karen has known, deep down, that her father is a criminal, but for years she has been at boarding school and her infrequent contact with him never made it easy to ask tough questions.  Her fondest memory is from a summer in Wisconsin when she was nine, playing with the normal family next door and their 11 year old son, Jay Fielding. The present is dreary and lonely so Karen is startled but intrigued when she is suddenly pulled out of boarding school and sent to England to stay with her deceased mother’s relatives.  But soon she realizes there is something creepy about her English cousins; she’s worried about her absent father; and she is afraid she is in danger – or is she?

What I liked:  Peck won the Newbery Award in 2001 for A Year Down Yonder but his body of work is extremely diverse, some serious and some lighthearted.  This is not one of Peck’s funny books.  It is dark and written in an oddly detached style that adds to the sense of growing dread.  At first Karen is pleased to meet relatives who share stories about the mother she lost when she was three, and she enjoys seeing London, although wishes there were more museums and less shopping with Cousin Blanche. 

There’s something worse, Karen thought, than being in danger.  And that’s being in possible danger.  Not being sure.  Risking the wrong word to the wrong person.

For years she has written letters, but never mailed them, pouring out her worries to her childhood friend Jay.  But when they’d lost touch he’d been talking about going to Eton, so now that Karen is frightened she writes to him at Eton, asking for help.  Once Karen has backup, she is ready to make her escape. 
What I disliked:  The plot relies on a lot of coincidences and people conveniently placed to assist Karen.  How on earth did an ordinary boy from Illinois not only wind up at Eton but also is an admired sixth former?   That seems extremely unlikely for many reasons although Jay is a very charming young man.  And would he really turn up so quickly for a girl he hadn’t seen since he was 11?

Source:  The only copy in the Minuteman System is at Framingham State College.  They ignored my electronic request until I called the reference department, then (astonished) sent it to my branch.  I had never come across this Peck book but think it must have been mentioned on Goodreads, inspiring me to hunt it down.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Holly Hotel (Book Review)

Title:  Holly Hotel: a Mystery
Author: Elisabeth Kyle             IllustratorNora S. Unwin
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Company, hardcover, 1947
Genre: Juvenile Mystery, set in Scotland
Plot:  After 12-year-old Molly Maitland’s father dies, there isn’t enough money to subsidize her home, Holly House, in the Scottish village of Whistleblow.  Afraid her mother will sell the house and move them to Glasgow, Molly tries to persuade Mrs. Maitland to turn Holly House into a small hotel, and she puts up a few notices for visitors as a test.  To everyone’s surprise, several guests appear, beginning with Julian and Jane, affluent orphans sent to the country for fresh air by their uncle.  Several mysteries ensue:  one involves a legendary poet, Mungo Blythe, whose descendant (another Mungo) is on a quest from America to Whistleblow because of a rumor that Blythe an unpublished work hidden in his home town.  Will Mungo Kerrigan find the lost poetic work so he can provide for his mother?  Who is the mysterious Mr. Brown who also seems interested in the lost poems of Mungo Blythe? Will the success of their venture enable Molly and Mrs. Maitland to save their home? 

What I liked:  I read several of this author’s books as a child but never came across this one.  My favorite was Princess of Orange, about the Mary of William and Mary (she was the sister of the Old Pretender).   This book is billed as a mystery for 8-12 year olds set in a whimsical Scottish village.   Sometimes one cannot but be amused by hard-up families in fiction who still can afford a loyal servant.  Here, it is made clear that Mrs. Maitland hasn’t been able to pay Locket, the elderly housekeeper and former nanny, but Locket stays out of loyalty to the family (and does not have anywhere else to go).  Once Molly has lured the first paying guests, Locket makes sure her wages are covered.  There is eventually a financial solution for the Maitlands, and  I wondered if there was a possibility down the road for romance between Molly’s widowed mother and Julian and Jane’s bachelor uncle.

I have come across the art of illustrator Nora Unwin previously but had not realized she was a scion of the famous English publishing family.  Surprisingly, she spent much of her adult life in America, living in Wellesley, MA in the late 50s and then settling in New Hampshire.  She wrote and illustrated 12 books of her own but was primarily known for her illustrations of other books, approximately 100.  She is best known for her collaborations with Elizabeth Yates, author of Amos Fortune, Free Man, a Newbery Honor Book.

What I disliked:  The story is pleasant but very tame.  I love reading about hotels and boarding houses so was more interested in the hotel than in the mythical poet; in addition, the mystery was not extremely absorbing.  I would have enjoyed this book more at 8 or 9, but I doubt I could get any of my nephews or nieces to read it now.  Their appetite for quiet country fiction has been destroyed by action-filled Harry Potter and Rick Riordan.

Source:  This book came from the Woods Hole Public Library, thanks to CLAMS – Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing. The librarians in Osterville could not have been nicer as I ordered dozens of books for my nephews to read this month, plus a few for me that are not available at my own library.  Gail, the children's librarian, was especially welcoming to us.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Moon and More (Book Review)

Title: The Moon and More
Author: Sarah Dessen
Publication Information: Viking Hardcover, June 2013
Genre: YA

Plot: It is the last summer before Emaline leaves her family and cozy beach town Colby (familiar to Dessen fans) for college, and she is very busy with the family business, which is managing beach rentals for demanding tourists.   During what should be a relaxing few months, she is confronted by many changes – in her boyfriend Luke, in her distant father, in her clingy mother, and in several newcomers to town, including the intriguing Theo.
What I liked: Sarah Dessen excels at creating heroines her readers care about.  They often have unusual family situations, as here where Emaline has a great stepfather but a distant, uncommunicative father and an annoying, insecure mother.  I disliked Emaline’s mother and stepsisters but liked her best friend and half-brother.  Not one of Sarah’s strongest books but, as always, readable and enjoyable.  The oldest niece, who had not previously read any of Sarah’s books and is less knowledgeable about the genre, absolutely loved it.

What I disliked: The breakup between Emaline and her boyfriend Luke was unconvincing.  It seemed likely that someone who had been in a relationship that long would be upset for much longer than Emaline was, and Theo was obviously not a long term love interest (many clues including the description of his wearing effeminate jeans) and his self-centered behavior.  And the romance between Emaline’s other two friends – one a perfectionist and one an oddball – was unconvincing.

Source: My nieces bought this book at Sarah’s appearance at the Morse Institute in June.  She autographed it for my sister’s birthday and was very charming to us.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 9 - Finishing Up

Julia’s Career – Although Julia was dropped by the Epsilon Iotas, the sorority relented and voted her in at the last minute. Her talent (she had a significant part in the U’s production of The Mikado) and personality had impressed alumnae as well as the young women who had been rushing her, and at the last minute Norma (from whom Julia had snagged the boyfriend) was persuaded to remove her opposition. Julia wound up pledging and come home to Deep Valley to tell the Rays. However, when Mr. Ray told Julia that he and her mother now understood her commitment to music and were willing for her to go to Germany to study music, rather than return to the U for her sophomore year, Julia did not hesitate: “You’ll never be sorry,” she said, turning a joyful face to her father. We have discussed many times the wonderful parenting of the Rays. Julia knows that her father would prefer she used her voice for lullabies and her mother would prefer she stay at the U and enjoy the social life there, but their love and understanding of her goals makes them support her desire to study in Germany despite the expense and distance.
Tar – As has been discussed, Joe had always had to work to support himself and has not had much time for Deep Valley extracurriculars apart from the Essay Contest. This year, the day after the Essay Contest results are announced, Betsy and her friends arrive at school to find that someone has painted PHILOMATHIAN in orange paint on the high school roof. A stripe of tar underneath the letters prevented angry Zets from removing it. Miss Bangeter inspects the shoes of all the Philomathian boys for tar and identifies Squirrelly, Tony and Joe as the culprits. The school and doubtless Miss Bangeter are surprised that model student Joe is involved in this prank, but it is a sign that Joe has gained in confidence and is ready to become a real part of the Class of ’10.

Cab’s Father – The Sibleys host a lovely graduation party for Carney where Betsy hopes to encounter Joe but he has already left to spend the summer making money in the harvest fields. But there is bad news: Cab’s father dies and Cab decides to give up his plan of becoming an engineer to help run the family furniture store. This is the “time to grow up” message that Betsy had not fully absorbed after the disbanding of the Okto Deltas. I don’t recall noticing previously that the funeral was held in the Edwards’ parlor but I know the wakes for my father’s mother and grandfather were held in his home around 1940, not in a funeral parlor (I am sure the actual funerals were held in St. Theresa’s Church in Boston). Do any of you remember funerals or wakes of family members held at home?

Growing Up – Betsy goes to her music lesson and says goodbye to Miss Cobb’s nephew Leonard, who is going to Colorado mountains for his health. When she comes home, she finds a postcard from Joe! It says, “Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a good dancer? Joe.” Perhaps is a sign that Betsy is starting to mature (and that she knows Joe is The One) by the fact that she doesn’t skip about and show it off to her mother or to Julia. Instead she starts thinking about her behavior this past year, about the milestones in her life, and how her friends, such as Cab and Carney, are growing up. She realizes that all their choices are shaping them into the adults they are going to be, and she knows she wants to be a better human being than she has been this year. Betsy starts making one of her famous lists with goals for the future and the book ends with Betsy putting Joe’s postcard carefully into the cherished Uncle Keith’s Trunk.

What a satisfying end to Betsy Ray's tumultuous junior year! The stress and build up to the romantic dance at the banquet, and then the postcard from Joe which is jaunty and casual but sends a message for the future.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 8

Junior year is coming to a close, and a Deep Valley tradition is the Junior-Senior Banquet.  You will recall that Betsy was disappointed not to be appointed to chair a committee for the banquet, but due to the generosity (and perhaps humility) of Hazel Smith, who chaired the Decorating Committee, the trio are fully involved with the planning (which necessitates many meetings and even a sleepover at the Ray house).  The juniors labor to turn the school into a park, and those gifted domestically apparently cook the entire dinner.  Betsy spends so much time planning that she forgets to worry whether Dave Hunt, silent as to his intentions per usual, will turn up to take her to the banquet.  She even wears an old dress (unlike Betsy; also unlike Rosamond duJardin heroines who always have a new formal for every occasion).  Everything is perfect on this special day and evening: Hazel appreciates Betsy’s work planning the banquet; Stan seems to apologize to Betsy for having usurped her spot in the Essay Contest (although it wasn’t his fault he got chosen instead); Joe has created literary menus (I always love these); Stan and Miss Bangeter make great speeches.  Then it is time for dancing and the moment we’ve all been waiting for finally arrives (the moment that even those who don’t like BWAJ eagerly anticipate) when Joe approaches Betsy and says, “May I have a dance, Miss Ray?”   Her dance card is full but Betsy is determined not to wreck this opportunity as she has let others slip away:
In her freshman year he had asked to walk home with her from a party and she had had to turn him down.  After a long time he had asked to walk home with her from the library one evening.  Again she had had to turn him down.

“This would be three times and out,” she thought. “I have to break this jinx.”

She smiled.  “I’m going to give you a dance.  Some of these people who took two can just give one up.”

Joe’s dance card now has every dance marked for Phyllis except the second to last for Betsy.  Georgette Heyer would probably advise him that it is not seemly to dance with a young lady more than twice in an evening even if one is her escort, but we know that Phyllis is indifferent to the opinions of the polite world.   She does not, however, like rivals.  As the news that Joe asked Betsy for a dance spreads through the hall, Phyllis finds out and insists on being taken home.

Betsy is standing by the dance floor, partnerless, wondering if she should go hide in the cloak room when Joe reappears and sweeps her onto the floor, and as they dance Betsy wonders, understandably, what this means in terms of their future relationship.  Betsy knows that Joe isn’t the type to dump Phyllis but because Phyllis is a senior, she will graduate and disappear – leaving lots of possibilities for Betsy and Joe’s senior year.  “He whirled her as she had never been whirled before,” and the reader knows it is the long awaited beginning of Betsy and Joe’s romance and rejoices.
The other good news from the banquet is that Tony attends, dances with all the girls from the Crowd, and promises to come to Sunday Night Lunch.

(image above copyright to Betsy Was a Junior, HarperCollins)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Betsy Was a Junior, Group Read, Part 7

A whole year of botany? Shouldn’t they have been taking biology or chemistry? Perhaps the Deep Valley School Board had issues with creationism? Or maybe our heroines merely wanted an easy class. In contrast, my 15 year old niece has already taken biology, chemistry and was told to take physics or colleges wouldn’t think she was a serious student (Betsy does take physics her senior year which I had completely forgotten). If my college career had depended on a good grade in science, I would still be in high school. But just as my biology teacher disappeared at Christmas and was replaced by the driver’s ed teacher, so too Mr. Gaston has been “removed” from the English Department (probably not because of the rosy apple blossoms) and sent to teach Science, and there is no indication he knows much more about botany than Betsy, Tacy and Tib.

But the issue is procrastination more than botany. Mr. Gaston gave clear instructions about the herbariums on the first day of class, and the girls bought the necessary office supplies (always easier and more fun than actually doing the assignment). Suddenly, the project is due the next day!
Betsy was scornful. “There’s no law about going to bed the night before you have to make a herbarium for botany. You both know as well as I do that the Big Hill is simply covered with flowers. We could find 50 different kinds between now and nine o’clock tomorrow.”

“But, Betsy,” said Tib. “We don’t have to just pick them. We have to dry them and press them and past them up and label them.”

“All the harder,” said Betsy triumphantly.

As someone who has pulled more than her fair share of all nighters (high school, college, grad school and even for work), I like Betsy’s attitude and I can tell you it is sometimes the only way to get something done (even if one hasn’t procrastinated since September). Belatedly, Betsy organizes their approach: they will gather as many flowers as possible, then spend the night at Tib’s where they will systematically dry and prepare the flowers without interference (you would have thought Mrs. Muller would have been much more suspicious than she was). However, it turns out to be more difficult than they expected to identity some of the flowers and they are far short of 50. It is also hard to dry them in a hurry! They manage to light the oven without injuring anyone and Tib’s brothers help by monitoring the flowers baking and by grabbing some weeds from the garden to augment the collection. The best moment is when they get up early to grab yet more flowers and belatedly realize that flowers don’t open until the sun comes out. In desperation, some anonymous greens are tossed into the binders and Betsy airily suggests they say to Gaston, “What are these rare and interesting specimens? We can’t find them in any of our learned tomes.” But as they walk to school Tib points out that they could have done a good job on this project if they hadn’t waited till the last minute and she, at least, would have enjoyed it.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Gaston is less than impressed with their work, and they are lucky to get a C from him. “Never, never, in my whole life,” said Mr. Gaston (he was twenty-four), “never in my whole career as a teacher,” (he had taught for three years), “have I seen such herbariums! Not a fall flower included!” Whenever I read this chapter I am reminded of my seventh grade social studies teacher who invited three girls in the class to do independent research instead of going to class. Delighted, we went down to the library. The first day I brought home several books about Social Customs in 17th Century New England (I remember my mother saying disapprovingly that I needed a narrower topic or theme but I liked Dr. Mather and ignored her). The next day I found a Mary Stewart I hadn’t read (how did I end up in the fiction section) and somehow that paper never got written. Some day Dr. Mather will turn up at my front door reproachfully – oh dear, I just did some googling and learned that, sadly, he died in Lethbridge in 2011 after a lengthy illness. I just wrote to his widow, who may find it very odd that I am sorry about the loss of someone I hadn’t seen since 1973.  Let's hope someone would mourn Mr. Gaston.

Next time – the Junior/Senior Banquet!

(Image above copyright to HarperCollins)