Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Book Review: Family Tree

Family TreeFamily Tree by Susan Wiggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweet and sappy, just like the maple syrup that threads its way through the novel, and just the what I needed on a cold weekend in November. Likeable characters (SO important after the last book I started and threw across the room), a year-long coma, lots of delicious food, a sweet but predictable (and sometimes a little tiresome) love story, and a town in Vermont where I wish I could live. (OK, I'd really only like to live there for a year. But still.) Overall, just the kind of "beach" read that I needed to restore my faith in the comforting power of books.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Book Review: All the Pretty Things

All the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way HomeAll the Pretty Things: The Story of a Southern Girl Who Went through Fire to Find Her Way Home by Edie Wadsworth

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used to follow author Edie Wadworth’s blog years ago. I was drawn to her quick wit and beautifully decorated home. To this reader, fellow homeschooling mama Edie Wadsworth was intimidatingly perfect: gorgeous, smart, wealthy, and so talented.

After reading her memoir, I’m blown away by the “real” Edie, or rather, what it took for Edie to travel the path from always-hungry little girl to the redeemed but still struggling adult. Her story (as well as her sister's and cousin's) is a tribute to how kids can rise above their circumstances. And rise she did.

Edie Wadsworth is a class act. She is positively loaded with grit and determination, with a healthy helping of honesty, grace, and kindness. She’s the real thing. A lot of reviewers criticize her adoration of her father. I get that—it is hard to imagine idolizing such a deadbeat dad. But the bonds between daughters and fathers are strong. We readers just don’t see her father as she did. We don’t quite get how charismatic he must have been. He just seems sad. The real hero in this story, of course, is Edie’s mom. She worked unbelievably hard to raise and support three kids on her own. Her memoir would be truly compelling, no doubt.

This isn’t exactly a beautifully written memoir, thus my rating of actually 3.5 (3 for writing, 4 for storytelling). It’s a little choppy and stumbles around a bit, but the story is powerful and you can’t help but want to high five Edie for rising out of the ashes.

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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Book Review: The Alice Network

The Alice NetworkThe Alice Network by Kate Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eve and Charlie: two women, a generation apart, both suffering from tremendous loss after World Wars— WWI for Eve, WWII for Charlie. The chapters alternate between the two stories, but they are connected early in the novel.

Eve was a spy during WWI, part of a real life group of women spies known as The Alice Network. These women, led by Louise de Bettignies, risked (and many lost) their lives for their country as they led double lives to uncover classified information. When we meet Eve, she is an angry alcoholic, nearly 30 years after her stint as a spy. She reveals her story to Charlie throughout the course of the book.

Charlie is a 20-year-old pregnant college drop-out. It’s 1947, just after WWII, and her parents fly her to Paris so she can get rid of her “Little Problem.” She ditches her mother, however, so she can search for her missing cousin, Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war. Charlie’s only clue to Rose’s whereabouts is the name Evelyn Gardiner, which leads her to Eve.

Eve appears to be a brusque, unpleasant old woman, but Charlie needs her help in finding Rose. Charlie rekindles something in Eve: a desire for revenge. They set off together, with Eve’s driver, Finn, in search of their separate stories.

I loved this novel once I got into it (although that took a long time, so keep reading). The alternating narratives were a bit confusing at first, and I kept questioning Charlie’s story; but once I immersed myself in the novel, I got through it quickly. Charlie’s narrative wasn’t nearly as compelling as Eve’s—sometimes it was quite annoying—but it got much better in the second half of the novel. I ended up really loving Charlie’s story, too.

Eve’s story is incredible. I’d love to see the women of the Alice Network portrayed in a movie. These women were the epitome of undaunted courage. What amazing bravery! I am inspired to read more about the Queen of the Spies and her entourage.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Book Review: Educated

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phew. What a memoir!

First, let me say that I read this book with a bit of trepidation because I am a homeschooling parent, and this book is widely described as being about a girl who was homeschooled by survivalist parents. As most reviews emphasize, however, Tara was certainly not offered a "normal" homeschooling experience. In an interview with NPR, she says "there was not a lot of school taking place. We had books, and occasionally we would be kind of sent to read them. But for example, I was the youngest child, and I never took an exam, or I never wrote an essay for my mother that she read or nothing like kind of getting everyone together and having anything like a lecture. So it was a lot more kind of if you wanted to read a book, you could, but you certainly weren't going to be made to do that."

I quickly realized, however, that this book has little to do with academic education, with whether Tara should have been sent to public school or not. This book is about Tara's education as a human being, as a part of the world outside of her family.

Tara's parents were paranoid survivalists who completely manipulated and controlled her world (and that of her siblings). She had no access to reading material other than Mormon texts and the Bible. No newspapers, no history books, no television. Whatever her parents told her, was her reality. She believed entirely that the government was coming for them, that the world was close to ending, that everyone besides her family was hellbound. She believed that she was dirty, dumb, and a whore. She believed that the medical community was a pit of vipers. She believed it was her duty to cater to her father's every whim and, later, to her brother's. She believed she was worthless.

And yet she had something inside of her, a spark of brilliance and determination that even her father's cruelty, her mother's denial, and her brother's brutality could not keep down. Tara is not just a survivor but a victor. She overcame a horrific childhood full of danger, of physical, and emotional abuse (though she does contend that she had happy moments) to earn a PhD from Harvard. Her real education, though, comes as she begins to see the world through a different lens than her father's. Her real education comes when she sheds her former self, piece by painful piece, to discover not just who Tara is, but who this world is, and who Tara is in the world.

In some ways this memoir reminded me of The Glass Castle, but it is not as beautifully written as Walls' memoir. Walls was more than a decade older than Westover when she wrote her amazing memoir, and I suspect Westover's memoir has more of a raw, open wound feeling because of her proximity to her childhood.

I left this novel feeling sad and disheartened because I know there are so many children in our country who are raised on hate and fear, and so many of them don't have the willpower that Tara had to separate herself from them. And the cycle continues.

Happy for Tara that she climbed out of the pit, and hopeful that she may inspire others to do the same.

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Book Review: Good as Gone

Good as GoneGood as Gone by Amy Gentry

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is basically every parent's nightmare: their 13-year-old daughter is kidnapped from their house in the middle of the night. I mean, why did I keep reading? I certainly would not have if I still had a 13-year-old daughter at home!

So Julie is kidnapped, and her younger sister, Jane, sees the whole thing happen. She's too terrified to scream or even move until three hours later, and her mother holds this against her. (The mother. Ugh, how I despised this mother!) Anyway, Julie disappears without a trace, and then eight years later, she shows up at their front door.

Did I mention how much I despised the mother? Unfortunately, the chapters alternate between her and, well, Julie. Sort of. The mother, Anna, is just cold.

Regardless of the horror of a 13-year-old being kidnapped and a cold-hearted mother, I kept reading. I mean, it is a novel of suspense, after all, and frankly, I needed to find out what happened. I kinda wish I hadn't finished it. It got kind of ridiculous at the end, and it also devolved into stuff I don't want to read about in such detail, even if this horribly does happen to real 13-year-olds. Just ugh.

So, yeah. II could have done without this book. Did I learn anything from it? Was I enlightened in any way? Was I entertained? Was I wowed by the writer's craft? Was I made a more sensitive person? Nah, nah, nah. It was just kind of horrifying.

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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two men, two stories, one great World’s Fair. It’s the 1890s, and the city of Chicago has just been given the honor of hosting the next World’s Fair.

Daniel Burnham was the lead architect of the Chicago World’s Fair, and H.H. Holmes was a serial killer who lived in Chicago at that time. Larson narrates these two stories in alternating chapters. Like most readers, I assumed the two stories would connect at some point, but they never do. Nonetheless, I found both stories intriguing and incredibly well researched.

The story Daniel Burnham of the creation of the “White City”—the World’s Fair Park—was interesting but not exactly riveting. While the minutia of all the ups and downs of building the fair got tiresome, I did get a fantastic history lesson. Also, I loved the appearances of famous people like Buffalo Billy, Annie Oakley, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller at the fair.

Of course, the serial killer is always going to be the more compelling story. H.H. Holmes was known as a handsome, outgoing man— literally a ladykiller. While construction of the fair was going on at an incredible pace, Holmes was also working at a fast pace: collecting women, loving them, and then killing them in his specially constructed death building right in the center of town.

Again, the stories really have little to do with each other, but Burnham and Holmes might be consider polar opposites representing man’s capacity for good and his potential for evil. On one side, Burnham is creating this perfect, white Heaven-like city, yet nearby, Holmes has created his own hellish torture chamber. What lies beneath the veneer of whitewash?

All in all, this was a fascinating book, although I was, frankly, bored in some of the Burnham chapters. Photographs or drawings would have greatly enhanced these chapters. Sometimes I skimmed through the Burnham chapters just to get to the serial killer chapters—I’m not sure what that says about me as a reader or as a person, although I suspect that’s not uncommon.

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Book Review: Every Last Lie

Every Last LieEvery Last Lie by Mary Kubica

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story: Clara, exhausted and overwhelmed with a 4-day-old baby and a preschooler, opens the door one evening to officers informing her that her husband has just been killed in a car accident. Maisie, their daughter, survived. Clara is devastated, naturally. She's in both a post-birth and a post-death haze, forgetting to shower and eat. She's barely in survival mode. Then one night, Maisie wakes up from a nightmare about the accident, and Clara suspects that someone, in fact, murdered Nick. The rest of the novel follows Clara as she searches for the truth, alternating with Nick's story leading up to the accident.

Me: I liked this okay. It was a fast-paced, read-in-a-couple-sittings kind of novel. But so many things about this drove me crazy. I heard way too much of Clara's inner thoughts —ramble, ramble, ramble as she suspected absolutely everyone as Nick's killer. Loose ends were left, well, loose. And what the heck? This woman has a newborn and she's out and about dragging herself and her kids all over town--and LEAVING THEM IN A HOT CAR! Who does that? Nick's inner thoughts were more interesting but his story was just so out there. Way too much going on. But that said, it was entertaining.

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Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Review: Hannah Coulter

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”

This is Hannah Coulter’s story, an ordinary woman who loves, loses, loves again, and loses again, gathering moments and memories along the way. Now in her seventies, she sifts through her life, taking out scenes and examining them, caressing them, sometimes finding joy and sometimes sadness, and then piecing them together.

Wendell Berry understands connection—the connection people have with each other and with the land. He understands the yearnings of the soul; the tender, quiet, beautify, ordinarily moments; the depth of love and feeling. Hannah is connected to a place—to the village of Port William, Kentucky—and to her farm there. (This is one of several novels that take place in Port William.) And she’s connected to people, both living and dead.

Berry's simple, poetic prose brought me to streaming-down-my-face tears—and that rarely happens to me while reading. Or at all, really. I was actually sobbing at the simple beauty of his words and the depth of his understanding. I felt mournful and yet optimistic, and incredibly grateful.

Absolutely one of my favorite books ever for its sheer loveliness and poignancy. I feel better for having read it, more cognizant of the small beauties of an ordinary life.

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book Review: The Sleepwalker

The Sleepwalker (Sleepwalker, #1)The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The story: Beautiful Annalee Ahlberg is missing and presumed dead. She has a history of serious sleepwalking—sleepwalking during which she does bizarre and disturbing things of which she is unaware the next day. Her family assumes that she has walked off the bridge into the river while sleepwalking. Lianna stays home from college to care for her younger sister and their father. They are all lost, waiting for a body to turn up, waiting to find out what has really happened to Annalee. During the investigation, Lianna falls in love with the detective, and we begin to wonder if Gavin, who also suffers from sleepwalking, might know more about Annalee than he should.

Me: Chris Bohjalian is a masterful storyteller. There is absolutely no question, NONE, that he writes exquisitely. He is a wordsmith of the highest caliber. In fact, as I write this, I have to change my 3-star rating to a 4-star rating simply because Bohjalian deserves a minimum of 4 stars no matter what he writes. But the story itself is still just a 3-star for me. I liked the characters in this novel: the motherless sisters, the despondent widower, and the detective, Gavin. I was interested in learning the science behind sleepwalking. But, frankly, I just couldn't embrace the whole sleepwalking plot, which plays into the ending of the novel is a surprising way—and one that didn't feel satisfying to me. I love Bohjalian's writing, but I much prefer The Buffalo Soldier, Skeletons at the Feast, and The Double Bind. He's simply brilliant!

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

2017: The Year in Books

I set a goal of reading 50 books in 2017—and squeaked by at the end with exactly 50. I was terrible about doing book reviews this year, but I have been more active on Goodreads and have been publishing quick reviews there and linking them to my blog.

The Best
Here are my favorites of the year (not including rereads):
  1. 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff)
  2. Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
  3. Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)
  4. My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
  5. One-in-a-Million Boy (Monica Wood)
  6. Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)
  7. Winter Sea (Susanna Kearsley)
  8. Women of the Castle (Jessica Shattuck)

 Out of those, I would probably choose One-in-a-Million Boy as my absolute favorite—but these were all truly fabulous.

Book Club
Our book club choices this year were:
Where the Heart Is (Billie Letts
Shakespeare's Landlord (Charlaine Harris)
Same Kind of Different As Me (Ron Hall)
My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell)
Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper (Phaedra Patrick)
Mink River (Brian Doyle)
War That Saved My Life (Kimberly Bradley) (I read this one last year and loved it)

My favorites out of this list were My Family and Other Animals and the Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper; however, at least a few book club members put down My Family after only a couple of chapters. I think the best discussion came from The War That Saved My Life. Everyone loved that one!

Here is the whole list. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--absolutely must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Book Review: An American Plague

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 (Newbery Honor Book)An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As the subtitle indicates, this is, indeed the story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 (and subsequent years) in Philadelphia. The author draws on primary sources (letters, diaries, newspaper articles) to create an overall horrifying picture of how yellow fever ravaged this then largest city in America. I was especially intrigued by how the medical community reacted to the fever—the various "cures" doctors tried—as well as by the heroics of ordinary citizens as they cared for the sick.

This is a children's book (5th grade and up), and I have to say my own kids would probably have been disappointed at the promise of a "terrifying" story. It was gruesome in parts (all that black bile—ew) but perhaps not "terrifying." Nonetheless, it is a quick and easy read, and, honestly, I didn't know much about this particular yellow fever outbreak and how it affected our newly formed country. It wasn't a riveting read, but I'm glad to have spent the afternoon delving into this bit of history.

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Book Review: Lilac Girls

Lilac GirlsLilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story: This Holocaust novel is told from three perspectives: Kasia, a Polish prisoner at Ravensbrück; Caroline Ferriday, a former actress who works at the French embassy; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor at Ravensbrück who proudly performs experiments on the prisoners. The story itself is a true one. Oberheuser was convicted of Nazi war crimes, and Ferriday was an incredible social activist. The character of Kasia is based on a group of Polish women prisoners nicknamed "The Rabbits," on whom Oberheuser performed horrible experiments.

My reaction: The real story itself is amazing. I would love to read more about Caroline Ferriday and these incredible women known as The Rabbits after reading this novel. It's a story that needs to be told and keep being told so that it never happens again. But… honestly, the whole novel was choppy and disconnected. I should have cried as I read this novel; instead, I felt as emotionally detached and perplexed at the flatness of these characters that yearned to be richly developed. Caroline was the most developed character, yet the bulk of her chapters had to do with a romance that seemed extraneous to the actual story. Oberheuser was utterly flat. And Kasia—ah, what a missed character opportunity. I suspect there was more to the novel originally—more scenes that would further character development—and the author was advised to shorten it.

I admire the research that Kelly put into the novel. According to her afterword, she spent years studying the letters of Ferriday and documents pertaining to the atrocities at Ravensbrück. She traveled to the town in Poland where many of these women came from, retraced their train ride to the camp, investigated the camp itself.

In spite of my overall feeling of disconnect, I would recommend the novel because the story itself is one that should be told and remembered, hopefully encouraging us to use our outrage to help others in whatever way we can.

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Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: The Couple Next Door

The Couple Next DoorThe Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Honestly, this is one of those guilty pleasure books. It's full of plot twists, plastic characters, and things that would never happen in real life, but lately my brain seems to crave absolute, unequivocally dramatic fiction. There's a kidnapped baby, a mom with postpartum depression, multimillionaire grandparents, and a husband from the other side of the tracks. Also: a neighbor named Cynthia, sharp knives, and hidden cell phones.

I gave it 4 stars because it was exactly the book I needed at the moment, not because it's a work of literary genius. This is what I think of as an "in-between" book—a cushion between more thought-provoking books. Fun, fast, and somehow quite satisfying.

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