February Minireviews – Part 3

We’re just going to pretend like it’s perfectly normal to review books three four months after I read them… (because yes, I wrote half this post in May and am only just now coming back to it!)

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.

The Substitute Guest by Grace Livingston Hill – 3.5*

//published 1936//

Are GLH’s books predictable and cheesy?  Yes.  Is that what I want sometimes?  Also yes.  This one was pretty normal GLH fare, but that’s not actually a bad thing in my mind – sometimes I just want something warm, relaxing, predictable, and happy.  It’s rare that GLH doesn’t deliver.

Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 3.5*

//published 2019//

This was one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did.  While the concept was quite good, somehow the book just lacked magic.  The third-person narrative – which I usually prefer – here felt distant and almost stilted.  There were times that there would be an somewhat lecture-y tone to the tale, filling the reader in on a piece of culture or fable, rather than letting those things be a natural part of the story’s flow.  This was also a book that definitely needed a map, as I had no real grasp on the distances they were traveling.  All in all, while it was a fine one-off read, it didn’t really make me interested in seeing what else Moreno-Garcia has written.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John Donohue & JT Malloy – 3.5*

//published 2020//

It’s always hard to review a book that’s memoir-ish, and this one is no exception. The author was in his late 20s during the Vietnam War. He had been a Marine straight out of high school but was considered “too old” to enlist for Vietnam, so he was working as a merchant marine. When the war protests started to turn on the soldiers themselves, the guys from Chick’s hangout-bar thought it would be amazing if someone could go visit all the active duty guys from their neighborhood, take them some local beer, & reassure them that what they were doing was appreciated & they were missed & loved. Chick’s job enabled him to hop on a boat headed to Vietnam with the idea that he would take 3 days shore leave when he got there & find some of the guys. What with one thing & another, his boat left without him, leaving him stranded in Vietnam in the days leading up to & the first couple of weeks of the Tet offensive!

Reading this book is basically like listening to your old uncle tell his stories from the war. It wasn’t a bad book at all, but it did tend to ramble off & sometimes go into back stories not directly related to the main plot & it wasn’t always easy to tell what was happening “now“ & what was an explanation from the past. (i.e. a few paragraphs telling a story to illustrate why Chick doesn’t like ship captains – it was hard to tell if it was THIS ship captain, or one from his past.) Chick is also very pro-unions, which I’m not against unions but I also got a little tired of every chapter having at least a few sentences explaining why unions are awesome & solve everyone’s problems.

For the most part it doesn’t get too political & there’s some great perspective here on how basically the soldiers were just doing their best to do what they were told. Most of them had been drafted, they weren’t passionate about being there, & they didn’t have the ability to see any kind of big picture concerning how the Vietnamese people really felt about the situation. In the end, Chick decides that the protestors weren’t wrong to protest the war, but still felt that harassing the young men being sent to fight wasn’t the right way to execute that protest.

This is a memoir so it’s inherently biased, but was overall an interesting read for a bit of a different look at the war – Chick is pro-soldier, but also a civilian. It was a pretty fast read & I appreciated that the author decided to keep the language pretty clean throughout.

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold – 4*

//published 2021//

I’ve read a couple of Arnold’s books now and have enjoyed them all.  This one is his newest and I read it as part of my personal campaign to read new books by authors I like as they come out instead of just sticking them on the TBR and maybe getting to them in five years.  This one is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a girl who has to take a cross-country journey to find a mythical portal that her father is convinced is real.  She meets up with several other travelers on her way.  This was a book that was eerie and engaging, and one that folded back on itself in a way that was somehow believable.  It had just a few too many unanswered questions for me in the end, but still completely sucked me in and kept me turning the pages.  Like Kids of Appetite, it had elements that it felt like I shouldn’t like, but somehow worked.

You Have a Match by Emma Lord – 3*

//published 2021//

After really enjoying Tweet Cute last year, I was interested to read Lord’s new book.  However, this one just fell short for me.  Mostly, there was just too much going on.  The main character, Abby, finds out that she has an older sister who was adopted.  She and Savvy start communicating without telling any of their parents and agree to meet at a summer camp.  There was a lot of potential here to explore the dynamics between the two sisters and how they related with the adults involved, but Lord’s writing gets sucked into typical YA drama, with way too many pages spent on Abby’s crush on her best friend, Leo.  This was definitely a story that would have been significantly better without the love story aspect.  I was looking for an adoption story with Parent Trap vibes and instead got boring YA-romance angst with bits of adoption drama thrown in.  It made the story feel rather choppy and disconnected.  All in all, it wasn’t a bad read, it just wasn’t for me.

The Newark Earthworks // by various authors

//published 2016//

I’ve always been intrigued by the Moundbuilders, possibly because my area of Ohio is rich with mounds, so it was always something we studied growing up. We’re only about half an hour away from Newark and have been to the Great Circle Mound several times. Once, when I was taking a class, I also was able to visit the Octagon Mound, which, although owned by Licking County, is under a long-term lease to a private golf course and so is unavailable for the general public to visit most of the time. For people who didn’t grow up in this area, or who aren’t particularly interested in this aspect of history, you may be unfamiliar with the ancient Native American cultures about which we know almost nothing for sure – likely ancestors of the tribes living here when the Europeans arrived, but even that cannot be known for sure, especially since those tribes had no particular oral history associated with the mounds.

The Great Serpent Mound and Fort Ancient are probably the most famous of Ohio’s earthworks, and are both well-worth looking up and visiting if the opportunity arises. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Newark’s earthworks, partially because they are so close to home and partially because they always seem somewhat neglected by historians. When I was in college (almost 20 years ago!) I took an Ohio history class with my favorite professor. He assigned us various famous Ohioans about whom we had to write a report and also give a lesson about to the rest of the class (since the course was a required one for education majors, he liked having us do some of the teaching). One of my Ohioans was “Oog – a Moundbuilder,” and the professor told me later that he had specifically given me the assignment because he knew that I absolutely HATE the way people make assumptions about ancient history and then state them as facts. The truth of the matter is that we know incredibly little about past cultures for certain. We can make guesses and assumptions about them, but literally KNOW almost nothing. The way theories and actual guesses are presented as facts fills me with rage, so I had a great time with my Moundbuilders report, which turned into a bit of a lecture on the importance of separating theories from facts haha

//The Great Serpent Mound// It’s unknown if the same people built this mound as built the Newark Earthworks //

ALL THAT TO SAY – a while ago I stumbled across this book and was genuinely excited because when I did my college report back in 2003, this book didn’t exist – in fact, the number of books about the Newark Earthworks at that time numbered exactly zero. (For the record, it now numbers exactly one, so while progress has been made, it isn’t much!) This book, published just a few years ago, is actually a collection of essays, each written by a scholar in a field related to history/ancient cultures/archeology/etc. The subtitle for the book is Enduring Monuments, Contested Meanings and in the introduction the editor explains that while they wanted to hear from a variety of voices on the topic of the earthworks, they also wanted to recognize the fact that there are different theories about both the mounds’ past and future. Thus, not all of the essays are in accord with one another, and I really appreciated the acknowledgement that that’s okay. It’s important to explore different theories and ideas in order to see what pieces fit together.

This book was written because the Earthworks are being considered (or at least were at the time – I’m not sure where they are in the process five years later) as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a title that I think that they deserve. So the idea for the book was to provide an introduction to the Earthworks, their known history, their theoretical ancient history, and various ideas for their future. While I did overall enjoy this book and I learned a lot, it’s an incredibly scholarly book in tone. It wasn’t particularly friendly to the layman and there were many areas that went over my head because I’m not actually any kind of expert in archeology (or math). I understand why they went the route they did with this book, but it would be amazing if someone would write a book on the topic that was more approachable for an everyday person.

Part One of the book is titled “The Newark Earthworks in the Context of American and Ohio History” and the essays in that section look at the known/recorded history of the Earthworks, discussing what parts of them were destroyed as the city of Newark was being built and what areas have been preserved (and how) and the basic original layout of the mounds. The main section of the mounds consist of a gigantic circle (3309 feet in circumference) which was originally connected to a large square by means of a road between oblong mounds. The square, in turn, was connected by a much longer road to an octagon linked to a smaller circle. There were also various other smaller mounds and roads that were part of the original complex. All that now remains are the Great Circle, the Octagon plus its smaller circle, a small piece of the Square, a few other odd and end mounds. The rest have tragically been destroyed over the years.

//Map of the Newark Earthworks before the widespread destruction began of many of the mounds. The circle/octagon towards the top left and circle towards the bottom are the main mound structures still standing today //

My favorite essay of the entire book was by Ray Hively and Robert Horn and is titled “The Newark Earthworks: A Grand Unification of Earth, Sky, and Mind.” This essay delves into the connections between the Earthworks and the moon and is absolutely fascinating, even if much of the math went over my head. The authors talk about how we can’t assume that just because one aspect of an ancient creation lines up with something in the sky that it means it was meant to do so – but when multiple things connect, we can start to assume that it was purposeful. In Newark, the Octagon has a complicated but precise relationship with the lunar cycle –

The moon completes its north-to-south-and-back excursion in only 27.3 days. A more careful and persistent observer would note over time that the precise location of the lunar extreme rise and set points oscillates much more slowly between maximum and minimum extremes, spanning a period of 18.6 years.

Despite the fact that this lunar pattern only repeats once every two decades, the mounds that comprise the Octagon correlate with the maximum and minimum northern and southern rises to an amazing degree of accuracy. This type of observation is something that would have to take place over many years in order to make sure that the mounds were being placed directly. Further, Hively and Horn go on to explain how the actual location for the earthworks complex is ideal in association with not just the lunar observations, but with various solar notations as well.

This post is already getting completely out of control length-wise, but I still have so much I want to discuss!  Several essays connected the mounds to other mysterious works of the ancients around the world – these connections were also tenuous – they were an attempt to compare things that have been learned about other locations and also methods that have been used in the preservation and current usage and then connect those things to the Newark mounds.  However, since I had picked up this book to learn more about the Newark earthworks, I found myself losing interest at page after page talking about about earthworks and buildings in other places around the world, especially when the emphasis was on how those locations were “definitely” used by the ancients so now we can “definitely” know how the Newark earthworks were used as well.  I’m sorry, but you simply weren’t there.  We can make many educated guesses and create complex theories, but that’s as far as we can go – and we literally will NEVER know the answer.

Another section of the book contained essays arguing that Native Americans should have more/complete control over the future of the Newark Earthworks.  While I could appreciate the spirit of these essays, I couldn’t bring myself to completely agree with them.  There is no actual oral history connecting the modern American Tribes with the moundbuilders – the mounds were not being utilized for ceremonial or other uses when the settlers moved into this region.  I’m not convinced that the Shawnees, currently living in Oklahoma, should have more to say about how the mounds should be used than the actual people who currently live around them.  There is no doubt that many horrific things happened in the past to the Native Americans and to their sacred places and burial locations, but there is also no evidence that the Newark Earthworks were either of those things for any people still living.

Consequently, essays that took the traditions of modern Native Americans and retrospectively applied them to the builders of the Earthworks also annoyed me.  Thousands of years have passed, there is absolutely no oral history recorded that explains the mounds, and we have no idea what the actual beliefs or political systems of these people were, so condescendingly explaining to me that “obviously” the moundbuilders had similar beliefs concerning the (non) ownership of land as did the native tribes that lived in the area when the Europeans arrived doesn’t really fly with me.  Ideas on land ownership, political hierarchy,  and religion are constantly evolving and shifting – do you really think that the people themselves died out so completely so as to not be remembered by their descendants, yet somehow all of their beliefs passed down through those same generations completely unchanged?

For instance, one essay discusses “Indigenous Views on Land and Place” and goes on to explain that, “Land and spiritual places are of central importance to indigenous nations. … Indigenous peoples did not own land in the Western sense of fee-simple holding. Rather the people belong to the land, like the plants, animals, places, and sacred bundles. ‘We do not own the land, we are of the land, we belong to it,’ according to Lenape teachings.” The essay goes on to claim that, because of this, only indigenous people have the right to say what should happen with the earthworks (in Newark and elsewhere) because those are sacred places. This is all well and good but… there is literally no evidence to show that the people who built the earthworks had the same feeling about land and its relationship to people as the beliefs of current Native tribes.

//Overhead view of the Great Circle Mound//


I’m also always amazed at how modern interpretations of the ancients ALWAYS uses some form of religion as an explanation for EVERYTHING.  Because obviously the only reason anyone would ever want to study the lunar cycle is because they worship the moon, apparently.  This modern-day arrogance that states that no earlier cultures could have ever been interested in science for the sake of science really grates on my nerves.  It comes from a place of insisting that humanity itself is growing ever better, stronger, and more intelligent – when I actually believe that the opposite is true.  At best, we cycle through highs and lows, and there is absolutely no reason why there could not have been a high point of civilization, science, and society during the time that the Earthworks were constructed – that things could have been built and studied from the sheer curiosity and interest of doing so rather than from some deep need to appease a god or usher the spirits of dead ones into the afterworld.  Yet this concept is virtually NEVER explored in anything I read about any ancient cultures.  Our modern day superiority insists that even though these cultures may have been “intelligent”, the only thing that could actually drive them to accomplish anything so amazing and involving such intricate and dedicated long-term study is… religion.  (And I say this as a religious person!)

In the end, this was an interesting read, especially for someone with an interest in ancient cultures in general and the Newark Earthworks in particular, but I felt that far too much emphasis and weight was placed on the interpretation of these mounds rather than what we actually KNOW and can observe for ourselves.  I would have loved more information about the lunar cycle and the connections to other high points in the region – basically, I wanted the first section to be the entire book lol  This is a book worth looking into if the topic really interests you, but someone needs to write a version that is more accessible for everyday readers if they actually want to interest “regular” people in the earthworks and their future.

January Minireviews – Part 2

Lately, I’ve considered giving up book blogging since I’ve been quite terrible at keeping up with it. Life is busy and I have a lot of other commitments. Plus, I’m not going to lie, I hate the new WordPress block editor with a seething passion. HATE. IT. It’s so counter-intuitive, overly-complicated, and absolutely nonsense when you just are trying to have a regular blog where you write stuff and stick in a few pictures – I’m not attempting to create an actual webpage here, I’m trying to write a BLOG. Every time I start to write a new post, I just remember how much I hate working on WordPress now, which makes me extra depressed because I’ve always been such a huge fan of this site and have had several different blogs here over the years. Is anyone using a different host that they like better? I’m up for exploration because WordPress now SUCKS.

But anyway, all that to say, at the end of the day I actually use this blog to track what I read and whether I liked it, so even if other people don’t read my reviews, I actually use them as a reference point all the time haha So for now, even though I’m always a couple months behind, I’m going to keep at it. I do enjoy writing the actual reviews (usually) (except for the part where I have to use WordPress’s stupid new editor) so I’m going to keep posting a few reviews whenever I get the chance.

And so – here are some books I read back in January!!!

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.

Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll – 3.5*

//published 1865, 1872//

These books (generally published together now, although originally published seven years apart) are classics that I hadn’t read in decades. There’s a group on Litsy visiting one fairy tale per month, the original and then whatever variations or retellings anyone wants to read, so it seemed like a good way to hit up some of the stories I either haven’t read or haven’t read in a long time, starting with Alice. As I had vaguely remembered, I didn’t particularly enjoy these stories. They’re okay, but they are just a little too frenetic for my personal tastes. I’m consistently intrigued by what books become classics. Why are these books, published way back in 1865 and 1872 still considered childhood classics that everyone should read? I honestly don’t know because while they’re fine stories, I really don’t find them particularly inspiring or engaging. I didn’t mind reading them, but don’t particularly see myself returning to them again.

Thirteen at Dinner AKA Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1933//

This is a crafty little Christie starring Poirot and the faithful Hastings. It’s kind of impossible to talk about this one without using spoilers, but I’m still, after all these years and rereads, consistently impressed with Christie’s story-crafting abilities. It isn’t just the mystery, which was solid, but her ability to make the reader care about what happens to various characters. She pretty much always “plays fair”, giving the reader the facts needs to solve the case… but I pretty much never do. Some of the time for my rereads, as with this one, I remember who the villain is, but still enjoy watching Christie line up the red herrings .

The Pioneers by David McCullough – 4*

//published 2019//

This is a nonfiction book that originally drew my attention because its focus is on the settling of Marietta, Ohio, and the impact that that had on the push of settlers into the Northwest Territory. I’ve read maybe one other McCullough book, but can see myself checking out some of his other titles. Overall, this was a solid read, but at less than 300 pages, not particularly a deep one. While I enjoyed the quotes and diary entries that made the text more personable, I also sometimes felt like McCullough let them dictate the direction of his book a little too much. The last section, especially, wanders away from Marietta and kind of all over the place, almost as though he still had some good quotes but didn’t know how to work them in. But there were loads of fun facts, like how there is a recorded instance of the settlers cutting down a tree that was TWENTY-ONE FEET in diameter, or how one community was so determined to establish a library that they collected animal pelts and sold them to buy their books – Amesville still bills itself as the home of the Coonskin Library. I’ve been to Marietta several times and visited the museums there, but it was interesting to hear about some of the other settlers, as much of the information in Marietta is focused on the most famous of them, Rufus Putnam.

All in all, a decent read about pioneer history, but one that I would label as a starting point rather than all-inclusive.

Bill the Conqueror by P.G. Wodehouse – 4*

I’m always in the mood for Wodehouse even when I think I’m not in the mood for Wodehouse. As always, this book followed Wodehouse’s classic formula, but he does it so well and with such funny, funny one-liners that I always enjoy every page. With a whole slew of likable and unlikable characters all engaged to the wrong people, this was another fun read by my favorite author.

The Fortune Teller by Gwendolyn Womack – 3*

//published 2017//

This is where waiting two months to write a book review really does the book an injustice. At the time that I read this one, I had a LOT of opinions about it, but now most of them have fizzled away. Basically, the main character works for an auction house that sells incredibly high-quality, expensive stuff. She’s an appraiser, and the story opens with her assessing a collection of books and documents. In them, she finds a manuscript that claims to have been written by a woman from the time of Cleopatra, but what really shocks the MC is when she comes across HER NAME in the manuscript. As things unwind, we discover that the manuscript’s author was a seer and she is writing this entire thing about various future descendants of herself.

I wanted to like this book, and if I turned off the logic side of my brain I did like it, but there were just too many gaps and issues for me to really get behind it. The MC herself is super annoying and a total user of everyone around here. She’s recently found out that she was adopted and is acting like a petty, spoiled child about it and at times is downright cruel to her adopted mother. For someone supposedly in her late 20s/early 30s, she frequently sounded like a petulant, sulky teenager. Even if I accepted the fact that the author of the manuscript was a seer with the ability to look to the future, I couldn’t believe that she would have the mental capacity to understand everything that she was seeing. Could someone from Cleopatra’s time have a vision that involved airplanes and cars and understand them – and have words for them?? The stories that the seer was writing were far too complete to actually make sense as a prophetic manuscript, although the stories themselves were engaging.

The plot with the missing tarot cards was convoluted and choppy and still didn’t make sense at the end. This was one of my traveling book club books, which is why I read it – it wasn’t particularly a book I would have picked for myself, or finished reading if I had. Not a terrible book by any means, but it didn’t really inspire me to find out if Womack has written anything else.

January Minireviews – Part 1

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.

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer – 4*

//published 1932//

Heyer didn’t tend to write sequels/connected books, so I was bit surprised when I read These Old Shades and then discovered that there was actually a sequel. Devil’s Cub is set a generation later – focusing on the son of the main couple from Shades. You don’t necessarily have to read Shades first, but it did add a level of fun, knowing more about the various characters. This wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it was good, fluffy, Heyer fun with plenty of snappy dialogue, likable characters, and slightly-absurd adventures.

The Flip Side by James Bailey – 3.5*

//published 2020//

Most romcoms are written by women, and focus on the woman as the main character, but I genuinely appreciated Bailey’s story, which focuses on a guy, and puts that guy in the situation that so many female characters start with. Josh has arranged an incredibly romantic date with his girlfriend with the intention of proposing. Except not only does she turn him down – she confesses that she’s been cheating on him and no longer “feels the magic.” Within the first chapter, Josh is single, jobless, and back to living with his parents in the suburbs. As he looks at his life, he feels completely overwhelmed by all the choices he has to make, and all the choices he has made to get where he is – he feels like a failure and can’t see a way forward. And so, he decides to stop making decisions. Instead, he starts flipping a coin and letting fate decide what happens next. And as one might expect – shenanigans ensue.

There was a lot to enjoy about this story. There are fun and slightly-ridiculous scenarios, mostly likable characters, and a little bit of thoughtfulness about life choices and where they take us. On the other hand, a lot of the pacing felt stuttered, a few of the characters were extremely underdeveloped, and there’s this whole weird thing where Josh gets a ride with a taxi driver named Jesus, which leads to this whole conversation/scenario that felt kind of sacrilegious to me.

At the end of the day – an entertaining and overall enjoyable, but it isn’t one I see myself reading again and again.

The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer – 4.5*

//published 2004// Also, the cards are for another Litsy challenge haha //

These are the sequels to Sorcery and Cecelia, which I reread in December. Like the first book, they are fun and happy epistolary novels. In The Grand Tour, the two couples from Cecelia have just gotten married and are off on a joint honeymoon around the Continent, where they run into another magical mystery. The Mislaid Magician takes place about ten years later – both families now have several children, adding to the fun. This one is extra entertaining as there are letters between the husbands as well.

All in all, these are just such fun books with enjoyable characters and a very fun world-building concept – highly recommended.

Eyewitness Guides: Brazil4*

//published 2020//

Another challenge on Litsy this year is #FoodandLit – there’s a country each month, and participants try to read some books set in that country or written by authors from it, and we also share recipes, although I’m not particularly good at that aspect haha Because I’m really trying to keep my challenges focused on reading books already on my TBR, my goal is to read two books for each country – one nonfiction, most likely a travel guide of some sort – and one fiction, mostly based on what’s available at the library! These Eyewitness guides are great fun – super colorful, full of photographs and maps, and I learned all sorts of things about Brazil, which is actually a HUGE country. It was also fun to read this one before I read my fiction choice (next review) since I had a much better grasp on the geography of the country by the time I got to Ways to Disappear, in which the characters hop around the country quite a bit.

A fun way to armchair travel, especially to countries I’ll probably never visit in person.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey – 3.5*

//published 2016//

This was a weird book that I would never have picked up if it wasn’t for the #FoodandLit challenge. The story is about Emma, who works as a translator. Her main focus for several years has been translating novels by a Brazilian author named Beatriz Yagoda. The story opens with Beatriz climbing up a tree with a suitcase – and that’s the last anyone sees of her. Emma, in snowy Pittsburgh, receives an email that she thinks is from someone connected to Beatriz’s publishing house, and spontaneously decides to go to Brazil to see if she can help locate Beatriz, a decision that makes Emma’s live-in boyfriend/almost fiance quite annoyed. In Brazil, everything is as opposite to Pittsburgh as it can be. It turns out that the email was actually from a mafia-like guy to whom Beatriz owes thousands of dollars in gambling debts. The story wanders through Brazil as Emma and Beatriz’s adult children try to find the missing author all while dodging the increasingly intense threats of the loan shark. The entire book has an almost dream-like quality to it, with an emphasis on the hot, sticky weather (in contrast to wintry Pittsburgh). Emma has an affair with Beatriz’s son, struggling with feeling conflicted about the marriage proposal she knows is coming from her boyfriend back home. Beatriz’s daughter, Beatriz’s opposite in almost every way, is frustrated that Emma is there at all, much less than Emma thinks she knows so much more about Beatriz than anyone else. The whole novel meanders around – it feels like, with the whole loan-shark-deadline-if-you-miss-it-we’re-going-to-kill-you thing, that there should be more of a sense of urgency, but there just isn’t. The ending is odd, but not necessarily out of character for the rest. A book I’m not exactly glad I read, but also not mad that I did, either. It was a fairly quick read, which helped, because I’m not sure how long I could have put up with the complete bizarreness of the whole thing.

November Minireviews // Part 1

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.

Still trying to catch up. Conveniently, November was a terrible reading month for me so it shouldn’t take as long to get through those books!! Part of my issue in November, besides being insanely busy and somewhat depressed, was that I was doing two buddy reads on Litsy – one of Northanger Abbey, which was a delight, and one of Moby-Dick, which was not. Moby-Dick especially interfered with my other reading time, as I was determined to read each day’s chapters from that book before picking up anything else to ensure that I actually got through it. My plan worked, but it definitely colored a lot of my other reading throughout the month!

Complete Home Landscaping by Catriona Tudor Erler – 4*

//published 2005//

This is one of those book that I got a book sale or Half-Priced Books or someplace like that eons ago but never actually picked up. While there wasn’t anything groundbreaking here, it was a well-organized and interesting book that broke down the concept of landscaping your entire property into bite-sized chunks. Sometimes I like to read books about gardening and landscaping because even when it goes over the same stuff as a different book, it just helps make it stick in my brain. This book was also full of really useful photographs and drawings that I really liked.

The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Katie O’Neill – 4*

//published 2020//

The latest in the Tea Dragon stories, these continue to be almost painfully adorable. I do wish that there was more emphasis on friendship instead of romantic relationships, which are almost entirely comprised of homosexual pairings, especially between the two main girls in the story – I feel like their relationship would have been so much more meaningful as friends instead of girlfriends. It’s not like this is all super explicit or anything, but the overall vibe of the book is that if you find someone who is a friend, you’re meant to be romantically involved, and it just feels somewhat awkward, especially in a story geared for younger readers.

However, the story itself is very enjoyable and the artwork is just amazing.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie – 4*

//published 1931//

It’s been a few years since I’ve read this one (my 2016 review is here) so even though I kind of remembered who did it, I couldn’t remember how it was done or how some of the red herrings played out. The one is also known as The Murder at Hazelmoor which makes so much more sense since the murder actually takes place at Hazelmoor, not Sittaford, but whatever. Anyway, this is one of Christie’s standalone mysteries. The pacing is great and there are a few twists that I never seem to remember are coming. Great fun as always.

Entwined by Heather Dixon – 3.5*

//published 2011//

I read this one a long time ago (before WordPress days) and vaguely remembered liking it but not much more, so I chose it for my traveling book club book this time around. Unfortunately, November was just not a good reading month for me so I think that colored my enjoyment of this story as my reading opportunities were really choppy and difficult. Parts of this book just felt like they went on forever. The sisters in the story are mad at their father pretty much the entire time, and I’ll agree that he’s a jerk at first, but later he starts trying to make amends and they are mean to him for way too long. I did appreciate that the author did not give the sisters a bunch of names that sounded alike and even went so far as the alphabetize them, with the oldest starting with A and going down from there which really helped keep all the sisters straight. I had a few minor continuity issues with this one, especially with the supposed ages of a few of the sisters versus their actions/attitudes. Overall, I didn’t dislike this story but I also didn’t love it.

The Wild Path by Sarah Baughman – 3.5*

//published 2020//

I 100% picked up this book because of that gorgeous cover. This one is a middle grade story about a girl named Claire who lives with her parents in a rural area of Vermont. Claire’s older brother has recently been admitted to a full-time rehab clinic after having issues with a drug addiction formed when he started taking painkillers after an accident. Claire’s parents have announced that they are going to have to sell the family’s two horses in order to save money, but Claire is determined to find a way to save them. The story deals with Claire learning more about her brother’s situation and coming to grips with the way that some parts of our lives are out of our control, and that we can’t make other people “better.” It was actually a lovely story with likable characters, but it did feel a little preachy at times. Somehow, it just never kicked me in the emotions like it seemed like it should. However, this may be a good book for a younger person in a situation similar to Claire’s re: a family member with an addiction (especially if read together with a caring adult) as that was handled sensitively and in a way that felt approachable. In part, that was kind of why I didn’t connect with this story – in some ways it seemed like it was written to specifically be used as a discussion tool more than it was written to tell a story, if that makes sense.

Time Out for Happiness // by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.

A while ago I reread Cheaper by the Dozen and its sequel, Belles on Their Toes. I loved both of those books growing up and have read them several times, although not in quite a while. When I was looking up something or other about the Gilbreths in the process of writing the review for those books, I found out that Frank Jr., who coauthored the above books with his sister (Ernestine Gilbreth Carey), also wrote what was more of a “straight” biography of his parents, Time Out for Happiness. I couldn’t find a reasonably-priced copy secondhand, so I had to settle for checking it out of the library, although I’m still keeping an eye out for a copy of my own.

//published 1970//
//published 1970//

While the other two books are more of a collection of vignettes of their life growing up, Time Out for Happiness takes more time to look at the background and work of Frank Gilbreth, Sr., and his wife, Lillian. There was a lot of genuinely interesting information here about the work and studies of the Gilbreths, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It isn’t as funny or lighthearted as the earlier two books, but that wasn’t what I was expecting.

My reservations about this book – for one, Frank Jr. spends what felt like way too much time on his family heritage (did we really need to hear about his great-great-grandparents in order to understand how his parents ended up as the people they were?) in the earlier part of the book, which meant that there wasn’t as much time at the end of the book for the work that Lillian did after Frank Sr.’s death. While Lillian’s work is somewhat covered, it felt like the book was unbalanced.

There is also a decent chunk of book devoted to a feud between the Gilbreths and another engineer, whose name I can’t remember. It’s obvious that at the time of Frank Jr.’s writing this was a really important situation – it honestly felt like, in some ways, the point of his book was to refute some of the claims made by the other group. But since I didn’t really know the background of this situation, it wasn’t particularly interesting to me other than the general motion study information that came along with it.

However, the entire book is written with such obvious, warm affection that I was willing to forgive its small irritants. Frank Jr. has such a respect for his parents and their work. Throughout he emphasized how a huge part of what made the Gilbreths do the research that they did was from respect for the worker, and a desire to make the life of the everyday worker easier, better, and more fulfilling. (This was also a big part of the feud with the other group, which believed that the time being “saved” should belong to company, i.e. be used to make the worker work harder/longer.) After Frank Sr.’s death, Lillian continued to pioneer motion study. With many door closed to her because of her sex, she was more than willing to focus her efforts where they were appreciated – assessing the way equipment and machinery could be used within a house to improve the lives of housewives, and also researching ways to enable individuals with disabilities (especially amputees from World War I) to still earn a living.

If you liked Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, but wished you could learn a little more about the “real life” behind the stories, this book is definitely worth a read. Lillian also wrote a few books of her own, so I am hoping to get to those eventually as well, to continue learning about this fascinating couple and their work.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat // by Samin Nosrat

//published 2017// Bonus – My Pantry!! //

Every once in a while I read a nonfiction book that is just fantastic (like the book I read about color last year).  Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat actually reminded me a lot of Living With Color, despite the fact that they really weren’t anything alike.  Both books took a topic that I live with every day and really delved into it in a way that clarified things I had already felt instinctively, and helped me to see concepts and connections of which I had been vaguely aware but hadn’t really understood.

In her book, Nosrat talks about how she sort of fell into cooking when she was actually planning to be a writer.  And so when she apprenticed herself to a very fancy restaurant, she found herself looking at things somewhat differently than her fellow workers who had grown up with and/or studied this passion for several years.  They seemed to be able to cook on instinct, without recipes, tossing together seemingly dissimilar foods and coming up with something not just delicious but mind-blowingly so.  One day she realized that this ability actually seemed to stand on four basic building blocks – salt, fat, acid, and heat – all working together in harmony.  When she mentioned it to one of the other cooks, she was met with basically amounted to “well duh” …except it wasn’t a “well duh” for someone just learning to cook.  Throughout the years of learning more and more about cooking, Nosrat continued to file her lessons into these four categories, thinking to herself that someday she would write a book… and then she did!

If, like me, you find cooking to be a tedious chore and the results to be incredibly mundane, you may enjoy this one.  While Nosrat does include some honestly ridiculous recipes, and also seems to think that everyone lives around the corner from a delightful farmers’ market where one can purchase fresh, in-season veggies and meat that was on the hoof yesterday, most of her book is still somehow applicable to my life (and I haven’t been to a farmers’ market in years!).  For me, it was the concepts more than the specific recipes, many of which are incredibly simple – I especially was fascinated by the chapter on salt, and how salting things can completely change the flavor.  I’ve been salting meat a few hours before cooking it, and it genuinely has made a huge difference in the way it tastes!  Ditto with salting pasta water.  Both of those things fall under that category of “things people tell you to do but don’t really explain why” – which means I’ve been doing it wrong.  I usually do salt meat… right before I cook it, which almost (but not quite) defeats the purpose.  I also would put a dash of salt in the pasta water, for unknown reasons (someone may have told me to do this once??) – which isn’t enough to do anything to the actual pasta.

Throughout, the book is charmingly illustrated and also includes various charts and graphs – I loved the one that looked at seasonings from around the world, for instance.  There were also smaller ones, like one that showed different ratios of water-to-rice, depending on what kind of rice you’re planning to cook.

This was one of those engaging nonfiction titles that is both intriguing to read straight through, and also excellent for reference when you need it.  While I’m still not an amazing cook, I do find myself thinking more about the balance of my meals, sometimes in small ways.  For instance, a few months ago I was making something (honestly can’t remember what) that called for buttermilk, and I just put in milk – well, part of the reason that that doesn’t work is that buttermilk is acidic, so now my recipe was missing not the dairy aspect, but the acidic aspect, causing the recipe to be off-balance.

I’m never going to be a skilled chef, but thanks to Nosrat I do feel like I’ve added a few more concepts to my bag of possibilities.  While the recipes in this book aren’t terribly practical, the ideas behind them explain why some recipes work and others don’t, and why my meals frequently come across as bland – something that I can now work on fixing.

PS – Apparently Nosrat also has a cooking show of some kind.  I’ve heard it’s amazing, but haven’t watched it myself!

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.

March Minireviews – Part 2

I’m back, with another lightning round of minireviews!!

Summer by the Tides by Denise Hunter – 3* – read February 22

//published 2019//

Hunter can be hit or miss for me, and this one was mostly a miss.  SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS REVIEW.  The main thing that frustrated me about this book was that every single guy in the story was a jerk except for the main romance.  I found it ridiculous that the main character finds out that not only was her dad a serial cheater, but her grandpa was, too.  I mean, seriously?  And what exactly did that add to the story??  The reason her sisters don’t get along is because back in college they both fell in love with the same guy – guy was engaged to Sister A, but then leaves her and marries Sister B, which pretty much puts him in the jerk category, too.  Then we think that at least Sister A eventually found love – but no, her guy is a white collar thief who’s in jail now.  Sister B’s marriage is on the rocks, too, although at least he shows up at the end and they seem to be getting back together.  I’m just really over the “all guys are cheating jerks trope.”

On the other hand, the story had its moments.  I liked the grandma and her sneaky way of bringing her granddaughters together, and I did like the build of the romance between the two main characters.  However, I got frustrated by the sisters, who both needed their heads smacked together on more than one occasion.  All in all, this was a so-so read for me, that I would have enjoyed more if there had more than one nice guy in the entire story.

How to Save Your Child From Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else That May Happen on an Average Tuesday by James Breakwell – 3.5* – read February 24

//published 2019//

I follow Breakwell on a few different social media platforms and really appreciate his humor.  I highly recommend subscribing to his newsletter – I think that length is the absolutely best for his humor.  How to Save Your Child is his third “parenting” guide, and probably my least favorite of the three.  While there were some entertaining moments and quotes, the overall book got a little repetitive.  Still, if you’ve enjoyed his other books, you’ll like this one, too.  Below, my three favorite quotes:

If your child falls off the bed and hits their head, you might wonder if you need to take your kid to the emergency room.  You don’t.  If it were a real emergency, you would know, because you would be on your way to the emergency room instead of wondering if you could keep your kid home to save some money.  In a real crisis, your survival genes override your cheapness genes.

When Godzilla starts a rampage, calmly move your child away from the destruction zone and head out to the countryside.  Godzilla is mainly concerned with demolishing tall buildings.  That’s why there’s no footage of him pointlessly stomping around empty farm fields.  If you already live in a rural area, congratulations:  Nothing in your life is worth destroying.  Sit back and watch as those condescending city-dwellers get their comeuppance.  Not that it will bother them.  Like crime and traffic, radioactive monsters are just a part of city life.

The world of Harry Potter is filled with dangers.  I’m talking about the version described in the books and movies, not the version J.K. Rowling retroactively changes on a daily basis to confuse and annoy the internet.  By the time my book goes to print, Dumbledore and Grindelwald could have an entire secret family together and the main character of books one through seven might be a frozen treat from Dairy Queen.  You’re a Blizzard, Harry.

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – 4* – read February 25

//published 2019//

Wow, I don’t even know how to review this book.  Overall, I liked it, although I sometimes felt like it was trying a little too hard to be clever, with all the layers upon layers and stories within stories.  I also don’t feel like I should have to read a 500-page book twice to “get” it, but because of the way that all the stories are interconnected and the way time flips around, I was definitely left feeling like I would have to read it a second time to really grasp what was going on.  While much of the world-building and description was fantastic, I weirdly never felt particularly connected to any of the characters, and really didn’t buy the romance between the two main characters, which was definitely quite insta-love-y.  There also was basically not an actual plot, which added the dream-like feel of the whole thing.  Overall, there were a lot of things about this book that I really loved, but it still felt a little flat.  Worth reading, and I’ll probably even read it again sometime, but definitely not the instant winner that The Night Circus was.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie – 4.5* – read February 27

//published 1925//

Christie rarely lets me down, especially in her pre-1930’s books.  A group on Litsy is reading and discussing one Christie book per month, and this was February’s book.  I’ve read all of them before, so this was obviously a reread, but it had been quite a while and I couldn’t remember all the details of what was going to happen.  This is one of her spy thriller-ish books, so strong on humor with a dash of campiness, but still a fun romp.

For a more detailed review on this one, check out my review from when I read it back in 2016.

Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck – 3* – read February 29

//published 2011//

I read this series several years ago and remember finding them entertaining if a bit too YA (even though the main character is 18).  Since then, Houck has published another book in the series, so I thought I would give it another go.  However, I found this really difficult to get through this time.  Kelsey, who narrates the books, is just too annoying for words, and I had also forgotten how the love triangle really plays a very prominent part in the plot.  So even though I really do want to read a story with handsome princes who are cursed to be tigers, I just couldn’t handle wading through 2000 pages of Kelsey dithering about which perfect brother she loves the most.

*****

Okay!!  That brings us to the end of February’s reviews!  I think I’m going to write a February Rearview post – despite the fact that it’s basically April – and then start minireviewing March’s books in a continued effort to catch up!

Living With Color // by Rebecca Atwood

//published 2019//

Everyone once in a while I read a book that I just love and can’t exactly explain why.   Living With Color is one of those books for me.  It’s nonfiction and focuses on (surprise, surprise) the color aspect of decorating.  There is a lot in here about feelings and it seems like it should have been a book that was a little too woo-woo for me, but instead it genuinely made me look at color in a different way.  My husband also read this book, and we have probably discussed it more than any other home improvement/decorating book that we’ve read – and we’ve read LOTS.

Atwood starts by talking about growing up along the ocean in New England, and how watching the way light and time of day interacted with and changed colors fascinated her.  She was also intrigued by how neutral colors could still be so colorful – the shore is mostly comprised of muted colors, with lots of beiges and browns, yet still is colorful.

Next, she talks about the science of color.  And even though I “knew” all of this already, she presents it all very accessibly, and I found myself enamored with the color wheel all over again.  Throughout her book, Atwood emphasizes neutrals and their importance a lot, and even when discussing the color wheel she looks at a neutrals color wheel as well as the traditional one.  She has a lot to say about undertones (a warm grey versus a cool grey, etc.) and how they impact the color in a subtle but critical way.  The entire rest of her book is built on this chapter, and I loved it.

Atwood also talks a lot about other things that impact color – light, texture, space, time of day, location, and other colors.  For instance, she points out that frequently if a room feels too bright, it is because so many of the surfaces are shiny.  Rather than changing the actual colors, change the texture of something in the room to something soft or flat (rather than gloss) can change the entire tone of the room.

The third section goes through each color on the traditional color wheel and talks about its history (when did it appear in literature?  In art?) and where it can be found in nature as well. Part of this looks at texture and at how to introduce small bits of color into a space to test them out.  As an example – before buying a piece of furniture, you may want to buy a throw or blanket the color of your potential new couch to see how the color feels in the space.  Throughout this section she also has several personal questions regarding each color, encouraging her readers to think about their feelings about it.  At first, it seemed really dumb to me to think about how I “feel” about the color blue, but her questions were actually rather thoughtful.  Color is a visceral and emotional thing, for reasons we can’t quite explain, and while I didn’t sit down and journal about every question, I did take a minute to think about them, and it was rather interesting to see how memories can become tangled with color.  Atwood encourages her readers to think about this because the color of your space is going to be something that you see constantly, and it’s important to not just have colors that match, but colors that convey the message/emotion that you want to have in the space and colors that convey those messages and emotions to you.  If you had a green coat when you were a kid and you hated it and had to wear it for years, the fact that green is generally considered a calming color may not mean that it is calming for you.

Like I said, it seemed like this should be the part where I started rolling my eyes and skipping pages, but Atwood doesn’t go too far with it.  Instead, she has a very matter-of-fact tone, because even though it is touchy-feely, it’s also true.

The majority of the rest of the book is devoted to visiting the homes of people who work with color for a living – home decorators, clothing designers, artists, etc.  When I initially flipped through this book, I hesitated to read it because I didn’t really care for most of the rooms pictured, and if you don’t like the style of a home decorating book, what’s really the point of reading it?  But I’m glad I did, because Atwood draws out useful and practical information from each home, pointing out ways to incorporate technique even when I didn’t like the style.

In the end, Atwood pulls it together by encouraging her readers to look through their notes (which I didn’t take), answers to her questions (which I didn’t write down), and other things collected for a color mood board (which I didn’t make) and use that information to make decisions about color and décor.  Despite the fact that I hadn’t done anything besides actually read the book, I still walked away with a lot of food for thought.  I’m not an instinctive decorator.  I “like” things and “dislike” things, but without any apparent pattern or specific style behind it.  But reading Atwood’s book helped me to make some sense of my instincts, and to put some actual words to feelings – for instance, while I like colors that are generally considered cool (blues and greens), I tend to like warm versions of those colors.

While this book didn’t make me dash out and start repainting walls and replacing furniture, it really did help bring some things into focus for me, giving me something more concrete to work from instead of just “I like blue – that blue, not that one.”  Since finishing it, I find myself looking at small spaces around the house that have never felt quite “right” and realizing that sometimes it’s because of the colors and textures that are in it.  I appreciated that this was a book with information that can be applied in a grand, sweeping way (paint the whole house!) or in small, subtle ways (change the knickknacks on this shelf).

A final note is that reading this book was a tactile pleasure as well.  The cover has a matte finish, the page edges are sprayed blue, the pages are very glossy, the book lays flat perfectly, the overall weight and texture is perfect.  Sometimes reading, for me, involves more than just how the words look on the page, and this was one of those rare books that is physically perfect.

I highly recommend this one if, like me, your feelings about color and decorating are strong but muddled.  Atwood’s friendly writing helps break the topic down into understandable and applicable chunks.