Review of “Brightly Burning” by Alexa Donne

This fun retelling of Jane Eyre for young adults has a science fiction twist. It is set in outer space on ships that left Earth after a “supervolcano” led to an ice age. No one in space knows if the ice age is over – predictions at the time of the volcano ranged from 200 years to over a thousand.

Stella Ainsley, 17, is an engineer aboard The Stalwart, one of the dumpier ships in the fleet. She was orphaned at age 7, and literally shipped off from a nicer vessel by her Aunt Reed. Stella has been putting in applications to get a job as a teacher or governess, and finally got an offer from a private spacecraft, The Rochester. On that ship, which orbits the moon, Stella will serve as governess to 10-year-old Jessa, and will also provide auxiliary support to the chief engineer, Claire Poole.

When Stella finally gets to The Rochester, she discovers there are some mysteries aboard, including a mysterious cackling laugh she sometimes hears at night, as well as inexplicable attempts on the life of the 19-year-old captain, Hugo Fairfax. Hugo seems to like her, but she isn’t sure:

“He was looking at me now, pulling me into his orbit with those eyes that spoke volumes without saying a word. But they were mystery volumes; I could never tell if Hugo wanted to kiss me or throw me out into space.”

But then Hugo invites a large party from another ship, The Ingram, to come on board for a lengthy visit. The party includes Blanche, the beautiful daughter of its captain. Blanche seems clearly determined to marry Hugo, and Stella can’t imagine he would want to forgo the opportunity.

The broad outlines of what happens next are clear to fans of Jane Eyre, but Donne manages to add innovative twists to keep readers turning the pages.

Evaluation: This light and entertaining book will please fans of Jane Eyre, especially those who can accept this romance set among the stars instead of on the moors.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, 2018

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Kid Lit Review of “Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters” by Michael Mahin

The music of Muddy Waters provided my own introduction to the blues, and I have loved that particular genre ever since.

The Blues are distinguished by a 12-bar sequence played on a unique scale, involving a flatted 3rd or 5th note. These “bent” or “blue” notes are what give the Blues a sound of its own. As the author writes:

“To have the blues was to feel bad.
But to play the blues was to take that low-down,
skunk-funk, deep-stomach hurt
And turn it into something else.”

McKinley Morganfield, called Muddy because he loved to play in the muddy bayous behind his grandmother’s house, was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on April 4, 1915. Muddy helped transform Delta Blues into the more upbeat Chicago Blues which then became known as “rhythm and blues.”

From the time he was young, Muddy loved music. Growing up, he worked as a sharecropper in the fields and saved his money, eventually able to buy himself a used guitar. He played in local juke joints on weekends. In 1943, tired of his sharecropping boss picking on him and calling him “boy,” he quit, and made his way to Chicago.

The author writes:

“Chicago was plugged in,
Turned on, and turned up.
And so was its music.
Records with electrified guitars
And jazzy horns were making the blues
Jump all over town.”

Muddy started adding a beat to his blues in the 1950’s. He called it “fast” blues as opposed to “slow” blues. As the author comments in an afterword, while Muddy was not the only musician to make this change, “he quickly became one of the most influential”:

“The instrumental composition of Muddy’s bands – which always included a guitar, harmonica, piano, bass, and drums – laid the rhythmic and tonal foundation for what would become rock and roll.”

He also became known for playing a mean slide guitar that hardly anyone has been able to duplicate.

Blues fans are familiar with the idea of a “mojo,” or “mojo hand.” A mojo hand was a little red flannel bag that smelled of oil and perfumes, purchased from a specialist in charms and magic. Muddy Waters said that black people in the South all used to believe that these mojo hands would bring them luck. He knew they didn’t work, and he also knew mojo “doctors” – those who made and sold the bags – were getting rich off of poor people’s superstitions and dreams. But he said he wrote songs about them because people always requested them. In fact, “Louisiana Blues,” with the lyric “I’m goin’ down in New Orleans, Get me a mojo hand” was Muddy’s first nationwide hit.

Muddy’s first recording for Leonard Chess was memorable:

“He called up the sticky heat of a summer
night, the power of love, and the need
For connection in a world that was
So good at pulling people apart.”

The record sold out in twenty-four hours. The author concludes with a coda foretelling Muddy’s future:

“One day, the Beatles would be shaking Muddy’s hand.

One day, the president of the United States would be tapping his toes.

One day, the world world would know the name Muddy Waters.

One day was on its way.”

Muddy toured Europe in 1958, and his popularity took off with young white audiences. He inspired Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Jim Morrison, and others.

The Rolling Stones, of course, named themselves after a record – “Rolling Stone” – recorded in the 1950’s by Muddy Waters. Bob Dylan’s hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” also comes from Muddy’s record, as does the name of the music magazine.

As the Afterword relates, in 1971, Muddy won his first of six grammy Awards. In 1978, he played for President Jimmy Carter at the White House. In 1987, he was inducted (posthumously) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Muddy died in 1983 at age 68, but he left a lasting legacy not only because of his own work but because of the music he inspired in others. Amazingly, this towering talent never got a chance to go to school, nor did he ever learn to read and write. He is a true inspiration.

The narration is done in free verse, with imagined dialogue. All of it comes to life via the stunning expressionist artwork by Evan Turk, an Ezra jack Keats New Illustrator Honor recipient. Turk reports on his blog that he did research in both Mississippi and Chicago to find the right visual style for the story. He chose rich warm colors for Mississippi and then switched his palette for Chicago to express “the clashing neon colors of the city.” But as Muddy’s skill develops in the story, the palettes merge, just as Muddy’s music came to reflect both his Delta past and his Chicago present.

You may notice that Turk’s unique style shows the influence of such black artists as Jacob Lawrence, William H. Johnson, and the famous quilt work of the African-American women of Gee’s Bend Alabama. Turk also employs stenciling with striking results. He reports:

“I drew out the composition, and then cut out each of the shapes to make stencils. Then I filled in the shapes thickly with oil pastel on top of a watercolor/gouache background. Then details and patterns were created by adding more oil pastel, or scraping it away with a palette knife to make textures and different effects.”

Evaluation: This book celebrates African-American heritage, and its seminal contributions to and influence on culture throughout the world. It may help readers understand the historicity of musical forms, and how music not only reflects the social world of its time but also affects it. The prose is both musical and educational, and the illustrations are exceptional.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017

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Review of “Bellewether” by Susanna Kearsley

As in the author’s previous novels, the action moves back and forth between the present day and the past, with parallel heroines facing similar issues and encountering similar romantic possibilities.

In the present day, Charlotte (“Charley”) Van Hoek, 29, has moved from Toronto to Long Island, New York to take care of her niece Rachel after the unexpected early death of Charley’s brother Niels. She also accepted a job as curator of The Wilde House, home of a daring privateer from colonial times, Benjamin Wilde.

In the past, we follow the story of Lydia Wilde, Benjamin’s sister. In fact, Benjamin hardly figures into the story. Charley immediately gets intrigued by Lydia’s story instead. Lydia was a young woman who, according to later stories, fell in love with a French prisoner paroled to their house, and died of a broken heart after her older brother Joseph killed the Frenchman.

When the American Revolution began, Joseph, a loyalist, went north to Oswego, Canada to work in a shipyard. His best friend Moses, who was Rachel’s fiancé, went with him. Moses was killed and Joseph returned home with severe PTSD.

The family was tasked with putting up two French prisoners taken by the English from Fort Niagara to New York. Joseph hated them because they were French, but Lydia fell in love with one of them, Jean-Philippe de Sabran. The story goes that the Jean-Philippe and Lydia were going to run off, but Joseph killed the French officer and then Lydia “just turned her face to the wall and died too, of a broken heart.” The Frenchman supposedly now haunts the mansion and grounds, waiting for Lydia to join him.

Evaluation: The stories in the past and present are consistently engaging, especially because of the parallel similarities. There is plenty of history and romance, and the “ghost story” aspect adds mystery and interest.

An afterword provides more details on the historical characters and circumstances reported in the book.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Sourcebooks, 2018

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Review of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

This novel opens at the end of the story, with the Richardson family contemplating the smoldering ruins of their house in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “‘The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,’ one of the Richardson kids said to the others. ‘Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.’” The rest of the book explains what led to the fire, and what was the double meaning of “little fires everywhere.”

There is a somewhat long epigraph at the beginning of the book, but it explains a great deal:

“Actually, though, all things considered, people from Shaker Heights are basically pretty much like people everywhere else in America. They may have three or four cars instead of one or two, and they may two television sets instead of one, and when a Shaker Heights girl gets married she may have a reception for eight hundred, with band flown in from New York, instead of a wedding reception for a hundred with a local band, but these are all differences of degree rather than fundamental differences.” Cosmopolitan, March 1963

This very amusing and ironic passage is reminiscent of the US Magazine feature: “Movie Stars: They’re just like us!” (They go to Starbucks! They shop for groceries! They have babies!)

But in fact, the 1% are not just like us, but it is hard for them to see that fact. When a white male walks into a room full of other white males, he gets no sense what it must be like to enter that same room as a black male, or a female of any color. He generally has a sense of comfort, not of difference or even potential threat. Similarly, the denizens of Shaker Heights have a blindness to privilege and a worldview that bestows an easy confidence on those who have never known what it is like to be free from want or prejudice. As Pearl, a tenant of the family’s, wonders in awe:

“Where did this ease come from? How could they be so at home, so sure of themselves, even in pajamas?”

There is a cost, however, to living like this. There are “rules” in Shaker Heights, both those imposed by the community and those internalized by the inhabitants.

Shaker Heights rules: There are three broad architectural styles that were promoted within the Shaker Village Standards: English, French, and Colonial.

Some of those in this rich milieu feel constraints, even if they don’t lack confidence and the sense of owning the world that being in the upper 1% can confer. One constraint is noblesse oblige, or the idea of a responsibility to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged – that is, as long as it (a) makes the privileged person feel good and (b) doesn’t really inconvenience the privileged person. A second constraint is the one that keeps Elena Richardson, the matriarch of this family, in a metaphorical cage. Elena always feels she must maintain control over appetites and emotions. She monitors what she eats, what she wears, and what she feels: “All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.”

The Richardsons own a rental house in a less prosperous part of Shaker Heights, one of a long line of duplexes. When Elena Richardson meets her new tenants, Mia Warren, 36 and her daughter Pearl, 15, she is both fascinated and envious. Mia is an artist, and works at menial, odd jobs only just enough to allow her to buy supplies and time to dedicate to her photography. Mia doesn’t care if they don’t have a lot of possessions or amenities, and worst of all to Elena, seems happy in spite of it. Elena thinks about Mia: “You can’t just do what you want… Why should Mia get to, when no one else did?”

Indeed, Mia is the opposite of Elena in many ways. Elena grew up in Shaker Heights, and always wanted to return:

“She had had a plan, from girlhood on, and had followed it scrupulously: high school, college, boyfriend, marriage, job, mortgage, children. … She had, in short, done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted.”

Although, not “everyone” as it turns out: it was not the kind of life Mia wants, and her very existence challenges everything Elena has been brought up to value.

But Pearl is not like Mia either. She wants some stability for a change, and with the Richardson kids, she finds friendship and first love. She spends more and more time at the Richardson’s. She is friends with both 15-year-old Moody and 18-year-old Lexie, and has a crush on 17-year-old Trip. In addition, she basks in the differences she observes between her off-beat existence and the Richardson’s predictable, comfortable, and easy life of affluence.

Shaker Heights, Ohio

Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old Izzy, Elena’s youngest daughter, finds a mother in Mia she never had at home. Izzy and her mother have a destructive relationship, originating before Izzy was even born. The pregnancy was not risk-free, nor was Izzy out of danger after birth. Elena saw Izzy, who never – even before birth, followed the pattern Elena expected, as consistently causing trouble for her. The three older kids knew their mother always seemed to have it in for Izzy, but the reasons were unclear to them. After a while, there was an unbreakable dynamic, with Elena criticizing and Izzy reacting:

“Of course, the more Izzy pushed, the more anger stepped in to shield her mother’s old anxiety, like a shell covering a snail. ‘My god, Izzy,’ Mrs. Richardson said, over and over again, ‘what is wrong with you?’”

Elena is consistently nasty to Izzy. Mia, on the other hand, is welcoming and nurturing.

So a main theme of the book is: what makes someone a mother? What is best for a child? A biological mother, or someone who can give the child what he or she needs? The links between Pearl and the Richardsons, and between Izzy and Mia, are mirrored in the main source of gossip and upheaval in Shaker Heights, involving the McCullough family.

Linda McCullough (a friend of Elena’s), and her husband Mark, couldn’t have children. They had been trying to adopt, and got a call from the fire station that an Asian baby, “May Ling,” was left there. Linda went all out to welcome the newly renamed “Mirabelle McCullough.” All is going well for Linda until Mia figures out that the baby was left by one of her restaurant co-workers, Bebe Chow. Bebe was desperate to get her baby back, and Mia tells Bebe where May Ling is. Before long, a custody battle ensues. The whole neighborhood gets involved in a discussion over which woman would be the best mother for the baby.

Part of the issue is the cultural heritage of the baby. When Bebe’s lawyer questions Linda about how she will teach the child about Chinese culture, Linda, with perfect cluelessness and convinced in any event of the superiority of her own culture, says she will take Mirabelle to Chinese restaurants.

Elena, also incognizant about the racism that informs her opinions, is adamant that the wealthy white families of Shaker Heights offer advantages the Asian biological mother could not: “Honestly, I think this is a tremendous thing for Mirabelle. She’ll be raised in a home that truly doesn’t see race. That doesn’t care, not one infinitesimal bit, what she looks like. What could be better than that?”

As the case drags on without the expected easy resolution in favor of the McCulloughs, Elena becomes increasingly angry at Mia and obsessively determined to exact revenge on her friend’s behalf. But actually, there is more to it:

“She would never admit even to herself that it hadn’t been about the baby at all: it had been some complicated thing about Mia herself, the dark discomfort this woman stirred up that Mrs. Richardson would have much preferred to have kept in its box.”

Elena uses her skills and contacts as a reporter for the local paper to dig up dirt on Mia, and before long, her vendetta both creates and reveals “little fires everywhere.” Together, the “fires” combine to burn down the Richardson house, both in fact and in metaphor.

Discussion: Although this is an excellent book, I had trouble sticking with it only because I loathed Elena Richardson so thoroughly. But that was certainly by the author’s design. And while I never had any sympathy for Elena, the author does an excellent job shading most of the other characters – especially the kids, with both good and bad overtones.

The story raises many questions that will engage readers. Motherhood and family are treated as concepts as well as biological accidents, and that treatment suggests that with whom we should share our lives with is more nuanced than just a question of birth. The conventions of social conformity and the blind spots of privilege are also interrogated in this story. The role of preconceptions in structuring our understanding of “truth” – especially relevant in these times – also plays a role. Finally, the almost Shakespearean treatment of envy as a motivator and destroyer of lives runs through the story like, well, an accelerant in a fire.

Evaluation: This is an absorbing story with so many layers and questions that it would be an outstanding choice for bookclubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

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May 14 – National Buttermilk Biscuit Day

Buttermilk biscuits are a favorite in my house, especially since they are quick and easy to make, and so delicious. In fact, they are so little trouble that it’s a wonder supermarkets are able to sell those canned biscuits. You could do much better to pick up some buttermilk and make them yourself. (And for an emergency desire for biscuits with no buttermilk in the house, I have successfully substituted plain yogurt.)

But what is buttermilk anyway, and how does it affect the taste of a biscuit?

As Cooks Illustrated explains:

“In the old days, buttermilk was simply the liquid left behind after cream was churned into butter. As unpasteurized cream sat “ripening” for a few days before churning, naturally occurring bacteria caused it to ferment by converting milk sugars into lactic acid, which made the resulting buttermilk mildly sour and slightly thickened. But since virtually all milk and cream is now pasteurized at high temperatures, a process that kills off those bacteria, most buttermilk sold today is cultured buttermilk, made by reintroducing lactic-acid bacteria to pasteurized skim or low-fat milk. Often, it’s also reinforced with salt and thickeners like carrageenan and starch.”

Supposedly, using buttermilk adds a “tang” but I have never noticed that. More importantly, it increases the rise of baked goods when it interacts with baking soda. This matters because making a “biscuit” means you are using baking powder or baking soda as a leavening agent rather than yeast. If you use yeast, you get a “roll” rather than a biscuit. (And if you’re in the United Kingdom and ask for a biscuit, you get a cookie, but I digress.)

This is my favorite recipe for buttermilk biscuits. I make them often, and also freeze them for future use, although they aren’t as good that way as they are fresh out of the oven.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups plus 2 tbs flour (only King Arthur’s will do! It makes a huge difference: rocks vs. light and airy pillows)
3/4 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/3 tsp. salt (I just use a heaping 1/4 tsp, being too flummoxed by the idea of 1/3 tsp.)
1 tsp. sugar
4 TBS. butter
3/4 cup buttermilk

any additives: dried cherries (our usual favorite), chocolate chips, or, for a dinner biscuit, shredded cheese of any sort. We like adding a cup of shredded pecorino cheese, and it’s even better if you can find pecorino with peppercorns.

Preheat oven to 450.

Sift 2 cups flour with baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, and sugar in large mixing bowl. (I stir with a spoon. Seems to work just dandy. One can do this the night before.)

Cut in butter with pastry blender or knives until thoroughly blended. Stir in additives if desired. Stir in buttermilk.

Turn onto floured board (I cover an area of the countertop with some wax paper and turn the dough onto it, for quick and easy cleanup afterwards.). Knead (with remaining flour if necessary) for less than a minute. (The dough must be handled as little as possible or you will have tough biscuits.)

Roll (or smash, as I do) to thickness you desire and cut into desired shapes. I just make pie wedge shapes. You can use a turned-over glass if you want round biscuits. Put onto an ungreased baking sheet (pizza pan works just perfectly) and bake at 450 for 8-13 minutes. (Needless to say, you have to watch them. All ovens are different. Take them out when they are just barely brown on the top.) Serve with appropriate topping for your additive (such as jam) if desired.

Happy National Buttermilk Biscuit Day!!

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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