70s Spotlight: I Know What You Did Last Summer

I Know What You Did Last Summer
Lois Duncan
First published 1973

My history with this book
I read I Know What You Did Last Summer when I was around 12, but it didn’t leave as big an impression on me as Summer of Fear or Stranger with My Face.

My thoughts
I Know What You Did Last Summer is probably the best known of Lois Duncan’s books because of the hit 90s movie that was loosely based on it. The movie is teen horror, but the book is more of a psychological thriller. (The movie stars 90s teen superstars Jennifer Love Hewitt, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Philippe, and Freddie Prize Jr.)

Last summer, four teenage friends–Julie, Ray, Helen, and Barry–did a very bad thing, and they made a pact to keep it a secret. It’s almost a year later, and guilt has turned Julie, once a sparkling cheerleader, into a serious young woman. She and Ray broke up after the incident, and he left town, but now he’s back and stirring up unresolved feelings in Julie. Julie and Ray aren’t close anymore to Barry and Helen, who don’t seem to be weighed down at all by guilt.  Barry is a douchey frat boy (played in the movie by–no surprise–Ryan Philippe), who’s still dating Helen, his high school girlfriend, but is also cheating on her left and right. Helen worships Barry and is a complete doormat.

IMG_3723When Julie receives an anonymous letter that says “I know what you did last summer,” the former friends have to start dealing with each other as they try to figure out who could be threatening them.

This book was better than I remembered it being. I didn’t really remember many details about, except for the very bad thing the teens did and that someone was after them. The story was fairly suspenseful, and Duncan is good at creating a menacing sense of dread as the teens realize that someone knows what they did and wants revenge.

For me, the best part of the book is how 70s it is. Everything feels groovy. The Vietnam war is still going on, and we meet veterans who’ve recently returned. Helen, who has no apparent job qualifications other than being pretty, is the weather girl for the local news, a job she gained through winning a contest. She’s a major local celebrity, and she has an apartment in a swinging singles complex, where everyone gathers at the pool each night. It’s very “Three’s Company.”

Does it hold up?
Much better than I expected.

Would I want my kid to read it?
I’d have no objections to him reading it.

Is there any objectionable content?
There are some dated attitudes that feel very 70s, and Barry is a total sexist pig, but he’ s presented negatively.

Can you read it aloud?

It’s still in print. My copy is from the 90s and the movie tie-in cover.








80s Flashback: Princess Amy (Sweet Dreams #4)

Princess Amy (Sweet Dreams #4)
Melinda Pollowitz
First published 1981

My history with this book
As previously mentioned, I was a big fan of the Sweet Dreams series in junior high. I remember enjoying Princess Amy very much as a kid, although I didn’t remember much about it other than that there was a love triangle.

My thoughts
Thankfully, reading Princess Amy was better than my last attempt at a Sweet Dreams book. Although Princess Amy was a little dated, it was still an entertaining book and I can see why I liked this one as a kid. Sixteen-year-old Amy Painter is being sent to spend her summer vacation with her wealthy aunt aimg_3309nd uncle on Mackinac Island. She’s dreading the trip because her aunt Marcella and her cousin Candace are terrible snobs, but her mother insists on it because she wants Amy to meet a “better class of boy, handsome ones, rich ones” (ugh).

Within hours of her arrival, Amy acquires two admirers, working class Pete and rich douchebag Guy. She’s dazzled by the handsome and charming guy, but also a little scared, while she feels safe with the nice but slightly dull Pete. When she first meets Guy, he pretends to drown her in the pool. She complains to her aunt, who basically tells her to suck it up because he’s a good catch (again, ugh).
All of the rich kids are portrayed in the sort of broad rich-kid stereotypes that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Caddyshack or The OC. The girls are all skinny and eat nothing but lettuce, while looking down on Amy, who’s said to be a size 12, which I’m guessing is more like the equivalent of a size 8 in 1981 terms. The body shaming is pretty awful in this book. Aunt Marcella tells the housekeeper not to allow Amy to have any bread, and she buys Amy an outfit that’s one size too small: “Why of course it won’t fit, dear. It’s an incentive. I got a size ten so you’ll have a reason to knock off that extra weight.” Amy bristles against this, but in the end, she does lose some weight, and I wish she had been able to stay happily at size 12, just to spite her aunt and cousin.
Seemingly unbothered by Amy’s weight are the romantic rivals, Guy and Pete. Candace refers to Pete as “weird,” but this makes no sense because Pete is way too boring to be weird. Guy, on the other hand, spends most of his time playing a live action form of Dungeons and Dragons, which no one thinks is at all strange. Was Dungeons and Dragons way more mainstream in the early 80? Or perhaps everyone just acts like this is totally normal behavior because Guy is rich and hot?
Pete is safe and dull, but he’s also a bit possessive (he doesn’t want “to share” Amy). Guy is scary and exciting, but does things like abandon Amy in the woods (on horseback, although she’s never been on a horse before) to run off and kill a dwarf or whatever. It’s fairly obvious that Amy is going to end up picking Pete, but Amy is in constant angst over having to choose between the two of them. I kept wishing someone would point that Amy is 16 and she doesn’t have to choose one of these idiots as a life partner. Why can’t she just date them both for the few weeks she’s on the island? But romance is always serious business in Sweet Dreams books.

Would I want my kid to read it?
I wouldn’t stop him, but I’m not going to suggest to him that it’s a can’t miss classic.

Is there any objectionable content?
No, except for the above-mentioned body shaming.

Can you read it aloud?

It’s long out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.

New to Me: Kat, Incorrigible

Kat, Incorrigible
Stephanie Burgis
First published 2011

My history with this book
None, since it was only published a few years ago.

My thoughts
Kat, Incorrigible is a delightful middle grade book about a 12-year-old girl in Regency England who has magical talents. It’s an alternative Regency England where magic exists. Katherine Ann Stephenson is the youngest of four children. Her mother, from whom she inherited her talents, died shortly after she was born, and her father later remarried. Kat’s stepmother values propriety above all else and wants to restore the family’s social position, which was damaged because Kat’s mother was a witch.

Kat spends a lot of time getting into trouble, and she’s often at odds with her stepmother and her older sisters, prim and proper Elissa and spitfire Angeline. The family’s financial situation is dire. Kat’s older brother Charles has incurred huge gambling debts and will be sent to debtor’s prison if he can’t pay them. The family can’t afford to bail him out, but if he goes to prison, it will ruin the family’s reputation and make it impossible for the sisters to make good marriages. The family’s best hope is for the beautiful Elissa to find a rich husband, and the stepmother has her eye on Sir Neville Collingwood, who is very rich, but also very creepy and his first wife died under mysterious circumstances. Kat is determined to save her sister from marrying Sir Neville, and she’s willing to use her newfound magical powers if needed.

So, basically, you’ve got all the social pressures of Pride and Prejudice against a backdrop of magic. Even with magical powers, Kat and her sisters are at the mercy of society. I enjoyed the social aspects of the book very much. I was less impressed with the magical system, which felt a little vague to me, but this is the first book in a trilogy and I assume the magical side of things will be explored in more detail in the subsequent books. Kat is a great heroine, a feisty kid who strains against the conventions of society. She’s very bright, but she’s still a kid and she often misinterprets situations, sometimes to hilarious effects. I also enjoyed the subversion of the evil stepmother trope. In this case, Kat’s birth mother was an actual witch, and although Kat can’t stand her stepmother, the woman isn’t evil and she’s stuck in a difficult position.

I think this book would be good for kids who are interested in history and/or magic. Depending on your child’s age and interest in history, you may need to provide some context about Regency England. You could have an interesting discussion with your child about women’s roles during this period and how constricted their lives were.

Would I want my kid to read it

Is there any objectionable content?
No. Obviously, there are historical attitudes toward women that are offensive, but they are well done in the historical context, and Kat rebels against the constraints of society.

It’s available in print and ebook.

80s Flashback: Little Sister

Little Sister (Sweet Dreams #5)
Yvonne Green
First published 1981

My history with this book
I read a lot of Sweet Dreams books when I was around 11 or 12, and the cover of this one looked very familiar, so I was sure I had read it. But I remembered nothing about it, and the plot didn’t come back to me when I read it (possibly because it’s a really unmemorable book).

My thoughts
I was pleasantly surprised that the first Sweet Dreams book I revisited wasn’t too bad (How Do You Say Goodbye), but unfortunately, I can’t say the same about Little Sister. It’s the story of Cindy Halley, an upper middle class white girl from the suburbs (80s teen romance series didn’t have a lot of racial or socioeconomic diversity, unless the white middle class suburban heroine was dating someone from the “wrong side of the tracks”). Cindy’s life is miserable because she’s just turned 16 and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. It’s not terribly img_3286surprising that Cindy is dateless and not as popular as her older sister, because Cindy has all the personality of dry toast. She spends the first few chapters of the book whining about her lack of dates, until popular senior Ron inexplicably becomes interested in her. Ron is a sort of magical unicorn, a star basketball player who’s also a talented actor, hard-working, and devoted to his family. He’s also lacking in a personality, which may be why he and Cindy are attracted to each other.

Once Cindy has a boyfriend, she spends the rest of the book terrified that Ron is going to fall in love with her sister Christine, because Ron and Christine are playing Romeo and Juliet in the sch0ol play. I was sort of hoping Ron would dump Cindy for Christine, because although Christine is awful, she’s more interesting than snoresville Cindy. Of course, Ron sticks with Cindy because the heroine of a Sweet Dreams romance never gets the short end of the stick.

Although it’s less than 150 pages, I struggled to finish Little Sister. Cindy and Ron are painfully dull, and I just couldn’t bring myself to care about them. It’s also obvious to everyone but the terminally stupid Cindy that nothing going on with Ron and Christine, so there’s no real tension in the story.

Would I want my kid to read it?

Is there any objectionable content?
Attitudes about dating feel a little dated, but there’s nothing terribly objectionable about this book (unless you object to being bored to tears).

Can you read it aloud?
Please don’t.

Little Sister is long out of print, but it’s not too hard to find used copies.


On Not Finishing Books

As part of keeping track of books I read, I’ve also started keeping track of books I don’t finish. When I was younger, I used to try to slog through any book I started, but nowadays, I occasionally give up on a book. According to my list, which I’m pretty sure is an underestimate, I started six books that I didn’t finish in 2016. I’ve already given up on one book in 2017.

Sometimes, I just don’t like a book and I give up, guilt-free, after a few chapters. But more often than not, I just don’t click with a book. Objectively, I know a book is pretty good, but for whatever reason, I’m just not feeling it at that moment, so I stop reading. It’s along the lines of “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Occasionally, it’s the timing that isn’t right. I decide I want to read a book, so I put it on hold at the library. Sometimes, the book is available within a week or two, but sometimes, it’s a couple of months, and my interest in the book has waned. Sometimes, you’re just really feel like reading a YA fantasy dystopian zombie novel, and then two months later, not so much.

The majority of the books I abandoned last year were ebooks. I think I find it easier to abandon an ebook since I don’t have to actually look at it again. An abandoned physical book will sit on my shelves, and occasionally I’ll see it and think that I need to get back to it. I do think the physicality of reading an actual paper book is a very different experience than reading an ebook, and although I read a lot of ebooks and I enjoy the convenience, physical books are still my favorite.


2017 Reading Goals

Having looked back at 2016 in my last post, now it’s time to set some reading goals for 2017.

I want to go for quality over quantity. There are so many books I want to read that I often feel like I’m in a race to finish them all. I’m probably never going to finish all the books I want to read (and that list is ever expanding), so I need to accept that and just enjoy what I have time to read.


A small fraction of my to-read list.

I would like to work on my current to-read list without adding anything new to it. I honestly don’t know if this is possible for me, because I’m always coming across more books I want to read, but I’m going to try.

I want to read more diversely. Something like the Book Riot Read Harder challenge is a great idea, although I know that I would get frustrated trying to check off that many boxes. Still, I think even trying to hit a few of these goals would encourage me to try different things than I would normally read. (I just don’t see myself reading a book about sports, but I think I may have a nonfiction book about figure skating on my shelves. It’s a sport.)

My husband and I have come up with a reading project that we can do together. He’s been reading The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and he mentioned that he’s never read any of the books the characters (Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, and Allan Quartermain) are taken from. I’ve only read one, so we decided we would try to tackle all five books this year: Dracula, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and King Solomon’s Mines. It should be an interesting challenge (I don’t read much nineteenth century literature these days, unless it’s Jane Austen, this so will definitely be a challenge for me). I think doing this with someone else makes it more likely that I will actually make the effort to complete this.

I want to continue my 2016 nonfiction streak. I already have several nonfiction books in my to read pile. I’m already well into one nonfiction book, Ten Years in the Tub, which is Nick Hornby’s columns about reading from the Believer. It’s fantastic and hilarious, and I’m ripping through it in no time. It also made me realize that Hornby has several book sI haven’t read yet, so they promptly went on the to-read list. Sigh.

2016: My Reading Year in Review

At the end of the year, I like to look back at what I’ve read. I use both Goodreads and a Google doc to track my reading, and I have different totals: 83 on Goodreads and 111 by my own accounting. The discrepancy is because I re-read a lot of books this year that were already counted on Goodreads. You can change the date read, but if I had already read and rated a book on Goodreads, I didn’t bother with updating the entry.

Why so much re-reading? In a few cases, I read a book, intending to write about it on the blog, but by the time I got around to writing a post, enough months had passed that I felt I needed to read the book again. I also just enjoying re-reading old favorites, and it somehow feels like less of a commitment than starting a new book.

I tend to set yearly reading goals for myself. Sometimes it’s a formal goal, like in 2010, when I decided I would read a poem every day for the whole year. (I achieved that goal, enjoyed it very much, and haven’t read a single poem since. Sigh. Perhaps it was too much of a good thing.) Sometimes, it’s a less formal goal. In 2015, I sort of vaguely decided I should read less YA and make more of an effort to read some adult, literary fiction. I did pretty well with that goal, so I decided to carry it over into 2016 but aim for nonfiction. (I used to read a fair amount of nonfiction, but I hadn’t read any in recent years.)

I read 22 nonfiction books in 2016. Seven of the 22 were science, and seven were about Antarctica. I’m glad I set this goal, because it helped me rekindle my dormant interest in Antarctica (and in particular, Antarctic exploration). My re-fascination with Antarctica was triggered when an acquaintance mentioned doing scientific research in Antarctica, which got me thinking about icebergs. A few weeks of considering white polar wastelands made me delve into my polar exploration shelf. The other nonfiction books were a mixed bag: self-help, history, current affairs, literary criticism, and memoirs.

The rest of the 83 books I read (I won’t count the re-reads here) break down as follows:

Children’s books: 27
Young adult: 23
Adult fiction: 10

If you combine adult fiction and nonfiction, that’s 32 books, so I suppose I did ok at reading books for grown-ups.

The most important book I read this year is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It’s not exactly a feel-good read, but it’s important and should be required reading for all Americans. I’m very glad I read it and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

I’m delighted that my nonfiction goal led me back to Antarctica, and I enjoyed all of the books I read on the subject, which includes one novel, The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge. I have more Antarctica on my 2017 to read list. There are so many books on Antarctic exploration that I’m not going to run out of reading material anytime soon.

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

Radiance by Catherynne Valente
Your Inner Fish by Neil ShubinThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Endurance by Alfred Lansing
A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
Dancing Shoes by Noel Streatfield
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
Alone on the Ice by David Roberts
Remarkable Creatures by Sean Carroll
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Mandy by Julie Edwards
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Quality-wise, it was a pretty good year, and I can’t recall any major duds.

Next up: 2017 reading goals.