Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette – Jeanne Birdsall

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Let me just say that I like the Penderwicks best when they are on vacation. Jeanne Birdsall’s first book, The Penderwicks, tracked four kids and a big sloppy dog named Hound through a summer holiday on a country estate. Plenty of misadventures and great adventures behind the hedgerows in a very charming, old-fashioned story with wonderful characters, terrific humor and the sort of British country setting (although the tale is set in New England) that enchanted me in the books I read as a child.

Birdsall’s second in the series follows them home to Gardam Street in Massachusetts and it is sweet and simple but not nearly as much fun as the summer escapades. In book three,  The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, the three youngest girls, Skye, Jane and Batty, are vacationing in Maine while their eldest sister Rosalind gets a much needed break from minding all of them and is off to the Jersey Shore with a friend. Their newly-married father, stepmother and her young son are on an academic business trip to England and the girls are in the care of second-eldest Penderwick, Skye, and their Aunt Claire.

This makes Skye all kinds of nervous because Rosalind has always cared for Batty, the baby, since their mother died and keeps the rest of the team in line. Skye isn’t sure she has the right stuff for the job. Their best friend Jeffrey, collected on the first summer jaunt, joins them for this one and mild disasters accumulate faster than shells on the strip of beach outside their vacation cottage. Skye studies astrophysics and black holes and practices soccer moves. Jane, next in line, is a serious writer struggling with a bad case of writer’s block over her latest Sabrina Starr novel that deals with the perils of falling in love. Small problem—the author is eleven and lacks the requisite research to get past the opening sentence. Batty (Elizabeth) has given up the fairy wings she once wore everywhere but still drags her stuffed elephants along for the trip. She must wear a bright orange life preserver whenever she gets anywhere NEAR the water, which hampers her style.

Jeffrey is happy to have eluded his difficult mother’s summer plans and sets about having adventures with the girls. A neighbor next door is a musician and invites musical prodigy Jeffrey to use his grand piano for practice. Five-year-old Batty, who trails Jeffrey everywhere and intends to marry him when she grows up, displays a surprising musical talent. Love rears its unpredictable head among the lobster rolls. Aunt Claire winds up on crutches. The girls find out that errant golf balls from the nearby club are a boon to piggy banks. And a long lost parent surfaces, causing havoc for kids and grown-ups alike.

I like the Penderwicks books. They are innocent and fun; the writing is good; the characters are real people with lots of interesting quirks; the adventures are lively. I know a few young readers who devoured the first book and still like the series, even though they are older now and the books are middle grade level. Then again, middle grade is one of my favorite book categories and I am far from the target audience. Penderwicks at home—not so fascinating. Penderwicks up to summer mischief—a recipe for a delightful read.

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette   Jeanne Birdsall | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

Down the Darkest Road – Tami Hoag

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Down the Darkest Road, a mystery/thriller by Tami Hoag, takes full advantage of the stories behind grim headlines to track a serial killer and the effect of a heinous crime on a single family. Lauren Lawton’s 16-year-old daughter goes missing and is never found. The family life turns from privileged to nightmare. Her husband kills himself and 12-year-old Leah forfeits her childhood and any sense of normalcy or nurture. And the irony is that Lauren knows who took her child but nothing can be proven.

A mother’s obsession with finding out what happened to her daughter in idyllic Santa Barbara is intensified when the predator begins to stalk her and then sues the local cops for failing to protect him from her response. In desperation, or something else, Lauren moves to a smaller town up the coast, Oak Knoll, where no one knows her or Leah and they can start over. But she doesn’t start over. The move is more complicated than it first appears.

As local detective Tony Mendez gets involved in the Lawton case, the slick killer resurfaces and the stalking resumes. Danni Tanner, Santa Barbara’s lone female detective, is handed the cold case and Tony consults her for background. No evidence indicts the supposed kidnapper but ominous sightings and deliberate clues appear and Leah and Lauren are clearly in the crosshairs. The Lawtons begin to unravel psychologically while a few cops race to find some legal way to protect them and solve the crime.

Lauren Lawton has no faith in law enforcement after four years of an unending ordeal so she takes matters into her own hands. The suspect infiltrates substrata of Oak Knoll where young women and high school girls congregate and continues a lifelong course of stalking, tracking, meticulous data gathering on his quarry and perverted break-ins. He seems to be lining up a long list of future victims and Leah, approaching the same age her sister was when she disappeared, is among them.

Lots of characters in Hoag’s novel have backstories replete with murder and sexual assault. That’s almost a distraction because the incidence of such crimes in California would appear to be exponentially higher than the national average if you go by this narrative. But the requisite threats, tension and extreme violence are all present in appropriate measure at key points in the story. It’s well-written and doesn’t disappoint for the genre. Pretty easy to see why Tami Hoag is a massively successful author—she has this style down and her latest book was a compelling, if not very redemptive, read. No happy endings in Down the Darkest Road but the consolation is that things wrap up better than they might have in the real world, some threats are removed and the damaged survivors are free to rebuild and reinvent their lives.

Down the Darkest Road   Tami Hoag | Dutton  2012

Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin

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Reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is like watching Alvin Ailey’s dazzling choreography in “Revelations.” There is the intelligence, the talent, the hard work of making art, of making a shape to hold the breadth of human hurt and history, of indomitable spirit. The book is a hymn and a cry, woven of preaching, pain, scripture, desolation, wild hope, the desperate light of faith, the bitter dregs of racism.

Baldwin first published Mountain in 1953. It is the story of a 14-year-old boy’s struggle to reconcile his stepfather’s rigid faith and coldness, his own nameless longings and overpowering rage, the dark inheritance that shadows his young life, the centrality of a storefront Harlem church in his community, and the sexual confusion that has no precedent in his 1935 world.

Sections of the book are told in the incantations and recollections of John, the protagonist, his aunt Florence who fled her oppressive home in the South and despises her spoiled willful brother Gabriel, John’s stepfather Gabriel who prizes and loses two biological sons and creates havoc and misery in the lives around him, John’s mother Elizabeth who is scarred by her own losses.

Who and what is saved in Baldwin’s story is debatable but salvation has its own imperatives and music, its own fierce ritual and language of bonding. Go Tell It on the Mountain is almost too powerful to read. James Baldwin pries open souls, minds and hearts with a sharp scalpel and achingly lyrical prose. His novel is richly symbolic but it feels deeply personal and almost too intimate. It’s just brilliant, as Baldwin was, and evocative and illuminating as any indisputable masterpiece. I have always treasured his work. I’m glad I finally read Go Tell It on the Mountain. It’s humbling.

Go Tell It on the Mountain   James Baldwin | 1995 Modern Library Edition

The Coven’s Daughter – Lucy Jago

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Lucy Jago is a British writer of nonfiction and historical fiction. The Coven’s Daughter was apparently published first in England with the unsexy title Montacute House but the cover was tarted up a bit for the American audience with a new title and a sexy illustration. The Coven’s Daughter is more appealing and does capture something of what the book is about.

Cess Perryn is thirteen (so this is a YA book, although it reads well enough for a wider audience) on the day she finds a heavy gold locket in the hen house. She is the poultry girl for Montacute estate, a smelly but welcome job for a peasant who needs every penny to help keep her mother and herself fed. The locket holds a portrait of a grand lady and Cess slips it on and keeps it, although at times it seems to burn her skin. Almost immediately bad things start to happen—the blackened and scraped body of a boy is discovered; outspoken Cess challenges the lord’s imperious son; her friend William goes missing and it turns out a number of boys have disappeared from the surrounding area.

It’s 1596 and word spreads quickly that the disappearances may be witchcraft. Then Cess is accused of being a witch. She is a reluctant but tough and resourceful heroine who concocts a plan to find the missing William and discover what is happening. Her efforts are complicated by her precarious position. Cess and her mother are village outcasts, forced to live at the edge of the forest, impoverished because there is no steady work for them and family ties were severed by some event that happened before Cess was born. The fact that no one will tell her who her father is leaves her more vulnerable and a dark political plot begins to weave tendrils around the estate, the village, and Cess and her friends.

A book with “coven” in the title will obviously include more than a passing reference to witches and Cess is caught up in the healing and magickal world of her friend and mentor, a witch who reveals herself to Cess and importunes her to join the coven for her own safety. Several surprising characters have the gift of sight and strong intuitions drive some of the action. Jago creates a believable Elizabethan world full of colors, textures, smells, sounds and superstitions. The intrigues are Shakespearean; the secrets are deadly; the architecture is imposing, laced with hidden passages; the main characters are real enough; and the resolution is classic. The Coven’s Daughter isn’t “thriller-scary” but it holds your attention. I pulled it off the shelf because of the title so the “Americanization” seems to have been successful marketing.

It was a relief to find a small gem to offset the truly painfully written mysteries I was looking forward to escaping into until I opened them. Two perfectly promising murder mysteries set in a Maine fishing village with a retired Miami homicide detective as the amateur sleuth. Dreadful. Just really really awful writing. Could not finish even one. How do books like that find agents, publishers and print runs? They are already back at the library. Jago’s book, with its graceful prose, I would recommend.

The Coven’s Daughter   Lucy Jago | Disney-Hyperion  2010

Cold Sassy Tree – Olive Ann Burns

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Cold Sassy Tree is a turn-of the-century novel—19th to 20th–set in Cold Sassy, Georgia, a fictional small town named after a chilly season and the sassafras trees that once defined a settlement. All but one of the trees are gone now and the town is on the cusp of irrevocable change. “Damnyankees” is still one word but electric lights, indoor plumbing, telephones and automobiles are remaking daily life and the landscape. Blakeslee’s mercantile is transforming right along with the family and the times.

The narration is handled by 14-year-old Will Tweedy but the story is really about his grandpa, E. Rucker Blakeslee, who owns the store, supports the family and is a very progressive patriarch for 1906 in the Deep South. Grandpa Blakeslee is genuinely grief-stricken at the death of Granny Blakeslee, Mattie Lou, his beloved wife. But that doesn’t stop him from eloping with the store’s milliner, Miss Love Simpson, three weeks later. The family is horrified. The town is scandalized. Grandpa pays them no mind because he needs a housekeeper and, as he succinctly puts it when reminded that his longtime wife is newly buried, “She’s dead as she’ll ever be, ain’t she?”

Will is a lot like Grandpa, an independent cuss who almost always chooses candor over diplomacy. But the old man is crafty and clever as well and generally gets his own way. As the town fusses and flutters about the unseemly elopement, Will discovers a few things about Miss Love and his grandfather that confuse him even more. The story is fashioned like a family quilt with sections detailing siblings, spouses, nosy neighbors, rival churches, old grudges, sit-down meals, and big adventures. Will narrowly escapes death and becomes a local celebrity. He daydreams about a forbidden “mill girl,” a friend from school who lives on the wrong side of the tracks. He ducks chores, eavesdrops accidentally and on-purpose and doesn’t know how to hold the juicy information he uncovers.

Cold Sassy Tree is Will’s coming-of-age story but it’s as much the saga of his relationship with the irreverent, iconoclastic and stubborn mentor who keeps his own secrets while he manipulates the whole town. Olive Ann Burns makes thrifty use of her own early twentieth century upbringing in a small Georgia town. Her vivid descriptions of learning to drive Cold Sassy’s eye-popping first car; local characters and their personal peculiarities; the tides and torments of ruinous gossip, rivalries, and unapologetic snooping; the strict social etiquette that dictates behavior, however unkind and hypocritical; and the family loyalties that ultimately trump jealousy and vendettas are as compelling as an addictive made-for-television series.

It’s a wonderful story—funny, sad, surprising, suspenseful and memorable. Cold Sassy Tree was an instant best seller debut for sixty-year old Burns in 1984. Unhappily, she only completed part of one sequel before she died six years later.

Cold Sassy Tree   Olive Ann Burns | First Mariner Books   1984

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight – Jennifer E. Smith

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The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is a YA novel that, incredibly, has no suicides, drug addictions, depression-inducing bullying, vampires or werewolves at the heart of the plot—or anywhere on its pages. Jennifer E. Smith’s book is also readable, if somewhat relentlessly introspective. The narration is first-person—a 17-year-old girl who examines her fears and emotions incessantly, and a tad tiresomely, but manages to navigate from start to finish at a reasonable pace anyway.

I suspect the obsessive self-examination is a teen tendency I have mercifully forgotten so it probably makes sense to the intended readers. And the story is not bad—a real fairytale with a handsome, witty prince who rides to the rescue, an attractive and beleaguered heroine who is stubborn, plucky and smart enough to know when to change her mind, and settings and events worthy of a Disney princess animation. There is a missed flight, an overnight change of venue from New York to London, a charming wedding, a graveyard and a few other locations that reflect upscale finances and a remove from gritty reality. Very aspirational.

The crux of the story is the validity of the concept of love at first sight in a world of divorce, remarriage, confused loyalties and sudden infatuation . The book is an extended experiment to prove or disprove the hypothesis, find out how to deal with love and loss when neither is simple or pain-free, and resolve the conflicts of the heart. The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is very sweet, funny and entertaining. In the YA world of today, that’s really a refreshing change.

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight   Jennifer E. Smith | Little, Brown and Company   2012

Shroud for a Nightingale – P.D. James

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Scotland Yard inspector Adam Dalgliesh dashes into the world of P. D. James to sort out the bizarre killings of student nurses in a post-war British training hospital fifty miles outside London. In Shroud for a Nightingale, a demonstration of intubating a patient turns into a primer on murder and the students of Nightingale House and their instructors are horrified. Then another student dies and debate rages about the cause—was she killed or did she commit suicide?

Dalgliesh has his suspicions, of course. The presence of one of his volumes of poetry in the dead woman’s bookshelf may prejudice him slightly but his instincts are never far off. So he sets about methodically uncovering motive and means. The story is brimful of complex characters—a few with surprising twists. Even the ones risking caricature have back stories to surprise a reader.

Relationships in the hospital and the old Victorian estate on the grounds that serves as the nursing school are convoluted. Personalities range from polite to thorny and motives flit about the gloomy halls like ominous ghosts. James conjures up plenty of atmosphere, loose ends, dead ends and ends that never justify the means. Tracking the tale is fascinating because the author and her sleuth are so intelligent—lots of false leads, no false steps.

It is to James’ credit that seasoned mystery readers can guess at unlikely suspects but be thoroughly misled back into the maze. It’s a relief to put yourself in the hands of a master for a few hours and just live in a good story. Her sleuth is an admirable but imperfect man who freely admits (most of) his shortcomings—and doesn’t hesitate to point out the failings of his colleagues. Murder is a moral issue in a James novel and, while details may be titillating, crime is never reduced to a mere plot device. The victims are revealed in all their flawed humanity as well as the perpetrators.

Shroud for a Nightingale depicts some graphic suffering, the terrible resonance of war crimes, the strange ways people invent to cope with their tragedies and a particular place and time in history, with wonderful verisimilitude. It’s like the pensieve in Harry Potter, stick your face between its covers and fall into a vivid movie that lets up only at the last page. P. D. James has written a new murder mystery set in Pemberley, the estate of delicious Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. I’ve reserved it at the library–can’t wait for my name to come up in that long queue.

Shroud for a Nightingale (Adam Dalgliesh Mystery Series #4)   P. D. James | Touchstone   2001

Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

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Swamplandia! How to sum it up? I honestly can’t. Karen Russell’s debut novel has had some terrific press, great reviews, inclusion in end-of-year “best” lists and super-hyper blurbs. It is ambitious. It has a lot of vocabulary. It evokes a part-real, part-imagined rural Florida world stuck in the 50s. It has a plucky young heroine on the cusp of adolescence who is a first-person narrator. Ava will remind you of other plucky young girls like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But she isn’t Scout; this isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird and, after a few pages, the contrived vocabulary forms its own kind of mire.

The Bigtree family lives on an island off the southwest Florida coast in an area known as the Ten Thousand Islands. It is a real place—I’ve spent time there—and most of the “islands” are little more than clumps of mangrove reaching out into the Gulf of Mexico. The family members are not really Bigtrees. Their name was made-up by a father who found it convenient to leave a rather checkered past behind and reinvent himself as a pseudo-Seminole Indian. The mother, Hilola, is the star of an alligator show for tourists in a shabby gator theme-park called Swamplandia with daily alligator wrestling, daredevil swimming in a pool of alligators and other quintessentially old Florida tacky tourist trap entertainment. The kids sell snacks, tickets and help out. Chief Bigtree, AKA Dad, presides over all. Then mom gets cancer and dies.

Things fall apart just before they really disintegrate. Without mom—no show. No more tourists–no money. An even cheesier theme park opens on the mainland and siphons off the dwindling revenue.  Big sister Osceola wanders off into mental illness, Kiwi, the brother runs off to find a mainland job, get a real education and rescue his family, dad heads for the mainland for some unspecified activity called “finding investors.” Ava is left to salvage the lot. She’s barely thirteen. She seems to be the world’s last remaining naïve innocent. Her vocabulary is wholly inconsistent with a naïf, raised without education, in an economically-marginalized, not-even-blue-collar family. No one has her back and, instead of salvage, she finds damage. Big time. The kid is savaged.

The story goes nowhere for long stretches and then it bogs down in the swamp. Nothing good at all happens to these people. They are on the losing side of life and they remain stuck there. Life wasn’t too great for openers and then it got worse. Sometimes the language was so inventive I had no idea what it meant. Clever prose that won’t quit can be a roadblock that interrupts a story’s flow.

Swamplandia! mixes elements of magical realism with an account of a doomed family and some accurate depictions of backwoods, makeshift tourism, all delivered via the viewpoint of an idiosyncratic girl punctuated by first-person narration from her desperate-to-be-conventional brother, Kiwi. Karen Russell can play with words and she may have some spectacular books in her. But I found it a tough slog through a mucky swamp and I’m not sure this is one of them.

Swamplandia! (Vintage Contemporaries)   Karen Russell | Alfred A. Knopf   2011

The Unfinished Angel – Sharon Creech

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Sharon Creech can write anything she wants. The Newbery Medal winner has a sure touch and ready audience for her fiction so The Unfinished Angel was no risk for her. It’s an odd little book but endearing. The angel of the title has flitted about a small town in the Swiss Alps for…a very long time…”maybe hundreds of years”.  S/he (angels are genderless, but you knew that) speaks a sort of pidgin language sprinkled with muddled words and hesitations. The angel doesn’t actually have a brief, has never seen another angel, doesn’t know where heaven is and mostly hangs out in the Casa Rosa tower and flishes in people’s heads to inspire them to do the right thing.

Along comes a brassy little American kid named Zola with her distracted father and three layers of skirts, two blouses, six or nineteen hair ribbons and all in loud clashing colors that look very beautiful. She can see the angel. In fact, she begins at once to boss it around. Zola has an open heart and a highly developed sense of justice so the angel begins to be very busy and only slightly annoyed.

There are a passel of orphans hiding in an old chicken coop to rescue and an arfing dog to shush (that one is a fail) and some hard grown-up hearts to melt and ruffled feathers to smooth over everywhere. The angel rushes around, still confused about what angels do and wondering constantly why s/he is an unfinished angel and not a poised, decisive spirit with a grand mission and a clear set of instructions.

The tale is charming. One of the most delightful chapters—they are all extremely short scenes and there are many of them—details the angel’s reaction to Zola’s memory of the angel that hovered over her premature brother in his incubator until he was out of danger. It looked to Zola like a pigeon and the angel is flummoxed and dismayed to think s/he might resemble a pigeon.

The Unfinished Angel isn’t complicated, although it manages to touch on the human predilection for war, neighborly spats, human loss, sorrow and need, the vacuity of consumer culture, the innocence and optimism of children, and how the language of the heart trumps the dictates of the head for happy endings. The book is aimed at kids and middle grade readers—if you are an especially theatrical reader you could succeed with this as a read-aloud for a younger child. It’s very funny, a tiny bit tense in spots and will leave you with a warm feeling, if you aren’t hopelessly and intractably cynical. You may never look at pigeons in quite the same way again.

The Unfinished Angel   Sharon Creech | HarperCollins 2009

Blood Orange Brewing – Laura Childs

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Cruising right along the mystery shelves at the St. Agnes library I couldn’t resist pulling out Blood Orange Brewing by Laura Childs. Not a single Agatha Christie to be found but Childs’ book had a tempting title, was set in historic Charleston, stars the owner of a fancy little tea shop and looked like the American equivalent of a British cozy.

Well, yes and no. Maybe you have to be in the British Isles for a real cozy. This book features a slightly in-bred society of nice, sort of bland people who are extremely dedicated to home-baked scones, afternoon tea, historic preservation, antique linens and energetic snooping. They have names like Drayton, Haley, Pookie, Corky and Theodosia. Theo is the tea lady and the incorrigible snoop.

Many blends of tea are lovingly chronicled. Many scones and other delectables are produced and consumed in the tea shop. The recipes are included in the back of the book. Old Charleston Victorian houses have spooky hidden passages and old Charleston blue blood families have spooky hidden business operations. A well-respected member of the community dies rather theatrically at a fundraising tea. The widow enlists Theodosia to poke around and find out who offed her husband. The local sheriff tells Theodosia to butt out. Theo does not butt out.

The Civil War is part of the action; a smart, friendly mutt becomes a hostage; exotic animals turn up in the wrong places; another murder complicates things and the tea cakes and crepes just keep on rolling. Childs’ writing style is not unobtrusively fluent but it’s readable. Blood Orange Brewing is a sweet murder mystery with low stakes—my biggest safety concern throughout was for a dog. You can’t really guess the plot resolution—a platter of red herrings is served up along with tea.

In truth, I started Swamplandia!, got massively depressed reading it after about an hour or so and switched to lighter fare. Now that I’ve had my sugar hit, I’ll probably revisit Swamplandia! in the morning.  

Blood Orange Brewing (A Tea Shop Mystery)   Laura Childs | BerkleyPrime Crime   2006