Review of Miss Alcott’s E-mail, by Kit Bakke


Miss Alcott’s E-mail

Yours for Reforms of All Kinds

by Kit Bakke

David R. Godine, 2006.  255 pages.

Kit Bakke begins, “I was home alone, that rare treat for the working mother, when it occurred to me to write to her.  To Louisa May Alcott.  Why not?” 

She goes on to explain why writing to Louisa resonated with her life.  And apparently she pulled it off!

“I wish I could explain more about the mechanics of our correspondence, but I can’t, because, other than frying six surge protectors, I don’t know how it worked.  I sent my letters and chapter drafts to Louisa by e-mail from my Seattle living room, and she received them as handwritten ink on paper in her roms in Dr. Lawrence’s house in Roxbury, Massachusetts.  She once told me my handwriting was neat and extremely legible, so there was definitely something odd going on.  She wrote to me, using well-worn ink pens and paper, and they showed up in Times New Roman in my Outlook inbox.  I was grateful for the technology transfer, as her own handwriting was also less than copperplate.

“It’s one of those Internet Effects, I guess.  Or a Heisenberg thing, or Brownian motion gone amok.  I didn’t want to inquire too closely for fear the magic might vanish.”

What follows is a series of essays about Louisa May Alcott’s life and the parallels with Kit Bakke’s life in modern America, framed by letters (no, e-mails) purporting to be from Louisa herself.

I loved the idea of this book, because when I was a girl in 6th or 7th grade, I actually spent quite a bit of time daydreaming about bringing Louisa May Alcott into the present to show her all the advances women have made.  I don’t think any other author ever prompted such a reaction, but I distinctly remember thinking out what I would say to Louisa May Alcott if I could pull this off and meet her.  So imagine my delight, more than thirty years later, to learn that Kit Bakke in some sense managed to do what I daydreamed about as a child.

I think it was Louisa’s zeal for “reforms of all kinds” that prompts this sort of reaction from her readers.  We want her to know about the progress that was made, and about the good that came from her own efforts.  Kit Bakke did some work at reforms of her own in the sixties, so she tied those stories in with her thoughts about Louisa’s life.

This book is a fascinating blend of musings on life in modern America combined with historical information about Louisa May Alcott and her times, as well as the personal touch from imagining Louisa’s reactions.

This book will be most enjoyed by people who have read and loved Louisa May Alcott’s books, but there are millions such people out there.  For myself, I want to find a copy of some of her less-known books for adults mentioned, such as Work.  I will be able to read it with new appreciation into the background and what it meant in Louisa’s life and times.  Reading Miss Alcott’s E-mail reminded me of an author I loved in my childhood, and told me more about her work for adults, which I have yet to discover.

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Review of Christmas Letters, by Debbie Macomber


Christmas Letters

by Debbie Macomber

Mira, 2006.  269 pages.

I read one last Christmas book to finish up the season.  I actually read most of this book waiting at the dentist office, which was a very good time to have something to laugh about!  Christmas Letters is a true romantic comedy.

The book opens with a Christmas Letter from Zelda O’Connor Davidson.  She says, “Let me warn you — this Christmas letter won’t be as clever as last year’s.  My sister, Katherine (whom you may know better as K.O.), wrote that one for me but, ironically, she hasn’t got time to do this year’s.  Ironic because it’s due to the popularity of that particular letter that she’s managed to start a little business on the side — writing Christmas letters for other people!…

“This year’s big news, which I want to share with all of you, has to do with a wonderful book I read.  It changed my life.  It’s called The Free Child and it’s by Dr. Wynn Jeffries.  My sister scoffs at this, but Dr. Jeffries believes that children can be trusted to set their own boundaries.  He also believes that, as parents, we shouldn’t impose fantasies on them — fantasies like Santa Claus.  Kids are capable of accepting reality, he says, and I agree!  (See page 146 of The Free Child.)

“So, this Christmas will be a different kind of experience for us, one that focuses on family, not fantasy.

“Zach and the girls join me in wishing all of you a wonderful Christmas.  And remember, a free child is a happy child (see page 16).”

After reading this letter, when we meet K.O., we easily understand her aversion to Dr. Wynn Jeffries and his philosophies, which she feels have turned her twin nieces into holy terrors.  Maybe she’s a little over the top in her reaction.  Perhaps she shouldn’t have ranted at a customer buying Dr. Jeffries bestseller and gotten herself banned from a local bookstore.  But we do understand her hesitation when she learns Dr. Jeffries lives in her building, and her sister wants her to get his autograph.  She decides to do it, but then give him a piece of her mind.

Then her best friend, who has been taking a class to develop her psychic powers, sees Katherine’s future in the kitty litter.  LaVonne believes that K.O. and Wynn Jeffries are made for each other.  She finds a way to set them up that they can’t refuse.

It all adds up to silly, heartwarming fun.  Perfect for holiday or after-the-holiday being cheered up at the dentist’s, for example.

This book is set on Blossom Street in Seattle, but we only see in passing the characters from Debbie Macomber’s other Blossom Street books (at least the ones I’ve read).  Still, it’s fun to be in the same setting, feeling like you’re among friends.  A cozy, feel-good, lighthearted Christmas romance.

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Review of Silver Bells, by Luanne Rice


Silver Bells

A Holiday Tale

by Luanne Rice

Bantam Books, 2005.  274 pages.

Here’s another Christmas story.  Oddly enough, I tried to read this book last year, and simply couldn’t get interested.  It felt predictable and sentimental.  This year, I picked it up, read past the beginning, and found it sweet, poignant and even unexpected.

Christopher Byrne is a Christmas tree farmer from Nova Scotia.  Every year, he sells his stock, commanding high prices, in New York City.  Last year, however, his 16-year-old son, Danny, decided to stay in New York City instead of coming back home.  This year, Christy and his young daughter Bridget want nothing more than to find Danny.

Meanwhile, librarian Catherine Tierney lives near the Christmas tree lot, but has a hard time with Christmas.  Three years ago, she lost her beloved husband to melanoma right at Christmastime.  However, Catherine tries to help people in memory of Brian, and all year a certain homeless boy has been wanting access to the private library she tends.

Yes, Christy and Catherine’s lives intertwine.  Yes, this story is about waking up to romance and about Christmas miracles.  The story is very nicely done.  I found that once I was in the right mood for it, I was treated to a heartwarming holiday tale.

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Review of Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, by Mem Fox


Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

by Mem Fox

illustrated by Helen Oxenbury

Harcourt, 2008.  40 pages.

Starred review.

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2009: #4 Picture Books

I saw this book listed on more than one end-of-the-year Best of 2008 list.  I’ve loved Helen Oxenbury ever since my 20-year-old son was a toddler who memorized the text in her Tom and Pippo books and “read” the books along with me.  Mem Fox I discovered later, but have an extra-special fondness for her books, particularly Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild!

So I simply had to check this book out.  I was completely enchanted.  I will definitely be using this book at my very next Mother Goose Time for babies and parents.  The book is only a few months old, and already I find myself thinking of it as a classic no parent of a baby should be without.

There was one little baby who was born far away

And another who was born on the very next day.

And both of these babies, as everyone knows,

had ten little fingers

and ten little toes.

Mind you, the picture on the page with “had ten little fingers and ten little toes” shows baby hands and feet so precious you just want to eat them up!  (No one draws babies so utterly adorably yet lifelike as Helen Oxenbury.)

The book goes on, in the sweet rhyming cadence, to tell of babies from all over the world.

As each set of two new babies is introduced, the earlier babies look on as a kind of adorable chorus.

The final stanza is what clinches this book as such a delightful exploration between parent and baby:

But the next baby born was truly divine,

a sweet little child who was mine, all mine.

And this little baby, as everyone knows,

has ten little fingers,

ten little toes,

and three little kisses   [Here are the earlier babies are laughing in anticipation!]

on the tip of its nose.

What can I say?  I think this is going to get tucked in with the next baby shower gift I give.  Absolutely delightful!  Go to your library and look at the illustrations, if you don’t believe me!

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Review of Paper Towns, by John Green


Paper Towns

by John Green

Dutton Books, 2008.  305 pages.

Starred review.

Wow.  Paper Towns isn’t quite like any other teen novel I’ve read.  At first glance, it’s a typical teen novel about parties and girlfriends and pranks and prom and graduation.  But it goes so much deeper, dealing with profound questions like whether we can ever truly know another person.

The opening of the book is awesome:

The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.  Like, I will probably never be struck by lightning, or win a Nobel Prize, or become the dictator of a small nation in the Pacific Islands, or contract terminal ear cancer, or spontaneously combust.  But if you consider all the unlikely things together, at least one of them will probably happen to each of us.  I could have seen it rain frogs.  I could have stepped foot on Mars.  I could have been eaten by a whale.  I could have married the queen of England or survived months at sea.  But my miracle was different.  My miracle was this:  out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.

Quentin and Margo were friends as kids, but he hasn’t seen much of her since they started high school.  She moves in a much more brilliant circle.  Then, one night late in their senior year, Margo knocked again on Q’s window.  She convinced him to drive her on a wild night of sweet revenge.  The next day, she disappears.

Paper Towns deals with Quentin’s quest to find Margo.  As he looks for clues, he comes to terms with the fact that no one knew the real Margo.  Each of her friends saw her as someone slightly different.  Can we ever truly know another person?

Quentin must also face some of his own fears and figure out who he is himself.  Why did Margo choose him on her night of revenge, and why did she leave clues for him to find?  Did she expect him to find her?

I admit that, as a fan of John and Hank Green’s Brotherhood 2.0 video blog (see ), I had a tendency to “hear” Quentin’s voice as John Green talking.  However, that worked fine and made the character that much more believable and likeable.  It’s refreshing to read a teen novel from a guy’s perspective.

The author pulls off all this profundity with a light touch.  Quentin has friends who are nerdy and quirky, and he doesn’t go on his quest alone.  Some of the teen antics will make parents cringe, but other than that it makes for fun, light-hearted reading.

I read the latest posts on John Green’s blog at, where he talks about some of the amazingly profound questions teens have asked him.  I think that’s his secret — He has nothing but respect for the thinking of teens.  He doesn’t water down the philosophical questions behind the story here.  So although it is indeed a teen novel, the issues raised are issues about being human, and will give people of all ages something to ponder.

I did enjoy An Abundance of Katherines, but I do think that John Green has grown as an author and I find Paper Towns an outstandingly well-crafted novel.  (What I’m trying to say is that I liked this new one even better!)

As a librarian, it will be interesting to see who I can get to read this book.  (I’ve already talked my teenage son into reading it, but he is already a fan of, so he didn’t take any convincing.)  I find myself wishing it didn’t have a picture of Margo on the cover, since I think there are many teenage boys who would thoroughly enjoy this book, and I will have to talk them into trying a book with a picture of a girl on the cover.  (There are two covers for this book, one with a bright, happy Margo, and one more dingy, sad and dark.)  At any rate, for now the book is on hold, so it’s getting some buzz, and I will not have copies on the shelf to recommend to anyone. 

Definitely worth reading, for readers of any age who are willing to have some fun and explore questions about how they see the world.

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Review of The Handmaid and the Carpenter, by Elizabeth Berg


The Handmaid and the Carpenter

by Elizabeth Berg

Random House, New York, 2006.  153 pages.

I’ve been reading Christmas novels, so here’s a novel about the original Christmas.

There was a time when I couldn’t really enjoy novelizations of Bible stories — I would get upset over quibbles where they didn’t quite line it up with the Bible text, or the characters would not act as I had imagined them to act.  But perhaps I’ve outgrown that.  I’m quite sure this is not how I would imagine Mary and Joseph, but I did enjoy these characters.

What would it have been like to give birth to the Son of God?  And how would your betrothed react?  Elizabeth Berg does pull us into the story, in all its wonder, yet with a nod to the reality of dirty straw and a long journey and a village reacting to the story of an angel announcement.

This isn’t a dramatically in-depth novelization, but it gives you a taste of what that first Christmas might have been like.  Definitely good holiday reading.

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Review of Santa Cruise, by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark


Santa Cruise

A Holiday Mystery at Sea

by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

Simon & Schuster/ Scribner, 2006.  261 pages.

I have enjoyed some of Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark’s earlier Christmas mysteries.  So I picked up this Holiday Mystery for some fun Christmas reading.

To start up his new cruise ship, Commodore Randolph Weed launches the “Santa Cruise” — a free trip for people who have done good in the world.  He even includes ten department-store Santas to cheer the crowd while enjoying the cruise.  Alvirah Meehan and her husband Willy are among the honorees, and Alvirah invites her friend, private detective Regan Reilly and her husband Jack, as well as Regan’s parents, Nora and Luke.

What the Commodore doesn’t know is that his nephew Eric is using the cruise to make some money on the side.  Eric has agreed to take two convicted felons on board and drop them off on an island in the Caribbean without an extradition treaty.

Right from the start, Eric’s plans get thrown off.  He has to give his large room to Alvirah and her husband, so the felons don’t have a convenient place to hide.  Good thing there are lots of Santa suits available.

Santa Cruise has lots of coincidences and never really works up to much feeling of suspense, but it does provide some light-hearted fun in a holiday setting.

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Review of Starcross, by Philip Reeve



by Philip Reeve

performed by Greg Steinbruner

Recorded Books, 2008.  7 CDs.  7.5 hours.

Starcross is a worthy successor to Larklight, another rip-roaring adventure of Art and Myrtle Mumby in the outer reaches of the galaxy.  Once again, we’re in alternate-reality 1851, where space travel has been discovered through alchemy, and the British Empire rules the ether (rather than the waves).  It turns out that there is all kinds of life out there in the solar system, and the British Empire has outposts among the natives on every planet.

At the start of this book, the Mumbys, with their mother, are invited to Starcross, a sea-resort hotel on an asteroid which has never been known to have any water.  Sure enough, the “tide” comes in every twelve hours, and the dry sea bed fills up with water as if it has always been there.

Obviously, something strange is going on at Starcross.  And what about the top hat in Art’s closet that seems to be calling out to him to put it on?  Or the strange shadow across the balcony and the little voice saying “Moob”?

Sure enough, the adventures involve international intrigue, mortal danger, and this time even time travel.  Once again, I lost track of how many times their lives were in peril.

Listening to these books on CD makes them all the more fun.  These would make excellent family listening, as it will appeal to all ages.  The narrator does an excellent job giving each character a distinct voice.  The way Art and Myrtle pick at each other seems completely realistic for a brother and sister and is just one of the amusing touches the books are packed with.

You do not have to read (or listen) to Larklight in order to enjoy Starcross, but why would you want to miss it?  Almost all our old friends from the first book show up in this one, and add to the fun.

Here’s a light-hearted adventure story by a writer with a wild imagination and a delightful sense of humor.  We’ve got space travel and pirates and spies and aliens and mind control and time travel and speeding space trains and proper ladies and British soldiers and a sinister plot to take over the solar system.  What more could you want?  Huzzah!

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Review of Let It Snow


Let It Snow

Three Holiday Romances

by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Speak (Penguin), 2008.  352 pages.

Starred Review

Okay, I’m in the mood for holiday reading, and this book of three intertwined holiday romances was completely delightful.  I began reading during a dentist appointment, and found when I got home, my recovery demanded further reading.

The three stories are all teen romances, delightfully told.  John Green’s story, told from the guy’s perspective, is in the middle, and makes a nice subtle change from the other two, but I loved all three.

Maureen Johnson tells the  first story, where Jubilee Donegal is on a train to visit her grandparents in Florida instead of at her boyfriend’s big family Christmas Eve Smorgasbord.  Her parents were arrested in a riot over collectible Flobie Santa Village buildings, and Jubilee got sent to Florida.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t get far before the train is stopped by snow.  She’s in a car with a group of cheerleaders off to a cheerleading competition and a cute guy obsessed with trying to call his girlfriend (and failing).  What can she do except go out through the snow and try to get to the Waffle House she sees across the highway?

What follows is a delightful story of adventure and eye-opening revelations and, yes, romance.

John Green’s story involves a guy and two friends trying to get through the snow to the Waffle House, where their friend, the store manager, is telling a hysterical tale about a group of cheerleaders needing “help” working on cheers.  He needs them to bring a Twister game, but if they take too long, someone else’s friends might beat them to it.  Once again, things don’t happen as they expect.

In Lauren Myracle’s story, we see the ex-girlfriend of the guy on the train, despairing because he didn’t show up and he didn’t even call.  Meanwhile, her friends need her to do a little something for them — and they don’t want to hear that there’s been another “crisis.”

The stories dovetail beautifully.  They are all funny and sweet and wonderfully entertaining.  Definitely recommended holiday reading!

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Review of A Christmas Grace, by Anne Perry


A Christmas Grace

by Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, New York, 2008.  210 pages.

Starred review.

Ah, there’s nothing like a nice cozy Christmas murder mystery by Anne Perry!  It’s getting to be a tradition for me that I especially enjoy.

Emily Radley gets a message that her estranged Aunt Susannah is dying.  Aunt Susannah was cut off from the family years ago for marrying a Catholic.  She lives in a remote part of Ireland, and now she wants to have family near her at Christmas, so she does not die alone.

Emily comes and gets a feel for the coastal village.  Then an enormous storm hits, with a shipwreck offshore and a stranger stranded on their beach.  Emily learns that the town is haunted by the memory of a similar event.  Only that earlier stranger was murdered.  Did he ask questions too uncomfortable to answer?  What did he know that he was killed for?

I’m not quite sure how Anne Perry manages to make murder mysteries so beautifully communicate a cozy and warm spirit of Christmas.  But her Christmas stories leave me feeling uplifted and remind me of what Christmas is all about.  Lovely.

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