High Note, Low Note



by Anne Emery

Published 1962

So initially I wasn’t going to review this book.  First off, it’s out of print, and so if you read the review and wanted to read the book, it would probably be difficult to find.  Secondly, it was just a pretty average  book for me.  Not a lot of feelings.  Thirdly, I read this book in AUGUST and it is now October, so that gives you an idea of how far behind I am on the book blog!

But I decided to go ahead and give it a few minutes (and paragraphs) because I really enjoyed how Emery represented family.  I know that a lot of people complain about the 1950’s and how horrible it was for everyone who wasn’t a white male (which is a whole other argument that I could rant about but…), but I think that a return to a lot of the family values from the 50’s would not be amiss.

This particular story is about Jean.  The tale follows her through her senior year in high school.  She’s going steady with Jeff, and develops a new friendship with a girl named Kim.  Throughout the book, Jean learns a lot about herself and what she wants to do with her life.  While she likes Jeff, she isn’t interested in a long-term, serious relationship with him (like he is with her).  While Kim is friendly and an exciting companion, Jean realizes that reliability, kindness, and honesty are important virtues as well.  Overall, I wasn’t terribly excited in Jean’s life.  Kim drove me crazy, and Jean’s inability to tell Jeff how she really felt was also annoying to me.

However, I loved Jean’s parents.  Throughout the story, they always did their best to support their children in their various activities and hobbies, but they showed wisdom and discernment in the rules they laid down and expected to be followed.  While Jean’s mother was a poor, oppressed housewife with no chance for self-expression, she was sweet and cheerful, busy serving her family and her neighborhood.

At one point in the story, Jean’s friends are all in a play together, and have a cast party after the final performance.  Jean has been given a curfew by her parents, but she is having so much fun with her friends that she wants to stay out later.  In the repressed 1950’s, an 18-year-old living under her parents’ roof was actually supposed to obey the rules, so instead of just staying out, Jean stops home to persuade her parents to let her stay out later.

“Oh Mother, this is the most wonderful evening!  We’ve been singing all the operettas over again, and we just got hamburgers at Andy’s.  The gang is going on now to Dave’s house, and then we’re all winding up at Tony’s house for breakfast.”

Her mother looked at her father.  Mr. Burnaby said, “No, you’re not, Jean.  it’s been a good party, and now it’s over.”

…  [Jean’s] heart began to beat with a frantic tripping sensation, and she was in a desperate hurry to finish this discussion and get away from uncertainty.  “All the kids are waiting outside.  Dad, this time I’m staying with them …  this is the party I want to stay out for, and they’re all expecting me.”

“You’re not going on,” said her father.  “It’s after two o’clock, and for you the party is over.  We’re glad you had a good time, but we can’t see any reason to prolong things forever.  You know the rule.”

“Dad, I’ve got to go with them,” Jean protested.  To her horror, her eyes were filling with tears and her voice was shaking.

Her father shook his head.

“You’ve got to stay home,” he said positively.  “Now, do you want to go out and tell them good night, or shall I?”

Thank you, Mr. Burnaby.  Thank you for being a parent.  Thank you for being the dad.  Thank you for not making your wife be the bad guy and have to throw down the discipline.  She’s there, she’s supportive, she’s in agreement, but Mr. Burnaby lays down the law, and Jean does what he says, although quite unwillingly.

After everyone leaves, Jean throws one last accusation at her parents.

“You’ve ruined my whole senior year,” she stormed at her father.  “This was the best party I’ve ever been to in my whole high-school career, and you’ve spoiled it all.”

Her mother started to speak, but Jean rushed past her and up the stairs to the seclusion of her own room.  She was the only girl in the whole school who had parents like hers, taking all the joy out of life, interfering with her plans, keeping her away from her friends.  She wondered hopelessly why her parents couldn’t be like [Kim’s parents], who were so easy to live with.  They understood what Kim needed – freedom and independence, and being allowed to grow up.  She cried herself to sleep.

But the best part comes the next morning.  Jean wakes up still feeling angry, and heads down to breakfast.

Wrapped in a chilly hauteur and determined to speak to no one, she descended the stairs on Sunday morning, hoping her father would realize someday what he had done to her.

A piece of brown paper covered the floor at the foot of the stairs by the front door.  She looked down at a great black X, as it crackled under her foot, and read the inscription in heavy crayon:  “X marks the spot where the world came to an end last night.”

Involuntarily, her lips twitched, and then she began to laugh.  Trust Dad to figure out something like this!  She told herself she was still angry, but as she looked at the X, she could feel her anger fading.

I love it.  In the end, instead of just being a heavy-handed father, he helps Jean to see how ridiculously out of proportion she was about the whole party.  In high school, it can seem like your entire life hinges on one specific event.  Part of growing up is realizing that there is a time and a place for everything, and balance is important.

Throughout the book, Jean gets to know Kim better, and begins to realize that the freedom and lack of supervision that Kim’s parents give her are not really a boon.  Kim is still very young and in need of guidance and help, but no one is really looking out for her.  While Jean is sometimes frustrated by her parents’ rules, she comes to realize that their rules are a way of strengthening her, not holding her back.

So anyway, it was a fine book, although not a favorite.  But I always appreciate a story where kids learn to see that their parents are real people who really have their kids’ best interests at heart.  I think that far too often we don’t realize that.  We’re young and think that we’re super clever and far more brilliant that our parents could ever be; we think that the problems we face are nothing like what they’ve ever seen; we think that we are different, unique, special – but we’re not.  We’re stupid, selfish, and narrow.  The sooner that a 20-something can realize, accept, and embrace that fact, the sooner he can start growing into a person worth knowing.

Winona’s Pony Cart


by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1953

Those who have followed me for a while know that I fell in love with the Betsy-Tacy books when I read them this spring.  Happy, sweet tales about Betsy and her friends, these books are just a delight.  Lovelace wrote three other books that take place in Deep Valley, the town where Betsy and her family live throughout the majority of the series.  Like Carney’s House Partythis book fits into the Betsy timeline, even though Betsy isn’t the main character (although she does appear peripherally).

While I enjoyed this book, and Winona’s adventures, I wasn’t as big of a fan about this book as I was about the others.  I think the main reason was that I felt like Winona was a bit spoiled, and that her spoiledness (new word!) was confirmed by her parents’ actions throughout the story.  While, as always, Lovelace works in some very good lessons about acceptance and kindness, this wasn’t my favorite of her works.  Still, a solid 3/5, and if you’re reading the series (WHICH YOU SHOULD), I would definitely include this one.

The Farthest-Away Mountain



by Lynne Reid Banks

Published 1976

This is a happy little story about a girl who travels to a mountain.  Along the way, she meets an amiable frog, some sad gargoyles, a dreadful giant, a wicked witch, and a pterodactyl.

While an enjoyable tale, it is aimed for slightly younger readers, and the characters do not possess much depth.  It was a nice once-read, but not a book I particularly want to purchase for my personal collection.  3/5.

The Little Women Letters



by Gabrielle Donnelly

Published 2010

Do you ever read a book that you can’t decide whether or not you like?  Well, this was one of those for me.

Basically, the premise of this book is that if the March sisters, from Little Women, were real, then they would have great-great-great-great grandchildren alive today.  And Emma, Lulu, and Sophie are three of those great (etc) granddaughters, living in modern London (their mother is from Boston).
Emma, the oldest sister, is a lot like Meg (I’m going to assume that you are all familiar with Little Women; if you aren’t, YOU SHOULD BE; go read that book now)–organized and mature and responsible and marrying the perfect gentleman, but still lovable and sweet and fun, despite her perfection.
Lulu, the middle sister (and more or less the main character, although the author bounces freely between all three sisters), relates to Jo–she’s unsure what she wants to do with her life; despite the fact that she’s graduated from University, she hasn’t really found an “grown up” job that appeals to her.  She’s not very good with people, is a bit too blunt to be good at flirting, and frequently gets exasperated with her sisters.
Sophie is Amy, of course–dramatic (she’s an actress) and vivacious and beautiful and funny, and just a wee bit selfish.
So here we have these three sisters in their 20’s, trying to understand life.  And actually, it’s a lovely story, because these three sisters really love each other, and they love their parents, and they love Lulu’s best friend, Charlie (Lulu and Sophie and Charlie all share a flat; Charlie’s a girl, by the way).  Emma is very happily engaged and planning her wedding, and her fiancee was one of my favorite characters.  And these women are all actual friends; this book does a wonderful job of cherishing friendship (instead of insisting that every single relationship on the planet is filled with sexual tension), and showing the beauty that can arise from the strength of good friends.
Negatives can basically be expressed in one word:  feminism.  B O R I N G stereotypical feminism.  Mom’s speeches frequently sound like they were lifted from a pamphlet on how to be a Modern Supportive Mother; she’s constantly going on about how women have to continue to fight for their equality, blah blah blah.  And to me, it just detracts from the story, not the part where these young women are learning to be independent and unique parts of society, but the part where the speeches just sound so canned, as though the whole book as been written around them.
And I think that the reason that it is so distracting is because it just doesn’t fit with the flow of the story, or the lives that these young women are living.  Because yes, they’re independent and intelligent and all of that, but they also are essentially feminine in their attitudes (in a good way).  They love their family and all three want to be in loving, secure, happy relationships with a special person.  All three of the girls learn lessons about the importance of self-sacrifice, not because “you’re a woman so you have to make sacrifices for your man” but because “you love someone, and sometimes that means gladly sacrificing something you want so they can have what they want.”  But instead of letting their actions tell that story–which they do–the author insists on inserting these random speeches from Mom that grate on my nerves the same way that sermonettes do in ‘Christian’ fiction.
Ironically, I would say that many women probably would be irritated by this book and it’s rather weak feminist message; marriage is treated with strong respect and importance, and home-making skills are considered valuable and useful.  I guess that was part of the confusing part of the book. The mom was constantly going off on these spleels but the overall message was not as annoying as she was.  It was almost like the author believed one thing, but felt that in order to appeal to ‘the modern woman’ she had to say something different.
Throughout the  book, Lulu is reading letters, which she has found in the attic, written by Jo March.  The letters are the part I was the most nervous about, but they were excellent, capturing, I believe, Jo’s essence beautifully.  However, Lulu was not reading them in any kind of chronological order, which made things a bit complicated at times; I found myself flipping back to earlier letters to compare dates, trying to figure out if Jo was writing before or after certain events.
Sometimes, the letters would be at the beginning of the chapter, and they would usually be Jo’s version of a story from Little Women, and then the chapter would go on to have a more-or-less modern version of the story.  For instance, there was a letter from Jo to Meg, commending Meg for selling some expensive silk she had bought (if you don’t remember the story–shortly after Meg and John were married, Meg impulsively purchased material she couldn’t afford for a dress; eventually, Meg sells the material to her friend, having realized that while there is a time for indulgences, they must be balanced with practicality).  Then, the chapter focuses on Emma, usually so practical, who is greatly tempted by a pair of very expensive shoes.  The twist (mild spoiler here) is that Emma ends up buying the shoes, and her mother’s advice (for Emma immediately feels guilty) is that Emma needs to understand that women always do more work than men (?) and the way that things even is out is by women treating themselves to indulgences.  Not really sure that is life advice to which I would cling, but she does at least balance it by recommending that Emma consult with her soon-to-be husband before making major purchases.  (See what I mean about confusing values?)
So even though the story loosely refers to various adventures of the March sisters, it lacks the wholesome, practical values that Little Women so easily possess and shares.  The Little Women Letters is a fine book, and one that I enjoyed, mainly because, as I said, it ended perfectly (another mild spoiler–I was afraid throughout the book that the author was going to end strongly feministic by insisting that Lulu, rather than finding true love, would find herself to be a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man, but instead she found the perfect man and that was lovely).  I think that, overall, this ends up as a 3/5.  I’m glad I read it, and it was a fine (and at times, enjoyable) read, but overall I don’t ever see myself picking it up again, or particularly recommending it to anyone else.

Elephants Can Remember


by Agatha Christie

Published 1972

In this Poirot case, our intrepid hero is once again called into action by his friend Mrs. Oliver.  However, this novel follows one of my least-favorite types of Christie’s mysteries–a mystery from the Past.  As Poirot and Mrs. Oliver do their research (mostly by interviewing ‘elephants’–people who were around at the time of suspected murder), the plot becomes to become entangled with loads of extraneous and contradictory information.  As with most of Christie’s novels that focus on a past history, it is difficult to relate to the individuals involved, mostly because most of them are dead, or we hear of them only through hearsay.  Also, Christie spent a lot of this novel complaining about modern society (much as she did in Hallowe’en Party) through the voices of her characters, and that gets rather dull after a while.

All in all, while it was a fine mystery, it is not up to the caliber I expect from Christie.  3/5.

Over Sea, Under Stone


by Susan Cooper

Published 1965

This is the first in a series of Arthurian tales set in modern (well, modern at the time of writing) times.  In this book, we meet the Drew children and, more importantly, their Great-Uncle Merry.  In this book, the children set off on a quest to find the Holy Grail, fighting the powers of darkness along the way.

It is a good book.  The pacing is excellent, the story is gripping, and the characters likable (or unlikable, as the case may be).  However, for  me, there are two kinds of fantasy tales.  The first simply avoid the mention of religion completely (Harry Potter, actually, is an excellent example of this).  The second express disdain and scorn for religious beliefs has just another (and inferior) fantasy.  Unfortunately, Cooper’s stories fall into the latter category.  While it is not as blatant in this first book, I have read the rest of the series in the past, and the concept that, basically, King Arthur is the savior of the world, and Jesus merely an echoing myth of King Arthur, is disturbing.

So while this book is, itself, a 3/5, I would not personally recommend the rest of the series.

Third Girl


by Agatha Christie

Published 1967

Mrs. Oliver and Hercule Poirot team up again in Third Girl.  Poirot is approached by a young woman who thinks she “may have murdered someone.”  She then leaves his flat and disappears.

The story is a bit unusual in that it does not center around a murder–Poirot spends a great deal of the  book trying to find a death, any death, to understand the girl’s enigmatic statement.

I was personally not a huge fan of Third Girl, as I didn’t really like any of the characters, and thus was ambivalent towards the identification of the murderer.  The lack of a victim made the story feel rather aimless at times.  And there was a great deal of complaining about “modern” young people to the point that it felt almost as though Christie had written the book just so she could complain about the way young people dressed, lived, and smelled.

A 3/5 for a meh kind of book from an author who has definitely done much better.

The Zookeeper’s Wife


by Diane Ackerman

Published 2007

This is actually a nonfiction account of a young Polish couple who helped protect, smuggle, and house Jews in Warsaw during World War II.  Prior to the war, they owned and operated Warsaw’s zoo (hence the title) and throughout the war still worked with animals for different reasons, giving the flexibility and cover stories that were useful to their cause.

The story is an interesting one, but Ackerman’s writing style is rather bland for me.  Instead of telling the story in a linear fashion, she just sort of recounts various vignettes. Despite the fact that these people lived intense, focused, dangerous lives, Ackerman’s book never once made my pulse race.  There was none of the connection to people and their lives as in, say, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place.  

And I think that she was writing this as non-fiction, and she wanted to be very true to the people and accurate with their story, which is why there isn’t a lot of dialogue or “and then she thought” or anything like that, and that’s fine.  While it made for an interesting one-time read, it possessed none of the drama and real-life-ness needed to make it a book I would want to add to my personal collection.


The Clocks


by Agatha Christie

Published 1963

This is another Poirot novel where Poirot spends most of the time lurking in the shadows, if you will.  The story begins promisingly, with a mysterious murder in a blind woman’s house in a room full of clocks that don’t belong, but rambles off into a rather ho-hum kind of ending.  Again, confusing threads of multiple unnecessary stories run together, while Poirot does not much more than pull the conclusion out of a hat.

A fine story, but nothing to get super excited about.  3/5.

Cat Among the Pigeons


by Agatha Christie

Published 1959

My personal preference is that if Poirot is going to be solving a mystery, he ought to be there all along instead of waltzing in at the last minute when everyone is bamboozled and tying it all in a neat bow.  But this is a late-entry-for-Poirot mystery, entangling gems, espionage, the headmistress position in a prestigious girls’ school, kidnapping, a foreign princess, tennis, and, of course, murder.

The story is good, but the ending a bit weak.  The conclusion comes almost literally out of no where, almost as bad as just saying, “Oh, actually it was the butcher who was barely mentioned on page 56.”  Ah well.