Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: Yankee Girl - Mary Ann Rodman

This is a gem of a civil rights story! Mary Ann Rodman draws deeply on her own personal experience as she tells the story of Alice Ann Moxley, a sixth-grader who moved to Mississippi from Chicago when her FBI agent father was stationed there to help with integration. Veronica is the older daughter of Dr. Taylor, good friend of Martin Luther King Jr.

When the two of them end up in the same class, they both need a friend, but both are afraid of the consequences of reaching out to each other. Alice is shunned because she's a Yankee, a breed that is always "interferin'". She makes friends with the neighbor boy, Jeb, but he refuses to admit that they are friends when they are at school and all his buddies can see them. There are the popular and powerful cheerleaders--but does Alice really want to be friends with the group that shunned her and is constantly plotting to play mean tricks on poor Veronica?

This book is full of danger and tension as Alice and Veronica both encounter threats and dangers from the KKK along with milder forms of discrimination from their own classmates. Even the teachers of their newly integrated school are not altogether trustworthy.

After a series of hard choices, let downs, and false steps, Alice finally stands up and does "the right thing" when Dr. Taylor is killed and she decides to reach out in public friendship.

This is a compelling story, full of real life and hard decisions. This would be an excellent read for many grade-schoolers and junior highers, who need to start considering what sort of friends they want to have and what it means to do "the right thing" in the face of peer pressure and popularity contests. I got this at the library, but I look forward to added it to my permanent collection on my shelf at home. I hope you do too!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Whiskey Caramel

This was a whiskey fudge experiment that turned into fantastic caramel, and it's fairly simple to make! (I'll see if I can add a picture later.)

1 can condensed milk
1/2 tsp salt
5 cups sugar
1 stick butter
1/2 cup whiskey (I used Makers brand bourbon, an excellent kind of smokey whiskey)
1 tsp vanilla

Mix the condensed milk, salt, and the sugar in a saucepan on med/high heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Add the butter, vanilla, and whiskey.

Keep stirring over medium heat until the mixture looks thick--there will be a stage when it is puffed up and foamy, and then it will sink back down and thicken. When the mixture has reached the soft ball stage (it forms a soft ball when a small amount is dropped into cold water), take it off the heat.

You can serve it hot over ice cream, wrap it up in wax paper for individual caramels, or (like I did) pour it into a buttered 9x13 pan and scoop it out with a spoon whenever you get the urge! I imagine you could can it as well, and store it in your pantry for a special meal or a tasty holiday treat!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Book Review: Rifles for Watie - by Harold Keith

Considering that I hardly every read historical fiction--especially wartime historical fiction, I was astounded by how wonderful this book was. Clearly, it won the Newbery Medal for many very good reasons. Having read many of the winning books, I can safely say that this is one of the better ones!

Set in the Western front of the Civil War, Rifles for Watie tells about the Kansas and Missouri bushwackers (loathed by the North and South alike) and the Cherokee troops that split and fought against each other throughout the war.

Harold Keith certainly did his homework in researching, and it's wonderful how he is able to incorporate life in both the Northern and Southern camps into his story. Jeff, the hero, joins up with the North when he is sixteen, ready and eager to dive into battle. Later on, he moves up the ranks, joins the cavalry, and later is sent as a scout. On his second mission, he is captured by Watie's men (the Cherokee leader for the Rebel Indian troops.) He ends up "joining" them, grateful that his name happens to be Jefferson Davis Bussey.

And the curious thing is that Jeff loves the people he knows from the South. Individual, he loves the men in his new troop. He cares for Southern civilians that he meets. (Earlier, he takes it upon himself to return a Southern lady's cow which had been stolen by a Union scavenging party.) He falls in love with Lucy, a Southern Cherokee girl he meets on the Indian reservation while they are recruiting. He even risks court-martial by refusing to be a part of the firing line that executes a Southern spy.

As the story unravels, Jeff has to make more and more important decisions about the type of person he is going to be. And ultimately, he needs to decide: will he join the South permanently, or will he escape back to the Union? Well, though he loves the South, and though it costs him his girl, Jeff knows that going back and serving the Union is right and for the good of the country.

This is a fantastic book full of exciting and interesting characters, spine-tingling moments of spying and discovering plots, a beautiful wartime romance, and a hair-raising chase scene as the Southern army pursues Jeff with a well-trained bloodhound. This is a great book for 5th grade through junior high and high-school (and beyond!) If you haven't read it yet, you simply must! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place - by MaryRose Wood

I read my way quickly through this first book, maintaining a rather bemused expression on my face and a slightly arrogant tilt to my nose which meant that it was a charming children’s story though highly improbable. After all, how likely is it that back in the Victorian era, three children would be found on a Lord’s property who appeared to have been raised by wolves?  

Even though such improbably could give way to some curious and exciting events, I found the first part of the book rather slow-moving. But that changed quickly when I came to the last several chapters. At that point, we begin to see hints of a mystery. What are we to make of Old Timothy the coachman who seems sinister but has never been proven guilty of anything? And what of Lord Ashton’s almost continual disappearances? Why will he insist on keeping the children when his wife detests them so? And who is trying to cause trouble for them?

MaryRose Wood knew what she was doing in setting up this series. She gave the main character, a young governess (who comes to teach and look after the children), plenty of pluck, optimism, and a matter of fact way of going about things. She even writes as a governess would (at least she writes like Penelope Lumley would speak to the readers of her story, if she knew she were in a story.) And thus we feel almost like Lumawoo (as the children call her) is telling us her own story and adding in her own asides and trying to make it as interesting and educational as possible in the telling. I’ve learned rather a lot of trivia (whether it’s truly trivial or not, I’m not sure) in reading these first two books. So the style is quite charming in that it perfectly matches the characters in the book.

The second notable thing that MaryRose Wood created in her story were main characters with plenty of room for mystery. Penelope has no background to speak of—all that we know (and she knows) is that her parents left her at a good school for poor females when she was quite young and that there was some necessity weighing on them to disappear. Similarly, all we know of the children is that they had been living in the forest at Ashton place and presumably raised by wolves. The oldest is 10 and the youngest is 5(?) so one might wonder how much Alexander remembers of the time before they were lost/left/stolen.

In the second book, Wood firmly establishes the fact that the children are in danger. This surprising message comes from none other than Penelope’s old headmistress, who is much more of a mother to her than a teacher. Does this danger have anything to do with the also surprising fact that Penelope’s hair is exactly the same shade as the children’s (at least when she doesn’t use the special hair poultice/dye that the headmistress is so insistent that she use)? Does it have anything to do with Lord Ashton’s peculiar regularity in disappearing during full moons and was that a cough or a bark or a howl that just came from his corner of the room? When Ashton’s friend, Judge Quinzy is proven to not be among the lists of judges in England, we are left another mystery: who on earth is “Judge” Quinzy and why does he take such exceptional interest in the children? Oh! And what about the curious guidebook that Penelope acquires…having very little good information about London except for the unheard of and little traveled Gallery 17 at the British Museum of Art?
By the time I reached the end of the second book “The Hidden Gallery” my nose was not only out of the air, it was nearly touching the pages with eagerness to discover more clues to these mysteries. And my bemused look had long been replaced by pop-eyed, open-mouthed enchantment (my usual look when reading exciting stories.)

I’ve read a couple books since then, which has dulled the anticipation to a bearable degree, but really… just thinking about it again makes me impatient for the third book to come out!