Monthly Archives: January 2017

The Secrets of Flight, by Maggie Leffler

This 2016 novel is appealing both as women’s fiction and potentially as a YA novel. The two main characters are Mary Browning, an eight-seven year old facilitator of a senior citizen writer’s group and Elyse Strickler, the fifteen-year old aspiring writer who stumbles into the group by mistake.

Both characters tell lies and live with secrets. Mary has come to her position through a random remark made to one of the other tenants of the building where she moved after her doctor husband’s death. She was never an editor at a publishing house. But she was a flyer for the Women Air Service Pilots corps in Texas during World War II. A fact she has kept a secret for over sixty years, not out of shame, but because she gave up her life, her family, and her ethnic/religious heritage when the man she loved decided to hide his Jewish identity to get into medical school.

Because Elyse reminds her of her dead sister, Mary chooses her to help write a memoir that will give her some closure and a new relationship begins. Coincidentally, Elyse is inspired to be a writer because her grandmother wrote a book about a relative, tragically killed when she flew as a WASP in the 1940s.

Attracted to a popular boy at school, Elyse ditches her best friend and lies to her parents to be around him, begging her teacher to assign them as ‘marriage’ partners in life studies. He of course turns out to be nothing like her fantasy and she is at risk of failing two classes because of him.

Finding herself unwittingly privy to information about her parents crumbling marriage, Elyse feels betrayed by both. Her dour attorney mother has pushed Elyse’s father to the brink of adultery, and is estranged from her own mother as a punishment for Elyse’s grandmother moving to Florida. Now the grandmother is dying of cancer and Mom refuses to acknowledge the fact.  

On impulse, Mary offers to pay for Elyse’s air fare to visit her grandmother. Elyse lies to her mother about who bought the ticket and is reunited with Margot, a perky positive woman, full of life but in a downhill spiral. The visit is timely, because within a week the grandmother is dead. That event sets in motion a series of forced reunions that reconcile not only Elyse’s mom and aunt, but lead to the discovery of connections with the real Mary—Miriam Lichtenstein.

I found this book engaging in both points of view, and in the present and the past. It is seasoned with wonderful accounts of flight and the challenges faced by early women fliers, their clandestine heroism, their betrayal by their superiors and Congress, and their ultimate recognition with the Congressional Medal of Honor. Early women flyers are a favorite subject for me, but even I learned a lot about these extraordinary women. For instance, did you know that even though their existence was hush-hush, their uniforms were designed and created by Neiman Marcus?

The characters are engagingly and lovingly drawn. Woven throughout the story are issues of religious and ethnic identity and freedom and how perceptions and values change over time, no matter what we do to preserve or conceal them. Ironically, the decision Mary/Miriam made to assimilate to avoid cultural stigmas caused her to be ostracized by her family and cost her cultural heritage. In the present, those all important traditions and cultural identity have become only negligibly important and are marginally observed by the very family that shunned her

My only complaint would be that the number of parallel characters, alternate names and identities, and the occasional difficulty of telling what is a lie and what is true not only built suspense but occasionally created confusion. Still, it was an excellent read and an interesting glimpse of present-day high school, forgotten history, as well as past and present Jewish culture.


Gooney Bird and All Her Charms, by Lois Lowry

Gooney Bird and All Her Charms by Lois Lowry (illustrated by Middy Thomas) – This chapter book is part of an award-winning series. Gooney Bird is an eccentrically dressed second-grader with a Type A personality . She is surrounded by a number of outspoken prankster classmates and an infinitely patient teacher. Think Pippi Longstocking in Kindergarten Cop.

In this book, Gooney Bird’s great-uncle, Dr. Oglethorpe, happens to be a prominent professor of anatomy. He visits when her class is studying the human body, surprising everyone by bringing a ‘gift’. He loans the class the human skeleton from his own classroom for a month, to be used in their studies. The kids name it Napoleon. It causes quite a stir among the student body and some of the parents.

The class sets out to involve everyone by setting it up in different locales with different accessories to emphasize the part of the body being studied. All goes well until someone makes off with Napoleon.

Maybe it was because chapter books are not my genre, but this book seemed contrived and self-consciously cute. There was educational value in the content, but it was disguised in outrageous behavior and coincidence. Even Gooney Bird’s charm bracelet of the title, bought at a garage sale, seems pasted on to tie everything together. But the illustrations are highly imaginative and entertaining.

YA Reads for January

This month for the SCBWI meeting, I’m reviewing three really engaging and well-written Young Adult books. They have a number of things in common besides their reading group.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – This National Book Award Finalist (nominated the same year as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath) is a YA novel set in an upscale boarding school. Frankie is a legacy. She is privileged, smart, and ambitious. Previously a bit of a geek, she blossomed over the summer and comes to the attention of the charming, handsome, and somewhat self-effacing leader of the inner circle at school. As Matthew’s girlfriend she gains entre to the seniors’ table. Matthew is leader by default of wealth and position, and because the more exotic Alpha was expelled the previous year. Frankie recognizes Alpha from an encounter at the beach. But perhaps because she is with Matthew, he pretends not to know her. Nevertheless, the two have more in common than she has with Matthew. He is born to privilege, whereas she and Alpha are outsiders.

Frankie quickly discovers the guys are co-leaders of the secret society known as the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, ‘known mostly for silly pranks and a history of male-only membership’. Frankie is aware of the Bassets because her father and his friends were members, teasingly referring to it but never revealing its secrets. Frankie, intellectually their equal if not their superior, becomes fixated on the fact that she can never be included. While Alpha is away, she creates an email address. Posing as him, she sends out detailed instructions for a Basset Hound prank. It is so successful that upon his return, Alpha takes the credit.

Matthew fails to confide in her. This only pushes her to bigger and riskier pranks, manipulating the boys of the group until she almost gets Alpha expelled. When she steps forward and takes responsibility to save him, Matthew drops her and freezes her out of the inner circle. She pays the price, but is triumphant rather than apologetic. She will never settle for being the leader’s girlfriend.

This book is well-written with multi-layered characters and relationships. It uses stereotypical personas at times to challenge the status quo. The threat of her own disgrace and expulsion is introduced at the beginning and the rest of the book is a flashback, with that danger ever present.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher—This 2007 international bestselling YA novel is an emotional rollercoaster. The two main POV characters of this book, Hannah Baker and Clay Jensen are teenagers in the same high school. Hannah, the victim of a series of seemingly unrelated slights, snubs, cruel lies, vicious gossip, bullying and rape has committed suicide. But she has left a series of audio tapes that accuse her tormenters and explain the events that drove her to take her own life. Thirteen people will receive the tapes and spend a tortured evening listening to the criminal behavior and thoughtless cruelty perpetrated on their classmate—and recognize their part in it. As each finishes, he/she must forward the tapes to the next person on the list or risk another set of tapes being sent to the newspaper.

Popular Clay Jensen liked Hannah very much, but allowed rumors of promiscuity to prevent him from acknowledging his feelings until a fateful party shortly before her death. Quietly mourning her, he is uncertain why he’s received the tapes or how he fits into the story, but he follows the map and listens to the painful details of Hannah’s account only to discover the girl he fantasized about was half in love with him. At the end of the night, Hannah is still dead and Clay will never be the same. He must forward the tapes and go back to school, seeing some of his classmates in a whole new light.

Masterfully written and gut-wrenching, this book will keep you up all night, just as the tapes keep Clay wandering the streets of his town into the pre-dawn hours.

Getting Over Garrett Delaney, by Abby McDonald—Published 2012, this novel follows young Sadie through a love crisis. At fifteen she met Garret Delaney, a new kid in town, and she was mesmerized by his good looks, easy charm and intellectual take on all things artistic and literary. Over the last two years she has lost contact with her previous BFF and become a permanent appendage to the dazzling young man she considers her soul mate and best friend. Supporting him in all things and propping him up every time he thinks he’s fallen in and out of love—she keeps hoping against all odds that he will wake up and fall in love with her. Think Mary Stuart Masterson’s Watts in the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful.

Scheduled to go to writer’s summer camp together, Sadie hopes a summer in the country, living the literary life will seal their fate as lovers. But her mother started her in school a year late and although seventeen, as a sophomore going into her junior year she is rejected at the last minute. Garrett blithely goes off to camp and leaves Abby to pine.

Forced to look for a summer job by her life counselor mother, Abby falls into a job at her favorite coffee house. There she meets new friends who are older and more experienced, if not necessarily wiser. She very nearly loses the job she loves after a public melt-down precipitated by a call from the blissfully ignorant Garrett. Her humiliation was witnessed not only by her co-workers but by her former friend, Kayla. Instead of abandoning her to her misery, they help her take a leaf from her mother’s playbook and devise a project plan to ‘get over’ her obsession for Garrett Delaney and discover who she is without him over the summer. It’s cold-turkey withdrawal of all things Garrett, but it forces her to try new experiences, haircuts, and clothes. She explores other options in an effort to find out what she thinks, feels and likes, uncolored by Garrett’s rather snobbish viewpoint.

It’s a struggle but she succeeds admirably in discovering herself, until Garrett returns early. He seems ready to fall for her now that she no longer needs him. She is sorely tested and momentarily weakens. But from her new perspective, Sadie becomes painfully aware of Garrett’s self-absorption, condescension, and arrogance. Not only does she manage to save herself from more years of abject servitude to a mythical Garrett, but her journey helps her friends to recognize their own weaknesses and pursue their dreams as well.

All three of these novels are engaging, well-written and have characters of a similar age, social group, who need to be loved or admired for themselves. Each deals with peer pressure to some extent and the unspoken social structure in high schools, whether public or private. They are all about self-realization, the perception of others, and how our relationships define us. I would recommend each of them.