July Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Some more July reviews in August!!

Mystery Mountain by Florence Laughlin – 3*

//published 1964//

Regular readers here will know that I’ve collected a lot of random books over the years at yard sales and library discards and antique shops and flea markets and just wherever I can find them.  What this also means is that I have a LOT of super random unread books. This one I purchased all the way back in 2003 and only just now managed to read!  While this wasn’t a bad story exactly, it wasn’t that great, and it definitely hasn’t aged all that well over the years.  Even I, who am pretty old-fashioned, got tired of the way the boys were treating Karen, who is only allowed to join them on their adventure if she does a bunch of extra chores i.e. all the cooking and clean-up!  When they finally solve the mystery of what happened to their grandpa all those many years ago, it literally made no sense.  I’m going to spoil it for you in the next paragraph, because really, what are the odds of you finding this obscure not-that-great book from 1964 and reading it??

So the kids’ grandpa disappeared back in the day when he was on his way to his gold mine that no one else knew where it was.  Everyone suspects he was murdered, and probably murdered by some wily Indians (another reason this book felt a bit dated).  The kids do find his remains in a cave, along with a journal that conveniently explains exactly what happened (and also means he died a long, lingering death of starvation, which makes no sense because everyone looked for him everywhere and if he was in a blocked up cave right next to where he disappeared, why wouldn’t the rescuers have heard him calling for help…????) and what happened was he got jumped by a wily Indian and managed to escape into this cave, and then the Indian rolled a big rock in front of it to block him in.  Except… why?!?! If the wily Indian was after the gold, why would he kill this guy BEFORE the guy got to the gold mine???????  There was literally no motive for murdering this guy, so the entire story made zero sense!

Honestly, 3* is kind of generous for this one, but it did have some fun moments and it wasn’t horribly written – it just didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the end!

Beauty Sleep by Cameron Dokey – 3*

//published 2002//

A retelling of Sleeping Beauty, this one was pretty firmly in the so-so category.  It was perfectly fine for a one-time read, but I’ve noticed with every book I’ve picked up in this “Once Upon a Time” series that it almost always feels like an outline of a story instead of a fully-fledged story itself.  The way this one concluded felt rather odd, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella – 3.5*

//published 2012//

In this romcom, we meet Poppy desperately searching for her missing engagement ring – it’s gotten lost while she was at a hotel for a conference, and while she’s searching for it, her cell phone gets stolen, too.  When she finds a perfectly good cell phone in the trash, it’s almost too good to be true.  Poppy immediately begins using it to call and text her friends to see if they know what happened to her ring.  So when the guy who owns the phone – which happens to be a business line – tries to reclaim it, Poppy convinces him to let her borrow it, since she’s already given that name to the hotel workers who are hopefully going to find her ring.

The set-up sounds convoluted, but Kinsella makes it work.  Poppy is a likable featherbrain, constantly getting herself into what Anne Shirley would call “scrapes,” but she is so warm and friendly that it works just fine with the story.  She impulsive, but usually because she’s trying to help someone, and her character really carried the story.

My main issue?  She lies to her fiancee the entire time, and since the reader literally knows she’s going to end up with the other guy……!!!!!  As I’ve noted with several other romcoms lately, I just do NOT understand WHY there is another guy!  That tension could be created soooo many other ways besides putting us in a “grey” area of cheating.  (Is it cheating to be texting/calling/hanging out with a guy that your fiancee doesn’t even know exists?)

All in all, as usual, a fun one-time read but, yet again, not one I see myself rereading.

June Minireviews – Part 5

Part 5?!  Oh my gosh.

Five Children & It by E. Nesbit – 4*

//published 1902//

Nesbit’s work is just classic – children having magical adventures and everything is perfect.  In this story, a group of siblings discover a magical being (the “It” of the title) who grants them one wish a day.  Of course the wishes don’t always play out the way the children anticipate, and sometimes saying “I wish—” without intending it to be your wish causes extra complications as well.  All in all just good, clean fun.

Seaside Reunion by Irene Hannon – 3.5*

//published 2012//

This is a gentle and rather uneventful romance that takes place in a small town in northern California.  A young widow has moved back to town several years ago to help her dad with their family store.  When the story opens, a guy who lived there for just a year or so when he was little comes back for a visit – it was the happiest place of his difficult childhood, and he wants to see it again.  While nothing particularly ground-breaking happens, it’s a nice story to while away some time.

Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren – 4*

//published 2017//

This is a borderline 3.5* and I keep going back and forth.  There was a lot about this book that I really enjoyed, most of which can be categorized as “snark.”  The idea is that both the main characters work for competing companies that represent actors, so despite the fact that they hit it off really well, they aren’t sure that their high-pressure jobs will let them date.  Things get even worse when their companies unexpectedly merge – and Evie’s boss – now also Carter’s boss – announces that the company can only afford one of them, so they’re going to have to basically duke it out to decide who stays.  So their flirting turns into pranking (some of which felt a little ridiculous for two adults) with an undercurrent of seriousness.  My main problem with this book was that the boss was SUCH a horrible jerk.  I literally had to flip to the end of this book to make sure that he got some kind of comeuppance because he made my teeth hurt every time he was on the page.  That plus a little too much sex is what kept this book from being a hearty 4*.  In the end, another fun and fluffy read, but not one that I truly fell in love with.

The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit – 4*

//published 1904//

The sequel to Five Children & It, this book takes place the next year when the children are back to living in town.  They get a new carpet for the playroom, and an odd rock falls out of it – which turns out to be a phoenix egg.  The rest of the book is taken up with regular Nesbit shenanigans, with many wishes not quite going the way one would hope.  Nesbit’s books are always happy and fun, and so relaxing.

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 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!!

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.

Robin Kane series // by Eileen Hill

Oh hey, I’m back!!  I did so well getting all caught up on all my reviews through the end of March… and then disappeared again!  The craziness of life just isn’t letting up and I have been working a lot – loads of transplanting and watering going on at the greenhouse!!

  • The Mystery of the Blue Pelican (1966)
  • The Mystery of the Phantom (1966)
  • The Mystery of Glengary Castle (1966)
  • The Candle Shop Mystery (1967)
  • Mystery in the Clouds (1971)
  • The Monster of Wolf Point (1971)

I’m not exactly sure when I first discovered this series, but in the books I’ve written that I’ve owned them since 1998.  They remind me very strongly of the Trixie Belden books (although I have no idea which actually came first!) – there is a spunky 13-year-old tomboy heroine with freckles and a bobbed haircut who loves horses.  Her best friend is slightly more timid and girly and is super rich and also super lonely.  Her best friend has a super nice and very good looking older brother who can drive. The heroine also has a nice older brother, although to change things up this heroine also has a younger sister.

Overall, this series was just 3* all the way through.  They aren’t horrible, but they are completely unbelievable (way more unbelievable than Trixie), and they are mildly racist thanks to the era in which they were written – while the Mexicans in the story are portrayed with affection, they are quite stereotyped.  Honestly, the whole series feels more like a television series than books – a very sitcom vibe to them, to the point that I sometimes felt like they should have come with a laugh track for the terrible jokes.  My notes for all these books say something along the lines of “fun, but completely impractical,” and that basically sums it up.

So if you’re like me and you enjoy reading random MG mysteries written in the 1960s, you should totally pick these up.  But if not… give them a miss, because they really aren’t anything amazing.

However, I did really like the cover art, which is probably why I bought them in the first place!

April Minireviews – Part 1

Still catching up on a bajillion reviews!  Now that I’ve checked off February (ha!), it’s on to March!!

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – 5* – finished March 5

//published 1934//

So it may not come as a surprise to learn that I am still in love with these books!  I’m reading this series very slowly, savoring each one.  I’ve also been purchasing them as I go in the Jonathan Cape editions, which come with amazing end maps that I love.  This story was about a gang of children on a sailing expedition.  I usually think of sailboats (when I think of them, which, if I’m honest, is rarely) in association with large, open bodies of water, but in this story the characters are sailing on a river!  There was loads of adventures and excitement, the most adorable characters, and just so many happy things.  I loved every single page, as always.

Wild Horse Running by Sam Savitt – 4* – finished March 5

//published 1973//

This is another children’s books, and a fairly short read with loads of gorgeous illustrations by the author, who is one of my favorites.  This is a story about a wild horse, and like the countryside the horse roams, the story is a bit sparse.  Although it was choppy at times, Savitt still pulls together a tale that tugs at your heartstrings.  Published at a time – tragically not very long ago! – when it was still legal to pursue wild horses by car and plane, run them to exhaustion, and then ship them off to make dog food, it’s obvious that part of the reason Savitt is writing is to shine a light on this horrific practice, but his writing never feels polemic.  If you like horse stories, than you’ll enjoy this one.  If you don’t, this one probably isn’t for you, as there isn’t a great deal of human interest aspect.

Mystery in the Pirate Oak by Helen Fuller Orton – 3* – finished March 6

//published 1949//

As you may be able to tell, I was on a run of children’s books at the beginning of the month, looking for some light, fast reads.  (Although Coot Club was particularly fast – it was 352 pages and still not long enough for me!)  This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I picked up at a booksale back in 1997!  Considering it’s barely 100 pages long, you think I would have bothered to read it sometime in the last 20+ years, but here we are.  This was overall a pretty average, if someone haphazard story, but what really blew my mind was the historical context – published in 1949, yet the characters’ grandma went west in a covered wagon.  It just never ceases to amaze me how actually close we are to that kind of history.

Watership Down by Richard Adams – 4.5* – finished March 6

//published 1972//

It had been years since I last read this classic, so I was rather excited that one of my group members chose it as her book to mail for #LMPBC (Litsy Markup Postal Book Club – four people in a group – each person picks a book to read and annotate – every month everyone mails whichever book they have to the next person until you get your own back).  Not only did I get the pleasure of reading it, I got to read notes and thoughts from the other members as well, which was super fun!

Anyway, if you enjoy animal stories, you have to read this one.  An epic adventure of a small group of wild rabbits who leave their home warren in search of someplace new.  Like truly great animal tales, the rabbits don’t behave unnaturally, other than their ability to converse with one another. (And who is to say they can’t do that in real life anyway?)  Adams even uses words that are part of the rabbits’ language that are “not translatable” into English, which somehow adds to the authenticity.  While this is an animal story, there is a lot of depth to the characters and world-building, and some thought-provoking lessons as well.

Fallen Into the Pit by Ellis Peters – 3.5* – finished March 8

//published 1951//

Ellis Peters wrote the Cadfael mysteries, which are some of my favorite books of all time.  Fallen Into the Pit is one of her much earlier books, and is a “modern” mystery (set just after WWII, which is when it was published) rather than a historical mystery like Cadfael.  While this was a perfectly enjoyable book, I didn’t love it, or particularly bond with any of the characters.  It was an interesting concept – a look at the way that WWII German POWs were being assimilated into Britain by sending them out to live in small villages.  I think part of the reason that I struggled with this book is because the German is definitely one of the bad guys, and was SUCH a jerk, so in a way it felt like the lesson of the book was that Yes, you SHOULD be paranoid about Germans living among us because they SUCK.  So the whole thing felt vaguely racist against Germans, if that makes sense.  Still, a decent if not stellar mystery, and with a likable enough protagonist that I reserved the next two books in the series from the library.  Of course, they are still there because the libraries have been shut down what feels like years, but someday!

The Last Waltz by Dorothy Mack – 3.5* – finished March 10

//published 1986//

Another paperback out of the box of random Regency romances, this one was set in Brussels rather than England, which was a fun switch.  With Napoleon closing in, the setting was more interesting than the actual story, which was incredibly bland.  Truly nothing unpredictable happened in this book, to the point that I can only vaguely remember it a month later!

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – 3.5* – finished March 12

//published 2015//

This is the first in a series revolving around a group of (modern) detectives in Derbyshire.  While this was a decent read, it was a bit garbled since one of the characters was doing her own research about the killer at the same time as the police, and it was easy to get confused about which people knew what – something that always frustrates me a little.  There were also SO MANY illegitimate babies.  SO MANY.  Basically every time there was a plot twist, it was because someone had had an unexpected pregnancy, and that got old after a while, especially with the not-so-subtle “if only they could have gotten an abortion at the time all their problems would have been solved!” message.  That’s right, because killing your baby solves all your issues and definitely doesn’t create any others. *eye roll*  Anyway, it was a fine mystery, but nothing about it inspired me to pick up the next book in the series.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold – 3.5* – finished March 15

//published 2015//

Quite a while ago I read another of Arnold’s books, Kids of Appetitewhich I genuinely loved.  I’ve been meaning to read Mosquitoland ever since, so I decided to choose it for one of my #LMPBC picks this round.  While I did like it, it just didn’t have the magic of Kids of Appetite.  In this story, teenager Mim has been forced to move with her dad and stepmom from northern Ohio to Mississippi, leaving her mother behind.  Lately, even letters and phone calls from her mom have stopped coming in, and when Mim overhears part of a conversation between her dad and stepmom, implying that Mim’s mom is sick, she steals some cash from her stepmom, jumps on a Greyhound bus, and starts heading north.  The book is journey, with plenty of adventures throughout.

My two main issues with this book – the first was just that most of it was way over-the-top.  I never really believed that any of these things happened to Mim.  There were way too many coincidences and genuinely ridiculously crazy characters.  While some of the episodes were entertaining, most of them just had me rolling my eyes in disbelief.  The book is very episodic in nature, which added to the overall choppy feel.

My second big issue is just that Mim’s dad didn’t tell her what was really going on with her mom.  Mim is 16, not 6, and there wasn’t really any reason that she shouldn’t have been told the truth immediately.  Literally all of Mim’s problems could have been avoided if her dad had had ONE honest conversation with her – and there was literally no reason for him not to, which I found frustrating.

All in all, Mosquitoland was interesting as a one-time read, and I am definitely curious to get it back in a few months and see what notes my fellow #LMPBC readers have left, as it does have a lot of potential discussion points, but it wasn’t a book that I really bonded with.  I do love the cover, though!

January Minireviews – Part 3

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Cogheart by Peter Bunzl – 3*

//published 2016//

This book definitely seemed like one I should like.  Middle-grade steampunk with super fun world-building and interesting characters, yet somehow the story just fell flat for me.  There were some minor continuity issues that annoyed me – things like several sentences explaining why a certain mechanical animal can’t get wet, but then later in the book he gets completed doused in a huge barrel of water, yet is completely fine.  There were little things like that throughout that really distracted me.  The drama was just a little too over-the-top and choppy.  Overall, while I enjoyed it for a one-time read, I don’t really feel interested enough to read the rest of the series.

Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie – 3.5*

//published 1924//

This is a collection of short stories featuring (you guessed it) Hercule Poirot.  Like all short stories, this batch had its strengths and weaknesses, but overall were just sort of meh.  There wasn’t really one that jumped out at me as being particularly clever or interesting.  Much of Christie’s brilliance is in her characterizations, and this format doesn’t really allow for that to happen, so it’s mostly just random set up of a problem, Poirot is clever while Hastings is a bit slow, and then conclusion.  A fine little read but not one that blew me away.

The Decorated Garden Room by Tessa Evelegh – 3.5*

//published 1999//

This was a nonfiction read and focuses on turning outdoor areas into living spaces.  The book was an odd mixture of the super practical and then the super impractical.  Overall, Evelegh presents some useful information, like where to start (floor/ground) and gives some ideas for other aspects of creating a garden nook.  But some of her ideas were just so over-the-top that I can’t imagine anyone doing them from scratch.  Still, there are a lot of lovely photographs and some interesting concepts.  I’m not sure how happy I would be if I had paid full price, but since I picked it up as a library discard for a quarter, it was worth the investment.

Watching You by Lisa Jewel – 4*

//published 2018//

Do you ever have one of those authors that you just keep adding their books to your TBR but never seem to actually read one??  Jewel has definitely been one of those authors for me, and I finally got around to reading one of her books this month!  I really enjoyed this one, although Joey’s pattern of self-sabotage (“I’m a terrible person because I do terrible things/I may as well do terrible things because I’m a terrible person”) really began to get on my nerves.  There was also a married couple in this book that didn’t end up staying together, and I think the story would have been a lot stronger if they had.  Instead, it’s just another one of those messages about how “sometimes things just don’t work out” instead of “marriage is work so you’d best work on it.”

But all of those things are side issues. The main story/mystery was done very well.  The pacing was absolutely fantastic – I loved the way the police interviews were sprinkled throughout the story, giving little tidbits of what is going to happen in the future.  The majority of this book was written in third person, past tense – YAY.  At the end of the day, this was an easy 4* read, and I definitely want to see what else Jewel has to offer.

A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith – 3*

//published 1997//

This is a very short children’s book (less than 100 pages) that has been on my shelf a long time.  I have a lot of love for many of King-Smith’s books (Babe the Gallant Pig, Harry’s Mad, The Fox Busters, The Queen’s Nose, etc.), but he also went through a time period where he was cranking out books at a ridiculous rate, so some of his stories do lack depth, and this was one of those.  A story about a singing mouse and an elderly lady, this was a perfectly nice little story that I can see younger readers enjoying, but it was a bit too simplistic for me.