Friday, April 29, 2016

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by William Anderson

It will come as no surprise to many people that I am a giant fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I still have the copy of Little House in the Big Woods  that Santa brought me my first Christmas in Iowa.  The spine is broken, and it's in two pieces, but I won't let it go. 

I always hesitate to read anything about Laura now that I'm an adult; I guess I don't want my childhood warm memories of reading Laura's books to be diminished by adult thinking.  Reading her books are one of my most treasured memories and probably is a huge reason why I am a voracious reader today.  Laura had just enough sass and spitfire, yet was a good girl.  She reminded me of me, I guess; that it was alright to not always behave.  That didn't make either of us little brats, just little girls.  

I listened to this selection of letters written by and to Laura for two weeks and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the adult Laura.  She really was quite talented, a lover of books and a generous spirit.  Her letters to children are so sweet, and she says just the right things.  There are glimpses of that spitfire every once in awhile; she was no pushover.  There are even a few letters from Almanzo to Rose and they are a stitch.  He was a man of the West through and through.  

The letters Laura wrote after Almanzo died at age 92 in 1949 were poignant and just broke my heart.  She talks about her loneliness and how empty the house feels without Almanzo, and how much she misses him.  Yet she stayed at Rocky Ridge, traveled to town once a week, visited the library, and connected with friends.  She was beloved in Mansfield, MO and really was quite famous the world over.  For many years she wrote a reply to every fan letter she received until she was 85 and just couldn't do it anymore.  She still read all of her fan mail--hundreds and hundreds of letters from children, teachers, librarians, and parents.  The art of letter writing is in full force with Laura; it is such a shame people don't write letters anymore.  They are wonderful and bring a voice to Laura that we haven't heard before.  The letters between Laura, Rose, her agent George Bly, and her editor Ursula Nordstrom reveal just how much work went into writing the Little House books.  It is a fascinating glimpse into the art of creating a novel.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this audio book.  I will probably buy the book just to have it on my bookcase.  I know if I hadn't listened to the audio book I probably would have bought the book, but never read the letters.  I'm so glad I listened to them. Tish Hicks as Laura's voice is spot on. 

Rating:  8/10 for a wonderful peek into the real Laura Ingalls Wilder as an adult, an author, mother, farm wife, and citizen.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

The Versions of Us is a definite read for those who like romance, but romance that isn't an automatic happily ever after.  This romance is all about the journey; of what it means to love someone, and how that love can wither, grow, or become stagnant through life's many ups and downs.  It's about yearning, falling out of love, desperately trying to find love with someone who clearly isn't the right one. It is about the many facets of love and the complexity of it all. 

This novel is told in three parts:  Version One, Version Two, and Version Three.  Each version features Eva and Jim, two students at Cambridge in 1958.  A chance encounter on a path goes three ways:  Eva swerves to avoid a dog and gets a flat tire that Jim stops to repair--and the attraction is instant; Eva avoids the dog completely and doesn't get a flat tire--thereby not meeting Jim, who is just another person on the path; and the third version sees Eva and Jim meeting, but having a very short relationship that ends with Eva leaving Jim with just a letter goodbye.  

Each version carries on from this fateful moment on the path, through the sixties, seventies, eighties, and up to 2012.  In each version, Eva and Jim have many of the same people in their lives.  In each version  Eva either struggles to write, or is a successful writer, or comes into writing later in life. Jim is a lawyer, yearning to be an artist; in one version he's a well known painter; in another a man who never achieves much success; in another, a man who decides to follow his dream after struggling to do the right thing.  Through each version of their lives, Eva and Jim continue to connect.  Each is never far from the other's thoughts, even if they are geographically far apart, and with other partners.  

I struggled a bit with following the three versions; I found myself thumbing back to the beginning to keep the stories straight; but eventually it really didn't matter.  The powerful ending made it clear that no matter where life takes us, some people are meant to be in our lives.  Whether we spend our whole lives with them, or meet them later in life; if they are meant to be in our lives, they will somehow connect.  Love comes in many shades, and doesn't guarantee a happy ending.  Life is a struggle, even when we are with those we love the most.  I will admit I got a bit weepy at the end(s), but it was because I felt that I had been on such a journey with Eva and Jim.  I spent decades with them and their stories.  

This story reminded me of my relationship with my boyfriend.  We met in our late 30's on a blind date, and have been together for 14 years.  We talk sometimes about how we wish we'd met earlier in life--and how different our lives would be if we'd even met a few years earlier.  For sure we would have gotten married and had children.  By the time we'd met, he was past the stage of having kids, and life's challenges have kept us from taking the plunge and getting married.  I can't imagine my life without him, but I can easily imagine a different life with him, if only we'd met just a bit earlier.  We both can get a bit emotional thinking about it, and agree that we are lucky to have found each other when we did, and live the rest of our lives together, even if it is a bit unconventional.  If anything, this novel will make you think "what if?"

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a review copy.  This was a wonderful discovery and would make a good book club discussion.  I'm glad I didn't miss it.  

Rating:  8/10 for a romance that has three versions of happily ever after, and the journey to get to that place.  A novel that will make you contemplate life. 

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio book.  Available May 3rd at your local library or bookstore. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

I am a big fan of Bill Bryson.  I've read most of his travel books and his hilarious memoir, but I haven't ventured into his science and history books until now.  One Summer: America, 1927 has been on my "to read" list since it came out a few years ago; my commute gave me the perfect excuse to listen to it--all 13 discs.  It took me two weeks of commuting to listen to it, but I am so glad I did because it is a fascinating look at an America that no longer exists.

I am always interested in the 1920's simply because my Dad was born in 1928, and I've wondered what the world was like when he was a child.  It's a way of connecting with him because there aren't a lot of photos of my Dad growing up.   When he met and married my Mom and had eight kids, well there are oodles of pictures of him as my Dad.  But as a small boy, I've only seen a few pictures of him.  I think about how much the world changed during his lifetime and I wish I had asked him what he thought of it all before he died in 2004.  

Back to 1927.  There was a lot going on, and Bill Bryson deftly weaves the stories all together to give the reader (or listener) a story of an America that was growing in leaps and bounds, and faced the same issues we face today.  There were times when I thought I was listening to news of today:  there were acts of terrorism with bombs all throughout the states; race riots, men who became heroes overnight (but ended up with feet of clay), and as always, the glamour of Hollywood.  Charles Lindbergh flies to Paris from New York and becomes an sensation who finds the crowds and relentless hero-worship extremely uncomfortable and annoying.  People loved him anyway.  There was Babe Ruth and the magical Yankees, and that year of 60 home runs.  Herbert Hoover was steadily moving up the ranks in government, while Calvin Coolidge preferred to be a president who didn't do much, because everything was ticking along just fine.  No need to fix what isn't broken.  

Life was fast, people were on the move, and automobiles, motion pictures, and radio were fast becoming giants in the everyday life of Americans.  American culture began to spread around the world through radio and film--completely unintentional in the beginning, but a byproduct of the booming movie industry.  A lot of people think the American cultural influence didn't really start until much later in the 20th century, but it was the "talkies" that started it all in the 1920's.

This is a fascinating historical book, and so chock full of information it can make your head spin.  Bill Bryson narrates it, and it is full of his usual wit and little factual details that keep the story flowing.  My one beef, and this  was huge for me, was Bill Bryson's voice.  He has a very interesting mix of American Midwest accent coupled with a bit of British.  It made for some pronunciations that were a bit odd to my ear, and it really distracted me throughout the whole 13 discs and two weeks it took me to listen to this audio.  I can't help it!  I talked to a friend who also listened to the audio, and she said "I know exactly what you mean".  I feel bad about that, but there it is.  Bill Bryson has such a soft speaking voice that I had the volume turned way up in my car to catch it all.  Other than that, I enjoyed this look at 1927 America very much.  

Rating:  7/10 for a superb, historically fascinating tale of America after World War I, and before World War II; that time of prohibition, aviation, and baseball. What an amazing decade.  My only issue was completely personal in the occasionally jarring accent and quiet voice of the author.  But I can't imagine anyone else narrating this!

Available in paperback, hardcover, audio, and e-book.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

The Goodenough family moves to Ohio in 1838 after leaving Connecticut and all of their relatives behind.  James and Sadie are one dysfunctional couple, and their dislike for each other makes you wonder how they got married in the first place.  James is determined to establish an apple orchard, and works day and night to keep his orchard of "spitters" and "eaters" from being destroyed by the Black Swamp.  James cares more for his precious apples than he does for his children and his wife.  Sadie is a drunk who has come to loathe the apple trees; she only cares about the spitters, and how much apple jack they can produce.  It is a vicious cycle of resentment, hard work, and struggle that has turned James and Sadie against each other.  

John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed is not the jolly young man we remember from childhood; he is a bit of a wild man, spending the year traveling via canoe around what at that time is wild territory, selling seedlings to pioneers and loudly preaching the word of God.  Sadie looks forward to his visits because he brings apple jack; James buys seedlings from him, but doesn't appreciate John's dislike of grafting trees in the pursuit of growing the perfect apple.  The stench of the swamp, the dreaded swamp fever that has claimed five of their ten children, the constant tension in the air...all make for an explosion just waiting to happen.  

The story jumps into a series of letters from Robert, the youngest Goodenough, who leaves Ohio and travels West doing odd jobs.  He writes letters back home for years, but never gets a response.  The letters are a transition that at first feels a bit jerky, but soon makes a lot of sense, as the story moves forward 15 years.  After reading the whole novel, I liked this method of transition, because it kept me wondering about why Robert left Ohio at such a young age (12!) and what happened to the family.  Robert, most like his father in his love for apple trees and a talent for grafting, runs into William Lobb, an Englishman who is collecting seeds and seedlings from redwoods and giant sequoias to send to England.  Finding in Robert a perfect partner, William sends Robert traveling through California in the waning days of the gold rush, furthering Robert's love of trees and the wonder of the majestic redwoods.  Yet Robert's past is catching up to him...

I don't want to give anything else away, but the story does include another batch of letters, this time from a family member to Robert.  He never gets the letters, but we travel back to 1838 Ohio, and witness what has become of the Goodenough family, and what happened after Robert left.  I felt a big "ah!" reading this part of the novel, and it all came together.  I have to say I finished the last page, and was surprised to feel a bit sad to end the story.  The Goodenough saga was one of extreme dysfunction, abuse, betrayal, and bitterness.  James and Sadie are awful to each other; it makes me wonder where the vicious cycle of anger and resentment began: was it because Sadie drank too much, or did she begin drinking because she felt ignored by James, who loved his trees more than anything else? Did James become more obsessed with his trees in order to escape Sadie, thus driving her to drink? Would their lives have been different if they had never left Connecticut?  

I've left out some big bits of the story, but that is for you to discover.  I found the apple tree cultivation to be very interesting, and the descriptions of the redwoods to be awe-inspiring.  Tracy Chevalier perfectly conveys the awesome beauty of nature; it has the power to inspire, and the power to destroy.  It can enrich our lives, or it can drive us mad.  The Goodenough family experiences both sides of Nature.  

Rating:  7/10 for a look at the struggles of farmers in early Ohio, establishing an orchard in an hostile environment, and a small slice of botany history.  Some people may find the sudden change in the story line jarring, but I felt it worked for the story and kept me waiting for the inevitable return to the past and the Goodenough family troubles.  

Available in hardcover, e-book, and audio.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

This was a tough book to get through.  Not because of the writing, but because of the self-loathing that the main character, Elizabeth, carries throughout each story within the story.  13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl is pretty brutal in the many ways women look at themselves, and are seen by others, based on their weight.  There was a time when being thin was an indication of being poor, and being plump was a sign of a good life.  In today's world, with an all-time high level of unhealthy eating habits and obesity, the criticism is so harsh against anyone who isn't a healthy weight, that it permeates our thinking and harms our vision of ourselves.  

Beth, Elizabeth, Liz...all one person, seen through her teen years and into her late 20's as she is an overweight teen struggling to find self worth and love by letting men use her for comfort (while loathing her size), to being so self-conscious that she can't send a full length photo to men she meets online for fear of them seeing how she looks.  Finally, Elizabeth meets a man online who loves her for who she is, but this is jeopardized at she begins to lose weight and becomes trapped in a cycle of hunger, exercise, and constant comparisons of herself to other women.  Being surrounded by women of all sizes, who all have a self-consciousness about food and appearance, and not only are judged by men, but judge each other.  The episodes where Elizabeth tries on dresses in stores hit close to home.  The bad lighting, the attendant constantly knocking on the door to see if everything's okay...the clothing never fitting and the only size available is one that will never fit.  That feeling of just wanting to give up and wear t-shirts and sweatpants because nothing looks right or fits at all.  We've all been there.  

It doesn't matter if you have been heavy all your life, or if you've been on the vicious diet cycle of thin, heavy, thin, heavy.  For me, I was always thin for most of my life (my legs were referred to as chicken legs) and I never appreciated what I looked like--there was always someone thinner. I was always the sister with the boobs, and I was always the "healthy looking" one.  I look at pictures, and I can't believe I didn't see myself in a positive light; that I always felt less than, somehow.   I didn't ever try crazy diets or watch what I ate--I was lucky.  But that isn't the case any longer; years of stress, grief over losing loved ones, and being unhappy with parts of my life have combined with growing older and packing on the pounds.  I think my younger self would be shocked at the change in me.  Self-loathing is an easy trap to fall into; and it can rule your life, as it does Elizabeth's.  

I saw snippets about this book that said it was humorous, so that's what I expected--a bit of self-deprecating humor and a lovable character I could laugh and commiserate with on the subject of weight.  I was wrong.  Elizabeth was a painful character, and I didn't find any humor in her struggle.  I guess it depends on the reader, and life experience, on how this will effect your view of Elizabeth's story.  If anything, it did point out some painful realizations:  comparing myself to everyone else, treating food as an enemy, and my underlying unhappiness at how I look and feel are detrimental to my self-confidence and peace. I can't look back, but can only look forward.  

I think this novel would be an excellent book club discussion book, and certainly something I would recommend for late teens and early twenties young ladies.  It is brutal, honest, painful, and gut wrenching.  

Thank you to Penguin Random House for a review copy.  

Rating:  8/10 for a powerful look at one woman's struggle to love herself in a world that has a harsh opinion on how we look.  

Available in paperback and e-book.  

Saturday, April 9, 2016

America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

It felt so good to get back into historical fiction!  I've been reading a lot of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, and usually historical is what I read above and beyond anything else.  Somehow I got turned around, but I will be changing that up and incorporating more historical fiction reviews.   

America's First Daughter is a 580 page novel about Martha "Patsy" Jefferson Randolph, the eldest child and one of only two surviving children of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha Jefferson.  Tall and red-headed like her father, Patsy lead a life that was full of triumphs, tragedies, and sacrifice. Erica Kane has nothing on Patsy.  Seriously, this woman couldn't catch a break. 

The novel is based on the thousands of letters Thomas Jefferson wrote in his lifetime, and opens with Patsy going through her father's letters after his death, burning many of them in order to shape his history--and protect him and others in the family.  Each chapter begins with part of an actual letter written by Jefferson to either his family or one of his many friends and political allies.  They help frame what is to come in that chapter.  Patsy's love and devotion to her father drives pretty much her every decision, beginning with the death of her mother when she was just a young girl.  Jefferson, devastated and near suicidal after his wife's death, leans on Patsy to guide him through his grief.  She sees herself as his protector, and as Governor of Virginia, no one must know just how much Jefferson has descended to near madness.  Patsy has to shoulder a lot of burdens early on in life, and while I was hopeful this would change, oh, I was wrong.  

This novel takes the reader from Monticello (which is always in a state of construction, falling down, never completeness) to Paris, during Jefferson's tenure as Minister to France for a newly formed America, and back again to Monticello.  Told through Patsy's eyes, we see her grow up, grow strong, and find love.  But the course of true love does not run smoothly for Patsy, and her heart is broken.  Patsy does marry Thomas Randolph, and eventually gives birth to eleven children; ten of whom survive to adulthood.  I think that is just remarkable.  But beyond her superwoman ability to survive childbirth that many times in the early 19th century, is Patsy's strength in understanding that her father was someone who gave his whole life to his country, even at the cost of personal happiness.  And Patsy did the same thing, in devoting her life to her father.  Sally Hemings plays a large role in this novel as well; she was Patsy's Aunt, if I followed the convoluted family tree.  Her  maternal grandfather was Sally's father; Sally's children by Thomas Jefferson were Patsy's siblings.  Phew. Confusing.  This was a big issue between Jefferson and Patsy, and the struggle Patsy goes through to understand why and come to peace with Sally runs throughout the novel.  If I got anything from this novel, it was to be careful what you ask of others, and what you promise a dying loved one. It can trap you and haunt you the rest of your life.

This novel had me stopping and Googling everyone I read about:  Patsy, Jefferson, Thomas Randolph, William Short, Sally Hemings and children....I spent a lot of time reading about them.  I am always a bit hesitant to read historical fiction based on real people because inevitably there is something completely out of left field that isn't true.  As a history gal, I hate to think people will read historical fiction and believe every bit of it is true.  Patsy's relationship with William Short is something that may or may not be true; it makes for a good plot movement in this novel, but I can't find anything factual that ever mentions the two of them as lovers.  I'll leave that up to you to decide. 

You will enjoy this book.  Oh, my heart ached for Patsy.  She is one tough cookie.  It took her a long time and a lot of angst to get there.  She lived her life much as her father did, sacrificing personal happiness for the greater good.  But her love for her father, as his for her, is admirable, and comes across the pages quite clearly.  Reading about my country in its early growing pains and struggles  reminds me that even today, we still have issues of race, equality, and the role of the government in the everyday lives of Americans.  Elections were nasty, and people weren't above spreading malicious gossip to damage reputations.  People haven't changed.  And life was not easy for a woman caught between duty and love.

Rating:  9/10 for a thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking novel about  family, an incredible woman, and what we will do to keep and protect our lives.  I loved reading about post-revolutionary America, Paris as it tumbled into revolution, and so many famous fathers of our country.  

Available in paperback, e-book, and large print hardcover. 


Sunday, April 3, 2016

In the Light of What We See by Sarah Painter

I am lucky to have found another author who writes in a genre that is one of my favorites: magical reality.  Sarah Painter has written three novels, and I have them all on my Nook.  An opportunity to read and review this, her third book, had me hitting "Buy Now" to grab her first two: The Secret of Ghosts  and The Language of Spells (there is also a novella available as a 'prequel').  

This novel has two stories and two female characters living in different times, but bound by a place and a nagging sense of danger.  Grace, in 1938, has begun work as a nurse at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton, England.  She has disgraced her family by getting pregnant.  Unfortunately for Grace, the pregnancy was a result of a rape by a family friend.  Telling her parents about the pregnancy sent her father into a rage against the humiliation his family faced having such a bad girl, and he kicked and punched her until she lost the baby.  With no happy life ahead of her staying with her family, she fled to Brighton for a second chance.  Quiet and reserved, she struggles to be a nurse in a place where long, difficult days on her feet exhaust her, and a fear of being dismissed keeps her on her toes.  

In present day, Mina works at the Royal Sussex Hospital as a radiologist.  She's not a terribly happy person, and is in a relationship with her boss, Mark,  but is trying to end it.  Mina ends up in the hospital as a patient after a bad car wreck.  She's had head injuries, a damaged knee, and burns on her leg.  She can't remember what happened, and Mark soon arrives, telling everyone he's her boyfriend.  Mina has a sense of uneasiness around him, but without her memory, is hard pressed to understand why.  

As Mina spends weeks in the hospital, she sees a nurse standing near her bed and soon realizes the nurse is not one of the nurses that work on the floor, but rather an apparition.  Who is the nurse, and why is she there?  What is she trying to tell Mina?

Grace struggles to feel at home as a nurse in the hospital, and shares a room with Evie, who is fun, flirty, and full of life.  Friendship is there, if only Grace will reach out.  Meanwhile, she is slowly becoming aware that Dr. Palmer has his eye on her, and he terrifies Grace with his demeanor; catching her alone, saying inappropriate things to her.  She doesn't know what to do, and is afraid history will repeat itself.  

Mina's memory slowly starts to come back, and flashes of memories with Mark and her estranged family have her questioning her life, and how the accident happened.  What connection does Grace and Mina have, and will it save Mina?

I enjoyed this novel very much.  Mina isn't a very nice person, but her time in the hospital begins to change her.  Not remembering who she was gives her an opportunity to become a Mina that is kinder, more thoughtful, and capable of sharing her feelings with others.  Grace is super reserved, and you can't blame her after being shunned by her family, and told over and over that she wasn't a good girl.  When all is said and done, this is a novel about women in dangerous relationships, and how sometimes others need to intercede before something horrible happens.  It's about women looking out for each other, and creating family out of those who care about us the most.  A ghostly nurse, apparitions of birds, and foreshadowing add a touch of magic to an entertaining tale.

Thank you to NetGalley and Sarah Painter for a chance to read and review this novel.  

Available in paperback, e-book, and audio.

Rating:  7/10