Unlocking Success

Review #48

Book: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

Several years ago I read Wendy Mass’ wonderful Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. In that coming-of-age story, on Jeremy’s 13th birthday he receives a box from his deceased father and must find several keys his father hid in order to open it. Suzanne LaFleur twists that premise around in her novel Eight Keys.

Here we have Elise Bertrand, whose mother died at her birth and whose father died three years later after a short but intense illness. Elise has been raised by her father’s brother, Uncle Hugh, and his wife, Aunt Bessie. Elise’s best friend is Franklin and the two of them are starting middle school. At school, Elise is picked on by Mean Girl Amanda for her friendship with Franklin and for not dressing and talking like many other middle school girls. On her 12th birthday, she gets a letter from her father (he actually has one for her birthday every year) saying this is the last one and that he is leaving something for her to “discover and unlock.” Soon after, keys start mysteriously appearing, unlocking doors in the family barn and revealing to Elise glimpses of her mother, her father, and herself.

Since this is not an original premise (and it may not have been original when Miss Mass wrote Jeremy) I’ll focus on the characterization, which is always my favorite story element as a reader.

There are times when Elise is downright unlikeable. Usually, that results in my dislike of the book, but that was not the case here.

Elise is hard to take in her occasional treatment of Franklin. They have always had an uneven relationship—Elise is definitely the leader and Franklin the follower. Throughout their friendship, there are times when Elise is impatient with Franklin and that impatience manifests itself in the random unkind comment. Elise in time always apologizes and things go back to normal. However, on the first day of middle school, Franklin mentions to other kids that he and Elise “play knights.” Mean Girl Amanda hears this and proceeds to bully Elise mercilessly throughout the entire book. Elise is embarrassed and ultimately takes it out on Franklin—mildly at first and eventually with cruelty. She knows what she is doing is wrong and is regretful, but Amanda’s incessant and escalating campaign of intimidation is making Elise’s life miserable.

So Elise the bullying victim in turns becomes Elise the bully. And just as where we see why Elise acts the way she does, we get a glimpse of what went into creating Amanda the terror. Yet I have sympathy for Elise and absolutely none for Amanda. Why is that?

I believe there is a distinct difference in between these two characters. Amanda has a crappy home life and takes it out on Elise. She immediately picks up on Elise’s vulnerability and insecurity and has a field day with them. Elise has not done anything to her, but Amanda smells weakness and goes in for the kill. Elise, on the other hand, does what many of us do when outside forces attack and we feel impotent—she projects her hurt onto someone she knows cares about her, someone feels secure with, someone she believes will care for her even when she treats him meanly (she gets a bit of a surprise there, BTW). Neither Amanda nor Elise acts correctly, but Amanda goes on the offensive (in more ways than one) while Elise’s actions are actually a defense mechanism.

There is also the remorse factor. Elise is chock full of it, and Amanda has none. We find out about Amanda’s home situation because Elise herself wants to figure out why Amanda is the way she is. Elise realizes that her own actions toward Franklin mirror Amanda’s behavior toward herself. She knows why she chose to be mean to Franklin, and she wants to know what makes Amanda act the way she does. She puts it altogether and has some sympathy for Amanda (unlike me!). But while Elise apologizes to Franklin and tries to make amends and learn from the experience, Amanda does not. She is content to stay as she is. If Elise is not her victim, someone else will be.

I admired Miss LaFleur’s treatment of the subject of bullying. This is a hot topic in education today, and multiple books I’ve read recently (Wonder and Because of Mr. Terupt come to mind first) seem to try to generate compassion for their Amanda-style bullies. I have a problem with that. Yes, it is important to see what goes into creating a bully, but personal problems don’t excuse the choices one makes to torment others—especially when there are no regrets about the malicious conduct. Miss LaFleur explained Amanda’s behavior, but did not excuse it.

So while the overarching plot may not be original, the various paths it takes are entertaining and engaging, and the characterization is superb. That’s key for good storytelling.

Appreciating Jane

Review #47

Book: Matters of Fact in Jane Austen by Janine Barchas

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbook

In April of this year I attended an all-day JASNA event in Philadelphia. I had a wonderful time among my chosen people, eating great food, buying some souvenirs, and listening to three presentations on Miss Austen’s unfinished works. One of the presenters was Janine Barchas. An Austen scholar, Miss Barchas’ topic was Sanditon. Based on clues from the novel, she triangulated where the fictional resort was located and identified pop cultural references Miss Austen used when naming her characters and settings. I was fascinated by this concept. Miss Austen has often been criticized for being too narrow in her focus, for not referencing any of the larger world within the world she created for each novel. Here was a scholar refuting, with evidence, a commonly held concept. When Miss Barchas mentioned a book she had written about Miss Austen’s pop cultural references, I knew I would eventually read it.

I did. I learned a great deal, but overall I still found something wanting with this scholarly work.

Perhaps I am not scholarly enough to comprehend it. I must confess I did not love Miss Barchas’ writing style. She writes like an academic, and while I feel fairly confident about my cognitive abilities, there were times when I had to plough through the text. Most of the chapters were worth this effort, but when reading about Miss Austen’s works becomes a chore for me, my appreciation for the book will decline. I appreciate that Miss Barchas did not write down to her audience, but she should have kept in mind that scholars as well as non-scholars will be reading this work.

There were also times when Miss Barchas wrote in the first person—e.g. in this work I will…, and I found that… This seemed odd to me. This was not a device she used often so when she did it seemed out of place. A minor thing, true, but one that annoyed me a little.

This book does not comprise all of Miss Austen’s novels. Miss Barchas chose to focus on Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and some of the Juvenilia. It was fascinating to find out about actual Tilneys, Dashwoods, Elliots, Ferrarses, Woodhouses, and Wentworths. It was equally fascinating to learn about locales in Bath that were models for homes in both NA and P. I loved learning how one can argue that Miss Austen expected her readers to have some familiarity with Bath, current events, and national celebrities by the way she incorporated them into the places, situations, and characters that populate her works. I loved seeing just how brilliant Miss Austen was.

There were two items, though, that made my admiration for this book lose some of its lustre. One was the everlasting chapter on the Juvenilia. Miss Barchas introduced me to John Evelyn, a 17th century writer of a garden treatise called Silvia. Then she related that to Miss Burney’s Evelina and Miss Austen’s short story Evelyn. I suppose that since the only work of Miss Austen’s Juvenilia I have ever read is her History of England I found this chapter excruciatingly tedious. I suppose I just should have skipped it since it was all about works with which I am completely unfamiliar, but skipping things is just not my style.

The other item that I didn’t care for was the feeling that I was just getting too much information. Miss Barchas has done an enormous amount of research and seemed to have made every possible connection between Miss Austen’s works and possible references to the larger world. As well-read and talented as Miss Austen was, it just didn’t seem likely that she wrote with such extreme deliberation—that anyone would. After reading Miss Barchas’ book I’m left with the impression of Miss Austen writing with the purpose of making every sentence in her books a statement about something. Didn’t she also write simply to tell a good story? Was everything characters did and said a reference or commentary? Sometimes, wasn’t Miss Austen like any good author and simply writing what she knew?

Of course she was. And since no one will ever know for sure when Miss Austen was making references and commentaries or just telling a story, perhaps Miss Barchas put all possibilities into her book to let the reader determine what was what. If this is the case, I understand her motive, but the result ends up being overwhelming.

Overall, I did like Miss Barchas’ book, but it was not an unqualified success. It was a bit wearisome at times and created a concept of Miss Austen that I did not care for. As Henry Tilney says, “The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” The person who penned such a comment must have also had pleasure in writing a good novel, a good story, and not just cared about making a comment on her society. Perhaps a re-reading of Pride and Prejudice is what I need to get my beloved image of Miss Austen back…

A Modern, New-Age Family

Review #46

Book: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbookbookbook

Fletchers, meet the Fletchers…

Please do. They are an incredibly charming and endearing group, living one day at a time just like the rest of us, except that they are a bit more interesting than most.

Jason Fletcher and Tom Anderson, known as Papa and Dad respectively, live with their four adopted sons in a small town in Massachusetts. Sam is 12, the biological child of a former coworker of Dad’s, and has been with the family since birth. Jax and Eli are both 10. They are not related but were in foster care together and quite attached to each other, so the family adopted both of them. Then a coworker of Papa’s had a baby with serious medical issues and could not keep him, so the infant Jeremiah (better known as Frog) joined the family six years ago.

The story takes place over the course of a school year, and each boy has his own issues to grapple with. Sam is a soccer star, but a chance comment leads a friend to assume that Sam will audition for the school musical, and Sam surprisingly finds himself interested in the idea. But how will his cool jock friends feel about Sam the actor, an actor who sings and dances no less? Eli, who is incredibly bright, has begged his parents to send him to Pinnacle, a school for highly gifted students. They finally agree and at first Eli is delighted. But soon he realizes that Pinnacle is not the place for him. His dads have taught him that people have to live with the consequences of their actions, so how can he tell them that he made a mistake? Especially such an expensive one. Jax, on his own at school for the first time, must contend with growing apart from his best friend and somehow interviewing their crank next door neighbor for a school project. Frog, going to school for the first time, is excited about everything, particularly his imaginary-cheetah-best-friend Flare and his new friend at school, Ladybug, who has three sisters and two moms and whom the rest of the Fletchers don’t think really exists.

Ultimately, this is a slice-of-life novel. There is no overarching problem or theme, just good times and challenges that the individuals in the family must face. In that respect, it’s like another book I recently reviewed, The Year of Billy Miller. But that’s where the similarity ends. Stories that are really just about everyday life need to have dynamic characters that capture the imagination of the reader. That was Billy’s failure and where the Fletchers succeeds so well. Each brother in and of himself is a delight and easy to fall in love with. Their interactions with each other are realistic and heartwarming. And their relationships with their dads are down-to-earth and downright humorous. Each chapter begins with a letter from one family member to various others in the group, and for the most part I found myself laughing out loud when I read them. Realistic, sweet, and funny? Can’t go wrong there.

Another thing I especially loved was the way the author treated the subject of this non-traditional family. Having two dads and adopted kids of multiple races and ethnicities was essential to the story, but the story was not about that. It wasn’t about dealing with bullies because they have two dads. It wasn’t about dealing with snide comments because one brother was blond and another one black. Yes, there was one scene where the kids at Eli’s new school meet the Fletchers with the inevitable ill-concealed curiosity, but that is what would truly happen in that circumstance. Like everything else in the book, the situation was handled with grace and humor.

Loved the family, loved the humor, loved the relationships, loved the book. Yabba dabba doo.

A Kindred Spirit

Review #45

Book: A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbookbook

A coworker and I recently discovered our mutual love of musical theater, Jane Austen, and all things British. I lent her my graphic novel of Pride and Prejudice, and she lent me this book.  We were both tickled pink with our ends of the swap.

Susan Branch and her husband Joe live in a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard—with my love of New England that was enough to get me hooked. Susan is a painter and cookbook author, Joe is a chef. Two years ago they decided to go to England and really do it right. They booked passage on the Queen Mary and planned to stay in the Motherland for about two months. TWO MONTHS! While I was immensely envious of anyone’s ability to take that long of a holiday, I couldn’t wait to see where they would go and what they would do. This book is actually her journal of this amazing trip.

Like any wise traveler, Susan had some specific objectives for this trip. She has long been enamored of Beatrix Potter and wanted to see her home. She also wanted to visit homes of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. As for the rest, she and her husband would stay in country villages and see what they would see.

The journal essentially begins on the Queen Mary. This was the only part of the book that did not entirely charm me. Like most of us who write travel journals, she started strong at the beginning, which meant lots of details about the crossing over. As I was eager to read about what she did once they landed, I could have done with a little less of the voyage over. (Thankfully, she did not dwell much on the voyage back—again like most of us travel journal-ers, she petered out a bit as the trip wore on.)

Once they made port, they rented a car, dealt with funky GPS directions and driving on the opposite side of the road, and made it to their first of several country stops. Sometimes they stayed for a week, sometimes for a few days. Sometimes they rented homes or stayed with friends, sometimes they had rooms in an inn. Wherever they stayed, the places and the people were charming. Indeed, as Susan says, “England is the epicenter of charm.”

The places Susan and her husband visited are too plentiful to recount, but highlights for her (and me!) included Sissinghurst, once the home of Vita-Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. What apparently is unparalleled there is the garden, which is actually a series of gardens. Susan was so enamored of them that since they arrived at Sissinghurst at a time when the famed White Garden was not in bloom, they returned before they left England to see it in all its glory. Sissinghurst is now on my list of places to go.

Another highlight was Charleston, the home of Vanessa Bell, sister of Virgina Woolf. An oasis for various members of the Bloomsbury group, the rooms were painted by artists and feature paintings by additional artists such as Renoir, Picasso, and Delacroix. Not to mention that the garden is apparently incredible and was the inspiration for many paintings itself. OK, add Charleston to my list.

Perhaps the greatest visit of all for Susan was to Hill Top Farm, home of Beatrix Potter. I have to admit, I didn’t get Susan’s enthusiasm for Miss Potter. I remember reading some of her works as a kid and not having a huge appreciation for them. However, Susan recounts Miss Potter’s philosophies and philanthropies, and I quickly became an admirer of Miss Potter as a person, even if I don’t love her works. So, yes, Hill Top Farm is now on my list.

Another remarkable thing to me is that all of these properties are part of the National Trust, ensuring that they are accessible to the public in perpetuity. In fact, the artists themselves deliberately made sure that their homes became a part of this amazing charitable organization out of a sense of giving back to the communities in which the houses are situated. Very tickety boo, as the English themselves might say.

The only thing that kind of made me go, “Huh?” was when Susan says that before her trip she did not consider herself an Anglophile. I can’t possibly see why she didn’t. Oh well, now she knows better and freely admits to a passion for things English.

As for me, in reading this book I found additional books I want to read, recipes I want to make, a new appreciation for Beatrix Potter, people to learn more about, and places to visit. Basically, I want to experience this marvelous trip I read about. So thanks, JV, for introducing me to this book and another kindred spirit.

Trés Bon, Mlle Christie

Review #44

Book: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction—Mystery

Rating: bookbookbookbook

One of the books I’m currently reading is called A Reader’s Book of Days, which has an entry for each day with two authors who were born on that day as well as two authors who died on that day. It also has events from authors’ lives or stories for each date. A few months ago one such event was the publishing of Agatha Christie’s first mystery, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Realizing I had never read one of Miss Christie’s books, I decided to give her debut novel a try.

In general, I don’t usually choose to read mysteries. I’m not sure why. I certainly have nothing against them. I guess I just don’t seem to think of them as I look about for fiction. So I was delighted that I truly enjoyed the story that introduced Hercule Poirot.

Our narrator is Arthur Hastings, a military officer invalided home from the Great War to heal from his wounds. He comes across his old friend John Cavendish, who invites him to the family home at Styles to recuperate. Hastings takes Cavendish up on his offer and meets the various and sundry friends and relations in and around the estate: John’s beautiful and aloof wife Mary; his stepmother and her new husband, Mr. and Mrs. Inglethorp; his younger brother Lawrence; Evie Howard, Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion and personal assistant; Dr. Bauerstein, a doctor on a rest cure nearby who has befriended Mary Cavendish; and Cynthia Murdoch, a young protégée of Mrs. Inglethorp who works as a V.A.D. in the local Red Cross hospital.

During Hastings’ stay at Styles, a tragic event occurs—Mrs. Inglethorp is found screaming and writhing in pain and dies soon after. At first thought to be a death due to illness, it soon transpires that the lady was murdered.  Hastings asks if he can call his friend Poirot to consult. The family agrees, and the Belgian graciously obliges.

During the course of the investigation, there are the usual trappings of mysteries—the obviously accused, the red herrings, the reluctant witness, the multiple motives, the evasive suspect, the surprise defendant. And in the midst of them all is the unflappable sleuth; observing, researching, connecting, probing, circumspect, modest, yet confident. Of course he solves the case in the end, in his poised and inimitable way.

I quite relished the story, with its twists and turns keeping me guessing, and I quite reveled in M. Poirot, with his intelligence, logic, and unfailing courtesy. My only real complaint lies with Hastings himself, although I do not think that is either his or Miss Christie’s fault. In the day and age of the procedural in which we now live, Hastings comes across as somewhat ignorant and naïve, making assumptions and relying entirely too much on personal feelings rather than the evidence. I am sure that in 1920 (when the book was originally published) he was a much more competent sidekick than he now appears. I blame my addiction to old Law & Order episodes for my slight dissatisfaction with him.

I said earlier that I am not drawn to mysteries nor do I read them. Considering that I was delighted with this book and significantly disappointed with five out of the other nine new novels I’ve read this year, I just might want to rethink that.

The Year of Living Blandly

Review #43

Book: The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Billy Miller, about to enter second grade, is nervous. Over the summer he fell a considerable distance, leaving no observable damage except a large lump on his head. Overhearing his parents, he wonders if he won’t be as smart this year because of his injury. Turns out, other things concern Billy this year too.

On his first day of second grade, he meets Emma Sparks, who quickly becomes his archenemy. He also really likes his new teacher Ms. Silver, but he inadvertently offends her. He seems to be as smart as ever, but Emma makes him question this. She also makes fun of him for calling his father Papa, saying it’s babyish.

Then there are some home issues. His father has quit his job to devote himself to being an artist, but Papa’s not feeling very successful about it. His little sister Sal is annoying and Mama is always busy with her teaching job, since she is the only one bringing in any money. He still likes hanging out with his best friend Ned, but not much is going his way, until he decides that this is his year.

Kevin Henkes is past master of how kindergarten and first grade girls act. Read his Lilly stories and you will be in no doubt. I read his earlier foray into novels, Olive’s Ocean, and liked it immensely. Billy, on the other hand, failed to make any real impression, of any kind. Billy and his family are sweet—I particularly loved Sally’s Drop Sisters (5 plush whales named Raindrop, Dewdrop, Snowdrop, Gumdrop, and Lemondrop)—but hardly dynamic enough to keep me interested. His problems are realistic and resolved authentically (the ones that are actually resolved, that is), but hardly attention-holding. His interests and fun times with Ned are good, but hardly noteworthy. I suppose this is a slice of life as it truly exists, but the everyday and humdrum does not make compelling storytelling.

I couldn’t find anything really wrong with this book, but I couldn’t find anything really right either. It was sweet, like all of Mr. Henkes’ other stories. It was also a bit boring, unlike his other stories. I appreciate his branching out away from the community of mice he often writes about, but give me Lilly rather than Billy, any day.