Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

British paperback, Bloomsbury
Code Name Verity fans will be overjoyed to learn that Elizabeth Wein has written a brilliant prequel to her bestseller spy thriller. The Pearl Thief is set in 1938 Scotland, where 15-year-old Julie is spending one final summer on her deceased grandfather's estate. This parlor mystery is far more innocent and sweet than Wein's World War II novels. The Pearl Thief reads like an Agatha Christie mystery for young teens, but the gorgeous writing, Shakespearean themes, and historical details would appeal to adult readers too.

Due to the 1930's British setting, The Pearl Thief reminded me of a favorite classic, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Once again we have a formerly wealthy family living on an estate with a crumbling castle, which mirrors their reversal of fortune. There's a clash between teen-idealized romance and the carnal desires of adults. The lyrical writing style and bucolic setting are similar, but it's the eloquent girl protagonist, who yearns for a grander life, that makes these books unforgettable.

The Pearl Thief's central plot is a missing man mystery. Police dredge the river for a body when a museum scholar, hired to catalogue the grandfather's treasures for auction, vanishes while digging for pearls. Julie was the last to see the scholar alive, but she was hit on the head and can't remember what happened. Having devoured many mysteries as a teen, I guessed the main culprit in the early chapters. That didn't spoil the story because most of the suspense comes from worrying if Julie will string the clues together in time and act sensibly.

American hardcover, Disney Hyperion
Julie has trouble controlling her impulses, leading to risky behavior. She's a beautiful girl full of dualities: revelling in silk ballgowns and rare river pearls but also envious of her brothers' freedom. Once her hair is cut short, Julie tries on gender identities playfully like Shakespearean costumes. The bisexual undertones in Code Name Verity are further explored in this progressive prequel while still adhering to the conservative morality of the time period and of her aristocratic class. The most controversial part of The Pearl Thief is Julie's crush on a middle aged man, who encourages her flirtations.

Rebellious Julie bulks against societal norms to befriend a deaf librarian with facial deformities and a family of Travellers. She has to overcome her own prejudices to earn their trust. Wein makes all her characters realistically flawed: the Travellers and the deaf woman are also prejudiced against each other. No one is perfect, but characters can learn from their mistakes and change.

American paperback
Over the course of The Pearl Thief, Julie grows into the young woman who will become the spy Verity. This delightful prequel feels like it was written first, and the books could be read in either order. I appreciate Code Name Verity all the more for understanding the backstory, and I hope Elizabeth Wein writes another Julie novel. Julie/Verity is one of my favorite YA heroines. Code Name Verity (2012) is available now in paperback. The Pearl Thief will be released on May 2nd in the USA & Canada and on May 4th in the UK.

My reviews of other historical YA novels by Elizabeth Wein:
Code Name Verity
Rose Under Fire
Black Dove, White Raven

Reviewer's  Disclosure: Since I've reviewed other novels by Elizabeth Wein, Disney Hyperion USA offered me the ARC of The Pearl Thief. The digital galley had formatting errors, making it unreadable, so I requested a print galley from Bloomsbury UK (I'm on sabbatical in England.) Borrowing a clue from the mystery, the Bloomsbury galley came with (fake) pearls in the envelope! Elizabeth Wein is a blog buddy and my favorite historical YA author. One of her editors, Kate Egan, is a friend of mine too.

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, March 25, 2017

High Table at Magdalen College, Oxford University


Magdalen is my favorite college at Oxford University. The name is pronounced "Maudlin," and the grounds are open to visitors for a fee. It's especially beautiful now with all the daffodils.

My husband attended the neighboring Oriel College, but his great-great uncles were Magdalen alums whose names (the Cattleys) were carved into a wall memorializing graduates who lost their lives to war. The plaque is outside the chapel, which hosts a lovely candlelit evensong.

Magdalen College Chapel, Oxford University


Magdalen is known for its gargoyles.

Another personal connection is our old friend Stewart Wood from our Harvard years, who is now a Magdalen fellow and a politician. Stewart's service to the Labour Party earned him an honorary title and a seat in the House of Lords. The day after the horrific terrorist attack on Parliament, Steward traveled up from London to teach politics and to host us for high table. He spoke of the courage of the security team, who ran towards danger, and the camaraderie among friends, rivals, and strangers during the lockdown. We always enjoy comparing notes on American and British politics.


In front of Stewart's campus office building grows a mighty oak that hatched from an acorn in 1660!


Magdalen's extensive grounds include a deer park and a canal. It's hard to believe you are still in the city of Oxford. The campus was extra peaceful since the students are on spring break.


Had it been term time, students would have been dining at the lower tables. Only the senior common room and their guests dine by candlelight at high table, a step above the rest.

A different wine accompanied every delicious course, and I drank sparkling water from a tin cup forged in 1888!

By happy coincidence another guest, Matthew Skelton, wrote kid lit too. I felt like a character in a novel myself.



After a three-course dinner we walked through the cloisters... 


...to the senior common room for a second dessert of fruits and chocolates.


Our chairs were arranged in a semi-circle before the fire. By tradition, port and madeira are always passed to the left. In front of the fire was a contraption for ferrying the decanter to the other side of the hearth, manned by an Islamic Center fellow and by Stewart on the receiving end. Okay, this must be a steampunk novel!


Several famous children's authors hail from Oxford. Magdalen has a book of wagers including one by C.S. Lewis, who taught English and always won his bets, that time a bottle of port. You can tell who dined at Magdalen high table since guests are weighed on a jockey scale and their weights recorded.

At our last Magdalen high table, we walked across the cloister roof from the smoking room to the dining hall. The smoking room is currently closed for renovations, which were delayed after a medieval skeleton was found under the stairway. Archeologists believe the remains to be from the Jewish cemetery that predated the college. Oxford can be stranger than fiction.


On that chilling note, we bid goodnight to Magdalen College. I may revisit in a novel set there.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Literary Highlights of Christ Church College, Oxford University


Christ Church College at Oxford, founded in 1546, has a rich literary history. The majestic front quad and fountain recall scenes from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. The movie adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass was filmed on this campus too.


Christ Church was also the model for Hogwarts' dining hall in Harry Potter, making this Oxford college the most popular tourist destination. Visits are limited to afternoons and there is an admission charge.


According to Oxford legend, the fireplace andirons inspired the trippy neck extending scene in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll was a lecturer of mathematics at Christ Church, which was his alma mater too.


The entrance to the dining hall (above) is nearly as grand as the adjacent cathedral. Christ Church is the only Oxford college with a cathedral, instead of a smaller chapel, and visitors can attend Evensong without paying admission. The colleges of Oxford University were originally founded as religious institutions.


On a rare clear day, the limestone glows as gold as the setting sun. Although Christ Church is one of the wealthiest colleges, it ran out of funding to complete the cloisters so the front quad is open to the rain. The arches on the walls show where the covered cloister would have been attached had their patron Cardinal Wolsey not lost favor with King Henry VIII.


Despite its posh history, the rainbow flag in back quad shows that the student body is open-minded now.


The back entrance leads to...


Merton Street, which has hardly changed since medieval times. You can see how living in Oxford inspired me to write a novel about an American at a British school. This is my magical home away from home.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Winter Walk in Maine vs. England


Between sabbaticals to Japan and England, my husband and I returned home for the holidays to see our family. We have a tradition of welcoming the New Year at Popham Beach. This three mile state park is a half an hour drive from our house in midcoast Maine.


The easiest place for a winter walk in Maine is a beach since the tide washes away the ice and snow.


Our family motto is: There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. L.L. Bean started in Maine for a good reason. My blue Bean coat is perfect for subfreezing, windy days and has lasted since college. The company is a big local employer, especially of African immigrants.


It was hard to say who was happier to be back at Popham: our daughter or our dog.


Dogs are only allowed at Popham State Park offseason. We had to leash Scout to keep her out of the frigid sea. For most of our walk, we had the beach to ourselves.


As a photographer, I'm drawn to the winter light and empty landscapes.


The days are short this far up north, but the colors are intense.


Sunset is my favorite time at the shore, despite the chill.


Even the dune grass seemed to shiver in the wind.


Only in winter do you see such dramatic sunsets.


We stayed until the sun had burnt down to embers.


A week after the Popham walk, Henry and I flew to England, where the temperature rarely drops below freezing. University Parks is a fifteen minute walk from our sabbatical home in Oxford.


The crocuses and snowdrops were at peak bloom on February 20th, two months earlier than Maine.


As much as I'm enjoying an early spring, I miss skiing out our back door and the winter light. Most days in England are overcast and often wet. Still, it's good writing weather so I'm making good progress on my novels. I brought waterproof layers and boots. A winter walk is always welcome.

Blogwatch: this post is part of Les @A Tidewater Gardener's annual Winter Walk Off.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt

Jonas & Nicole Maines graduating from Waynflete School


Becoming Nicole is the true story of my daughter's friend Nikki told by a Pulitzer winning journalist. This moving biography of a transgender girl is as much about her dad's psychological evolution toward acceptance as her physical transformation into a woman. A science journalist for The Washington Post, Amy Ellis Nutt does an excellent job of explaining what it means to be transgender biologically and legally, but the personal story of this working class family brings the message home.

Nikki and her identical twin brother, Jonas, grew up in the university town of Orono in Maine. From age two Nikki identified as a girl, preferring traditionally female clothing and toys. Her mother and brother supported her choice, but her conservative Republican father was initially uncomfortable. He feared for the safety of his child and how others would judge them, causing tension at home.

Although Nikki's friends accepted her, a classmate and his grandfather objected to Nikki using the girl's bathroom in their elementary school. Nikki and her family sued the school district, but the legal case took years to resolve. Suffering from bullying and stress, Nikki relocated with her mother and brother to Portland, the biggest city in Maine, but her father had to stay back in Orono (140 miles north) due to work.

Phuc Tran's senior advising group at Waynflete School: Gemma is second from left & Nikki is far right

Unhappy at her new public school, Nikki and her brother transferred to Waynflete, a progressive private school in Portland, Maine. All the bathrooms were switched to gender neutral before Nikki and a transgender boy started freshman year with my daughter; Gemma was in the same advising group with Nikki too. The community welcomed everyone. When Nikki won her court case to use the bathroom of her gender identity, she announced the victory at assembly and the whole school cheered for her. Nikki is now an activist for transgender rights and at college in Maine.

Freshman year pre-prom party at our house. Nikki is second and Gemma is third from the left.

Twins Jonas and Nicole Maines
I met Nikki and Jonas at prom time freshman year. Waynflete is so small that prom includes the entire high school, but like most schools, there are exclusive pre-prom parties. My daughter was upset when not all of her friends were invited to a fancy pre-prom party at a seaside mansion. At my suggestion, Gemma declined the invitation and hosted her own party at our house. Nikki came early with the girls to dress for prom and the boys came later for dinner. Everyone had lots of fun. I also enjoyed meeting Nikki's parents and hearing about their family's hard past and relief to be at Waynflete. Even so, Becoming Nicole taught me stuff I didn't know. I'm grateful for this book and for having Nikki and Jonas in my family's life.

I strongly recommend Becoming Nicole (2015) to everyone. Although the book was written for adults, the focus is on Nikki's childhood so it's a good read for tweens and teens too. Nutt does a fine job of making science, law, and politics easy to understand and fascinating. The writing was excellent and the content is appropriate for classroom use. This gorgeous book will make you cry - especially given Trump's reversal on transgender rights - but it will also leave you with hope.

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@Barrie Summy