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.