I don’t remember when I first discovered Mrs. Pollifax, the character created by Dorothy Gilman. The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax is the first of thirteen mysteries starring Mrs. Pollifax. In the first book, Mrs. Pollifax, a widow, mother, and grandmother, decides she is tired of garden club, so she offers her services to the CIA. And surprise of surprises, she is hired! Who would suspect a grandmotherly woman to be a CIA operative?
At the Broken Arrow Senior Center, members can find two book shelves full of books and a third with large print editions of books. One day, when I arrived at the Center early for tai chi, I looked over the books and found Mrs. Pollifax Pursued, #11 in the series. I had not read one of the books in some time, so I borrowed Mrs. Pollifax Pursued. The story is fast-moving and offers terrific entertainment.
Mrs. Pollifax has remarried and continues to attend her garden club meetings, but she also continues her work with the CIA. When she discovers a young, frightened teenage girl hiding in a closet, Mrs. Pollifax becomes embroiled in an international incident that involves extreme danger to Kadi, the young girl, to Mrs. Pollifax herself, and Sammat (Sammy), son of an assassinated president from Ubangiba in Africa.
Kadi’s parents had been missionaries in Ubangiba where Kadi met Sammy and they became friends. Sadly, Kadi’s parents have been killed, and she has returned to the US. When she accidently meets Sammy, he is attending college and has a roommate who is also a bodyguard. Unfortunately, the bodyguard is not to be trusted and does not have Sammy’s best interest at heart.
Once Kadi’s friendship with Sammy is known, Kadi becomes a target and that’s why she is hiding in Mrs. Pollifax’s closet – to escape bad people who are pursuing her. Luckily for Kadi, Mrs. Pollifax is just the person who can help.
Kadi and Mrs. Pollifax leave home to hide in a motel only to have the assassins find them. At that point, Mrs. Pollifax knows she must move quickly and call on her CIA friends for help. The quick-thinking Mrs. Pollifax calls a cab and instructs the driver to take her and Kadi to the nearest hospital. She tells the driver her daughter is having an appendicitis attack and must get the hospital quickly.
Once at the hospital, Mrs. Pollifax calls Carstairs, in the CIA, who sends a car and a helicopter to take Mrs. Pollifax and Kadi to a carnival several states away where he sometimes hides people in plain sight.
The cover story is that Mrs. Pollifax is a journalist who will write stories about the people in the carnival. Kadi is her daughter who is along for the trip. The story takes several unexpected turns as both Mrs. Pollifax and Kadi discover more and more about the carnival folks.
Too, Mr. Bidwell, a wealthy businessman, has supposedly been kidnapped and is being held for $50 million ransom. Carstairs is part of the team trying to locate Bidwell and bring him home safely. How does Bidwell connect to the scheme to harm Sammy and Kadi? Carstairs, Mrs. Pollifax. Kadi, and Sammy all return to Ubangiba to resolve all of the issues.
Wake Up, Wanda Wiley by Andrew Diamond is billed as “the most original romantic comedy you’ll read all year.” The story opens with Hannah, whom readers quickly learn is a fictional, a heroine Wanda, the author, often casts aside for other female leads. Hannah is strong-willed and objects to some of the story lines that Wanda cranks out, particularly the overly pornographic type. For some reason, Wanda listens to Hannah and keeps writing her out of stories that Hannah finds objectional, but Wanda does keep Hannah handy, a standby character if you will.
Enter Trevor, the hunk character who inhabits action-packed stories. Unlike Hannah, Trevor is unaware that he is a figment of Wanda’s imagination. Trevor fully believes he is looking for the missing President of the US, an old army buddy who Trevor should be protecting.
The conversation between Trevor and Hannah is laugh-out-loud funny because Hannah, world-weary character, knows all while Trevor quite fully believes Hannah knows something about the President’s abduction. Hannah tries to explain to Trevor that they are characters awaiting a plot line and that Trevor is in the wrong story.
All of this confusion is due to Wanda’s depression and inability to focus on her writing—actually following an outline that one must follow whether writing action or romance.
Then the scene shifts to Wanda herself and her would-be husband and live-in companion of the last seven years. Wanda cranks out romance and action books and makes more money than the sarcastic, pedantic English professor Dirk. The readers see very clearly that Dirk is not the man for Wanda, but now Wanda has invested so much time in him that it will take a real wake-up call for her to recognize that it is time to move on.
Wanda learns Austin, a colleague of Dirk’s, has lost his job at the university, but he has taken a job in CA with a startup company. He visits Wanda and tries to tell Wanda how much he admires her. Wanda is still not sure about leaving Dirk, so, in her head, she rejects Austin’s compliments, thinking them lame.
Having the fictional characters Hannah and Trevor intervene in the real story outside the writer’s mind leads to an effective conclusion.
As a book club leader, I often look for books about book clubs—seeking advice, book suggestions, and other tidbits. I discovered Good Books Lately: The One-Stop Resource for Book Groups and Other Greedy Readers by Ellen Moore and Kira Stevens.
From the back of the book, readers have a good idea of what to expect from the book:
How to start a group — and keep it going
How to tell a book by its cover (really?)
How to generate a lively discussion
Behind-the-scenes anecdotes, dirt, and favorite book lists
Book group troubleshooting, no matter what sort of group you belong to
And much more
Both Moore and Stevens are English professors at the University of Denver.
The table of contents provides additional insight from the book. “Read Yourself Wise,” “The Greedy Reader menu,” and “Talk Up a Storm: The Thrill of Electric, Eclectic Book Group Discussion.” The latter particularly caught my attention.
“Talk Up a Storm: The Thrill of Electric, Eclectic Book Group Discussion” is chapter 4 which begins with the following quotation by Katherine Mansfield: “The pleasure of reading is doubled when one lives with another who shares the same books.” For those in book clubs, one could extrapolate that sharing a good book with members of a book club also double the pleasure of reading the book.
Following a heart-warming story about a specific book club in which an adult learns to read, Moore and Stevens continue with what creates a good book club discussion: “a little prep time ahead.” They explain that a book club leader is important and go on to explain various roles for the leader. In the end, Moore and Stevens say the group should decide ahead of time who will be in charge.
Chapter 6, “A Shot in the Arm: Energizing Your Book Group with Lively, Crafty, Creative Ideas” may be my favorite chapter. While my book club is not in a rut, I would be remiss if I didn’t check out ways to keep the group energized. Some of the suggestions include inviting the author to the group in person or by Skype, sharing good food along for the discussion, and bringing props appropriate to the discussion. One group read Corelli’s Mandolin, so a member brought a mandolin to place on the table as inspiration for the discussion. One of the last suggestions is to get involved with community. Our book club Circle of Readers is doing just that by collecting children’s books this year to donate to underprivileged children.
Moore and Stevens sprinkle provocative questions throughout the book. In the chapter titled “The Greedy Reader Menu,” questions on books by women and about female characters provide a starting point for discussions. See a few of those questions below:
“Would you agree that this book is in some way specific geared toward female readers or addresses issues and concerns that are specific to the world of women? Why or why not?”
“Consider the major female and male characters of this story. How does this story represent the experience, desires, and fears of women as opposed to men?”
I would say adapt the question to the book under discussion by substituting the title of the book for “the book” or “this story.”
Overall, Moore and Stevens have put together a useful handbook for book club leaders.
Belonging to a book club offers many advantages to readers. One of those perks is that we often read books we would otherwise not have chosen, thus stretching our reading repertoire. In addition, meeting with other readers reinforces our own thoughts about a book or challenges us to think a bit differently about a book even if we disagree. Hearing another reader’s point of view on a particular story, character, or setting enriches our own thoughts.
Two years ago, I joined a book club at my local branch library. The leader of the book club is the library manager. Belonging to Beyond the Book is a real pleasure because the leader chooses the books and leads the discussions. I choose books for another long-running book club to which I belong, so I know the difficulties and joys of choosing books for others to read.
Our February selection is White Houses by Amy Bloom, http://www.amybloom.com/. Bloom, in addition to her writing, is Wesleyan University’s Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing. She has published two novels, three short story collections, essays, and a children’s book.
White Houses is a fictional account of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, affectionally known as Hick. The story follows Eleanor and Hick after their first meeting, trips together, and Hick’s living in the White House for a time.
Lorena Hickok was a journalist of some note. She had raised herself up from poverty and abuse to become a respected writer, beginning her career with the Milwaukee Sentinel as society editor. She accepted that position because at the time that was the accepted place for female writers. Disliking the society writing, Hick persuaded her editor to give her the opportunity to write other pieces. She distinguished herself as an excellent interviewer.
When she is reporting on FDR’s presidential campaign, Hick meets Eleanor. At first, Hick is put off by Eleanor’s patrician demeanor. That first assessment quickly changes as they find a personal connection and an intimacy. Eleanor writes to Hick: “No one is just what you are to me.”
In addition to their intimate, personal connection, Hick becomes an advisor to Eleanor. Eleanor’s first thought is to recede into the background. On Hick’s advice, however, Eleanor begins holding weekly new conferences for women only. Eleanor’s later popular column “My Day” resulted from Hick’s influence as well. The column ran from December 30, 1935, until September 26, 1962. The columns are collected at this link: https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/browsebyyear.cfm.
Not only does Bloom write of the moments between Eleanor and Hick, but she also includes Hick’s background. Hick grew up dirt-poor in South Dakota. Her mother died when Hick was a teenager, leaving her and her sisters with an abusive father. At fourteen, Hick is much on her own. She becomes a house-cleaner and babysitter for a family with two small children. She eventually runs away and severs ties with her father. In later years, she does reunite with her sisters, briefly and without much warmth.
Bloom takes the readers on trips with Eleanor and Hick as Eleanor looks into the poverty around the US and works toward the betterment of all, particularly women and children.
Bloom’s fictional account of the relationship between Eleanor and Hick is moving and gives readers an account of Hick, a remarkable woman in her own right.
As a book club enthusiast—some would say addict, I am often reading about new and old books and following Web sites about books. I stumbled upon Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp’s site: http://www.bookclubcookbook.com. While the name is Book Club Cook Book, the site offers much more than recipes to pair with books at book clubs.
Gelman and Krupp provide recipes to go with books. In addition, the site includes book title suggestions from other book clubs, an opportunity to sign up to receive advance copies of books for one’s book club, and links to a number of book resources. Those links include Random House Reader’s Circle, Reading Group Choices, and Real Book Club Queen. Although I believe I am THE Real Book Club Queen, I couldn’t resist checking out that last one. Okay, so the Real Book Club Queen title was taken, but I am THE Book Whisperer; there is no doubt about that.
Below, you will find a few of the books and recipes paired in The Book Club Cook Book: Recipes and Food for thought from Your Book Club’s Favorite Books and Authors. I was pleased to see a number of books my book club has read.
Kathryn Stockett, The Help (Demetrie’s Chocolate Pie and Caramel Cake)
Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants (Oyster Brie Soup)
Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper (Brian Fitzgerald’s Firehouse Marinara Sauce)
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone (Almaz’s Ethiopian Doro Wot and Sister Mary Joseph Praise’s Cari De Dal)
Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Annie Barrows’s Potato Peel Pie and Non-Occupied Potato Peel Pie)
Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (Lisa See’s Deep-Fried Sugared Taro)
The format for The Book Club Cook Book is simple. For example, one of my favorite book club titles is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Let’s examine The Book Club Cook Book’s approach to Simonson’s novel and recipe pairing. First, Gelman and Krupp give a brief description of the plot and identify some main characters. Second, a recipe to accompany the book discussion follows the synopsis: Helen Simonson’s Toad-in-the Hole. Simonson begins the recipe tongue-in-cheek: “Take three or four well-sized toads, preferably warty…no really, toad-in-the-hole is just sausages in Yorkshire pudding batter.” Third, the real recipe follows and toads are truly sausages for the purposes of this recipe. I also like the end of the recipe with the number of servings: “Serves 4 – or one teenager left to own devices.” That comment made me remember Justin Wilson, Cajun cook, who would a say a recipe would feed six or one hungry Cajun. Finally, after the recipe, we see “Novel Thoughts” which gives book club members’ thoughts on the book and other food-pairing ideas.
I enjoyed reading what other book clubs thought of books my club had also read. And Gelman and Krupp’s humor throughout the book is charming and sometimes unexpected as in the Toad-in-the-Hole recipe.
At the end of The Book Club Cook Book, readers will find “Recipe for a Book Club.” Gelman and Krupp provide suggestions on establishing a book club, selecting books, preparing for discussion, and spicing up the meetings. They end that chapter with the link to their Web site: http://www.bookclubcookbook.com. There, readers can find an additional wealth of material.
One more chapter at the end is called “Creating Novel Noshes: Tips for Book Clubs On Pairing Food and Literature.” In it, Gelman and Krupp give book club leaders ideas about finding their own recipes to pair with a given book, one not mentioned in The Book Club Cook Book.
Judy Gelman and Vicky Levy Krupp love cooking and reading. In addition, they are good friends. The Book Club Cook Book is in its second edition. Now, I will have to check out The Kids’ Book Club Book by Gelman and Krupp because I am also interested in their approach to kids’ book clubs. They maintain a Web site for the kids’ books too: http://www.kidsbookclubbook.com.
In Korea, one’s surname appears first followed by one’s first name. Thus, in America, we would reverse the order and use the first name first. Na (pronounced Nah) is An’s (pronounced Ahn or On) first name.
The description master storyteller is often attached to An Na’s name. She has published four books: A Step From Heaven, The Place Between Breaths, Wait for Me, and The Fold. A Step From Heaven, her debut novel, received a number of awards including the following: Michael L. Printz Award, International Reading Association Award, National Book Award Finalist, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, and New York Times Book Review Notable. Discover more about An Na at this link: https://www.anwriting.com/.
Young Ju moves from South Korea to the US when she is four. With her child’s understanding, she thinks the family is moving to heaven. At first, Apa, Uhmma, and Young Ju stay with her aunt Gomo and her American husband.
Young Ju believes since the family has arrived in heaven that she will she her grandfather, Harabugi whom she has been told is with God. When Young Ju asks about Harabugi, the adults learn that she thinks she has arrived in heaven. Her uncle says, “Mi Gook [America] is almost as good as heaven. Let us say it is a step from heaven.”
Not long after the family arrives in the US, Uhmma gives birth to a son, Jong. Apa is proud to have a son and Young Ju quickly feels the sting of being only a girl.
The family’s dreams of living a good life do not come to fruition in the way that they hope. Apa must take a job cleaning office at night and gardening jobs during the day. He becomes angry and drinks more and more. When he is drinking, he also becomes violent.
When Jong is old enough, Uhmma also takes on two jobs to help the family. For years, the four live on the bottom floor of a rented house with the owner upstairs. They continue to hope for a home of their own.
Apa becomes more and more difficult to live with; his drinking continues and he misses work so that he loses all of this gardening jobs except one. Jong begins acting out by skipping school. On the other hand, Young Ju studies hard and strives to make good grades. Her best friend in school is an American girl, Amanda.
Soon, Apa decides Amanda is a bad influence on Young Ju and forbids Young Ju to see Amanda. At first, Young Ju obeys, but then she begins to go to Amanda’s home again, always asking Amanda’s parents to leave her at the library and then she walks home.
When Apa discovers that Young Ju “is becoming too American,” he beats Young Ju until Uhmma intervenes and Apa beats her as well. In desperation, Young Ju calls 911 and tells the operator, “My dad is killing my mom. Send help. Please hurry.”
Apa is arrested and kept overnight in jail. When Uhmma and Young Ju go to the jail to pick him, up, they see him get into a car with another woman. He returns to Korea. Gomo, Young Ju’s aunt, says she will loan Uhmma, Young Ju, and Jong the money to return also, but they refuse and stay, still seeking the American dream.
Because I expect to choose two very serious books for a book club this fall, I felt I needed a third that would be pure fun. That’s when I encountered Dachshund Through the Snow, an Andy Carpenter mystery, by David Rosenfelt. Dachshund Through the Snow is the twentieth mystery featuring wiseacre lawyer Andy Carpenter. In fact, Muzzled and Silent Bite, numbers twenty-one and twenty-two, are to be published in 2020.
Since I started with the most recent Andy Carpenter book, I feel compelled to go back to the beginning and read a few of the books that Rosenfelt published first because Dachshund Through the Snow is a romp of a book.
Andy Carpenter considers himself semi-retired from being a lawyer. He is married to the lovely Laurie who loves Christmas and thinks the celebration of Christmas should extend from Thanksgiving well into the new year. They have a young son, Ricky. Laurie used to be a police officer; now, she often works as a PI, especially helping Andy if he needs information for a trial.
Laurie loves helping people and takes information about children’s wishes at Christmas and fills them. When she takes young Danny’s wish for “a coat for his mother, a sweater for his dachshund, Murphy, and the safe return of his missing father,” Laurie involves Andy in a trial.
When Laurie meets Danny’s mother Julie, Laurie learns that Noah, Danny’s father, is not missing, but arrested and accused of murder, a murder he did not commit.
Other complications occur which will then figure in the story and help save Andy from being murdered himself. Laurie introduces Andy to police officer Corey who is retiring from the Paterson Police Department and wants to take Simon, his K-9 partner into retirement with him. Simon suffers from arthritis, but the department intends to keep him working beyond Corey’s retirement unless Andy can help prove that Simon needs to be retired as well for his own well-being.
Rosenfelt writes witty dialog without it becoming cliched. The story moves quickly and with few complications. Noah Traynor has been accused of a murder that occurred fourteen years earlier. It has remained unsolved until Noah is arrested because his DNA is under the victim’s fingernails.
Kristen McNeil, only eighteen at the time of the murder, had gone out with Noah who was getting ready to leave town for college. He maintains that Kristen became angry when he refused to take her with him to his university. In her anger, she scratched his face, thus getting his DNA under her fingernails.
At the time of her death, Kristen had just quit her dream job of working for a local tech firm that makes routers and other items for computers. She told no one why she quit the job she loved. Obviously, she has discovered something and feels in danger so she asks Noah to take her away. He refuses, they argue, she scratches him, and he leaves with Kristen very much alive.
The fight to help Corey retire Simon, his K-9 partner, becomes intertwined with Noah’s trial for murder. Corey becomes part of Andy and Laurie’s team along with several other recurring characters who are bodyguards and investigators for Andy.
Susan Meissner, according to Publisher’s Weekly, writes “exquisite prose, and she is a stunning storyteller.” I would agree although I have read only two of her fourteen published novels: A Fall of Marigolds and The Last Year of the War. The two books differ markedly, the true essence of a good storyteller.
The Last Year of the War gives readers a back story taking place in WWII in both the US and then Germany as well as modern-day US. Elise Sontag is a fourteen-year-old girl living a good life in Davenport, Iowa, when FBI agents come to her home, searching it from top to bottom and arresting her father as a German sympathizer.
Elise’s parents had immigrated from Germany twenty years earlier; they quickly became immersed in ordinary life with jobs, the birth of their two children Elise and Max, so they thought little about becoming naturalized citizens. Elise’s father, a chemist, then becomes a suspected German sympathizer through a series of unfortunate pieces of information. Perhaps, too, the fact that he is a chemist puts him on the FBI’s radar in the first place. An off-hand answer to a neighbor child about whether Mr. Sontag knew how to build a bomb then becomes the catalyst for the search and arrest.
After some time apart from his family, Mr. Sontag does manage to reunite the family, but in difficult circumstances. His wife and children meet him in Crystal City, TX, where an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans has been set up with barbed wire surrounding the camp.
Elise makes friends with Mariko Inoue, a teenager from CA; Mariko and her family have also been deemed a danger to the US and thus have been sent to the camp. The two girls become fast friends and vow to go to NYC together after the war so they can live the life of their dreams.
Sadly, Elise and her family are sent back to Germany in the last year of the war while Mariko and her family have to go to Japan. Elise considers herself thoroughly American and does not even speak German. After all, she was born in the US and is a US citizen. The deprivation caused by the war in Germany is great. And the family continues to face danger there.
Elise and Mariko who have promised to continue writing to one another soon lose touch, much to Elise’s dismay.
In the present-day story, Elise is elderly and is suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. She calls her disease Agnes after a girl in her Iowa school who would steal from the other girls. Agnes is stealing Elise’s memories and thoughts. To combat Agnes, Elise writes notes to herself on her wrist.
When Elise’s housekeeper helps her use Google to locate Mariko who has returned to the US and is living in San Francisco, Elise determines she will see Mariko.
The story moves back and forth in time giving the readers the full story of Elise and her family in WWII and following when Elise meets a young American GI who offers her marriage as a way back to the US, Elise’s subsequent life, and her continuing desire to find Mariko again.
The story connecting the two teenage girls, each caught up in a war which has nothing to do with either of them, takes readers on an emotional journey. The horrors of war experienced by both families while they are still in the US and when they have to go back to countries where they have no allegiance are clear and disturbing.
What happens when Elise manages despite Agnes to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco to see Mariko? What kind of reunion will the two elderly women have? Read The Last Year of the War; you will be glad you did.
Susan Meissner is a terrific storyteller. Her Web site offers a great deal for readers: https://susanlmeissner.com/. One of my favorite parts of her site is that she offers to Skype with book clubs. Her books usually contain a readers’ guide at the end, but she reminds readers that if the book is an older one that does not have the guide, she will supply one. Several of her titles have complete book kits on the site.
Chris Pavone’s The Paris Diversion arrived from http://www.BookBrowse.com. I was not familiar with Pavone; he has published three previous spy thrillers. Since I like to know something about the author’s background, I looked for his Web site, https://www.chrispavone.com/, to discover a bit about Pavone.
After reading the book, I did further research which brought additional information. Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times, said Pavone “had previously worked in cookbook publishing.” That forms an interesting leap from cookbooks to espionage thrillers. Maslin calls The Expats, Pavone’s first thriller, “sexy” and “rare.” Then she continues by saying that The Paris Diversion, the latest book and the one I received, will become part of a series. Further, Maslin tells readers that if they start with The Paris Diversion, they will “spend a lot of time wondering who the Moores are, what happened to them in Luxembourg (not to mention what happened during Kate’s long career in espionage before she married Dexter) and what residue of problems and enemies are brought to this touristy new book.”
Luckily, I did not read Maslin’s review until after I had completed The Paris Diversion. I can see why Maslin makes those remarks because I kept wondering how Kate and Dexter’s backstory—still unknown to me—fit into the current story.
Pavone writes with surety and creates a breathless narrative. With Paris as the setting, the well-known landmarks also become part of the story, especially if one is in danger of being blown up by a terrorist.
Keeping up with the wide cast of characters becomes a task for the reader. How will the stories connect? Kate and Dexter, a married couple, have more secrets from each other than any two strangers might. Their two young sons appear to be the only remaining link between them. Dexter asks Kate about her job and she continues to be evasive, telling him nothing. On the other hand, Dexter is withholding information from Kate as well.
In the midst of a potential terrorist attack at the Louvre, Kate and Dexter continue to plan a birthday party for one of their sons with the planning taking place via text messages. As Kate remembers other tasks for Dexter for the upcoming party, she is dashing around Paris trying to find out about the bomb, the organization behind it, and more.
Pavone’s writing is fast-paced, to say the least. Following Kate around as she backtracks and crisscrosses Paris to avoid being followed is dizzying. Kate has contingency plans for all sorts of encounters. She has a ready false name to give in any situation.
The disparate stories in The Paris Diversion became a bit disconcerting to me as I tried to determine how they would come together. Once, I relaxed, sat back, and simply read to the end, I felt better about the story. Instead of trying to figure out the connections, I read on and waited for the stories to come together.
Recently, I’ve immersed myself in reading books for grades 3 – 7. These books do not shy away from difficult topics. Children certainly face trauma and complications in their lives. Today’s book is Counting By 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Counting By 7s presents a complicated story about family, loss, and rebuilding a life.
Willow Chance, now 12, was adopted by loving parents when she was an infant. They had longed for a child of their own and they showered the love they had upon Willow. Willow is biracial, brilliant, a little odd, and lonely. Sure, she knows her parent love her and she returns their love; still, she longs for a friend.
In school, Willow does not fit in with the other children. Her choice of clothing is odd and her knowledge is so far above the other children that they cannot relate to her. The book opens with Willow’s class taking a standardized test.
Willow is delighted to take the test and finishes it in record time. She scores 100%, so the teacher immediately sends her to Principal Rudin and ultimately to a counselor, Dell Duke, because the teacher and the principal are convinced that Willow cheated on the test. The teacher never explains how Willow must have cheated since Willow has no prior knowledge that she will take the test that day and certainly doesn’t have any cheat-sheets with her. How could she? Still, off Willow goes to see the barely competent counselor Duke.
Duke gives Willow several other standardized tests and she makes 100% on al of them. Clearly, he can see that she is not cheating and realizes Willow is a genius. However, he keeps this information to himself and continues to see Willow in his office as if she were a cheater.
Because of her visits to Duke, Willow meets Thi Mai Nguyen and her brother Quang-ha, both high school students, but they must also see counselor Duke. Mai is a good student; her brother is a troublemaker. Mai is Quang-ha’s keeper, so she attends the counseling sessions with him.
While being sent to be counseled by Dell Duke starts out because a teacher thinks Willow is cheating, her meetings with him allow Willow and Mai to become friends— of a sort—even though Mai is two years older than Willow.
Willow, Mai, and Quang-ha are all with Dell Duke eating ice cream after school when the worst thing possible happens to change Willow’s life completely and utterly. After the ice cream, Duke takes Willow home first. When Duke arrives at Willow’s home, they discover police cars in the driveway.
Willow learns her parents have died in a car accident earlier in the day. She is now orphaned for the second time in her life. Completely bereft, Willow becomes mute and unable to process what has happened. The loving people who supported, comforted, and cared for her are gone in one instant.
Now what? Her parents have no close relatives and no close friends. Willow will most likely go into foster care and adoption for older children is rare. Later, Willow learns from another foster child that “children with permanent teeth” are not likely to be adopted.
So Willow’s care must be decided; in the short term, though, Mai tells Duke that her mother is a friend of Willow’s parents and that her mother, a nail tech, will take care of Willow temporarily.
Willow goes along with the story by simply saying nothing. Her whole world has been destroyed because of a terrible accident. Mai’s mom is Dung, but she has changed it to Pattie. Pattie, Mai, and Quang-ha do not have a proper home. They live in a garage behind the nail salon and use the bathroom at the salon in order to clean up. They sleep on the floor in the same crowded room in the garage. This living arrangement complicates matters when Pattie applies for temporary care of Willow.
Pattie, being inventive, uses Duke’s apartment address as her own. The story becomes more interesting when the caseworker notifies Pattie about a home visit. Pattie takes charge and Duke follows orders. Pattie and the children clean up Duke’s apartment, buy some used furniture, and set up a home. Pattie finds another apartment dweller in the complex who seeks a roommate. She pays Duke’s rent to stay in the other apartment while Duke pays his apartment rent. He does get to eat meals with Pattie and the children, though, and Pattie and Willow take care of Duke’s mountain of laundry.
Counting By 7s does have funny moments as Pattie orders Duke around and he obediently follows. To get the full flavor of the story, though, readers must read for themselves. As Willow grieves, she begins to rebuild her life with Mai, Quang-ha, Pattie, and Duke. Willow makes an unlikely friend in Jairo Hernandaz, a taxi driver, when Willow advises him to see a doctor about the mole on the back of his neck. Her parting advice to him on their first meeting as she looks him straight in the eye is “never let someone tell you that you can’t do it.”
Jairo takes Willow’s advice considering her to be his angel, and he decides to enroll in college and become a medical technician. That first meeting with Willow when she needs a taxi will not be the last with Jairo.
When I read stories about people who forge their own families, particularly after a tragedy, I am always reminded of a short story by Dylan Thomas: “After the Fair,” published in 1934. In that story, a young woman has a baby out of wedlock and is cast aside by her family. She decides to leave the baby on a hay bale in a tent at a county fair after it has closed for the evening. She knocks on the window of the Fat Man’s trailer, thinking she will get his attention so he will find the baby as she disappears. However, the Fat Man comes out and sees her; they rescue the baby and they have toast together. The story ends with the girl finding a family that accepts her and the baby.
Read Counting By 7s to discover who becomes Willow’s new family and how they accomplish the feat. In a starred review on Booklist, I discovered a meaningful description of Counting By 7s: “A graceful, meaningful tale featuring a cast of charming, well-rounded characters who learn sweet—but never cloying—lessons about resourcefulness, community, and true resilience in the face of loss.
Holly Goldberg Sloan, http://www.hollygoldbergsloan.com, has led a varied life, born in Michigan, but growing up she lived in Istanbul, Turkey, Holland, Washington DC, and Berkeley, CA. She has written feature films like Angels in the Outfield and Made in America. In addition to Counting By 7s, Sloan has written Just Call My Name, To Night Owl from Dogfish, and Short.