Friday, February 13, 2009

The Girl Who Wanted To Run The Boston Marathon
Robert McKay
1979, Elsevier/Nelson Books

"That's very enlightening, but I didn't ask you about Bill Rodgers. I asked you why you weren't running in the Marathon."

He looked across the water again. "I'm not going to run because it's not that important to me, and I'm not going to let it become that important to me."

Chris Cole is in training to run in the Boston Marathon. Seventeen, bored and homesick for the Vancouver island where she grew up, she's come with her alcoholic dad, a famous writer, to Boston to live and finds the famous marathon somehow compelling in her boredom. Skip Malone is in his early 20s, and emphatically not in training for the marathon, despite his impressive running record. They meet in the park, and after a few skirmishes Chris asks him for help with her running. And then - tragedy.

It happened in the second mile. She was sailing along, feeling great, when her legs went out from under her as though someone had cut them off with a giant scythe.

I loved Robert McKay's Dave's Song for years, even though it was a dated and extremely stiff book when read in the 1980s (and, I suspect, even when it was written in the 1960s), so I keep an eye out for Robert McKay's other, much harder to find books. I am usually disappointed. Dave's Song had the charm of those ridiculous, fascinating chickens, and Dave's brooding outsider status and the heroine's intelligent restlessness. Most of the other books lack something. This one has an interesting heroine it abandons halfway through, a reasonably attractive hero who never quite manages to overcome the deluge of plot heaped on him, and a genuinely passionate regard for running which is abandoned and buried by an author who apparently decides to change the entire thrust of the book at the halfway mark.

The abrupt, wary style with which every character speaks and views the world is repetitive - the rich boy/poor boy, independent girl, drunk writer and concerned doctor all have variations on this personality. The writing style is short, sharp, and therefore easy to fall into reading, but it never deepens or seems to reveal anything; it's as hostile and untrusting as the characters. A very, very 1970's book, much more so than Dave's Song, which had a sweet hopefulness beneath the cynical edge. Still a more convincing, more compelling book than The Troublemaker, which was laden down with 'relevance.'

Other Books by the Author
Canary Red
Dave's Song
The Troublemaker
The Running Back

About the Author
McKay was in prison in Ohio when he wrote Canary Red, which deals with a man who is, like McKay, a prisoner who raises canaries.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Angel On Skis
Betty Cavanna

Then, as Angela leaned foward, testing the sensation of crouching, she felt herself take off downhill. Instinctively she did the right thing. She kept her ankles bent, her skis parallel, the tips together. She was moving fast for one wonderful moment, and then she saw a snowbank looming ahead and toppled sideways as she tried to swerve. One ski stuck up in the air; the other raced downhill without her, but it didn't matter. She lay in the snow and smiled up at the unblinking moon.

Angela Dodge's mother has moved her and her little brother Chip from Philadelphia to a village in Vermont after their father's death in a plane crash reveals the family's precarious finances. All three are struggling to make a success of their new inn, which caters to the winter skiers. A chance encounter with a local boy and a pair of broken skis interests the restless, athletic Angela in skiing, and she sets out with single-minded obsesion to learn the sport. But it's an expensive pasttime, winter afternoons are short and she's needed at the inn. Can Angela juggle her ambitions, so like her father's, and her responsibilities to her family? And can she really interest both local boy Dave and college guy Gregg?

And instinctively, she knew how to react. Lowering her lashes, she murmured in a voice with just a suggestion of Ellen Whipple's purr, "You don't have to do a thing you don't want to, Dave, but I'd be awfully thrilled."

Well, it is Cavanna so you knew there'd be a romance there. Angela is one of her most modern heroines - ambitious, driven, athletic in a way that could lead to the Olympics instead of to healthy young motherhood. And Angela, unlike most of Cavanna's heroines, is not just the recipient of lucky kindness on the parts of others, she's often the architect of her own good luck. She is, in short, an operator. Cavanna's earlier characters had pluck; Angela has chutzpah. But in the end, Angela is still a Cavanna creation - at one point she wonders which is better, to compete herself or watch Gregg compete, and the last word in the book belongs to Gregg.

Cavanna also manages to include her animals - Angela's new friend loves horses and riding as Angela loves skis and ski'ing, and her little brother Chip adopts an Irish Setter puppy named Christie.


1988, Troll Books, cover il. Isabel Dawson (shown)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

With A High Heart
Adele de Leeuw
1945, The Macmillan Company

The weather was unseasonably warm for late May, and even this early in the morning there was a leaden quality to the air. Her hair stuck to her neck, her fresh cotton print was mussed from the crowded bus trip, and her newly laundered white gloves had a black streak across the palm where she had clutched the handrail.

It's a steamy New Jersey summer, and librarian-in-training Anne McLane is angrily headed to her first day working at the shabby little rural library in Tilden instead of the gleaming state-of-the-art facility in Claredon. Furious at the assignment, she resists the job at first but soon her natural competitiveness and drive reassert themselves over the summer. These qualities also make her question her romance with easy-going Lt. Rex Elliott, whose lack of ambition troubles her, particularly compared to hard-working farmer Matthew English.

What's the use of planning?" he demanded. "People plan like mad... and what happens? Along comes a war, or something equally catastrophic, and where are their plans? Knocked into a cocked hat. Nope, it's better to drift along with the stream. If it throws you up on some pleasant shore, O.K. If not--" There was a shrug in his voice. "At least you aren't disappointed.

Rex, so light-hearted on the surface and so cynical underneath, won't do for our heroine, who burns to accomplish something. So even though she resents young English for lecturing her, she loves his matching interest in remaking the world. Which will of course require remaking, if the war ever ends. It dominates their lives in a kind of dull, endless way, with gas shortages and ration boards and the sheer numbers game of men.

And one librarian, the indifferent Rilla, has an airman fiance who is, inevitably, killed in action.

No one even knew that the telephone had rung until Rilla's piercing shriek cut through the air, stilling their laughter as if they had been stabbed.

Rilla's goal in life was to marry and have a family; with her love stolen from her, she's devastated. Anne's thoughtful about that, sympathetic but secretly thinking that this re-emphasizes to her the importance and meaning of work, that work could fill the place of people.

For a woman whose contemplations on a friend who's lost her lover is that it's too bad she doesn't have work to sustain her, Anne's pretty good at scooping up the available men in a time when men are thin on the homeground. She starts the book with Rex, an officer stationed at Fort Kilmer (Dix), and ends up with Matthew, a farmer exempt from soldiering. In between, she ferrets away at her job with the avidness of a Lutheran working his way toward heaven.

Anne decides between her men, befriends a blinded veteran, discovers the value of her shabby little library and realizes the true potential of the mousy little librarian who is actually nicknamed Mouse. Despite my mockery, it's a pretty good book. Anne's a strong, intelligent character, the writing evokes a lost rural New Jersey and an America on the verge of becoming a superpower, and the ending satisfies.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

High Note, Low Note
Anne Emery
1954, The Westminster Press

Jean Burnaby enters her senior year of high school and meets the fascinating, troublesome Kim Ballard. Although Jean has other concerns - finding an affordable piano to continue her training on and trying to tell boyfriend Jeff Sutton that she's not in love with him - Jean's recurring problem becomes trying to decide whether Kim's friendship is worth having.

Kim met her eyes and smiled. She was strikingly attractive, with short curly chestnut hair, hazel eyes, a pert nose. She was friendly, chic, self-assured. And a deep, audacious dimple made her smile daring and challenging, as if she were saying "So you think I can't do it?" A tantalizing, daring, gay assurance curved her wide mouth irresistibly and sparkled wickedly in her eyes. Jean had a conviction that knowing Kim would be a dramatic adventure.

Kim, the daughter of a famous foreign correspondent, and Jean, daughter of a college professor, click. But Jean's parents disapprove as it becomes clear that Kim, for all her endearing ways, is a flibbertygibbet. She has no respect or awareness of the rules that govern Jean's existence, and the moment that truly puts their friendship to the crisis is when Kim indifferently quits the orchestra that she's led effortlessly and with great talent. To Jean, finally, the adventure isn't worth the price of chronic lateness, lies, disappointments and carelessness.

In other areas, Jean is the careless one. She is plagued by Jeff's desire for a pair of socks; these odd, homely hand-knitted socks are the Big Thing being given by girls to their guys this season, and Jeff and Jean both instinctively know what her making - or not making - them for him would mean. The difference as Emery draws it is one of knowledge. Jean frets over her reluctance to make the socks because she knows she owes her boyfriend either the token or the breakup. Kim blithely breaks social committments, ignoring even the fact they exist.

Kim's parents are, with the exception of worrying about her infatuation with a young actor, strikingly careless with their flighty daughter. Jean's are old-fashioned to some extent, but Jean's painted as being almost preternaturally patient. The one time she really flares up, she quickly accepts her dad's joking comment on her anger with a philosophic calm that most people don't reach until they're thirty or more.

Oh, well, she thought, it's just as comfortable not to stay mad - especially when you can't win.

Jean's slow disenchantment with Kim is complicated by her feelings of responsibility toward her wayward pal. Her loyalty is her best feature, and it inevitably gets her into trouble - particularly when Kim sees nothing wrong in letting her take the blame for something.

Other Books by Author
Dinny Gordon Series:
Dinny Gordon, Freshman
Dinny Gordon, Sophomore
Dinny Gordon, Junior
Dinny Gordon, Senior
Senior Year
Going Steady
Sorority Girl
High Note Low Note
Campus Melody
County Fair
Hickory Hill
Sweet Sixteen
First Love True Love
First Orchid for Pat
First Love Farewell
The Popular Crowd
The Losing Game
Scarlet Royal
Vagabond Summer
That Archer Girl
Married on Wednesday
A Dream to Touch
Bright Horizons
Mountain Laurel
Jennie Lee, Patriot
American Friend: Herbert Hoover
Mystery of the Opal Ring
Danger in a Smiling Mask
Carey's Fortune
The Sky Is Falling
Free Not to Love
A Spy in Old Philadelphia
A Spy in Old Detroit
A Spy in Old New Orleans
A Spy in Old West Point

About the Author
Some of Emery's books are being reprinted by Image Cascade Publishing