The Burnaby Series // by Anne Emery

  • Senior Year
  • Going Steady
  • Sorority Girl
  • High Note, Low Note
  • Campus Melody

These are happy if somewhat unexciting books published back in the 1950’s by my old favorite Scholastic Book Service.  I can’t tell you how many of those 1950’s Scholastic paperbacks I have picked up for a dime at various book sales and garage sales, basically guaranteed to be good for at least one read.

And now I own even more because I only started with two of these books and ended up buying the other three on eBay.  :-D  (Because yes, my quest to read all of my own books sometimes involves needing to buy more books to accomplish this…)

//published 1949//

Senior Year focuses on Sally Burnaby, the oldest of five children, who is – you guessed it – a high school senior.  She’s excited about this final year of high school because she has a great life and figures that this grand finale will be even better.  She’s anticipating a year of fun and frolic, and also looking forward to going away to college – getting out of the house and away from the family for the first time.  Of course, not all is a bed of roses.  Sally’s best friend from childhood has received a special gift from an elderly relative and spending their senior year away at a boarding school, leaving Sally – who is something of a follower – feeling a bit adrift.  Her other best friend/long-time date/neighbor, Scotty, suddenly doesn’t seem as interested in escorting Sally on dates anymore, maybe because Sally has suddenly started thinking that going steady with Scotty might be nice.

I was honestly surprised at the casual way in which Emery approached some more difficult subjects.  Modern writers and readers frequently dismiss these older books as no longer relevant, because apparently everyone in the 50’s lived in a Leave It to Beaver sort of dream world.  But despite the fact that the Burnabys are a close-knit and happy family with two parents who love each other very much, and a mother who doesn’t work outside the home, the challenges and struggles that Sally face seemed quite modern to me.  She struggles with disagreeing with her parents on how she should be living her life and spending her time, struggling with that strange moment in time where you are still under your parents’ authority but are starting to become an adult, struggles with friends who are drinking and becoming more sexually involved than Sally was comfortable with (not in an explicit way, but being explicit isn’t actually necessary).  She struggles to find her true self, to understand what is really important in a friend, and learn whether it’s worth sacrificing standards just to avoid being single.

//published 1950//

In short, I really enjoyed watching Sally’s character develop and grow, which carried over in Going Steady.  In this book, Sally and Scotty decide to become a couple during the summer after they graduated from high school.  They have been good friends their entire lives, and this feels like the natural next step.  This book got a little too much about Scotty and felt repetitive at times, but still felt honest nonetheless.  I really loved one section of the book where one of Sally’s high school friends has gotten married right away, and then got pregnant right away.  At this point in time, Sally and Scotty are feeling rebellious because their families think they are moving too fast, and they have also decided to get married.  When they go to visit Sally’s newlywed friends, however, they recognize the wisdom of a lot of what their parents have had to say about the financial struggles of getting married so soon and other difficulties that really only work if you have a genuine foundation of lasting love – which Scotty and Sally are starting to realize they don’t actually have.

This was such an intriguing book to me because, in the end, the guy doesn’t get the girl – the girl gets single and realizes how happy she can be that way.  It wasn’t in this crazy feminist “a girl never needs a man” kind of way.  Instead, this book was really about how love works best when it happens at the right time instead of being rushed.  It wasn’t the right time for Sally and Scotty, and when they realized that, they were able to look to their futures in a more healthy, happy way.  Throughout the story, Sally had clung to her relationship with Scotty because being single seemed like such a terrible fate.  But int he end I love that she decides that it’s time “to be the kind of person who could have fun without a man.”  Not because relationships are inherently bad, but because being in one with the wrong person just so you aren’t alone is.

//published 1952//

The next three book focus on Sally’s sister, Jean, who is two years younger.  I was a little sad to leave Sally behind, but Jean is also a likable individual who had shown up quite a bit during the first two books.  Sorority Girl opens during Jean’s junior year of high school, right after the ending of Going Steady.  Sally is now attending their local college (where their father is a professor), so we do see her here and there, along with her new boyfriend, who is just adorable.  Throughout the first two books, Jean began hanging out with Jeff, who is her regular escort to various events, but not her official boyfriend.  They’re very close, though.  In the background of Sally’s books, Jean was finding her feet and becoming more outgoing, and is now thoroughly involved in high school activities with a close circle of friends.

I appreciated that Jean is really quite a different character from Sally.  Sally is quieter and follower who had to learn how to make her own way.  Jean is more outgoing and fun, and also more dependent on having people like her.  She’s very musical and is starting to think that she may be able to make a career of playing the piano.

However, things change when she is approached by the members of the high school sorority.  Technically, groups and clubs that “seeks to perpetuate itself by taking on its members on the basis of personal preference of its membership, rather than upon the stated qualifications for membership.”  But some allowances are made in a sort of “we pretend we don’t notice” kind of way, for two sororities and two fraternities.  Jeans adventures with becoming and joining the Nightingales were quite interesting to me.  Watching Jean get caught up in the “honor” of becoming part of an exclusive group, and then watching her realize that this mean also excluding people she likes and admires, was insightful.  There was a lot to learn from this book, and I appreciated that Jean didn’t just magically wake up perfect, but really wrestled – not just with figuring out what was the right thing to do, but then actually doing that right thing even after she knew what it was.

//published 1954//

High Note, Low Note follows Jean through her senior year.  She and Jeff are going steady, and both are looking to the future.  However, Jean feels uncomfortable because Jeff is a lot more serious about their future being together than she is.  This one was a little too much about boys to be as enjoyable as some of the others, but still read well.

//published 1955//

Finally, Campus Melody follows Jean to her freshman year at college, where she is attending on a music scholarship.  This was a good book about that initial adjustment to living away from home – away from that support system that you almost don’t even realize is guiding you throughout your teen years.  Jean makes some rather poor decisions and learns from them, especially involving a popular senior on campus who starts dating her.

I think the only thing that disappointed me in this book was the ending, which I felt like was a bit of a cop-out and didn’t actually fit with all the lessons Jean had been learning throughout the story.  However, it did mean that everything tied together neatly, so I was willing to forgive it a bit.

All in all, this review has been a lot longer and more rambly than I anticipated, but I really did enjoy this little series.  They weren’t ground-breaking books, but they were pleasant and engaging reads.  At my age, I think what I actually enjoyed the most were the parenting techniques of Mr. and Mrs. Burnaby, who were really fantastic background characters with a lot to offer.

One note – for some reason Goodreads does not have this series listed in the proper order.  Instead, they list Sorority Girl as book #5, when, by both publishing date and chronologically to the overall story, it is obviously #3.  Reading books in their proper order is extremely important to me, so I found that bit of misinformation to be quite aggravating.

Most of these books were a 3-4/5 for me, and I think the series as a whole is a 3.5/5.  While they aren’t ground-breaking literature, and could be a bit repetitive in parts, I think they have just as much to offer in terms of life-lessons and pleasurable reading as 85% of contemporary YA – and all without the sex, swearing, and divorce!

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The Giver Quartet // by Lois Lowry

  • The Giver – 4.5/5 (published 1993)
  • Gathering Blue  – 3.5/5 (published 2000)
  • Messenger – 2/5 (published 2004)
  • Son – 3/5 (published 2012)

It had been many years since I originally read The Giver (and was mind-blown by it), and until recently I didn’t even realize that there were other books that followed it.  So I was pretty excited to dive into this quartet.  However, while I found The Giver as brilliant as ever, I felt that the other books really dropped off, especially Messenger, and, to some extent, Son.  I’m not even sure that I can give this series a rating as a whole because of the wildly differing ratings between books.  I guess a 3/5 overall, but I strongly recommend reading The Giver even if you decide to give the other books a miss.  And you totally can, because while the rest of the books sometimes involve characters from the first book, none of them really build on themes from the first book – and it’s the themes that make The Giver so fantastic.

There will definitely be spoilers throughout the rest of this review, as it’s impossible to really rant without spoilers.  So if you intend to read the series, do that first and then come back and see if you agree with me…

The Giver is a brilliant book that reveals everything in perfect time.  As the reader slowly grows to understand the community where Jonas lives, it becomes more and more creepy, and it’s done just so, so well.  It’s not a very long book, or one full of lengthy descriptions or conversations, but it’s very brevity is part of what makes it so amazing.  The concept of individuality and feelings exchanged for safety is really intriguing.

For me personally, the only let down is the ending, which is rather strange and ambiguous.  First off, the plan that the Giver and Jonas hatched never really made sense to me.  The reason that the original Receiver’s memories returned to the community was because she died, and it doesn’t really make sense to me that Jonas just leaving the community would release those memories to the people.  The ending, with Jonas and the sled is also just really weird.  Like is there an actual sled?  Is Jonas just hallucinating?  Does he actually die out in the snow or does he really make it to safety?  The ending is abrupt and a little strange, which is why the book doesn’t get the full 5* for me.  However, part of that is just personal opinion.

Gathering Blue is listed as a companion novel, not a sequel.  However, I would not have even placed it as that if I had just come across it at random.  The story takes place in a completely different location with a completely different culture.  Still, it was a good story overall.  I really liked Kira, and watching her discover things about her village was intriguing, a similar self-discovery path to Jonas’s in the first book, this concept that just because things “always have been” doesn’t necessarily make them right.

However, I still had some questions about this book.  Like what is the whole thing with the Beasts?  It seems obvious that they aren’t real and are being used as a method of manipulation by the village’s leaders, but that’s never really made clear.  Overall, the village leaders’ whole purpose isn’t really explained in any way.  Apparently they are trying to control the people to… what?  They’ve made sure they have control over certain talented youth in the village, but we never find out exactly what they plan to do with them.

And again, an ambiguous ending.  So Kira is going to stay and ‘fix’ things – but how?  Just by weaving some cloth?  There aren’t really any answers, and I wasn’t particularly left with confidence in her ability to change the whole village.  Overall, I enjoyed the story, but was a bit let down by the vague ending and the complete lack of connection to The Giver.

I don’t really know what I was expecting when I opened Messenger, but what I got was… weird.  This whole book felt extremely strange, and I don’t know if I am just getting worse at understanding things, or if it really doesn’t make any sense.  First off, it got strangely… supernatural, I guess.  The first two books felt like they could be real, a future world but still our world.  But in Messenger, the gifts that people like Kira had in Gathering Blue suddenly become Gifts, and they are a strange supernatural ability that transcends understanding – it felt like this was a weird fantasy book instead of something dystopian like the first two books.  I mean, Matty can heal things just by putting his hands on them and thinking about it??

The forest, which was just a… well, forest, in Gathering Blue suddenly becomes Forest, a restless and potentially malevolent force that physically attacks people, determining whether or not they can ever reenter the woods.  Just…  ????

We find out that Jonas arrived at the village where Matty now lives (Matty was Kira’s friend in Gathering Blue, and these two villages are few days’ travel apart).  This is the first we’ve come across Jonas since The Giver, and apparently he and Gabe literally arrived on a sled?  So there really was a sled on top of the hill?  Like… why?  Why was a sled just sitting by a tree?  Did Forest put it there since apparently it just does whatever it wants?  Anyway, since then, even though Jonas is still just a teenager, he has become the leader of this village (“Leader”, because everyone receives their “true name” when they become an adult, so they are basically known by some random quality instead of a name – Mentor, Healer, Herbalist, Seer, etc. also strange).  He also has a Gift.  In The Giver it made sense that Jonas “saw beyond” because what he was actually seeing were things that the other people from his town had been genetically modified to not see, e.g. color, etc.  But in Messenger, Jonas/Leader is able to actually see things beyond his literal line of sight – so he can ‘see’ the progress Matty is making through Forest, etc.

So yeah, the Gifts become kind of weird, and suddenly the story no longer feels like it’s a future version of our world, but like it’s something entirely different, which put everything off-kilter for me.  And this doesn’t even get into the weird Trademaster thing, where this strange guy shows up and people from Village can go and trade with him, except apparently they are actually trading parts of themselves?  And in exchange they start getting mean and nasty, but then in the end Matty magically heals Forest and Village and everything and everyone just goes back to normal…  I guess?!?!  It was a really weird book and I felt confused literally the entire time I was reading it.

Finally, we get to Son.  This book started really well.  It’s about Gabe’s birthmother, Claire.  Of course, in the community where Jonas and Gabe came from, people don’t have children naturally; certain females are chosen to be inseminated and bear a Product.  Now the book already started weird to me because apparently the community had the Birthmothers have their first pregnancy at age 14??  And while this is quite possible, it doesn’t really fit in with everything else in the community, which is done at maximum efficiency.  Like age 14 is not the ideal age to have your first child, so I don’t feel like that is really when they would have impregnated the Birthmothers.  But whatever.

Anyway, basically Son starts as a kind of prequel/parallel to The Giver, except from Claire’s perspective.  Something goes wrong during her birthing process and they have to surgically remove her baby.  However, during pregnancy, Birthmothers are exempt from taking the Pills that keep people from having feelings.  Claire is declared unfit to give birth again, and reassigned to the Fish Hatchery… but no one remembers to have her start taking the Pills.  So Claire is left with actual real feelings, and, like a natural mother, yearns to find/see/hold/have her own baby again.  She manages to locate him, and is able to visit him (without anyone knowing that she is his Birthmother, of course), and this is the whole first part of the book and is done really well.

Then.  Then the part comes where Jonas and Gabe run away.  Lowry conveniently has Claire escape from the community, but does it without really telling us how –

Years later – many years later – when Claire tried to piece together memories of her last days in the community, the last things she could see whole and clear were the bicycle moving away and the back of the child’s head.  The rest of the hours that followed were fragments, like bits of shattered glass.

So somehow Claire manages to get on a supply boat, ride out to the ocean, get shipwrecked, and then get washed up on a beach, all in about two pages with no real explanations.  This really felt like cheating.

Next, Claire ends up in a remote fishing village, that apparently has no way in or out??  Like they have this horrific path that no one can climb that goes straight up a cliff, or they can try to leave by boat except the currents are too dangerous.  I don’t mean to be weird here, but Lowry specifically says that no one could remember the last time a stranger arrived in their village… doesn’t it seem like this place would be horrifically inbred?  It felt extremely strange, again.

Eventually Clarie regains her memory and is determined to find her son.  A crippled guy helps her train to climb the cliff path.  He did it this one time, years and years ago, but conveniently remembers every single step of the way, down to the exact distances she is going to have to jump between rocks at certain places, so he makes her train FOR LITERAL ACTUAL YEARS and then she leaves.  Of course, she gets to the top, and guess who is there??  Trademaster!

By this point, I was so aggravated with this entire book that I almost didn’t finish it, and basically skimmed the rest.  Blah blah blah Claire trades her youth.  Oh surprise, she never bothers to tell Gabe that she’s his mother.  Instead, she just hangs out like a creeper in Village and watches him from afar.  Eventually Gabe has to go do a final battle with Trademaster because he has a Gift, of course.

It just.  It didn’t make sense.  None of it really made any sense.

So this review has gotten regrettably long and rambly, but the point is that I was really intrigued by these books, but then they just kept making less and less sense as they went along.  The Giver had a very tight, poignant narrative that was thought-provoking and eye-opening.  The rest of the books were just kind of weird fairy tales that didn’t seem to have much of a point.  I don’t regret reading them, but I don’t really see myself returning to them, either.

The Hidden Life of Trees // by Peter Wohlleben

//published 2015//

Do you ever read a book that you really, really want to like… but just can’t?  That’s where I ended up with The Hidden Life of Trees, a book whose premise really intrigued me, but the follow-through just wasn’t all that great.  This book had been on my TBR for a while, and I was pretty stoked when I received it as my second book from Mr. B’s Emporium.

Wohlleben manages a forest in Germany, and so spends a great deal of time with trees.  His book sets forth the case that trees can communicate with one another, and can work together as a social network to support and care for one another as well.  And I actually agree with all of those things.  Forests are magical, and it’s obvious when you spend time just quietly sitting in one that there is a great deal going on.

However, there were a couple of things about the book that just didn’t resonate with me.  The first was simply the lack of orderly progression through the book.  Each chapter just felt like a random essay.  The chapters didn’t really build together, and he references things both before and after his point of writing.  While it makes sense to direct readers back to something we’ve already covered, or even to mention that something may be covered more in-depth in a future chapter, Wohlleben does this in a way that sometimes left me confused – why is he talking about this if we haven’t actually read the section that’s two chapters ahead?  Why didn’t he mention this back three chapters ago when we were already talking about this topic?  The whole book felt rather choppy and disorganized, rather than flowing together as a whole.

The second thing that began to get on my nerves after a while was Wohlleben’s tendency to make leaps in logic.  He presents a situation, and then explains ‘why’ this is – as though there are no other options.  Such as this:

And how do trees register that the warmer days are because of spring and not late summer?  The appropriate reaction is triggered by a combination of day length and temperature.  Rising temperatures mean it’s spring.  Falling temperatures mean it’s fall.  …  And what this proves as well, by the way, is that trees must have a memory.  How else could they inwardly compare day lengths or count warm days?

I mean, really?  Trees having memory is only way that they could respond to day length/temperature fluctuations?  It isn’t even that I agree or disagree about trees having memory.  It’s the way that it’s presented as conclusive fact, with no science or study behind it: “What this proves…”  But does it?

There are also moments when it feels like Wohlleben has no idea what he is doing or talking about.  My mind was absolutely blown by this paragraph, where he is talking about the dangers of invasive diseases and insects:

In connection with this, I sometimes wonder if foresters don’t play a role in the spread of the disease. I visited damaged forests in southern Germany, and then afterward, I was out and about in the forest I manage – wearing the same shoes!  Might there have been tiny fungal spores on my soles that traveled into the Eifel mountains as stowaways?

You think!?  I think we can mark page 216 as the point where I lost all respect for Wohlleben as a forester.  It’s pretty basic management technique when caring for any living thing, from dairy cattle to corn to trees to disinfect your clothing and shoes (and in many cases, things like the tires on your car as well) when going from unhealthy, diseased creatures to the healthy ones.  He goes on to say, “Whatever the case may be, since then, the first ash trees in Hummel have also been struck with the disease.”  !??!!?!?!?

There was also a definite attitude that only ancient forests really have this art of communication going on.  Young forests, or ones that have been planted, lack the true connection of the ancient forests.  And while this does seem true at some level… I also think that there is still communication and feeling within younger forests – and even artificial ones.  I’ve walked through many stands of planted pine, like the ones Wohlleben dismisses, and they still possess that sense of communion.  According to Wohlleben’s logic, virtually no stand of trees in the United States is really worth bothering about, as most of them are only a few hundred years old…

All in all, I was just rather put off by Wohlleben’s condescending tone throughout.  He would say things like, “Statistically speaking, each tree raises exactly one adult offspring to take its place.”  So… forests never get larger when left to their own devices?  And how can you make such a sweeping statement, anyway?  How can you say that, across the literally billions of trees on the entire planet, there is always a stagnant number of trees, because each adult tree is producing exactly one offspring?  I mean really.

I wanted this book to be magical, because trees are magical.  I’m honestly quite passionate about trees and forests; my sisters thinks that I may be a misplaced dryad.  (My tree is a birch, if you’re interested.)  But Wohlleben took all the magic out of the whole conversation.  His writing was rather dry and, as I said, condescending.  He used just enough science to make himself sound important, but not enough to make this a legitimate scientific book.  While there were bits and pieces that were interesting, Wohlleben himself aggravated me too much for me to really love this book.

A 3/5 for an interesting concept for some chapters that were decent to read, but overall not particularly recommended.

November Minireviews

So I find that I not-infrequently read books that I just feel rather “meh” about and they don’t seem worth writing an entire post about.  However, since I also use this blog as a sort of book-review diary, I like to at least say something.  So I’ve started a monthly post with minireviews of all those books that just didn’t get more than a few paragraphs of feelings from me.

The Voyage to Magical North and The Journey to Dragon Island by Claire Fayers

//published 2016//

I have to say that I actually really, really enjoyed these books, so the whole “meh” feeling doesn’t really apply here.  I gave them an easy 4/5 and completely enjoyed joining Brine on her unexpected pirate ship adventure.  Fayers did a great job with world-building – as an adult, I still found interesting and engaging, but I think that the target audience (middle school) would still easily be able to follow the simple yet involved rules of Brine’s world.

//published 2017//

Brine herself is a very fun heroine, and I felt like her character was balanced out well by Peter, and later Tom.  All in all, I enjoyed how the characters didn’t really fall into stereotypes, but also didn’t feel like they were trying to not fall into stereotypes.

I would definitely recommend these fun and magical little books, and will be looking out for further adventures of Brine & co. in the future.

Cinchfoot by Thomas Hinkle

//published 1938//

Another Famous Horse Story, I found this one to be a bit boring.  Cinchfoot just sort of meanders about but there isn’t a really strong plot or story that feels like it is pulling things along.  Not a bad read, but not one I see myself returning to again.  3/5.

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars by Daniel Pinkwater

//published 1979//

While this wasn’t my favorite Pinkwater book ever, it still had some very funny moments.  I also think that Pinkwater’s thoughts/views on the educational system are brilliantly insightful and cutting.  I also loved the way that Lionel realized that if he wasn’t learning things, it was his own fault at some level.  Some of the adventures the boys have are quite ridiculous, but the ridiculous is exactly what Pinkwater writes so well.  3.5/5 and I do recommend it, but only if you’ve read some of Pinkwater’s stronger works first.

The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer

//published 1946//

This was a pretty adorable little Heyer tale.  I did find Carlyon a bit too overbearing at times, but Elinor was just too adorable, as was Carlyon’s younger brother.  I quite enjoyed the way that the love story was secondary to all the ridiculous spy tales.  Fun and frothy; classic Heyer.  4/5.

The Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

//published 2017//

So I purchased this edition because of the amazing illustrations by MinaLima.  My husband gave me some money for my birthday that he said was specifically for books, and, more specifically, I must purchase at least one book that I’ve been not purchasing because of its unreasonable expense!  This one fit the bill – but it was worth every penny, as the book itself is absolutely gorgeous. The illustrations are amazing – not just the big, fancy, interactive ones, but all the details on every page.

It was also interesting to read the original version of B&B – it’s a great deal more convoluted and involved than the traditional version we see these days, as Beauty has eleven (!!!) siblings, and there are multiple chapters devoted to a complicated backstory with fairy feuds.  It was still a very engaging story, although I can see why it has evolved the way that it has, getting rid of some of the extraneous characters and building more personality among those that are left.

Anyway, this was definitely a worthwhile purchase and read, and I can see myself returning to this gorgeous book many times in the future.

The Backyard Homestead Seasonal Planner by Ann Larkin Hansen

//published 2017//

This is another Storey book, and another addition to their Backyard Homestead series.  While this book did have some interesting information, and I did like the format where things were laid out by season, it was definitely an outline type of a book.  There wasn’t really a lot of depth about anything, making this more of a starting-point reference rather than an end-all tome.  It makes a nice addition to my collection, but definitely wouldn’t be the book I would choose if I could only have one homesteading manual.  Still, excellent formatting and very nicely put together, as I’ve come to expect from Storey.

The Little Nugget by P.G. Wodehouse

//published 1913//

This was a fun little tale of a very obnoxious little boy who is worth a great deal of money, and so has multiple people attempting to kidnap him for various reasons.  While there were several funny moments and it was overall an enjoyable tale, it wasn’t as developed as most of Wodehouse’s later works, and lacked that sort of bubbly perfection.  It was an easy 3/5 read and one that I do recommend, but not if it is your first foray into the world of Wodehouse.

The Jackaby Quartet // by William Ritter

//published 2017//

So in August the fourth (and final, as far as I can tell) Jackaby book hit the shelves.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three books, I was eager to reread them and then get the grand finale.  So this is mostly going to be a review of The Dire King, with some thoughts about the series as a whole.  The links go back to earlier reviews of the series (not this time around).  When reviewing the final book of a series, it’s virtually impossible to avoid some spoilers, so the brief review is: 3/5 for Dire King and 4/5 for the series as a whole.  I personally didn’t like the way a bunch of things concluded in Dire King, but that’s kind of a matter of personal opinion, as it technically worked.  But in the end I was left with a lot more questions than answers, and felt like the plotting in the final book was rather sloppy, like Ritter was hoping that as long as there was enough action, the readers wouldn’t notice gaping holes in the logic.

I really wish that Ritter had stuck with episodic stories for this series.  I still think the first book was the best of the bunch, and it was because it was a self-contained story.  The further into The Grand Scheme that Ritter got, the sloppier the stories got, and the more it felt like he was only really interested in getting us to the final book.  The Grand Scheme got really involved and complicated, while the concept of just writing paranormal mysteries with these characters would have been fantastic.

More thoughts below with mild spoilers…

I really enjoyed reading back through the three earlier books, and actually liked Ghostly Echoes better the second time around when I already had an idea of where things were going.  (Maybe I’ll like The Dire King better if I reread it??)  These books are just plain fun.  The dialogue is hilarious, and Jackaby and Abigail are a brilliant combination of characters.  There’s still a bit too much modern SJW talk, with women’s rights being handled in a very heavy-handed way, and the whole transgender thing in Ghostly Echoes that makes absolutely no sense within the context of the story and is quite obviously being inserted to show us how open-minded Ritter is.  But I’m willing to overlook these types of things as long as the rest of the story holds up, and for the most part it does.

However, the further into the series we go, the more Ritter starts to build what I think of as The Grand Scheme.  Many series – in fact, most – do this, but for me it only works if the small schemes aren’t sacrificed in the process.  Each book should still be able to stand as a solid and engaging story on its own, and while it’s okay to have teasers leading into the next book/The Grand Scheme, it can be frustrating when it feels like I only got part of a story (I’m looking at you, Robin McKinley’s Pegasus).  Ritter doesn’t quite do this, but he’s close, which is probably another reason that I enjoyed Ghostly Echoes more the second time around – it wasn’t as annoying of an ending when I had the final book right in front of me!

The thing is, it just started to feel like Ritter had bitten off more than he could chew with his Grand Scheme.  All of a sudden we’re jumping in and out of fairy land and the land of the dead and we’ve got conflicting kingdoms and factions and all kinds of critters running around and it’s not really clear who is on which side and even if there are sides and there is this whole thing that’s going to apparently blow up the Veil that separates the physical world from the fairy world and there is this guy who can make zombies kinda and this little furry critter that gives cryptic advice and no one knows or really seems to care whose side he is on and then all of a sudden this one character who was kind of a minor character turns out to be the one who betrays everyone except when did she even meet the bad guy??  Like it felt extremely weird and was never explained how she even did what she did or why so her motivation makes literally zero sense and then in the end everyone apparently is just like Oh, okay, and they all go home??!?  And what happened with the zombie guy?  And apparently there was some guy who has been keeping the Veil safe for like hundreds of years and could live that long because he was wearing this magical gem but then he… took it off??  And died?? And the whole Veil started to collapse??  So why did he take it off??

Basically, the whole book made me kind of dizzy.  Things were happening very quickly and strangely without any genuine explanations, and instead of there being this big epilogue that made everything make sense, there was an ending that I found to be VERY STRANGE and did not like AT ALL.  The ending itself dropped the entire book a half star for me, like I could not get behind it at all.

So The Dire King was a bit of a letdown for me.  It had its moments, but just didn’t pull things together the way I had anticipated.  This series could have been a lot more fun and entertaining if Ritter had stuck with smaller stories that tied together instead of attempting to pull of a very complicated and involved Grand Scheme that just didn’t end up making a whole lot of sense.  I still recommend the series as a whole, and definitely will be rereading it sometime in the future – and maybe will enjoy The Dire King more when I have a sense of where it’s headed.  And I’ll be keeping an eye on Ritter to see what he decides to write next.

Heavier Than Heaven // by Charles Cross

//published 2001//

As a general rule of thumb, I don’t really like knowing all that much about the personal lives of artists whose work I enjoy.  Almost invariably, they turn out to be kind of sucky people, which in turn means I don’t actually enjoy their music/writing/artwork as much as I did back when I was ignorant about who they were as people.  There are, of course, exceptions – Agatha Christie’s autobiography was a delight that made me cherish her writing even more, and reading the collection of Wodehouse’s letters/biography was completely fascinating.

But in this case, I felt comfortable picking up this biography of Kurt Cobain because I already knew that Cobain was kind of a dreadful person, plus I’m really not that huge of a fan of Nirvana.  So why even bother, you may ask?  First off, because I am still working on my quest to read all of my own books – this is one that Tom had from before we were married, but it’s on my bookshelves, so it is on the list!  Secondly, even though I’m not a gigantic fan of Nirvana, I can still appreciate the fact that they are a band that changed the course of musical history.  Most of the time, if a certain band never appeared on the scene, we would miss that band’s music – but the course of music itself would be virtually unchanged.  But Nirvana created something that was different and set its own course, and I felt like that piece of history was worth exploring.

There is no doubt that Cobain was Nirvana.  It’s always interesting to me to see how some bands revolve around an individual, while others are comprised of a group.  For instance, Led Zeppelin was four guys – and once one of those guys was no longer in the band, Zeppelin ceased to exist.  They could never be the same band, because each of them contributed his own completely unique piece to the whole.  But other bands, like Nirvana, are really about the one guy.  The others can come and go (and the drummers certainly did), but at the end of the day, as long as the one guy is there, you still have the band.

I really felt like Cross did a great job with this biography.  It can be difficult to write about someone who is a cultural icon to many, especially what that person isn’t actually that awesome.  But Cross manages to present Cobain’s life in a way that was sympathetic, that explained a lot of his actions and attitudes, but didn’t necessarily excuse them.  He didn’t try to gloss over the way that Cobain was a liar, a drug abuser, and pretty arrogant.  Yet he still managed to make me see how people could come under his spell and still love and indulge him despite his difficult personality.

It’s pretty obvious that Cobain had some serious mental health issues.  Someone close to me is bipolar, and there was a dark time in our lives when this person was coming to grips with this and was unwilling to seek/accept treatment.  It’s so hard to know how to handle someone in that situation, whether to give into their whims or to stand up to them, because they are such a loose cannon – they aren’t going to respond like a ‘normal’ person, and you have no idea if telling them ‘no’ is going to make them say, ‘oh, okay,’ or will make them go off and cut themselves or worse.  It’s terrifying.

All that to say, I was in sympathy with a lot of the people in Cobain’s life, and I was also aware of how, someone like that, when the times are good – they’re really good.  During those highs, that person is the funniest, friendliest, most affectionate person you could imagine.  I could totally see how people in Cobain’s life would stay loyal to him even through the times that he treated them like trash.

Anyway, Cross takes Cobain’s life chronologically.  He spent years doing interviews, reading journals, doing research, etc., and this really comes through.  This isn’t a trashy piece of gossip, it’s a thoughtful and insightful piece of literature.  Cross talks a lot about Cobain’s childhood, I think in part because Cobain, in later years, created a sort of mythological/alternative childhood that never actually happened.  He tended to take something that really did happen, and then exaggerate it.  (E.g., left home in late teens and lived out of a car – becomes – had to live under a bridge for months because his parents refused to take care of him.)  Cross carefully presents the reality of these events based on numerous other eyewitnesses.  It’s also another interesting perspective of Cobain’s mental state – because in many of these cases, he himself now believed the alternate reality.  Cross points out multiple times where Cobain would tell a story so often, that it became truth in his mind.  It’s genuinely fascinating to me that sometimes liars don’t even realize/they forget that they are lying.

Cobain was an avid writer who journaled throughout his life.  These are a large part of what give a glimpse into what was a very disturbed mind, as Cobain was always rather obsessed with the crude and dark.  Cross does, at times, quote directly from these sources, and other times paraphrases them.  Among other things, Cobain frequently wrote letters that he never mailed, and liner notes that were never published.  At one point he was writing multiple drafts of a bio for the band when they were sending around their first demo tape.  My personal favorite included the explanation that, “Nirvana is a trio who play heavy rock with punk overtones.  They usually don’t have jobs.  So they can tour anytime.”

One of the great tragedies of Cobain’s life was that he was never really satisfied.  Even when he would attain a dream – his happiness was such a brief blip.  This was definitely due in part to his horrific drug addiction.  One which, even more tragically, he entered purposefully, planning to become addicted.  Addiction is a truly terrifying thing, and to read about how this became the single defining, controlling factor in his life was very sobering.

I was genuinely shocked, however, by reading about how dirty he was!  This seems to be a consistent theme from everyone who knew him – that he would legit just live in filth unless someone else came by to clean it up: unwashed dishes and clothes, not even a basic cleaning, filthy bathroom, pets that were allowed to be loose and left their feces around the house, etc.  ICK  I’m not going to pretend that my house is always ready for a photo shoot for Cottage Living, but at least I don’t leave animal waste sitting on the living room rug for days on end.

Something that really struck me was how Cobain let difficult times in his life win.  The biggest one is the divorce of his parents when he was young – an event that really traumatized Cobain and, in many ways, laid a foundation for all the mental illness to follow.  Cobain never got over this.  He never reached a point of peace with this event.  Instead, he let it control and embitter him for his entire life.  And this was a pattern he followed consistently.  When something difficult would come into his life, he never overcame it – he internalized it and let it eat him from the inside out.  I’m no expert, but I can see this leading to his eventual drug addiction as well – in his mind, the only way to escape the struggles of his life.

Cross follows Cobain slow descent into the darkness that would eventually cause him to take his own life.  It was hard to read, honestly – just so completely, unnecessarily tragic.  And, let’s be frank, incredibly selfish.  Even this, his final act on earth, was all about himself.  I will say that this was the only section of the book that didn’t really ring true for me, just because Cross describes in detail exactly the steps Cobain took to kill himself – when most of that time Cobain was completely alone and left no record, so really Cross is just making an educated guess as to what occurred.  My understanding is that everything that went into this book had to be cleared by Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love (who is also kind of a jerk and definitely was not universally liked by everyone else in Cobain’s life), so I’m sure that she preferred to have a detailed, step-by-step explanation of Cobain’s suicide, considering that there are still a lot of conspiracy theories that he was murdered, and that Love was the one who arranged for the murder to occur.  (Cross doesn’t mention this theory even in passing; suicide is presented as unquestionable fact.  I have done virtually zero research into this conspiracy theory and have no idea if it holds even a drop of water or not.  I will say that suicide definitely fits the overall mental attitude of Cobain’s life; I’ll also say that I can totally see Love having him knocked off because she really is a dreadful sort of woman.)

This book didn’t particularly make me want to listen to more Nirvana.  I did listen through Nevermind and In Utero while I was reading it, and maintained my opinion that, overall, this music is just wayyyy to angsty for my tastes, but it was fun to hear the songs while I was learning about their contexts.

While Heavier Than Heaven was not an easy, or particularly fun, read, it was still worthwhile.  This is a biography that is well-researched and thoughtfully written, leaving me with a picture of a man who was not a hero or a god, nor a villain or a devil – just simply a man, haunted by his own decisions and demons.  Whether you think Nirvan’s music is inspired or trash (or, like me, hit and miss), there is no doubt that the man behind the band was complicated and layered.  Setting aside his musical legacy, this biography was still a worthwhile read as an examination of what mental illness and drug addiction can do to a life.  If you love Nirvana and their music really speaks to you and you prefer to think of Cobain as a sort of saint or inspiration, you may not want to read this biography, as it doesn’t hesitate to point out Cobain’s flaws as well as his good points.

The advent of Nirvana was genuinely a musical epoch, a band that set the tone for a generation.  Reading the story behind their creator was quite fascinating and well worth the effort.

‘Love Inspired’ – Part 2

A while back my great-aunt passed away, and somehow my grandpa ended up with two boxes full of books.  Almost all of them are ‘inspirational’ romances published by Harlequin as ‘Love Inspired’.  At one point (not sure if you still can) you could subscribe and have a new book mailed to you every month.  Aunt Darby did just that, and now I’m in possession of somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 or so of these ‘Love Inspired’ titles.  Most of them are pretty cheesy but alright for a one-time fluff read.  I’m sure that I’ll binge through some of them periodically.  They’re perfect to grab out of the crate when I’m just looking for a quick, no-brainer book.  However, most of them will probably end up exiting this house after that one-time read, because they just aren’t worth the shelf space to me.  So if there’s one that sounds especially appealing to you… let me know, and I’ll be quite happy to mail you a gift!  ;-)

Here’s the next round of five for this project – the first five can be found here.

The Pastor Takes a Wife by Anna Schmidt

//published 2010//

This was a pleasant little story where single-mom Megan falls for the new pastor, Jeb.  There was actually a little bit of grit to this story that I liked, but I just wasn’t feeling the chemistry between Megan and Jeb.  I’m always annoyed when a story spends the majority of the time talking about why two people aren’t suited for each other – and then magically, at the end, they are!

Still, overall a nice little tale that was pleasant for a one-off read – 3/5.

A Mother’s Gift by Arlene James and Kathryn Springer

//published 2010//

This is actually two novellas in one volume.  The first, Dreaming of a Family, could have been an alright read, but Dixie was just over-the-top rude to Joel at the beginning.  I found it impossible to believe that an adult woman would say the things she said to a comparative stranger, especially making fun of his physical handicap.  It was just absurd.  2/5.

The second, The Mommy Wish, was better, but Julia of course has this deep, dark secret that if Nick knew about it, it would change his whole perspective of her, and she’s kept herself locked away and never goes out to see people and it’s been years of angst… and then the ‘terrible’ thing just really wasn’t that terrible.  I mean sad, yes, but worth years of agony?  Not remotely.  Still, 3/5 for an otherwise fun story that did have some nice moments.

Triplets Find a Mom by Annie Jones

//published 2012//

This one was so bad that I had to DNF about halfway through.  I just can’t put my finger on what wasn’t working with this story.  It was like chunks of it were missing.  The story wasn’t bad, but the writing was honestly just kind of terrible.  The characters didn’t make a lot of sense, and everyone was just sort of milling around.  The concept was engaging and the setting was nice, but it was just so random and abrupt that I couldn’t get into the story at all.  It was just…  I don’t know.  For instance, Sam is a widower and he has triplet daughters.  Polly meets these girls for literally like 30 seconds.  She sees them the next day, and knows which one is which, despite the fact that they’re identical.  Like, just because Polly herself is a twin didn’t make me buy the concept that she magically can tell these identical girls apart immediately.  Sam has this weird thing about dogs that made zero sense, so when Polly finds a stray, she is determined to find another home for it because she doesn’t want to ‘bother’ the girls…???  It was just stuff like that all the time.  It felt like something was going to happen, and then there is just some weird thing out of nowhere instead.

Close to Home by Carolyn Aarsen

//published 2009//

Probably my favorite out of the batch (although that isn’t saying much).  Jace and Dodie were a good couple, and I appreciated the way that some sensitive topics were handled well.  However, it took waaaaaaaayyyyyyy too long for Dodie to freaking TALK TO JACE.  Like ONE CONVERSATION is all that needs to happen, and it dragged out way too long before that took place.

I was also a little uncomfortable with the concept that Dodie was ‘wasting her life’ because she hadn’t gone to college or pursued a career.  As someone who did go to college but has not pursued a career, and has worked part time random jobs very contentedly my entire life, I felt vaguely insulted.  Guess what, gang?  A career isn’t the only way to find validation and purpose in life!  Anyway – 3/5.

The Marriage Mission by Pam Andrews

//published 2010//

This was actually a really pleasant, nice little story.  I liked Mac and Jenny a lot and thought they made a great couple.  However, I was so bothered by the message of this book.  I kept reading because I thought it would actually get resolved in the end – but it really didn’t.

Basically, Mac has been working in foreign missions throughout his adult life.  He has come stateside to a small West Virginia town to accept a year-long post at a local church while he recovers from an improperly-set broken ankle.  There is the possibility that the church will call him to stay on permanently, and there is also a possibility that the mission he’s worked for will call him to another foreign post.  Mac falls for Jenny almost immediately, and the feeling is mutual.  But then it turns into this whole angsty thing about Mac feeling like he can’t ‘impose’ on Jenny by dating her when he isn’t sure if he is going to go back overseas, and Jenny feeling like she isn’t ‘worthy’ to go with Mac if he does go back overseas, yadda yadda yadda.  And what bothered me was that neither of them ever acted like, I don’t know, that if they were a couple they would actually be a team and could work through these things together?!  It was also never explained why Jenny couldn’t go with Mac if he did go overseas.  I feel like basically all the missionaries I know are married, and not all of the spouses went to seminary?  It seemed like Jenny’s compassion, hard-working attitude, and general common sense would make her an excellent missionary’s wife.

In the end, it’s all resolved because Mac decides not to go overseas – which didn’t feel like real resolution to me at all.  Mac never had a conversation with Jenny about whether she would be open to going overseas.  The insistence on the either/or scenario meant that so much of the tension in the book felt entirely contrived.  So 2.5/5 for this one.