Queen of Booklandia


87.- 114. The Angela Thirkell Project

So, after years of noodling around reading Angela Thirkell (who, if you’ve forgotten, wrote a series of novels set in a fictional British county called Barsetshire), I decided to re-read the whole series, in order.  As I’ve said a bazillion times before, I had been reading the books as they came into my life, and so, while I could follow the plot of each particular novel, I was missing the experience of the background of county life - the characters that reappeared in in each story and who was related to whom and all that jazz.  So this summmer I re-read them all in order, and enjoyed them immensely.  But since these books are barely of interest to anyone on earth but me, I’m not going to go on and on re-reviewing them.  Rather, I’ll link to  my previous reviews of each novel, and then briefly review here anyone that I read for the first time this summer.  Because I am well aware that my weird Thirkell obsession is of interest to no one who reads this blog, and I’m only blogging about it to be a completeist about the number of books I read this week.  Thank you for your patience, and feel free to skip on to the next post.

The Barsetshire Chronicles (I only re-read these - I’ve not finished her stand alone novels)

 87.  High Rising (1933)

 88.   Wild Strawberries (1934)

 89.  The Demon in the House (1934)

 90.  August Folly  (1936)

 91.  Summer Half (1937)

 92.  Pomfret Towers (1938)

 93.   The Brandons (1939)

 94.   Before Lunch (1940)

 95.  Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) - This one was new to me, and it was pretty darn good, so I was glad to finally read it.  Rose Birkett, the pretty and brainless daughter of the headmaster of the Southbridge School (a school which features prominently in the series), is finally getting married, after having broken hearts all over the county with silly broken engagements.  While the wedding planning is going on, Lydia Keith, who has been one of our favorite characters from the very beginning, starts to transform from the wild hoyden she’s been the whole series, to a serious young woman, and finds herself in love.  I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but Lydia is one of the central characters of the series, and her transformation from wild child to young woman - while still keeping her essential Lydianess is quite lovely.  (I don’t want to say more in fear of spoilers, but, on the other hand, you’d have to be blind and deaf to not figure out who Lydia is going to end up marrying).  My only complaint with the book is that it ends super super abruptly (and kind of on a major cliffhanger), and that sort of ending is so different from other Thirkells that I went to the library to make sure pages weren’t missing from my edition.  But all in all a good read - and I didn’t even get into the social history about the early days of the war!

96. Northbridge Rectory (1941)

 97.   Marling Hall (1942)

 98.   Growing Up (1943)

99.    The Headmistress (1944)

100.    Miss Bunting (1945)

101.    Peace Breaks Out (1946)

102.    Private Enterprise (1947)

103.    Love Among the Ruins (1948)

104.  The Old Bank House (1949)

105. County Chronicle (1950)

106.    The Duke's Daughter (1951)

107.   Happy Returns (1952)

 108.   Jutland Cottage (1953)

109.    What Did It Mean? (1954)

110.    Enter Sir Robert (1955)

111.    Never Too Late (1956)

112.    A Double Affair (1957) - This one concerns the marriage of the vicar of Hatch End (Mr. Choyce) to our old friend Miss Merriman, who has heretofore spent her life in the service of others.  The excitement about the wedding, of course, causes love to bloom in other quarters.

113.    Close Quarters (1958) - This book focuses on Margot Macfayden, formally Margot Phelps, who was the focus of Jutland Cottage.  After having made a delightful marriage and escaping her loving, but overbearing parents, she finds herself unexpectedly widowed.  She is devastated.  And though she is financially secure, she doesn’t know how she will live her life.  Worse, her parens health has failed significantly, and she is petrified that she’ll have to move back to care for them, and resume her old, beaten down life.  Luckily, her old friend Canon Fewling is determined not to let her get subsumed again, and helps her come up with a plan to keep her independance and still do right by her family.

114.    Love at All Ages (1959) -  This one is less plotty - its more a collection of events that happened in Barsetshire and a bunch of engagements and babies being born and all that.  And complaining about how things have changed and being vaguely snobbish.  But it’s the last true Thirkell and it’s nice enjoyable fluff - exactly what you expect to get in late period Thirkell.

115. Three Score and Ten (1961) (with C.A. Lejeune) - This is the last Barsetshire book, and it wraps up the series delightfully.  It centers on famous author Mrs. Morland (our Thirkell stand in, who has been in the books since at least the third book), who is turning seventy.  Her friends decide that they must throw her a party to show her how loved and appreciated by the county, even though she’s not a native of Barsetshire (no, living there for 40 years is not enough).  It’s a perfect set up for a last book, because we catch up with everyone we love as the party is being planned. However, I don’t think Thirkell wrote much of this before she before she died, and that the bulk was written by her collaborator - especially because it does such a good job wrapping all the plot strands up..  But regardless, it’s a perfect capper to the series.  It gives us a last view of Barsetshire and all the people who live there and and whom we’ve grown to love.  

Other books

    Ankle Deep (1931)

    Three Houses (1931)

    Trooper to the Southern Cross (1934; republished as What Happened on the Boat)

    O These Men, These Men! (1935) - ABOVE!

    The Grateful Sparrow (1935)

    The Fortunes of Harriet (1936)

Christmas at High Rising (2013) - collection of short stories

86. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.”

I recently reorganized all the children’s books in my house, which turned out to be a gigantic task, as it turns out that we are running out of bookshelves at at an appalling rate.  But the upside was that I rediscovered a whole bunch of books that I forgot that we had - so prepare for a whole bunch of YA in the future (it turns out that I own so so many Newbury prize winners! Clever me!!).  And one of the books I ran across was The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, which is just a gem of a book, and I highly recommend you grab it and read it to your kids this holiday season. It’s both super short - we read it in two nights - and very funny - both my 9 and 7 year olds laughted out loud. 

It’s the story of how the worst kids in town, the Herdmans, decided to get involved in the yearly church pageant, and took it over (through fear and intimidation, mostly).  And everyone in town is certain that this will be the worst Christmas pageant ever.  But to everyone’s surprise, we learn more about the meaning of Christmas than you might expect.  

It’s just a delight, and like I said, super short.  In fact, I dug through my archives and I saw that I’d read it aloud to Jon about twelve years ago (i.e. three years before my oldest was born!) But if you want something sweet and funny to read alound to the kids this time of year, you’ll love this one.

81-85. Five Library Books

I hadn’t been to the library for ages, but I had to return an overdue book my kids had taken out, and pay some overdue fees, and having done that could not stop myself from taking out eight random books from the new arrivals section.  And two of them were “seven day reads” in which you commit to getting the book back in a week.  And since my seven days are up tomorrow, I figured I better blog about the ones I’ve read so far, so I can return them and remain fee free (unlike my irresponsible children!).  None of these were life-changing fictions, but there are some enjoyable reads herein.

81. How to Find Love in a Bookshop, Veronica Henry


“He never wouod have believed it if you told him a year ago.  That he’d be standing in an empty shop with a baby in a pram, seriously considering putting in an offer.”

Ok, this book is exactly what you’d think a book called How to Find Love in a Bookshop would be.  It is slightly cheesy - a total fluffy romance novel, where the the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily (to quote Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest).  But, having said that, it is a very charming version of that sort of book.  Why did I like this one, when I loathed the somewhat similar Little Paris Bookshop? Because it doesn’t make any pretense of being serious fiction - its just a super sweet story about life in a small bookshop.

Emilia Nightingale’s father has just died, and she has inherited his small bookshop.  She wants to keep it running, but it’s a huge burden - her father was so loved by everyone in the community, but a businessman he was not.  So as she struggles to make the shop solvent, all the people in the community who cared about him and care about her find love and redemption in the aisles of the Nightingale Bookshop.  And maybe (DUH, definitely), Emilia will as well.

Look, it’s totall fluff, but such a nice comfort read, if that’s your bag.

82. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

“When people ask me what I do - taxi drivers, hairdressers - I tell them I work in an office.”

This seven day read was a more serious read, and a very satisfying one.  Eleanor Oliphant lives by herself and relies on no one.  She needs no one, and has no one in her life except for her terrifying mother.  She narrates the novel, and when it starts, we think she might be on the autism spectrum, she is so awkward, and so isolated from humanity.  As the novel proceeds, and Eleanor slowly opens her life to other people - due to a random encounter with a co-worker and an injured stranger - we realize that she is just terribly terribly damaged by her horrible horrible up bringing.

Eleanor is such a compelling character, particularly as a narrator.  She is so awkward and really unlikable at the beginning - but she slowly unfolds - in a totally realistic way.  She doesn’t all of a sudden become a super normal person in a happy relationship - she just expands her life to have human contact.  And the change is so beautiful.

If I had a quibble it would be with a “twist” in the very last few pages that seemed a little unnecessary and I’m not quite sure holds up on rethinking the novel.  But this is Honeyman’s first novel and I will gladly seek out what she writes next - she’s able to write people who are terrible flawed and also realistic - and people I enjoyed spending time with.

83. The River at Night, Erica Ferencik

“Early one morning in late March, Pia forced my hand.”

Oh MY GOD this book drove me crazy.  It’s a thriller about a bunch of women who go on a rafting trip in a very isolated part of Maine, and find themselves in danger they did not anticipate.  It is snappily written and shows how brutal life can be.  But it is also a COMPLETE RIP OFF of Deliverance with ladies.  Except it’s just a junky thriller instead of an amazing meditation on the meaning of toxic masculinity and the same issue of how quick man becomes an animal. Ugh.  It made me so mad.  If you haven’t read Deliverance it might entertain you on an airplane. But Jesus, read Deliverance instead. 

84. Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars, Miranda Emmerson

“Iolanthe Green is perching on the arm of an antique wing chair.”

This is a delightful mystery about an American actress who suddenly goes missing from her British theater.  The police are looking for her, but when activity seems to die down, her dresser Anna starts an investigation of her own that brings her in contact with a whole new group of people she’d never met before.  It’s as much about the mystery itself as Anna and her growth and investigation, and I quite enjoyed it.  I think the ending was a bit abrupt, but I would recommend the book nonetheless - it kept me turning pages right until the end.  And I very much appreciated the subplot about racism in England in the mid-sixties.  A fun mystery read.

85. Local Girl Missing, Claire Douglas

“It’s a dreary afternoon, just after lunch, when I finally find out that you’re dead.”

Another basic thriller, this one about a girl (Frankie) who finally comes back to her hometown after twenty years when the body of her former best friend Sophie, who disappeared years ago, is found in the ocean.  Sophie’s brother Dan askes Frankie to come back and help him solve the mystery, all these years later.  Frankie is loathe to do so, but comes, and soon founds herself dragged into a situation that might be more than she can handle.  Like I said, a pretty basic premise, but I have to say, it has a killer ending, and one I didn’t see coming.  A fun read.

69-80. Twelve New-ish Mysteries

You know I love reading (and re-reading mysteries).  Here are twelve that have come out in the last few years or so, and thus should be easily available for you to pick up!

69.-71.  Three Amory Ames mysteries

Murder at the Brightwell, Ashley Weaver

“It is an impossibly great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions.”

Death Wears a Mask, Ashley Weaver

“It was amazing, really, what murder had done for my marriage.”

A Most Novel Revenge, Ashley Weaver

“‘Well, darling, who do you suppose will turn up dead this time?’”

This is a series of dectective stories set in 1920s Britain featuring Amory Ames, and her husband, Milo. When the series starts, their marriage is on the rocks, largely because Milo seems to have a roving eye, and Amory can’t take it any more.  When her ex-fiance, Gil, asks her to help him by coming to stay with a group of friends of his at the Bridewell hotel, she decides to go, and damn the consequences. (Clarification - the consequences are merely gossip.  She has her own room.  This is a pretty lighthearted series.)  Gil hopes Amory will help dissuade his sister from making a disastrous marriage.  When the troublesome fiance turns up dead, not only does mayhem ensue, but Amory’s estranged husband arrives, hoping to take back his wife.

This is a pretty goofy and cosy series, but they were also pretty fun to read.  If you want real human emotion and suffering in your mysteries, this is not for you.  But if you want some escapist reading along the lines of Christie, these can’t be beat. I both thought the first book was ridiculous (like, I get it, Amory is beautiful and her clothes are fancy and her husband is hot for her), and totally bought the next two to keep reading.  Fans of Phryne Fisher or Maisie Dobbs would like these, or anyone who likes romping through British high society in the roaring twenties.  The next two books are along the same lines (murder at a masked ball! murder in a country house!), but I have to admit, I’m looking forward to reading the fourth one.

72. Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz

“A bottle of wine. A family-sized pakcet of Nacho Cheese Flavored Tortilla Chips and a jar of hot salsa.  A packet of cigarettes on the side (I know, I know).  The rain hammering against the windows.  And a book.”

This is a fun one.  Alan Conway is a famous mystery author, who has just sent his latest manuscript to his editor, Susan Ryeland.  The latest manuscript (which we get to read) is another classic tale of mayhem and murder, in the vein of Christie and Sayers.  But as Susan reads it, she begins to suspect there may be another, real-life crime being hinted to within the pages. She realizes she needs to investigate the truth, and, of course, happenings ensue.

It’s a clever conceit, and it’s very well done.  Meta of course, but why not? Both the “fictional murder” and the “real crime” are suspenseful and interesting.  The book is out in hardcover right now, and would be a perfect gift for the mystery lover in your life.  I myself am giving it to my grandpa.  Spoiler alert - but he is 91 and doesn’t have a computer, so I think I’m safe/

73. The Death Chamber, Sarah Rayne

“Georgina read the letter a second time - and then a third - because it was so extraordinary there was a strong possibility she had misunderstood it.”

I loved this book! The plot may sound unnecessarily complicated as I explain this, but trust me, Rayne pulls it all together.  And my favorite kind of book is the kind where the tendrils of history affect the past, so I was so in the bag for this.  The story focuses on Calvary Gaol (set in Britain, see?), which was a prison where people were sent to be executed before the abolition of the death penalty.  A tv producer decides to investigate to see if ghosts still exist.  While doing so he meets with Georgina Grey, whose grandfather had funded a local psychic society that is closing up shop.  The society has called Georgina up to hand over some family papers that had been stored therein.  She knows nothing about her grandfather, who was a doctor at the prison, overseeing the executions there.  She ends up hanging around trying to learn more about him, and overlaps with the television crew.  This is all interspersed from scenes from her grandfather’s life at the prison, and a mysterious prison escape that happened while he worked there.  Like I said, lots of plot but great fun if you are a mystery fan.  Especially if you like them in the Ruth Rendell/P.D. James vein (i.e. not hard-boiled, but not super cosy either). 

74. Arrowood, Laura McHugh

“I used to play a game where I imagined that someone had abandoned me in a strange, unknown place and I had to find my way back home.”

Bought this unknown based upon the creepy cover and back blurb, and as soon as I opened it I saw quote the “Do not stand by my grave and weep” poem, and thought, oh no this book will be terrible.  That is a terrrrribly cheesy poem and I stand by that forever.  So much so that I immediately told my husband that if that is ever associated with my death in anyway, I will come back and haunt him.  BUT! The book was actually pretty good, so maybe the author is decent with text and just sucks at picking poetry.

Arden Arrowood grew up in a historic home in Iowa on the Mississippi River with her grandparents and parents.  But when her younger two twin sisters vanish mysteriously, her life is upended.  Her parents move away, and she is torn from her beloved home.  Years later, when her father dies, she learns that her grandparents had left the home in trust for.  Adrift in life, she moves back home and tries to discover what really happened all those years ago.  So, in my wheelhouse for sure.  If you like this kind of book, this one is pretty good.  

75. The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware

“In my dream, the girl was drifting, far, far below the crashing waves and the cries of the gulls in the cold, sunless depts of the North Sea.”

This is a book has been a huge bestseller for whatever reason, but I thought it was super basic.  It’s not that well written and the mystery was sort obvious as well.  It just felt like cut rate Christie.  People, there are better mysteries out there - listen to me!  But, to be fair, I wouldn’t be so hard on it if it hadn’t been so popular, and if I hadn’t like her other book, In a Dark, Dark, Wood.  

Anyway, this takes place on a cruise ship.  Lo Blacklock is a journalist who is covering the launch of a super luxury boat, when she realises that something suspicious is going on.  The plot is pretty basic so to tell more would give it away.  It’s a fast read, but not for me.

76. Death of an Avid Reader, Frances Brody

“The newspaper item has been clipped, framed, and now held pride of place on the library’s landing.”

Another cosy mystery from a series, but with a bit more heft than the Amory Ames books described above.  This isn’t the first book in the series, but it’s the first I’ve read and it was easy to dive in here.  And the mystery takes place at a library, which is pretty fun.  Kate Shackelton has been asked by Lady Coulton to find a baby that she was forced to give up at birth.  At the same time, she gets wrapped up in a murder mystery at the subscription library to which she is a member.  I’m not quite sure of Kate’s background - she’s a widow, she’s solved crime before, but she’s a fun character and the mystery is reasonably complicated and I enjoyed the read.

77. My Husband’s Wife, Jane Corry

“Flash of metal.  Thunder in my ears.”

A pretty typical modern thriller, but a decent version nonetheless.  Part one is set in 2000, as Lily and Ed are starting their married life in London.  She is starting out as a young lawyer, when she is assigned a controversal pro bono criminal appeal (don’t get me started with a brand new lawyer being forced to take a case she doesn’t want, which is also much much too complicated to ever have been given to a brand new hire, but once I let that part go it was ok). She also gets involved with the life of her young neighbor, Carla, who lives alone with a single mother.  The second part takes part in 2015, as Ed and Lily are struggling to raise their autistic son, and Carla suddenly reappears in their lives.  Crime and mayhem assume.  As an airport read, I think this is excellent.  Not the greatest fiction (see the plot hole from the very start), but it kept me entertained, even if I feel like I’ve read a million stories like this before.

78. The Long Drop, Denise Mina

“He know this much to be an honest man but says he wants to help.”

This was a gift, and isn’t the kind of crime book I usually read - it’s more hardboiled and low-life crime-y than the stuff I usually seek out. But it’s based on a true story - William Wirt’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law were brutally slaughtered in his Scottish home, and despite his iron clad alibi, he is a suspect.  He puts out a bounty for the real killer to try and clear his name.  Peter Manuel, a low life with gangster ties, claims he knows the truth, but this will involve Wirt in a world he doesn’t understand and know how to cope with.  As I said, this usually isn’t my sort of thing, but it’s really well written and compelling.  Recommend - even more if you like your crime on the dark side.

79. The Lost Girls, Heather Young

“I found this notebook in the desk yesterday.”

Oooh, I had totally forgotten about what this was when I picked it up, but once I refreshed my memory it was pretty good.  In 1935 Emily Evans vanished from her family’s vacation home on a remote Minnesota lake.  Sixty years later, Emily’s surviving sister writes an account of that summer, which she leaves, along with the house itself, to her grandniece, Justine.  Justine is a bad way - she needs to get away from an abusive boyfriend, so he flees with her daughters to the lake house.  They try to build a new life there.  The story goes back and forth from 1935 to the present as we follow both stories - the summer Emily went missing, and Justine’s desperate attempts to rebuild her life in a failing lake town.

The mystery is good - the past stuff is great.  The present day stuff seems a little superfluous, and isn’t as compelling, but overall this is was an enjoyable read, and if you like this kind of book (and as you can see, it’s practically my favorite kind of easy escapist read of all), you’ll like this.

80. Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, Amy Stewart

“On the morning of her arrest, Edna Heustis awoke early and put her room in order.”

So, I was actually asked to review this book for The Washington Post, and was super super excited, because I had so so loved the first two books in this series. Like they were on my best of the year top ten lists.  But, I got sick this summer and couldn’t get the review done.  Which was probably for the best, because I was let down by Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions.  I don’t know what it was about it - Constance Kopp remains an amazing character (she is, if you forget, the first female cop in Patterson, New Jersey). But this book is sort of issue-y.  It’s all about how young women are being jailed on so-called morality charges, when they are merely trying to live independent lives - and it’s tied up with Constance’s “sister” (SPOILER secret daughter) Fluerette running away to try to make it on the stage. I guess I like my Kopp sister’s mysteries more crime-y.  It is, I guess, important to learn about how these poor honest girls were railroaded by the system, but I found it dull compared to the first two books.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll read the next one for sure, but it wasn’t up to my expectations

68. The Rooster Bar

“The end of the year brought the usual holiday festivities, though around the Frazier home there was little to cheer.”

Despite my writing ennui during my recovery, I was lucky enough to be offered to review the new (New York Times Bestselling) novel by John Grisham for my very favorite newspaper, The Washington Post.  Link here, check it out!

Short take in case you are too lazy to link through - an unexpectedly great read.

54.-67. A Massive (Mostly) Newbery YA Round Up

Though I haven’t been blogging, I have been making some progress on my Newbery Medal Project.  It’s so interesting how varied the chosen books are - not just over time, which would be expected - obviously tastes in the 1940s are not those of the 1990s.  But even in a close period of time the books vary so much in subject matter, reading level, etc.  Makes me wonder how they are chosen and what the criteria for winning is.  I mean, not enough to actually google that information, but there are some very interesting contrasts.  

Because this is such a long post and you might lose interest, I’m putting the good ones on the top.

54.-55.  Homecoming/Dicey’s Song, Cynthia Voight

“The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car."

“What a day, Dicey thought.  What a summer, for that matter, but especially, what a day.”

You probably already read these two books, if you are reading this blog. Unless, maaaaybe if you are boy - I am certain that every girl who grew up in the eighties/early nineties read these, because they are amazing, and thus the kind of books that get pushed on young readers.  But if somehow, somehow, you have not read Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, you must remedy it immediately.  Not your kids, you.  They are so, so good. And so sad, and so on point about the emotional lives of the characters, that I honestly think they could have been adult fiction.

Anyway - the plots.  Homecoming is first, and it starts with the four Tillerman children being abandoned by their mother in the parking lot of a supermarket in Peewauket Connecticut.  Dicey, the oldest, takes charge, and decides they need to continue their voyage to Bridgeport.  But they have very little money, and the book describes how they basically walked there, and, further voyages later on.  It’s perhaps implausible that they were not stopped by any adults (though they were very, very careful to avoid any adults - and this was the late 1970’s), but the book describes their troubles so realistically and truly that that aspect of the plot is easy to forgive.  The voyage is heartbreaking both physically and emotionally.  When I read this book as a child I was interested in the nuts and bolts of how they made it - as an adult I was devastated by the people in the book - how real and how flawed they are.  This one only was a runner up for the Newbery (and I checked, the winner was Jacob Have I Loved - another amazing book), but it is tremendous.

And you really do need to read it before you read our 1983 Newbury Winner, Dicey’s Song.  Because this book is about what Dicey does once she gets her family safe - how she adjusts to not being on the move and in charge, and how she has to deal with the aftermath of her journey.  It is phenomenal.  Dicey is such a real person - stubborn, brave, full of contradictions.  Her growth and acceptance of her new life is captured so well.  And the other characters are just as knotty and real.  Do do yourself a favor and read these.  You won’t be sorry. (And there are way more Tillerman books if you want to keep delving, too!)

 56.-58. A Long Way From Chicago/A Year Down Yonder/ A Season of Gifts, Richard Peck

“It was always August when we spent a week with our grandma.”

It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years in between.”

“You could see from here the house was haunted.”

This series of books could not be more different from the Tillerman saga, but are equally amazing to read.  Unlike the serious emotions of Cynthia Voight, Richard Peck has written three rollicking comic delights.  Though, seriously, what is with the Newbery people again awarding book number two in the series? It does, in all fairness, make you (if you are a compulsive nut like me) read more books, but it’s an odd habit.  

These books about about Grandma Dowdell, a magnificant force of nature who lives in a very sleepy town in Illinois, and how first her grandchildren, and then her neighbors' children, learn to deal with her various eccentricities, and, of course, eventually learn to adore her.  The fun is in the various adventures and plots that they get pulled into through Grandma, who has her finger in every pie in town - despite acting as the local recluse.  The first book is about her grandchildren visiting her from Chicago for a week is summer.  They dread the trips as boring and miserable - but Grandma has other ideas.  The second (2001 prize winning) book centers on the granddaughter, Mary Alice, who, because of the Depression, has to go live with Grandma for a year.  The final book focuses on a neighboring family that moves into the town, and how Grandma helps them fit in. 

I’ve made it sound a bit predictable and didactic, maybe, but this is absolutely not the case.  Grandma isn’t a sweet old lady - she is kind of a dangerous nut, and the activites that happen in the small town are something else.  She isn’t a sweet old lady - she is tough as nails and prepared to do just about anything to get the results she wants. The books are funny and well, well worth the award.  They are also, I think more age appropriate for the kids of the people I know who read this blog.   The Tillermans are for teenagers, but my kids (especially my 9 year old, if I could get him to read any book without magic in it) would like Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdell.

59. Holes, Louis Sacher

“There is no lake at Camp Green Lake."

Oh, Holes.  Holes  (the 1999 prize winner) is amazing. And it is 100% kid-approved - I read it to Thing One (8 at the time) and Thing Two (6 at the time) and they adored it. It’s a funny, twisted, complicated plot that ties up so beautifully at the end.  And they even made a movie about it, starring Shia La Boeuf.

Stanley Yelnats has been sent to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center in the middle of nowhere, Texas. There is no lake, there are no trees, there is nothing but dirt.  And the kids, every day have to dig a gigantic hole in the dirt - allegedly to build character.  Stanley (who is innocent of the charge) is a total loss - he has never seen anything like this place, or the other (not so innocent) kids who are also there.  But very quickly he learns to dig.  

Of coure, more is going on than meets the eye, and complications ensue, as they say.  And it’s funny (Sacher is the creater of Wayside School) and it’s sweet, and it’s a great read.  Can’t vouch for the movie though - the kids watched it with out me.

60. Ginger Pye, Eleanor Estes

“Would Gracie-the-cat be jealous if the Pyes got another pet - a dog?”

For a bit of a change of pace, this is the 1952 Newbery prize winner.  I have to be honest, and say I opened it prepared not to like it.  Here I must confess my shameful secret, which is that I just do not like books about animals, and I’m really not much of a dog person.  The Incredible Journey (remember that?) was like, the only book I was offered as a child that I flatly refused to read.  So when I realized that Ginger Pye was the Pye family dog (my copy is ex-lib and not quite so doggy on the cover), I was bummed.

FALSE ALARM! This book is good.  I mean, it’s written in the 50’s, so don’t expect hard-hitting emotional realism, but it absolutely charming in its own way.  It is the story of the Pye family, and how they adopt a dog, and then it is lost, and (SPOILER) eventually found.  But I enjoyed it much more as a historical record of how people lived at the time (which to me reads a bit more late 40’s early 50’s than the suburban glory of the mid 50’s, but whatever).  The Pyes are funny and sweet, and I even found myself hoping Ginger would be found.  So much for judging a book by it’s cover (or in my case, jacket blurb). A good read for younger kids.

AND, I realized as I read this that Eleanor Estes wrote The Hundred Dresses which was possibly the most devastating book I ever read as child.  Did any of you read that one? Sadder than Where the Red Fern Grows AND Bridge to Terebethia.

61. The 21 Balloons,  William Pene du Bois

“There are two kinds of travel”

This one (the 1948 winner) may be out of print, which would be a shame, because it’s a fun read. It is the story of Professor Wlliam Waterman Sherman, who sets of on a year long balloon trip, only to land on the island of Krakatoa, where he finds an amazing civilization.  After the volcano erupts, however, he ends up adrift in the Atlantic Ocean (long story), and is rescued at the last possible second.  He returns in triumph to San Francisco, and tells his amazing story.  

The book is piffle, of course, but fun piffle, and the illustrations are fun too.  Fun, especially if you like adventure stories on the fantasical side.

62. The Whipping Boy, Sid Fleischmann

“The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat.”

The heir to the throne is known far and wide as Prince Brat, for all of his horrible antics. Alas, the law forbids spanking the heir to the throne, so Jemmy is taken from his life in sewers to become the Prince’s Whipping Boy.  Jemmy is miserable and determined to run away - and it seems the Prince has the same idea.  Soon the two of them are off on a journey that will change them - and their relationship forever.

So.  This is the 1987 winner.  It is super super short, and yet, my kids got bored.  The thing is, anyone with a brain sees where this is going from, if not page one, as soon as they take off together.  And they barely have characters, given that it’s a 90 page paperback.  And the adventures aren’t quite madcap enough to cover up for that, at least for an adult.  And, as I said, my kids weren’t into it.  It’s not bad - it’s a fun, short, read, but I can’t help wondering what it was up against that year. 

63. The Slave Dancer, Paula Fox

“In a hinged wooden box upon the top of which was carved a winged fish, my mother kept the tools of her trade.”

This 1974 prize winner is the story of Jessie, a young boy who is out running errands for his mother one day, and instead shanghaied to go play his fife on a slave ship.  You see, they need someone to make the slaves dance, so they just don’t die of apathy on the long trip home.  Jessie is horrified, but stuck with his lot, and the novel tells this terrible story.

It’s quite good, and the parts with the slaves dancing are harrowing.  You can see this is the sort of book that was used for years in units to teach children about the horrors of the slave trade, as well has how tough ship life was generally.  And it does all that very well.  I don’t think I’d read it to my kids, though - not because I want to sheild them from these topics (don’t forget, I’m the person who took my kid to a boron mine and a Japanese-American detention camp on the same day), but to the extent we are going to read about the horrors of slavery, I’d rather read something that is more from the perspective of the slaves themselves.  This book is beautifully written and very moving, but in this day in age, I’d prefer something that comes from the voice of the enslaved people, not just a white person’s pain in experiencing slavery.

64. Miss Hickory, Carolyn Sherwin Bailey

“Miss Hickory heard heavy footsteps, clump, clumping along the stones of the pasture, then approaching her lilac bush.”

Miss Hickory - the 1947 winner - is a sweet little tale about a doll that gets left outside for the winter and needs to learn to fend for herself.  Luckily she’s a wooden doll with a hickory nut head, so she fits right in with all the outdoor creatures.  It’s a slow book, for sure - lots of the plot is like, Miss Hickory teaches the lady pheasants how to make the male pheasants pay attention to them.  Or, Miss Hickory moves into a robin’s nest and decorates it with leaves.  If you were very into slow old fashioned books about nature this might be your bag.  My kids (who, granted, like books about magic the most) HATED it.  Like they wouldn’t let me finish reading it to them, and it was only 121 pages long.  So, there’s that.  But I found it quaintly enjoyable, especially once I stopped reading it outlound and got to finish it in about 20 minutes.

65. Hitty Her First Hundred Years, Rachel Field

“The antique shop is very still now.”

Hitty (the 1930 winner)  is basically a better version of Miss Hickory.  And it won first, too - way to go back to the lesser well, Newbery winners!! It too follows the life of a doll, Hitty, over a hundred years of her life, but Hitty has way way better adventures than Miss Hickory did. She was made by a peddlar in Maine, she got stuck in a tree, she was owned by a sea captain’s daughter and went abroad, she lived with Quakers, and in a city, and met Charles Dickens, etc. etc.  Much more fun for me (though I’ve already showed my anti-animal and nature book bias).  Not to be sexist, but I can see a little girl quite enjoying this book.  Or some little boys - not just the ones I gave birth too.

66. The Door in the Wall, Marguerite de Angeli

“Robin drew the coverlet close about his head and turned his face to the wall.”

This book, the 1950 Newbery Winner, was a book that was always around when I was a kid.  And for some reason I never read it, deeming it, in my gender constructed way, a “boys book.”  And now I have read it, and it’s actually pretty good - probably so good I should have put it higher on this list, but it happened to be on the bottom of the pile and I am too lazy to cut, paste, and renumber.

Anyway, it’s set in England in the Middle Ages.  Robin, son of Sir John de Bureford, knows he will be raised to be a knight, just as his father.  But due to series of complications, he ends up alone in the home while plague strikes.  Left for dead he is rescued by Brother Luke from the local monastery.  Brother Luke provides him a home - but how can he ever be a knight, now that his body has been wrecked with disease, and his legs crippled?

Very very good on both authenic medieval details, and on the emotional life of Robin - he feels like a real person, but not a modern one.  His problems and feelings are truly of his time (or, I don’t know, what it seems like that would be, having never been a person who lived in medieval England).  

67.  A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, Nancy Willard

“Will you come?” said the Sun.

“Soon,” said the Moon.

Ok.  This one.  This is a whole different kettle of fish.  A Visit to William Blake’s Inn won both the 1982 Newbery and Caldecott Awards (for picture books).  And on that I cry foul. I don’t know if no one wrote any good books in 1982, but this 100% a picture book - not at all on the same plane as any of the other books I’ve read so far.  Which isn’t to say it isn’t a delightful picture book - Williard has imagined an inn owned by William Blake an written a number of poems about it that are sweet.  The illustrations are absolutely perfect, and I think this is an award winning book. I just don’t understand why, for this one time (at least so far in my quest) the Newbery is a 44 page picture book instead of a children’s novel.  BUT, if you  like Blake and poems, you will like this.

50.-53. Four Good Novels

I know that sounds a bit like faint praise.  I was going to write Four Great Novels, but then that soundes like “Great Books” which isn’t what I meant.  Rather these are four relatively recent novels, each of which I enjoyed and recommend.  (I’ve already made my mom read two of them, so there you have it.)

50. The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

I found this compulsively readable.  It’s about the Plumb family, Melody, Beatrice, Jack and Leo - compulsively charming Leo, who has gotten himself into a great deal of trouble.  And to get him out of it, their otherwise cold mother, spends “the Nest.”  The Nest (always in capital letters), is a trust fund that was to be split among the children once they all turned forty.  Instead, their mother buys Leo out of his difficulties, and the Nest is gone.  

Yes, there is an uphill climb to sympathize with a bunch of adults who have (boo-hoo), lost some money they never earned.  But Sweeney knows that, and the book is in part of a satire of how the Nest has arrested the development of all of the Plumb children (it is not spoiling much to tell you that they find themselves once they free themselves of the Nest).  It’s a dynamic look at a dysfunctional family figuring themselves out, a but, and a realization that there is hope for change no matter how old you are.  And it’s funny - and Leo is a person you will looooove to hate.  Great read.

51. Amy Snow, Tracy Rees

“Aurelia Vennaway held her breath as she tiptoed from the stuffy parlor and stole along the hallway.”

Amy Snow is an Victorian orphan, found outdoors as an infant on a cold, windy day.  Aurelia Vennaway is her patron - a wealthy and titled eight year old girl who insists that the family take the infant in.  As time passes, Aurelia and Amy become close friends, despite their differences in station, and despite Aurelia’s parents disapproval..  When Aurelia dies, young, Amy is left alone to figure out her place in the world.  But a posthumous letter from Aurelia sets her off on an adventures that eventually changes her life.  This one is a fun quick read. Not great literature, but  if you like your historical fiction on the romantic side you’ll like this. For fans of Georgette Heyer, for sure.

52. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender


“It happened for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, a warm spring day in the flatlands near Hollywood, a light breeze moving east from the ocean, and stirring the black-eyed pansy petals newly planted in our flower boxes.”

This one has a touch of magical realism.  One day, nine year old Rose Edelstein bites into a lemon cake her mother has made her, and in doing so can taste the emotions her mother had when baking it (SPOILER ALERT - not good emotions).  From then on, every thing she eats gives her insight into the chef - which not only makes her life quite difficult, but leads her to understanding  and exploring family secrets that she’d rather ignore.  The premise is a bit crazy - if you don’t like magical realism you will not like this book (particularly the ending, which I found to be maddening, in a good way).  But if you have the patience for it, it’s a interesting tale of a young girl growing up and finding, eventually a place in the world.  And if you are a sucker for family stories (as I am), you’ll enjoy it as well.

53. The Other Daughter, Lauren Willig

“‘Can we go look, can we go look, can we go look?' Eight-year-old Amelie tuggest at Rachel’s hand, pulling her towards the stairs.”

This was my favorite of the four, by far.  Rachel has been raised in genteel poverty by her mother.  While working in France as a governess she learns that her mother has died - and at the same time learns that her father, who she believed died when she was young, is in fact alive, an earl, and married with another family (hence the title).  This rocks Rachel to her core - and she decides to do something about it - to infiltrate society and learn more about her secret family.  Ooooooh, this was so good and juicy! Family secrets, high society in Britain, lords and ladies, people getting their comeuppances.  And, of course, learning at the end that all was more complicated than it seemed.  SUCH a fun read if you like this sort of book.  Loved it. 

I’m back!

So, I took an unexpected summer vacation from blogging, due to some nasty health issues that cropped up.  But I’m finally on the mend, and while I stopped writing, I didn’t stop reading, and have a MASSIVE backlog to get through.  See below:


Yes, yes all those.  And the box is full too.  So, expect some multiple book posts for a while and let the reading begin!!

47-48. Two by Pym

“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.”

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

“A confused impression of English tourists shuffling round a church in Ravenna, peering at mosaics, came Catherine Oliphant as she sat brooding over her pot of tea.”

Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym 

I read one book by Barbara Pym, and liked it so much I decided to read a second right away (this seems to be a bit of a habit of mine). As I’ve said before, Pym is Angela Thirkell or Dodie Smith written with acid instead of ink.  She writes devastating portraits of real people just living their lives.  Not much happens in the books, but they nonetheless propell you forward on the reality of the characters.  There are those who find Pym funny. I see that, but I also find her books to be, in some ways, achingly sad in their capture of the banality of ordinary life.  But there is something about them that makes me want to keep reading, and to read more Pym (something beyond my obsession with reading every social novel about 20th Century Britain, that is).

Quartet in Autumn was my favorite of the two.  It’s about four elderly people who work together in an unspecified (but clearly unnecessary) Government office, and what happens to them as they start to retire.  It’s about aging and loneliness, and about how little people really understand each other.  And, thus, it does have an undercurrent of melancholy - but it’s not really a tragic book.  The characters are too set in their ways, too sure of themselves to make it sad - this isn’t The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It is comedic in a way, but more than that, I liked that it was a story of a kind you don’t see too often, about people who are often forgotten.  The Times called on of her books “Sharp, funny and sad” - I think that’s a good sense of what you’ve got here. 

Less than Angels was less interesting - but only because Quartet in Autumn grabbed me so. I still liked it and read every word, but I just was less drawn in in the life of a suburban girl, Deidre, who is at university and falls in love with a handsome anthropologist.  You don’t really root for the romance (Tom, the anthropologist, is already living with a lovely girl names Catherine), particularly because Deidre is sort of a drip, but the characters around the story - the students and professors at the university, Deidre’s family, Catherine - are delightful and make the story.  And the end is surprisingly satisfying (she says, nastily*).  I recommend Pym.

*read the story and find out why

46. The Path to Power

Two of the men lying on the blanket that day in 1949 were rich.

The Path to Power, Robert Caro

In 1998, when I was a junior at Dartmouth, I won a prize for writing the best history paper on a European topic.  The award was a gift certificate to the bookstore, and one of the books I bought was Robert Caro’s The Path to Power, the first volume in his (projected, cause it’s still not done) four volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson.  Twenty years later, I finally read it, which is pitiful, but at least I’m faster than Caro!

The book, which covers the early years of Johnson’s life through his defeat in the 1941 Senate Race, is amazing.  It is so well written and compelling that I found myself racing to find out what would happen - and I KNOW what happened.  The only thing that is keeping me from immediately picking up volume 2 is that I’m not emotionally prepared to spend another month of my life with Johnson.  I’d gleefully submerse myself in more Caro, but my god, Johnson was a son of a bitch.  He just really sucked, and the fact that this book somehow makes you care about him - even root for him, is a credit to the story Caro tells.  Johnson was amazing - a nonstop worker, a political genius, and also a real asshole with no personal political values of his own.  He wanted to be in charge and would do just about anything to get there.  The fact that he managed to do some good along the way seems basically incidental.

The absolute best part of the book, to me, is the way that Caro shows us how Johnson’s growing up in the hill country of Texas absolutely shaped who he was and what he became.  He describes what life was like in that hardscrabble country in such a terrible (because it was backbreaking and terrible) and evocative way.  Caro has a magic way of marshalling facts into a narrative that reads absolutely true - but also reads.  He is that rare scholar who is also a story-teller, and once I can gird myself to spend more time with Johnson I will absolutely be reading the next book in the Years of Lyndon Johnson series.  I may not love Lyndon, but I adore Caro. 

The American President Project 

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017