How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Jill MacSweeney is a teenager mourning the loss of her father. She lives in a wealthy neighborhood in Denver, Colorado.

Mandy Kalinowski is a teenager, pregnant and desperate to escape her mother’s household. She lives in the decidedly downmarket town of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The two meet when Mandy contacts Jill’s mother in order to arrange a private adoption. The catch is that Mandy needs to come to Denver to have the baby, and to have her expenses paid. Robin agrees, and Mandy sneaks out of her mother’s house to take the train from Omaha to Denver.

The two girls don’t exactly hit it off. Jill remains suspicious of Mandy and wary of her mother’s determination to adopt a baby so soon after her own husband’s death; she asks an acquaintance to investigate this intruder into the home she regards as her own. Mandy finds Jill and Robin almost incomprehensible in their insistence on clean living and nutritious eating; she desperately keeps her secrets hidden–the stolen watch, her mother’s threats, and ultimately who the father of her child is. It is only when Jill answers the phone when Mandy’s mother calls, that she realizes the extent and depth of seediness that Mandy was attempting to conceal that her resolve flipflops.

In the end, there’s a happy ending: Robin adopts…not Mandy’s baby, but Mandy herself1.

The book alternates between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. On the plus side, this allows the author to present each girl’s hidden thoughts and motivations; without that additional background, each girl seems decidedly unpleasant to the other when they first meet, and indeed both continue to get on one another’s nerves until the denouement of the book. I do appreciate the skill with which Zarr turned the two girls’ (and many of the readers’) initial impressions of one another upside down during the course of the book as we learn more about their perspectives.

On the minus, there was rather a lot of hidden motivations; that strikes me as a potential pitfall as the relationship between the three continued past the end of the book. Shouldn’t they have come clean before the adoption process was completed? Unfortunately, the split perspective allowed only half a book to develop each of the main characters, and I’m left wondering a great deal more about the two girls. Especially Mandy: while it’s possible she could be explained away by “abusive stepfather, neglectful mother, impoverished (culturally and financially) upbringing” but she struck me as being mentally ill/disabled in some way, and I wish Zarr had delved into this aspect a bit more.

I have to confess that I didn’t particularly like any of the three main characters, although they did develop during the course of the book. Mandy seemed to be a not terribly bright bit of poor white trash with a personality disorder that turned daydreams into obsessions, fantasies into stalking. Jill and her mother seemed like pretentious upper-crust do-gooders. (Doesn’t help that Jill has an after-school job at a chain bookstore called “Margins”. Twee coy, much?)

This is another agenda-driven book, and in that regard, reminded me of These Things Hidden. Not because they both concern teen pregnancy, but rather because they’re both written about a real-life issue—How to Save a Life about adult adoption and These Things Hidden about the Safe Haven child welfare laws—and in that regard, seem a bit awkward. While the underlying plot point in How to Save a Life was a bit subtler, the fact that the author did conceal it that long made the denouement seem almost like a shaggy dog plot twist.

1yes: there are laws allowing the adoption of people who are over eighteen, for situations just such as this, when the biological parents refuse to relinquish their parental rights, their child cannot be adopted while a minor.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

What’s the correct way to react to someone with a severe physical deformity? (Keep in mind that chances are they’re not unaware of their appearance.) How do you handle it should your child react, as children will tend to do, with either a piercingly audible query about ‘that funny looking person’, or worse, burst into tears? It was just such an encounter that prompted Palacio to write Wonder…and yes, she includes that in the book, albeit from the perspective of the person with the deformity. She spent the rest of the afternoon not only chagrined at her reaction and that of her children but also wondering “How should I explain this to my children? What is the correct response? …and what must it be like to be that person, always aware that people are whispering about you, staring (or NOT staring) at your disfiguration?”

The central character of Wonder, “Auggie” (August) Pullman, was born with a severe facial deformity, Treacher-Collins syndrome. Now ten, he’s undergone something like twenty-seven surgeries, and still has considerable facial deformation; he still has difficulties eating, and choking is a real hazard. He’s been homeschooled until now, though as he reaches the fifth grade (both in age and in academic achievement) he and his family are coming to realize that it may be time for him to enter a conventional school. Not only has his mother approached the point at which she can no longer teach him—she’s terrible at fractions—but he’s also begun to mature to the point of wanting relationships outside his own family.

The main story arc of the book takes place during Auggie’s fifth grade year at a private school, Beecher Prep. As most astute readers will have guessed by about the second chapter in, yes: despite a pre-school year intervention from the school’s principal assigning him a couple of informal guides as he settles into the school, Auggie has to deal with the stares, the revulsion, the “teasing” and the outright bullying that we’d all expect…and not just from the kids. At one point, the parents of the Mean Kid approach the principal with a request that Auggie be withdrawn from the school as they do not believe he’s up to the school’s standards1. At least the kids are up front about it; there’s a “game” among some of the students that they have thirty seconds to wash his ‘germs’ away if they touch something he’s touched. As the year wears on, the more open-minded kids do undergo a sea change; at first, it’s only a couple of kids who will voluntarily spend time with Auggie, but by the spring, others come to tease him in an affectionate way: at one point, he makes a joke about being the basis for “UglyDolls“, and the next day the girl to whom he was speaking gives him a keychain-sized one with a note “For the nicest AuggieDoll in the world!” This isn’t universal; the Mean Kid Julian didn’t have his own revelation about Auggie’s condition which made him a better person. That’s only reality, though. Not everyone is going to come out a better and more sympathetic person as a result of knowing someone like Auggie.

Palacio shifts between several of the kids’ viewpoints: Auggie gets the most stage time, but his older sister, her boyfriend, and a couple of the kids at school also get several of their own chapters. This might be a bit disjointed for some kids, but I think it works here; it’s nice to hear what the other characters think. As a kids’ book, I’m guessing it’s pretty much on the mark in terms of plotting, characterization and reading level. Reading it as an adult, I did pick up certain “after-school special movie of the week”, the kind in which everyone Learns a Lesson and the Mean Kids all become better people, but that’s not necessarily a complaint!

What to read next? Try Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, and its sequel, After Ever After. The medical issue is very different—leukemia rather than an intrinsic part of the child’s appearance—but both concentrate on the child’s reaction to the problem more than on the treatment of same.

1Treacher-Collins, at least in Auggie’s case, has no mental component. It’s purely a physical issue.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

At the risk of sounding like a Jasper Fforde novel, this is a book in which Something Awful Happened in the Long Ago, and it’s this concealed mystery around which the plot revolves. Just as a warning: I’ve put spoilers down at the end, though not many and somewhat cryptic.

The introductory scene in the book gives some hints as to what this secret might be: Our Protagonist, Laurel, is sixteen in 1961, and the oldest of five siblings (Iris, Rose, Daphne and, breaking away from the floral/vegetative theme, a little brother Gerald). For the moment, she’s torn balancing her desire to tear away from her fuddy-duddy parents and time-consuming sisters with her love for that self-same family and the stability granted that her parents’ love for one another and the family’s love for one another. Laurel has hidden away in her ‘childhood treehouse during a game of hide-and-seek, the better to contemplate her own dreams of the future, when she sees a strange man approaching the house. Theirs is a fairly remote house—such things were easier fifty years ago in Englahd—so random strangers are a rarity. She regards him curiously…only to see her mother stab this man to death, using the familial Ceremonial Cake Knife…and there the central mystery ends until we reach the denouement of the novel.

The official “now” framing story is that of the family, now grown and gone their separate adult ways; though still close, the children don’t see each other more than once every few weeks or months, their father has passed away after fifty years and their mother is in an assisted living facility, in failing health herself. Laurel, now herself in her mid-sixties, has never thought to ask her mother about not only that strange man beyond what Dorothy and Stephen were willing to tell her at the time, but also simply more about their lives prior to meeting one another. How many children ever do? It is the reminder of her own mortality in the shape of her mother’s approaching death which prompts Laurel to delve deeper into her mother’s past. At first it is only a matter of assembling a “book of memories” to prompt her mother’s failing memory that inspires Laurel, but some odd responses—fear or surprise where there should only be pleasant reminiscence…and occasionally the reverse—prompt her to delve deeper.

Through a combination of vague suggestions from her mother, gradually sinking deeper into the gentle senility of extreme old age, and on Laurel’s own part a fair bit of organized historical research at The British Library and other lesser venues and a few interviews with survivors who knew her mother in the early ’40s, Laurel begins to piece things together. The intruder in 1961 was one Henry Jenkins, once a Famous Author, but now a near-vagrant having fallen to pieces after his wife’s death in one of the many bombings during the Blitz. But why has he come to Laurel’s mother, Dorothy, and perhaps more importantly, both to Laurel and to the readers, why did the seemingly mild-mannered homebody Dorothy Nicholson stab this stranger? The readers, being party to the “then” chapters, find all this out as Laurel uncovers the dusty past, of course; in the end, Laurel’s learned more than she ever really wanted to know about her mother’s past, though not the whole truth.

“In the Blitz” begins her mother’s story, or rather middles, as so many good novels about twentieth-century Britain do; Dorothy’s family has been killed in the bombings, leaving Dorothy, a girl in her late teens, on her own to support herself with very little experience or education. From thence continues a story of family secrets, personal secrets, spousal abuse, unreliable narrators, and double crossing, ending with a conveniently timed bomb, killing the girl who (‘fess up, you’ll agree with me!) the girl who deserves to die does die, and the girl who deserves love and life survives…but with a slight change in just who became whom.

Then-and-now stories’ inherent need to flip back and forth between the two portions of the novel may leave some readers a bit cold, for the very simple reason that authors are essentially trying to write two separate novels, combined into one. In the hands of a skilled author, such as Kate Morton, the interwoven plot(s) will at least…well…interweave plausibly, but I always end up with the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve just read three-quarters each of two different novels, bunged up together. In this case, I would have liked to learn more about the years intervening between the murder in 1961 and the mother’s death in 2011, more about the childhood of Dorothy and Vivien, and not to mention more about the peripheral characters such as the nanny Katy and the erstwhile beau Jimmy; what were their lives before and after intersecting with the Dolly/Vivien morass?

It doesn’t help that there’s a possible mental illness subplot that wasn’t terribly well developed; without that, Dolly’s reasons for blackmailing Vivien don’t seem quite so plausible, though had she lived, we might have found out as much about the true Dolly as we did about the woman masquerading in her place all those years.

As with many of my previous reviews, I feel there should be a disclaimer: I read this in less than 24 hours, and finished it willingly, enjoying it for the most part. Editors and librarians just like picking books apart to analyze them…This is definitely a book to read twice, the before-the-denouement and the after-the-denouement reads; as with Iain Pears’ The Instance of the Fingerpost, there are enough unreliable narrators and plot twists to make the book mean one thing before you know and one after. Though perhaps not so complexly.

The Major Plot Twist actually does make sense in the end: neither Vivien or Dolly had many people who knew them closely enough to care enough about where they’d gone to track them down in the event they vanished, especially during the turmoil of the Blitz. Staying out of the way of their acquaintances might be more of an issue, though “Mum” took care of that neatly enough by slipping off to the contentedly bucolic life on a smallholding, tied up in her family.

Reading on a Rainy Day
Fantasy Book Critic

The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

As the subtitle “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy”1 suggests, this is a story about a summer vacation, and one that almost but not quite turns out very very wrong.

The Penderwick family’s usual summer plans—renting a cottage on Cape Cod for three weeks in August—fell through when the landlord sold the property at the last minute. Thankfully, Mr. Penderwick heard of another cottage in the Berkshires at the last minute through a friend of a friend and the six Penderwicks (four daughters and their widowed father and a lolloping Airedale called Hound) set out for Arundel. There are a few issues, such as the owner of the estate having forbidden dogs, and Mr. Penderwick’s inability to remember directions, but once they arrive, the summer gets off to a delightful start.

All they have to do is avoid Mrs. Tifton, the owner of the estate, and even more crucially, keep Hound out of her way. Guess what happens? Yep. Despite the snooty Mrs. Tifton’s best efforts, the girls and their dog invade the property in a particularly pervasive way, culminating with the inadvertent gatecrashing of the pinnacle of Mrs. Tifton’s summer, the annual garden party tour.

It’s hard to convey the charm of these books with a mere summary. They’re sweetly gentle books about loving families; there is some conflict and distress—parents who have set ideas about what their children ought to be and widowed fathers—but nothing truly evil or frightening. The oldest sister has her first crush. The youngest sister almost loses one of the titular rabbits. The Interesting Boy almost gets sent away to military academy when he’d much rather go to a boarding school in Boston next to a music school. But no one is ever really in danger. There’s no Incredible Climax to an Life-Changing Adventure. Each sister has her niche in the family, the responsible eldest, the budding author, the fleet soccer player and the butterfly. The father is an absent-minded botanist, who spouts Latin at his children. The dog…well, the dog is an Airedale.

Overall, I’d say that these are great for kids whose reading level has outstripped their maturity levels by three or four grade levels…or anyone who just likes gentle reads. If you liked this, try Elizabeth Enright’s books, both the Melendy quartet and books such as Gone-away Lake, or Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins, though those are all showing their age slightly. Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoes” series is another possibility, especially if you’re inclined to the theater arts. Another option might be Elizabeth Nesbit, and her ardent admirer, Edward Eager, both wrote books about families of siblings who played together much as the Penderwicks do, though those two authors do have a definite fantasy element; the kids therein all keep stumbling across magical items.

Is it entirely realistic? No. Reviewers on Goodreads dubious about the book who mentioned that several of the characters sound much older than they are. That said, I’ve thought that about a number of the YA books I’ve read recently.

1though I’d suggest that there are actually two interesting boys…

These Things Hidden, by Heather Gudenkauf

Warning: spoilers down below.

Allison, twenty-one, is being released early from prison; she was convicted of killing an infant girl (presumably hers) when she was sixteen, and has served only half of the ten year sentence when she is paroled for good behavior and self-improvement while in jail. Her lawyer collects her and takes her to the halfway house where she will spend six months to prove to the law that she can settle back into normal live, and readjust to life outside prison.

Not so easy. This is a small town, where everyone knows everyone and despite the privacy measures…of course everyone knows who did what to whom1. The other women living in the halfway house torment her2 by leaving dolls where Allison is bound to find them. Her sister refuses to speak to her. Her parents have erased her lingering presence in their house by clearing out all her possessions and photographs of her, and redecorating her room; her father gives her money but is obviously uncomfortable in her presence, and her mother refuses to see her at all.

Olena, the woman running the halfway house, has arranged for Allison to interview with the owner of one of the local bookstores; the state has a program to pay the wages (within reason) of recently released convicts to encourage business owners to take a chance. Things seem to be working out well…when Claire’s adopted son appears. He is five years old, and looks exactly like the boy Allison had sex with.

Through flashbacks, we learn that Allison has given birth to not one girl, but boy-girl twins. Her sister, Brynn, was home at the time of the birth and removed the girl, believing it to be already dead; it is she who put the baby into the river….which revived it. She has borne the guilt for this since that time. Moments after Brynn returns home, Allison give birth to the other twin, whom they take to the father’s house. Christopher, himself still quite young, vanishes that night, leaving Charm and her stepfather, Gus, with Christopher’s child. Realizing that they cannot take care of the little boy—Gus has just been diagnosed with lung cancer—Charm leaves the baby off at the nearest fire station, newly legal under the aegis of the Safe Haven laws.

With the inevitability of a Greek soap opera, the four women converge, physically and psychologically. The denouement comes following Gus’s funeral: clearing out her ex-husband’s house following his death, Charm’s mother finds the photograph of her daughter with the infant and concludes that Charm is the mother, and storms to Claire’s bookstore, where Allison and Brynn are just kneeling down to play with Joshua. Charm and her mother have a catfight, during which time Claire realizes who Allison is…and Brynn snaps finally, attempting to finish her guilty deed by submerging Joshua in the bathtub upstairs.

The story is told from the perspectives of Allison, Brynn, Charm and Claire; two are in first person and two in third person, but all present tense with a few flashbacks. It’s interesting to get the different viewpoints, though the shifting between the women may be a distraction for some readers.

Unfortunately, it was too obviously agenda-driven to be a very good book. The fact that I spotted several typos (a “naval” piercing, Bob “Villa” of This Old House) isn’t all that unusual—all too often, presses skimp on the last, and obvious to me, step of having a human read through the manuscript to pick up that sort of thing. I’ll also gloss over the central plot point—that Allison gave birth to twins without anyone noticing she was pregnant. She’s tall, long-waisted and athletic, the sort of body type which minimizes pregnancy, true. I’m not convinced that an athlete in high school would be able to both conceal the pregnancy and continue with her sports, especially given that one of those sports was swimming. Did no one notice anything in the locker rooms?

That said, kudos to Gudenkauf for promoting the Safe Haven programs; for those who don’t know, these allow people (presumably the parents) to anonymously leave infants less than two weeks old in certain specific locations—fire or police stations, hospitals, social services agencies and so on—without risk of prosecution for child abandonment or endangering a child. I would have preferred the Chekhov’s Gun to be introduced earlier in the book—we don’t find out that Allison had twins until halfway through the book, long after Joshua (the surviving twin) has been introduced.

1well, everyone except the woman who adopted Allison’s surviving child
2why doesn’t the women running the house do more to stop them?

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky

When Europeans first came to North America, the passenger pigeon was numerous enough to seem an unending resource. Fish and seafood seemed not far behind–wasn’t there a petition passed around among servants of the eighteenth century to request that their employers serve them lobster and oysters no more than three times a week?

Mark Kurlansky has done several “microhistories”, or books specializing in some specific aspect of a subject–salt or oysters, the Basque nation, the Works Project Administration’s “America Eats” project during the Great Depression–and now here in this book, the codfish. As with his other books, this is approachable without being simplified and reasonably reliable.

Why cod?

Even today, who regards cod as being remotely valuable as a fish? This is the stuff of fish fingers and fish-and-chips wrapped in a newspaper, dried cod, salt cod, chowders and scraps for the compost heap. A lean fish and a dry fish, cod was easily salted or dried (and often both) and so was an easily transportable commodity and therefore an easily tradeable commodity. Readily preserved, it was a valuable source of protein in the centuries prior to reliable refrigerators, or even reliable canning. Easily caught and in great numbers, cod fed the masses. Until it became fished out.

While perhaps prettier than some, cod is hardly a delicacy, now or when it was first fished….and it has been fished in force. Despite being a comparatively hardy, rapidly reproducing fish, cod is now (or rather was at the time of Cod‘s publication) no longer a commercially viable fish. Fleets of fishermen have gone out after cod, in great numbers and with ever increasing efficiency, for centuries. Long prior to World War II, fishermen and scientists were coming to recognize they could not continue to take cod in such numbers–the increased catches were not a result of the cod population remaining steady, but rather that of the human techniques becoming more efficient.

Why Kurlansky? Well, not least because he manages to balance basis in fact with decent research with an approachable writing style. While Kipling might have produced a more roistering tale of a young nation in Captains Courageous, here I end up being sympathetic to a fish, and not a terribly attractive one at that (though hardly the worst-looking fish out there, at least from the human perspective). Providing a bit of individual human sympathy, for the Perry fishermen in Canada, doesn’t hurt, and providing interstitial recipes, modern and historical, fresh and dried, breaks up what might have been dry in it’s length, even at a fraction of the size of academic texts.

While I confess I’m still not convinced that cod was the primary reason driving European exploration of the New World, or rather the seas surrounding the New World, I’ll concede that cod was an important reason. (Surely, the centuries of trade and exploration were driven by many reasons?) Another problem, though not one Kurlansky could have fixed short of publishing an updated version, is simply that the book is now fifteen years old. While the majority of the book is still as valid as it ever was–Icelandic fishing practices of the seventeenth century aren’t likely to change, any more than the salting techniques of the nineteenth century Gloucester and Grand Banks fleets–I can’t help but wonder what’s happened in the intervening years. I doubt the cod has recovered to the point of being viable as a commercial fish, but finding out what, if any, laws have been enacted or withdrawn in the interim would be interesting.

What to read next? Well, Kurlansky has several other books out, but Bill Bryson might be an alternative.


The Seas Stand Watch by Helen Parker Mudgett

Imagine a time when Great Britain was enemy to the United States, when “western states” referred to Indiana and Ohio, when the new-found fragile union of states ever threatened to devolve into a rabble of squabbling territories…oh. Wait. That last’s a recurring theme in U.S. history.

That’s when this book is set: a span of thirty years covering the first years after the American Revolution to the conclusion of the War of 1812 with the Hartford Convention in 1814-15. The principal characters are members of the Noyes family, with John Noyes, sailor and later captain, privateer and China trader, at the center of the book’s plot and activities. The book deals with the aftermath of the U.S. Revolution on through the Napoleonic Era to the War of 1812, and how the United States struggled to establish itself as a nation in its own right, separate from Great Britain, and develop its own economic, legal and political individuality.

The book alternates between John’s experiences at sea trading abroad, largely in the Pacific, with the land-based experiences of Julia, John’s wife, and Caroline, his mother at home in New England. John and Julia are not entirely happy with each other; the years of separation necessitated by even a straightforward trip by sail across the Atlantic strained even the most loving and sound of relationships. The need to travel ’round the Cape of Good hope to India for cotton1 or Cape Horn to the Orient lent not only danger but time to the merchant sailors’ voyages, and worsened the strain on the wives at home. Caroline has proved herself a capable business manager after her husband’s death, and Julia a better one; this alleviates the boredom resulting from idleness, but present a difficulty when John returns home and their son Henry grows to manhood, assuming he will take on a greater role in the family business than the older members are prepared to allow him.

It’s easy for modern readers to forget that in the first years of this country’s existence, we were not only enemies with Great Britain but the country’s very continued existence was tenuous at best. The modern nation, extending from sea to sea and beyond into the Pacific, was hardly to be imagined! This was only a possibility even when the book was published; though at the time, Alaska and Hawaii were territories of the U.S., they had not yet been confirmed.

Published in 1944, this book’s interesting not least for a glimpse into how writing styles have changed in the intervening decades; the dialogue and description here seem not so much stiff as slightly archaic, and very definitely purple compared to modern standards. It’s fun to read a book that tends to the seafaring while including strong female characters determined to at least maintain their own finances. There is, however, a certain jingoistic feel about this book. Perhaps not surprising given when it was published! Keep in mind, if reading this book, that the War of 1812 was closer to readers at the time of the book’s publication than the U.S. Civil War is to us by about twenty years, and Mudgett is assuming a fair knowledge of American history, political structure and international relations.

1Eli Whitney had only just invented his version of the cotton gin, remember?