Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Mystery of the Three Quarters: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery (Book Review)

Title: The Mystery of the Three Quarters
Author: Sophie Hannah
Publication: William Morrow, hardcover, 2018
Genre: Mystery
US cover
Plot: The world’s most beloved detective, Hercule Poirot—the legendary star of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and most recently The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket—returns in a stylish, diabolically clever mystery set in the London of the 1930s.

“We Agatha Christie fans read her stories--and particularly her Poirot novels--because the mysteries are invariably equal parts charming and ingenious, dark and quirky and utterly engaging. Sophie Hannah had a massive challenge in reviving the beloved Poirot, and she met it with heart and no small amount of little grey cells. I was thrilled to see the Belgian detective in such very, very good hands. Reading The Monogram Murders was like returning to a favorite room of a long-lost home.”
— Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl

Sunday, September 16, 2018

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica (Book Review)

Title: When the Lights Go Out
Author: Mary Kubica
Publication: Park Row Books, Hardcover, September 2018
Genre: Suspense
Plot: Two parallel stories: Eden, a carefree newlywed, becomes so obsessed with having a child that it threatens to destroy her marriage, and Jessie, a young woman who has just buried her dearly beloved mother and has not been able to sleep since that terrible day. As if being without family or friends isn’t bad enough, when Jessie submits a college application, she is told her social security number belongs to someone else and is plunged into a mystery about her own identity. Is there anyone she can turn to? Is everything her mother told her a lie?

Audience: Fans of psychological suspense; author such as Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, Tana French

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Cotton in My Sack (Book Review)

Title: Cotton in My Sack
Author/Illustrator: Lois Lenski
Publication: Dell Yearling paperback, originally published 1949
Genre: Children’s fiction
Plot: Joanda, age 10, is part of an Arkansas sharecropper family on the Cotton belt. Children help their parents pick cotton and school only takes place in the off season. It is a hard life but it is all the Hutley family knows and they have fun together despite their hard work and financial worries. The sharecropper life is very bleak for Joanda’s parents: they don’t see any escape and do not know how to save so are constantly at the mercy of unexpected disasters such as illness or can’t pay for daily living expenses due to their own feckless spending. Yet the Hutley parents are good people, well-liked by their peers, respected for their work ethic, and compassionate toward others. The story is told from Joanda’s perspective as she becomes more perceptive and begins to glimpse how the work done by her father and others fits into an economic system its participants are unaware of.

Ricky Hutley gets hit by a tractor - no health insurance!
Audience: Lenski wrote this story at the request of Arkansas children who had admired her Newbery Medal winner, Strawberry Girl. I don’t remember reading it as a child, although if it was in my library I probably did, but I see so much more in the story as an adult reader: the feckless yet well-intentioned father, the teacher trying to save the Hutley family’s pride yet provide a nourishing hot lunch, the kind uncle instilling savings lessons in the family that likes to spend every penny it earns on junk.

My Impressions: As an adult I was interested in Lois primarily in her role as illustrator of the first four Betsy-Tacy books but enjoyed a recent biography, Lois Lenski: Storycatcher. This described Lenski’s American Regional series, a group of 17 books, of which Cotton in My Sack is one. Lenski began writing these books in the 40s, setting them in different parts of the United States to show how real children lived – initially, regions she observed while driving to Florida but later she responded to specific requests as she did here, visiting Arkansas twice and picking cotton herself. I enjoyed the book as a slice of Americana and found the description of rural farming and sharecropping fascinating but sad. Joanda herself is a bright girl who loves words and books. Her home has newspapers pasted on the wall instead of plaster that she reads:
Joanda loved to read. There were no books or magazines in the house, only the newspapers on the wall [instead of plaster]. The words – strange words she did not know the meaning of – had a fascination for her. She used to ask Daddy to explain what they meant. But he couldn’t – he only went to third grade, he said.
Later a kind teacher lends Joanda a pioneer story she brings home to read aloud with her father:
The book told of hard work and courage and struggle. It had happiness, meanness and sorrow in it. At the sad parts they all cried. Daddy and Joanda read each evening after school until the end was reached.
“It sounds like real to me,” said Daddy. “I feel like I know them folks somehow.”
“That’s ‘cause they’re just like us. They had the same troubles in them days too,” said Mama. “We’re not the only ones had it hard.”
This was Lenski's reason for writing such books - to show these children there were families like theirs with similar challenges.  Joanda’s teacher would have been gratified to know how much the Hutleys liked the book, but unfortunately Joanda drops the book in a mud puddle and is too terrified to return to school. Of course, I thought about the lost library book in All-of-a-kind Family and the kind librarian who works out a payment plan with Sarah to save the family’s pride. In fact, Joanda could have paid for the book from her cotton picking money but the children are allowed to squander their earnings on Saturdays.
Joanda is surprised to learn the landowner's wife has financial worries too
Along with the spoiled toddler, this is the most upsetting part of the book – watching the Hutleys carelessly spend their money at the Goodwill store every week while the father goes off to get drunk. Fortunately, Mrs. Hutley’s uncle is as worried as I am about the family’s future and comes up with a scheme to help them focus on savings. Given that my job is all about asset building for low-income residents, I felt that Uncle Shine and I were working together on this feckless family!

Source: I recently picked up a copy of this book for my friend Nicole but naturally had to read it before giving it to her. While Lenski’s books are not fun the way the Betsy-Tacy books are, I enjoyed this and recommend it.

Images copyright to the publisher

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Campion Towers by John and Patricia Beatty #1965Club

Title: Campion Towers
Author: John and Patricia Beatty
Publication: Macmillan, hardcover, 1965 (now available as an ebook for $2.99)
Genre: YA historical
Plot: When 15-year-old Penitence Hervey travels from Salem in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to England, she arrives in 1651 as the country is still embroiled in Civil War. As a Puritan, Penitence is wary of her new family, the Killingtrees of Campion Towers who are unabashed Cavaliers, and she agrees to spy on them for Cromwell. Her relatives are unfriendly: her grandmother is dying and mistakes her for her deceased mother, her grandfather is furious to see her, her aunt is critical, her cousin Douglas is a spiteful girl her own age, and they lock her into her room at night. Pen is delightfully flawed – quick to anger and jump to conclusions and less respectful than most girls her age (although, surprisingly, this helps to win over her grandfather). She is also appealingly intrepid and as she explores her home and the Worcester area she learns some of the family secrets, including that her handsome cousin Julian, outlawed by Parliament, is a boon companion of Charles Stuart, the rightful king of England. Soon Pen finds herself caught by the claims of old and new loyalties, inspiring the kind of courage that delights readers and which makes a compelling story with unexpected twists.