Nordvick Mysteries Series // by Karin Anckarsvard

  • The Mysterious Schoolmaster
  • The Robber Ghost
  • Madcap Mystery
  • Rider by Night
  • The Riddle of the Ring

Published in the 1950’s (except the last book, in 1964), all five of these books are set in the same small Swedish town.  The first three books are about the same group of friends, especially focused on Michael and Cecelia.  Rider by Night is a few years later and only mentions Michael and Cecelia obliquely, although another member of the “gang” is an important character in the story.  The final book, The Riddle of the Ring, is actually about one Cecelia’s younger brothers, now in high school, who was just a baby in the first book.

All of these books were originally written in Swedish and were translated into English, and at least a few of them were published as Scholastic Book Club books, because those are the editions that I have of The Mysterious Schoolmaster, Madcap Mystery, and Rider by Night.  

There are great middle grade reads.  The Mysterious Schoolmaster focuses on a new teacher that seems to be acting suspiciously.  In the midst of the Cold War, Nordvick is an important naval town, and Michael’s father is the captain of a… ship or submarine or something along those lines – so he is especially aware of the danger of spies.  I saw a couple of reviews ragging this book for encouraging children to be distrustful of foreigners (although that’s literally not at all why they’re suspicious of this schoolteacher), but I really don’t think most kids are going to read this and then thing anyone who doesn’t speak English well is actually a spy.  I mean seriously.  Anyway, it’s a fun little adventure that I quite enjoyed as a youngster (and didn’t find inspiring me to assume all teachers I didn’t like were international spies).

The Robber Ghost and Madcap Mystery are a bit more mundane but are still fun stories.  These focus more on more typical middle grade/junior high problems with new students, bad grades, and potentially bad influences.  While I didn’t like these quite as well, they are still good stories.

Rider by Night is about an entirely different girl, although she does meet with a boy from Michael and Cecelia’s group of friends.  Jenny is completely horse crazy, and the story begins when her uncle gives her a horse of her own, which she boards at the local stables.  At first all is well, but soon Jenny begins to notice that something is “off” about her horse, and suspects that someone else is riding the horse on the sly.  I actually really enjoyed this book.  Along with The Mysterious Schoolmaster, I’ve owned it basically forever, and it’s the reason that I ended up finding the rest of the books, because somewhere along the line I realized that the Michael and Cecelia that Jenny runs into are the same characters from Schoolmaster, which led to me discovering the other three books.  Growing up, I was a bit horse crazy myself (without a horse-gifting uncle, alas) and this book was in my regular rotation of horse stories.

The final book is about a girl named Tommi and her friend, Henrick, who also happens to be Cecelia’s little brother.  Through a series of mostly believable events, Tommi’s mother is gifted a valuable ring, which Tommi accidentally takes to school – where it disappears.  This is a fun mystery because the solution is just so genuinely clever, and I loved it.

Overall, these were all in the 3.5-4* range.  Enjoyable and engaging with likable characters, they aren’t exactly brilliant, gripping stories, but I loved them as a kid and still enjoy them now.

June Minireviews – Part 3

So after spending a couple of weeks basically reading books for younger readers, I suddenly was filled with the yearning to read something for grown ups!  I happened to have an unread duology by Nora Roberts sitting on the shelf, so I started with those and then went on a bit of a book-buying binge, something I very, very rarely do because I mostly use the library to check out books I haven’t read yet, and spend my money buying books I already know that I love and want to reread.  But there was something kind of magical about getting a box of books I’ve never read, especially since I got most of them either on the super cheap via Book Outlet (which I just discovered) or thanks to an Amazon gift card I had been hoarding for just such an emergency as this.  Anyway, the next batch of minireviews is more focused on romcom and fun.

Sacred Sins by Nora Roberts – 3.5*

//published 1987//

This is another 1980’s romantic suspense from Nora Roberts, and really that’s about all the description you need.  I really liked the main characters and enjoyed the story at the time, but it was overall pretty forgettable.  The big reveal was a little bit confusing since it was someone who had been in the story earlier but I couldn’t remember very well, so it seemed like he either needed to be more in the story or just be a stranger, if that makes sense.  The pacing was good, and it was just nice to read a book about adults haha

Brazen Virtue by Nora Roberts – 4*

//published 1988//

A loose sequel to Sacred Sins, I ended up liking this one better.  In the first book, one of the main characters is a cop, and this book is about that cop’s partner, who I actually really liked in the first book as well.  This is one of those books where the reader knows who the murderer is from the very beginning, but that didn’t make it any less suspenseful.  A big part of this book is that the original person who gets murdered works for a company that provides phone sex, so that aspect was rather eye-roll-y for me, since it’s presented as a sort of “harmless” way to cheat on your wife, but overall the pacing and story really came together well for this one.

Side note – since I now publish little reviews on Litsy much closer to when I read the book, I’m back to mostly posting pictures of books that I take myself – which means you get a lil pic of Paisley with this one, and some background of my house/garden for some of the others!

My One Square Inch of Alaska by Sharon Short – 2*

//published 2013//

This was another traveling book club book, and another bust for me.  Part of it is the incredibly misleading synopsis, which acts as though the road trip that Donna and her brother take to Alaska is the driving plot of the book.  However, that was pretty far off base.  The book is actually about Donna, a teen in a small 1950’s Ohio town.  Donna spends most of the book whining about her life, and the author spends most of the book reinforcing any stereotype you can think of about small town residents, emphasizing how literally EVERYONE who lives in a small town is narrow-minded, prejudiced, uneducated, boorish, stupid, etc. etc.  As someone who lives in a small Ohio town, it was honestly genuinely offensive.  FINALLY Donna and her brother actually go to Alaska, and that entire part of the book felt completely unrealistic.  This was a book that annoyed me so much when I was reading it that I don’t even feel like reliving it via a cathartic rant.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – 3.5*

//published 2019/

So the way I picked which books I was going to buy was mostly finding anything on my TBR that looked romcom-y, because that was really, really what I wanted to read.  Sadly, it’s been a pretty mixed bag.  So far none of them have been terrible, but I’ve struggled to find any that have that actual fun, fluffy magic.  Our Stop was kind of typical.  The premise is great fun – Nadia loves to read the “Missed Connections” section of the paper (online of course) and one day reads an ad that may actually be addressed to her.  Daniel finds himself attracted to a woman he does know – he overheard a conversation she was having when she was in the park that made him admire her brains and empathy, and he has seen her a few times on his commuter train in the mornings. But how do you meet a stranger without coming across as creepy?  And so he writes the Missed Connection.  Throughout the story, Daniel and Nadia keep almost meeting through a series of circumstances that feels believable.

Whenever this book was being a romcom, it was funny and enjoyable.  However, it felt a bit like Williams wrote this happy, lighthearted story and someone read and told her that she really needed to remember that this is the 21st century, and people aren’t allowed to have fun books unless they also get some social commentary.  So there are all these random conversations where characters talk about loads of buzzwords.  Literally none of those conversations felt realistic or natural in their context, instead coming through as incredibly polemic – Remember, while we might be having fun here, we’re still feminists!  Never forget!  There’s an especially awkward scene involving Daniel’s roommate bringing home a very drunk girl from the bar and Daniel preventing the roommate from having sex with her because “If she can’t say yes, it means no!”  Which yes, is true, but doesn’t really fit the whole romcom flavor??  It was things like that that I didn’t necessarily disagree with what was being said, it just didn’t need to be said because it had literally nothing to do with the story.  That whole scene is a complete one-off that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of the plot, so apparently it was only inserted there to give readers a little mini-lesson on consent, I guess.

ANYWAY as seems to be the pattern with most of the books I got, this was fun for a one-time read, but not one I’m going to come back to again and again.  Enjoyable but not magical.

Roomies by Christina Lauren – 3.5*

//published 2017//

I literally cannot resist a marriage of convenience story.  It’s my all-time favorite trope, and even if a book sounds terrible, or has bad reviews, if it’s marriage of convenience, I’ll probably still read it!  Roomies ended up being a sort of meh read, mainly because it felt like the authors did literally zero research on green cards and how they work.  They were doing things like photoshopping pictures of themselves on a beach so they would have “photos” of their honeymoon… as though the government wouldn’t bother to check and see if they actually left NYC at any point?!  They were sending sexy text messages so they would be “on record”… as though they weren’t going to also be time-stamped??  It was just weird stuff like that that made the story feel really unrealistic and thus less enjoyable to me.  The actual romance was perfectly fine, although a smidge too angsty, but it was a struggle for me to get past their plans for “tricking” the government.

Cheaper by the Dozen // Belles on Their Toes // by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. & Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

I just have to start this review by saying that I LOVE these books.  It had been a while since I had read them (a common theme lately, I know!) but I enjoyed every page of both of these books.

For those who may be unfamiliar (or who have only ever watched the movie… ugh), both these books are actually memoir-types written by two of the siblings of the Gilbreth family, which consisted of their dad (Frank Sr.), their mother (Lillian), and twelve (!) children.  Married in 1904, the Gilbreths first child was born in 1905, and their youngest in 1922.  Cheaper by the Dozen covers a lot of that time period, especially from 1910 until the death of Frank Sr. in 1924.  Belles on Their Toes picks up the story immediately following Frank Sr.’s death, telling the story of how Lillian pressed on to raise her family on her own.

These are genuinely excellent books.  The chapters tend to be a bit episodic, but it works for the way the story flows.  Despite the genuinely tragic death of their father, these books are lighthearted and funny, the story of a large family with a good sense of humor and a great deal of love and affection for one another.

When I was younger, I enjoyed these books because of the entertaining stories; as an adult I find myself intrigued by the Gilbreths.  Frank Sr. was a mediocre to poor student who ended up basically self-teaching himself to become a motion-study engineer.  Raised by a single mother after the early death of his father, money was always tight growing up, and Frank started work at an early age.  Lillian, in contrast, grew up in California, raised by her well-heeled, genteel family.  She not only attended college, she obtained a degree in engineering and a doctorate in psychology.  She and Frank worked together in a field that they practically invented – motion study – which observed the methods that a task was being accomplished, analyzed it, and determined more efficient methods to obtain the same result.  Lillian also did work studying the “human factor” of work – many of the whys behind what a person was doing in his job.

//published 1949//

These books touch on these factors lightly, as background for the way the family operated.  Both Frank and Lillian had wanted to have a large family, and they implemented many of their motion-study techniques to help keep their own household running smoothly.  Frank was a charismatic, intelligent, confident man who was clearly loved by his children.  Lillian was quieter, but still had a strong sense of humor and worked hard to let her children know that she saw them as individuals and not just a unit.  I love the dedication in Cheaper by the Dozen – “To Dad, who only raised twelve children; and to Mother, who raised twelve only children.”

Like I said, the tragedy of this story is the early death of Frank in 1924, at the end of Cheaper by the Dozen.  It makes me cry every single time.  Long troubled with heart problems, Frank’s death wasn’t completely unexpected, but that didn’t make it any easier.  Somehow, Frank Jr.  and Ernestine manage to make their story stay more sweet than bitter, possibly because their love and respect for their dad really shines through.

//published 1950//

Belles on Their Toes opens only a few days after Frank’s death.  Before he died, he was getting ready to go overseas as a lecturer at a conference.  In order to have a genuine chance at keeping the family together, Lillian decides to take Frank’s place – an incredibly difficult decision, as it means leaving behind her children and traveling to Europe alone.  Although those weeks have to have been among the most difficult the family ever faced, Frank Jr. and Ernestine do an amazing job of balancing their grief with the adventures of everyday life in a huge family.  The oldest child, Anne, is 19.  Together, she and other older children work to keep everyone on schedule and on budget.

The book mostly is about the years when the majority of the children were home, but it does work its way all the way through the graduation of the youngest.  Throughout, there is such much love and respect for Lillian, a genuine admiration for the way that she was able to hold her family together and become respected in a field dominated by men.

While I was reading the books this time I looked up a lot more information about the Gilbreths (as you may be able to tell haha) and discovered that Frank Jr. actually wrote a third book, Time Out for Happiness, which is more of a straight biography of his parents.  I had never even heard of it, but have managed to get a copy from the library (it just came today, actually) and am genuinely looking forward to reading it.  The reviews of this book mostly seem to complain that it’s not as full of funny shenanigans as these two books, but I’m okay with that as I’m really very interested in their lives.

Despite the bittersweetness of these books due to Frank Sr.’s death, I highly recommend these books.  They are so funny and heartwarming.  Everyone doesn’t get along all the time, but there is an obvious love within the family that comes through on every page.  Highly recommended.

June Minireviews – Part 2

So, like I said, I read a lot of children’s books in June.  I was in the mood for some comforting rereads!!

The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink – 4*

//published 1959//

In this adorable book a family inherits a motel in Florida.  They go down over winter break to get things in order to sell it.  Of course, the children love it and want to stay, especially when they arrive and find that the motel is painted a bright, vibrant pink – which, in turn, seems to attract unusual residents, some of whom have been coming to stay there for years.  All the characters in this book are great fun, and there is just enough mystery to keep things moving.  This is an old favorite that I highly recommend.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell – 4*

//published 1960//

I hadn’t read this book since high school, but it’s held up pretty well over the years.  I was always a sucker for books about people living on their own in the wilderness, and that’s the premise of Blue Dolphins as well.  This book covers a weirdly long amount of time (I realize it was based on a true story and the author was working within those parameters but still) so it somewhat lacks urgency, but was still an interesting and engaging story.

The Snarkout Boys & the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater – 4.5*

//published 1982//

Wow, I love this book so much.  Pinkwater is absolutely insane and his books are not for everyone, since they frequently read like a weird dream, but I honestly love every page of this book.  It had been a long time since I’d actually read it all the way through and it’s even more ridiculous than I remembered, but in a way that made me super happy.  If you’re looking for something that is complete and utter nonsense, look no further than Pinkwater. This book may also appeal to you if you: love avocados, have ever known a mad scientist, think high school is biggest waste of time ever, ever used to sneak out of the house, or wish you had a 24hr movie theater in your neighborhood.

The Snarkout Boys & the Baconburg Horror by Daniel Pinkwater – 4*

//published 1984//

If you enjoy Avocado of Death, you’ll enjoy Baconburg Horror as well.  This one is a little more scifi trope-y (it involves a werewolf), but the main reason I don’t enjoy it quite as much is because Avocado is a first-person narration and the narrator is a huge part of what makes that book entertaining.  The same kid is narrating in Baconburg, but he only narrates part of the book – other parts jump around to third person randomly, which makes the whole story feel a lot more choppy and not quite as fun.  Still, Baconburg is well worth the read if you enjoyed the first book, and this photo of Pinkwater’s “biography” in the back of the book may give you a small clue as to whether or not you will find him entertaining!

O the Red Rose Tree by Patricia Beatty – 3.5*

//published 1972//

Believe it or not, I’m still slowly working my way through all the books that I own, many of which I haven’t read since high school!  This is one of those books that I purchased back in the mid-90’s and hadn’t read since then.  This is a perfectly nice historical fiction about a group of friends who help an elderly neighbor complete a quilt she’s always dreamed of making. Set in Washington state in the 1890’s, the challenge to the girls is to find several different types of red cotton (that doesn’t bleed) at a time when that type of cloth was rare and expensive.  This leads to several entertaining adventures and a few life-lessons.  While I enjoyed this one just fine, I don’t really see myself rereading it – so it has headed off to a new home, giving me one more spot for a new book on my shelves!!

Tales of Magic series // by Edward Eager

  • Half Magic
  • Knight’s Castle
  • Magic by the Lake
  • The Time Garden
  • Magic or Not?
  • The Well-Wishers
  • Seven-Day Magic

This is an absolutely delightful series of children’s stories published in 1950’s.  All of them are loosely connected, and some of them are more connected than others.  Half Magic is about some siblings having adventures.  When Knight’s Castle starts it doesn’t seem as though any of the same characters are there… until you hear the names of the aunts and uncles!

These aren’t books that will keep you on the edge of your seat, but if you are looking for something relaxing, wholesome, and appropriate to read with younger members of your family, these are absolutely perfect.

Half Magic, which happens to be set here in Ohio, starts when four children discover a talisman that grants wishes… sort of.  Turns out, it only grants half your wish!  So in order to make a full wish work out, sometimes you have to use some creative wording, which naturally leads to many shenanigans.  In the next book, a model castle comes to life… sort of.  Magic by the Lake occurs on a summer vacation, as does The Time Garden – in the former, there are many watery shenanigans, while the latter takes the characters through time and space.

In Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers there is a bit of a switch – instead of being overtly magic, it’s a bit of a question (as the title implies) – much of what happens could be explained away logically but… it does seem a bit coincidental!

The final book switches back to actual magic when some children check a book out from the library and it sends them on magical adventures.

Some of the books have overlapping characters and some have overlapping stories.  Technically they can be read individually, but I had a great deal of fun reading them in a row and seeing all the little connections.

Like I said, these books aren’t particularly thrilling, but they are great fun and are the exact kind of stories that appeal to younger readers as well.

May Minireviews – Part 2

Here we are with the final books for May!!!  Hopefully this book blog will get back on track this summer!!

NOTE: I wrote most of these a week or two ago… still trying to get May’s reviews published before July starts!

King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry – 5*

//published 1948//

I read a lot of children’s books in May (and this pattern has carried over into June) as life was very busy and I was looking for quick, simple reads.  Most of them were rereads from many moons ago, and King of the Wind was no exception.  Regular readers of my blog may recall that Henry was one of my favorite childhood authors, and I read King of the Wind probably a dozen times growing up – but then hadn’t read it in, oh, probably 20 years!  I wasn’t sure if the story would hold up, but I shouldn’t have worried.  The combination of Henry’s storytelling and Wesley Dennis’s drawings worked its magic yet again!

This tale is, as are many of Henry’s stories, a mixture of fact and legend.  The story is about a horse named Sham and the boy who cared for him, Agba, and the tale begins in Morocco, where Agba works as a stable boy. The sultan decides to send several of his fastest stallions to the king of France as a gift, with a stable boy in charge of each horse, and so Agba and Sham begin their journey together.  Legend says that Sham, later known as the Goldophin Arabian, became one of the founding stallions of the Thoroughbred breed – every Thoroughbred can trace its lineage back to one of three stallions, one of which is the Goldophin Arabian.  Sham and Agba have many ups and downs in their journey, as Sham’s worth isn’t recognized at first, making an engaging and interesting story.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1928//

This is one of those Hercule Poirot stories where Poirot doesn’t come into it until about halfway through.  Sometimes that annoys me, but it worked with this story, although it’s always difficult when the reader (theoretically) knows more about what’s going on than the detective, because we’re privy to scenes and conversations were the detective isn’t.  Still, the mystery is a good one, and Poirot is at his most pompous.  If you love Poirot because of his Poirot-isms, this one is definitely worth the read.

Little Gods by Meng Jin – 2.5*

//published 1972//

Another bust for the traveling book club, Little Gods was unbelievably depressing.  (Don’t worry, for the next round of traveling book club, I signed up for romcoms and fantasy, so hopefully I’ll get some books that don’t make me dread picking them up!)  This was a weird story told from random viewpoints (and written without quotation marks, why) about (??? sort of???) a young woman whose mother has died, and now the young woman is journeying back to China to try and find out more about her mother.  In many ways, the book is way more about the mother, who was a brilliant scientist (although not so brilliant at relationships). Throughout, there is loads of scientific theory (so boring, and basically felt like the author showing off how intelligent she is) that really bogged the story down.  Literally zero characters were remotely likable.  Every single parent hated their children, and every single child hated its parents.  No relationships actually were built on respect or love or anything like that – everyone was just in it for what they could get out of it, and, big surprise, none of them worked out.  It felt like there was no point to this story (or at least not one that I could find), and I thought it was never going to end.

That said, there was some lovely writing in between the science, and while the characters were thoroughly unlikable, they were well drawn.  For people who actually like Novels, in all their grimness, there may be something to like here.

Borgel by Daniel Pinkwater – 4.5*

//published 1990//

It had been way, way too long since I had picked up a Pinkwater book.  His books are basically impossible to describe, and definitely aren’t for everyone, as they are full of absolute nonsense.  In this one, a boy ends up traveling through space, time, and other with his uncle (who may not actually be related) and his dog (who is super grumpy).  If you’ve ever thought that maybe time was like a map of New Jersey and space was like a poppyseed bagel, this may be the book for you. It’s also a great read if you love popsicles.

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster – 4.5*

//published 1912//

I really love this epistolary novel, published way back in 1912.  Judy has grown up in an orphanage, but is now old enough to be sent out on her own.  One of the trustees, who desires to remain anonymous, decides to send Judy to college because he has read one of her English papers from high school and believes she has talent that should be cultivated.  While he pays for everything, he asks that in return Judy write him one letter a month to update him on her progress, stating that letter-writing is an excellent way to develop creative writing skills.  Thus, the entire book, except for the introductory chapter, is comprised of Judy’s letters to her benefactor, whom she has never met and only saw in shadow as he was leaving – a shadow that looked like it was made entirely of long legs and arms, leading to her nickname for him, Daddy-Long-Legs.

This book is honestly just plain delightful.  Judy is going to girls’ college (no coed at the time), but has never really spent so much time around “regular” girls, so much of her education is more than just reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  Her enthusiasm for life and adventure, and lack of family, means that she writes to Daddy-Long-Legs far more than once a month, and her warmth (and illustrations) make for wonderful reading.  For me, the only thing that keeps this from being a full five stars is that there is one point in this story where Daddy-Long-Legs feels a smidge manipulative, which makes me a little uncomfortable, but in the end it’s just such a fun story, and Judy is such a wonderful character, that I’ve read this one time and again.

Dear Enemy by Jean Webster – 5*

//published 1915//

The sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, I honestly love Dear Enemy even more.  The story centers on Judy’s best friend from college, Sallie McBride (who is also the writer of all the letters in this book).  Judy has purchased the orphanage where she grew up and hires Sallie to help turn it into a happy, healthy place to raise children instead of the sad institution it has always been.  Sallie is a wonderful character who really matures throughout the story.  I love how she wants be a frivolous person who doesn’t do anything useful, but her natural inclination to care for others and do a job well slowly takes over.  The romance in this story is also done so very well, and I really appreciated Webster’s exploration into the difference between a relationship built on mutual trust and respect and one built on an exchange of desires (i.e. you be my nice society wife and I will provide you with money and nice clothes).  Considering when this book was published, it was a rather bold statement to make, that a woman could and even should look for more from a marriage than mere financial security, yet Webster also doesn’t go too far – she still treats marriage as a delightful partnership when done right.

This story is full of escapades and adventures and Sallie’s temper and I love every page – highly recommended.

Heidi series // by Johanna Spyri & Charles Tritten

  • Heidi by Johanna Spyri – published 1880
  • Heidi’s Grows Up by Charles Tritten – published 1938
  • Heidi’s Children by Charles Tritten – published 1939

It had been a very, VERY long time since I had read Spyri’s classic, so I was a little apprehensive about it.  Sometimes books you remember enjoying as a child aren’t as interesting as an adult.  However, I shouldn’t have been concerned – Heidi drew me right in and, despite the fact that there was never anything urgent about the plot, kept me turning the pages.

There was a lot about this story that I had either misremembered or possibly may have been remembering other versions/movies/picture books/etc.  For instance, Heidi is a very little girl when this story starts.  Orphaned, she is taken by her rather self-centered aunt to live with her grandfather on the mountain (aka the Alm).  Her grandfather, who is known by everyone as the Alm-Uncle, is a bitter old hermit, and everyone is a bit horrified that Heidi’s aunt is abandoning Heidi to Alm-Uncle’s tender mercies.  However, Heidi’s cheerful presence – and Alm-Uncle’s innate kindness, long-stifled – means that the two of them get along surprisingly well.  Heidi also makes friends with Peter, who lives in a ramshackle house halfway down the Alm, and takes care of everyone’s goats.

Just as Heidi has settled happily into her new home, her aunt reappears on the scene and basically kidnaps Heidi to take her back to Frankfurt.  There, her aunt has found a very rich family who is looking for a companion for their little girl, Clara, who is ill and can’t walk.  Heidi’s aunt lies to Heidi, reassuring her that Heidi can return home whenever she wishes to.  In the city, Heidi has a difficult time adjusting, and meets some people who are helpful and kind, and others who do not even try to understand her situation.  Eventually, Heidi makes it back to the mountain, where she helps the Alm-Uncle reenter society in the mountain village and to heal old wounds for happy endings all around.

I had forgotten how much of the story actually takes place in Frankfurt rather than in the mountains, and there are parts of this story that are genuinely heart-wrenching.  Clara, the rich girl, is kind and friendly, but lives with servants as her mother is dead and her father often away on business.  The governess/housekeeper isn’t purposefully cruel, but has no patience for Heidi (despite the fact that she is a very young girl) and can be quite mean and dismissive.  However, there are good adults in Frankfurt as well, and everything does work out in the end.

The story has fairly strong religious tones, but they fit organically into the story.  Heidi’s simple faith grows as she begins to see how God works things in her life to make things come out well, even when they seem difficult or bad in the beginning.

I will say that at the beginning of the story Peter is already 11 or 12, so about seven years older than Heidi, yet somehow he seems to stay the same age as Heidi get solder until they’re about the same by the end!

The two sequels to Heidi were written by Charles Tritten, who translated many of Spyri’s books.  Tritten felt that Spyri would approve of further tales of Heidi, and his books definitely reflect the same gently religious tone.  I didn’t find Tritten’s storytelling to be as engaging as Spyri’s.  While perfectly fine stories, they felt a little more childish somehow.  Heidi Grows Up isn’t really that much about Heidi – it’s a great deal more about a young boy in the village whom nobody likes named Chel. It starts with Heidi away at school, but that’s only for a chapter or two, then she comes home and becomes the teacher in the village, and then the rest of the book is about Chel!

In the same way, Heidi’s Children isn’t really about Heidi’s children – it’s about the young sister of Heidi’s friend who comes to stay with Heidi and her husband.  It was my least favorite of three – by this time the Alm-Uncle is a very old man, and while Tritten builds up to his death gently, it’s still very sad and felt out-of-place in a children’s book.  The girl who comes to stay with them, Marta, throws strange temper-tantrums that didn’t seem to fit with her purported age.  Tritten also chooses to tell the Alm-Uncle’s back story, which is also very sad, giving the entire book a very down tone.

Overall, while these were all pleasant reads, I only see myself rereading the original book in the future.  I liked hearing Tritten’s take on Heidi’s future, but think I’ll stick with Spyri’s classic from here on.

May Minireviews – Part 1

Oh look, every time I think I’m gong to get caught up – I stop posting for days!!!  Things are legit quieting down at work now, so I’m super excited about my little summer break between greenhouse work and orchard work.  Loads of things to catch up on!!  In the meantime, some random thoughts on some random books!

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan – 3*

//published 2014//

After mostly enjoying A Natural History of Dragons, I decided to give the second book in the series a try.  Like the first book, Tropic is written as though it is a memoir of Lady Trent, who lives in a Victorian-like era in a different world.  My biggest complaint about A Natural History was that setting this story in a different world felt very laborious for the reader, who now has to try and learn loads of new cultures and countries and languages, when all of that would have been mostly unnecessarily if Brennan had simply set her story in AU England, since that’s the vibe the book had anyway.  Well, I had that same complain about Tropic except even more so.  Literal CHAPTERS of Tropic are spent on history and politics, all of which was utterly boring because it was completely made up.  I just couldn’t bring myself to care at all, and that part of the story went on and on and on and ON.  Where are the dragons????  I asked myself repeatedly while dragging my way through this tale.

The other extremely annoying part about this book was Isabella’s attitude towards motherhood.  At the end of the first book (spoiler here), her husband dies (which was a whole other level of aggravating), but Isabella is pregnant.  When Tropic opens, her son is now a toddler, and Isabella basically finds him to be a huge cramp in her style.  She hires someone else to nanny him, noting, “Is the rearing of a child best performed by a woman who has done it before, who has honed her skills over the years and enjoys her work, or by a woman with no skill and scant enjoyment, whose sole qualification is a direct biological connection?”  Well, thank goodness not everyone’s mother feels this way, my gosh.  She further excuses herself by stating that no one would hold a man to the same standards – one of THE most annoying arguments people craft, as though the fact that Group A doesn’t do X means that rather than changing culture’s expectations to demand more of Group A, instead Group B should be allowed to lower themselves to the same expectations!  Throughout the entire story Isabella refuses to acknowledge any true responsibility as a parent, and frequently sighs over the fact that she has a child at all, and between that and the long, drawn out political aspect of the story, I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to bother finishing.

However, the pace did eventually pick up, bringing my rating up to a rather reluctant 3*.  I already own the third book in the series (I got it as as a set on eBay with Tropic), so I probably will read it someday, but my experience with Tropic didn’t really make me feel like reading it right away.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1927//

In this Hercule Poirot book, Poirot becomes a bit obsessed with the concept that there is an organization, comprised of four powerful people, slowly undermining the governments/economies of the world.  Poirot is determined to discover the identities of these individuals and bring them to justice, especially the one who does the dirty work, known as the Destroyer, a master of disguise and duplicity.  This book is comprised of several short stories that are all connected by the theme of the Big Four.  Hastings narrates, at times convinced that Poirot is right and other times convinced that he’s seeing shadows.  All in all, while this is one of Christie’s novels that goes a bit over-the-top on the “secret society is taking over the world” theme, it’s still good fun with several twists.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – 5*

//published 1868//

It’s kind of hard to write any kind of review for a beloved classic that has been in print since 1868.  This is one of my all-time favorite books, and I couldn’t believe how long it had been since I had read it!  This is an old-fashioned story for sure, but still has plenty of thoughts and lessons that are both timeless and timely.  I love the themes of sisterhood and family.  While most people seem to view Jo as the protagonist of the story, there is so much time spent with the other sisters and their life lessons as well – Meg is always my favorite.  All in all, this was one trip down memory lane that did not disappoint.

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson – 4*

//published 2020// Bonus – picture of the buffet & shelf Tom built me this spring!! AND Roger Miller’s picture! :-D //

Swanson has become an author whose books I try to read when they come out.  Each one has its own style, and I really like that.  This one is about a guy who owns a bookshop.  At one point, back in the day, he published a blog post about eight perfect murders in fiction – they weren’t necessarily perfect books, but the murders themselves are clever and nearly undetectable.  Now, in the present day, it appears that someone is using his list to kill people.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable mystery with excellent pacing.  The bookshop owner, who is also the narrator, is quite likable, and the way the dominoes fell into place felt realistic.  This book definitely has loads of spoilers for several classic mysteries.  Besides the ones on the list of eight murders, there are a few others, including a few of Christie’s classics.  I definitely recommend looking up the books that are spoiled and making sure none of them are ones that you want to read before reading this book.  However, if you don’t want to read those books, and haven’t read them before, it shouldn’t really reduce your entertainment from this story.  Swanson does a great job of organically explaining the plot of each one in a way that didn’t feel boring or out of place, but meant that I could grasp the way that the classic mystery tied into this one.  I had read a few of the books mentioned, but definitely not all of them, and I never felt lost.  I really appreciated the way that Swanson credited and basically bragged on the classic mysteries he used – the way that he incorporated them felt like it came from a place of genuine admiration and love for those stories, and I liked that a lot.

While I really have enjoyed all the Swanson books I’ve read, this is the first one that I see myself maybe revisiting again someday.  Recommended.

Pigeon Post by Arthur Ransome – 5*

//published 1947//

I really don’t know how every book in the Swallows & Amazons series can be just as delightful as the one before it, but here we are!  As always, literally every page is a delight.  This is the sixth book in the series, and I’m not even sure I could pick out a favorite because I have enjoyed each of them so much.  They are simple, funny, and delightful, and I highly recommend them to anyone who has a soft spot for simple stories about children having adventures.

The Grace Year // by Kim Liggett

//published 2019//

This book, set during a time that may or more not be frontier days in the US, in a world that may or may not be the same as our own, is about a young woman in a small village.  The young woman, who is also the narrator, is named Tierney, is on the brink of experiencing what is known as the “Grace Year.”  This village believes that young women, when they reach puberty, begin to develop a magic that is so powerful and dangerous that they must be sent off into the wilderness, to an island where they live for a year, releasing their magic so that they can return back home to, of course, be oppressed wives in this absurdly patriarchal town where men are all power-hungry, cruel, and abusive, and can have their wives put to death just by saying that the wife did some magic.

The girls head off to the compound in the wilderness.  Some of them aren’t sure whether or not they even have magic, but another part of the group yearns to experience it.  Soon all the girls are acting completely out of their heads, and we get plenty of delightful violence.  Meanwhile, if a girl leaves the compound, she’s immediately (and brutally) murdered by a group of men who make their living by killing grace year girls every year, then chopping them up into bits and pieces and selling those bits and pieces back to the people in the village so they can eat them for vague reasons that are never actually made clear – aphrodisiac? Eternal youth? Who knows?

Anyway, Tierney tries to bring the girls together, but has little success for the most part.  She spends a LOT of time wandering around bemoaning her fate (pretty boring), then gets almost killed and spends a really long time recovering/falling in love (SUPER boring), then goes back to the compound to free the minds of the girls she’s left behind (mostly boring), before going back to the village so that basically nothing can change except the women become slightly less suspicious of each other (ish).

Here’s the thing.  This story was… okay.  Tierney isn’t particularly likable or interesting.  The reveals about the society are handed out in a way that feels very stuttered.  I think Liggett is going for some kind of shock factor with each one, but instead drags it out to the point that I’m more confused than anything (and bored.  Did I mention that already?  Sorry.)  So … we let random people hunt and kill the girls during their grace year?  So … we chop up the girls and sell their parts for people to eat for… random reasons that are left vague?  So … the girls don’t actually get rid of all their magic during the grace year since women can be accused of having magic at any point in their lives so the entire thing feels completely pointless?  So … if a girl doesn’t return from the grace year, all of her younger sisters get thrown out of town?  So … returning as body parts in a jar is considered returning and your little sisters DON’T get thrown out of town??  Yet the whole eating the body parts things is like kind of a shameful secret – or is it??  What even is the societal structure?  How do you have a town that produces 1/4 the number of males as females?  Is this entire situation because these people are seriously inbred?  How does no one ever leave or come to this isolated village?  Why do all the women hate each other?

Seriously, I had no idea what was happening half the time, and the other half of the time I was being BORED OUT OF MY MIND by being “subtly” preached to about the evils of the entire male sex while AT THE SAME TIME the author has Tierney be rescued not once, not twice, but THREE times BY A MAN, while at the same time acting SO obnoxious and superior to the men who have protected her.  I just.  Why.

Plus, there were absolute loads of completely illogical moments.  My personal favorite is late in the fall, Tierney accidentally spills vegetable seeds on the top of a hill that we’re repeatedly told is windy and rocky, yet when she comes back in the spring, they have not only sprouted on their own (despite being planted in the completely wrong season) but have somehow turned into an incredibly productive garden, full of produce… also at the wrong season.  How amazing!  Maybe magic is real after all!

To me, the themes of this book are so, so, SO tired and boring.  These days, as long as you write a book full of buzz words and trendy opinions (wow, so edgy to write a book about how ALL MEN ARE EVIL and ALL RELIGION IS A TOOL FOR EVIL MEN TO REPRESS ALL WOMEN), your story is automatically lauded as “deep” and “insightful”.  I’m mind blown by all the positive reviews for this one on Goodreads – my personal favorites say things like, “This will inspire women to rise up and take control of their own destinies!”  Because yes, that’s right, women in the US today definitely don’t have THE SAME EXACT RIGHTS as men and need a book with an incredibly boring, choppy, unrealistic plot to inspire them.

All this book inspired me to do was poke my own eyes out from boredom.  I just don’t think that stories about women being completely and utterly oppressed by a bunch of jerks is particularly inspiring, especially when nothing in this book was about the women truly coming together, uniting, or working together.  There’s one really nice guy out of the entire village who also is someone in a position of power and who actually cares about Tierney, but instead of working with him and finding a way to make true change in their society, Tierney basically just hides away and treats him like trash.  Wow, so inspiring.

I read this one for my traveling book club – it’s obviously not my style of book.  I didn’t exactly hate every page, and at the beginning I thought there was maybe going to be something interesting out of it.  There was one plot twist that I didn’t see coming and actually was interesting.  The rest was appalling dull, unnecessarily violent, and completely pointless.

Spring Snow // by Yukio Mishima

//published 1968//

Note:  There will be spoilers for this book in this review, as much as there can be for a book without a whole lot of story.

This is a book that was translated from Japanese, and is focused on a young Japanese man whose family is basically the equivalent of a British Regency family who has made their fortune in trade.  This “new money” aristocracy is a different type than the old, and I think part of my enjoyment of this book was mitigated by my lack of knowledge of Japan’s social structure at the time (early 1900’s).

This is one of those books that doesn’t have much of a plot, and it took me a while to begin to care about any of the characters.  I wouldn’t have continued at all if this book hadn’t been for my traveling book club.  Kiyoaki is the main character, and is incredibly self-centered and boring.  In his late teens, he has all the usual arrogance of that age, plus a dash of extra because he’s rich and extremely good looking.  (The handsome part is emphasized again and again and AGAIN and seems to really be Kiyoaki’s only character trait.)  There’s a neighbor girl, Sakoto, who is a couple of years older than Kiyoaki and who has always had a bit of a crush on him.  (Also, she’s beautiful.  This isn’t talked about quite as much as Kiyoaki’s handsomeness, but it’s close.)  Kiyoaki doesn’t like her because he thinks she is always teasing/tricking him and doesn’t take him seriously, which he finds upsetting.  Throughout the course of the story, he rebuffs Sakoto repeatedly, convinced that he doesn’t care for her.

Tired of waiting for Kiyoaki to step up to the plate, Sakoto’s parents find another husband for her, one who is connected to the royal family.  An engagement of this type cannot be broken, and before everything is made official, everyone checks and double-checks with Kiyoaki to see if he really, really doesn’t want to marry Sakoto, and he blows everyone off.  So Sakoto gets engaged to the royal guy, and guess what – all of a sudden Kiyoaki realizes he’s desperately in love with Sakoto!!!

The rest of the book turns into the kind of train-wreck story where you can’t quite look away.  Kiyoaki gets some kind of blackmail hold over Sakoto’s servant (I can’t remember what exactly) and forces her to arrange a meeting between him and Sakoto at a sketchy hotel.  Once there, they literally have sex pretty much as soon as she walks in the door!  It felt super abrupt.  After that, they start sneaking around all over the place, and it basically is one of those tales where they feel like because their love is forbidden, it’s so much more romantic – an idea I don’t really have a lot of patience with.

The story goes on and on and on without a lot happening.  Throughout the whole story, Kiyoaki has a best friend of sorts named Honda.  Honda is a rather odd background/secondary character.  For some reason, he is inordinately fond of Kiyoaki, and feels extremely loyal to him, despite the fact that Kiyoaki kind of treats him like trash a lot of the time.  They aren’t really friends of the sort that I would think of, since they don’t confide in each other or even spend all that much time together.  But eventually Kiyoaki tells Honda about Kiyoaki’s relationship with Sakoto.  Honda, of course, also thinks it’s romantic and is also willing to help Kiyoaki as necessary.

Lots of this book had beautiful language.  The writing was quite good, even in translation, and it was a rather interesting look at a section of Japanese culture at the time.  However, for large swaths of pages absolutely nothing happened, other than Kiyoaki being extremely handsome, or Honda rambling on about his latest religious theory.  (Honda becomes almost unwillingly enamored with Buddhism, and frequently likes to discuss the possibilities of reincarnation and other aspects of it with Kiyaoki.)  Honda is the only likable character out of the whole bunch, and he isn’t around all that much.  Kiyoaki is unbelievably self-absorbed.  His parents are uninteresting.  There is a bit with a servant who is just plain strange.  Sakoto is also very self-absorbed, although I give her credit for taking control of her destiny at least somewhat by the end.  There just wasn’t anyone to root for.  It’s obvious that Kiyoaki and Sakoto’s relationship is headed for complete disaster, so it’s not like there was any hope of an even vaguely happy ending for anyone.

Speaking of the ending, I feel like I may as well tell you all how it finishes, since you’ve come this far.  If my review thus far has made you want to read this book, don’t finish my review haha

Eventually, the inevitable happens and Sakoto gets pregnant.  Luckily, (quote unquote) they are able to keep the scandal within the family.  All the parents are furious, especially since they basically begged Kiyoaki to marry Sakoto before she got engaged to the prince, and he totally blew everyone off.  There are a couple of chapters of everyone telling Sakoto that she has to have an abortion (even though she doesn’t want one), and I’m always extremely put off by characters who act like unborn babies are an “it” that can be disposed of like a candy bar wrapper – especially when those people are forcing that attitude on the mother, who actually wants to keep her baby!  The four parents come up with a complicated scheme to ship Sakoto off to get her abortion without anyone finding out why she was really traveling.  However, Sakoto has a few tricks up her own sleeve, and convinces them to let her stop by a Buddhist abbey on the journey.  She’s forced to get the abortion, but they let her stop to visit this old nun who had made an impression on everyone in one of the first chapters.  There, Sakoto determines to take her vows and also become a nun, and the old nun won’t let her parents take her away.

Then there’s an entire chapter where everyone is wailing about Sakoto’s hair, which she cut off in order to become a novice (or something) and trying to figure out how they can hid the fact that she’s bald during her wedding, without appearing to realize that Sakoto isn’t going to get married at all.  In the end, they are too late because Sakoto skips all the novice bits and goes straight into being a full-fledged nun.  The parents have to scramble around and come up with a clever story that doesn’t make Sakoto look crazy or make the prince look like a bad guy, but they manage to make it work and everyone is mostly happy.

Meanwhile, Kiyoaki is in the depths of despair and is desperate to see Sakoto, so he runs away to try and get into the abbey.  Somehow, he ends up really sick – this part is kind of vague – because he goes from being a completely healthy 19-year-old to suddenly being on death’s doorstep.  The old nun won’t let him see Sakoto (part of her vow was to never see Kiyoaki again), but Kiyoaki climbs this giant hill every day to beg the nun to let him see her, even though he’s soooo sick, thinking that this sign of his devotion will aid his plea.  Kiyoaki sends for Honda, who of course drops everything to come help his “friend” – eventually, after visiting the nun himself, Honda convinces Kiyoaki that he has to go home, and then Kiyoaki dies, although I can’t remember if he makes it home first or not.

Just.  Why.  I thought this book was never going to end.  I feel like my summary was super boring.  Now imagine that summary being dragged out for over 300 pages!

I don’t completely regret reading this book, as it was an interesting story, and it’s always intriguing to read books in translation.  Culturally, it was a worthwhile read.  But most of my reading is for pleasure, and this book definitely wasn’t that.

As an aside, this is apparently the first book in a series whose connecting character is actually Honda.  Throughout every book, Honda meets someone whom he is convinced is a reincarnation of Kiyoaki, and in each book Honda tries to keep that character from meeting a tragically young demise – and, of course, fails.  I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be giving the rest of the series a miss!