June MiniReviews – Part 1

Have I mentioned that my life is pretty much just peaches right now???  You all really just can’t understand LOL  In the meantime, here are a few books that I read all the way back in June…

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 Horse & His Boy by C.S. Lewis – 5*

//published 1954//

Growing up, this was one of my least favorite books in the series (along with The Silver Chair), but every time I reread it, I enjoy it more.  There’s a lot to soak in here about providence and why bad things happen to people and how that all works together for good, plus it’s just a fun story.  Narnia is always a joy to me.

Kitty’s Class Day & Other Stories by Louisa May Alcott – 3*

//published 1882//

I’m a huge fan of Alcott, and some of my all-time favorite books were penned by her.  However, I’ve had this collection of short stories on my shelf for literal years and somehow never read it… and when I did, I honestly wasn’t that impressed.  The subtitle for this one is “Proverb Stories” and each tale has a little saying/proverb at the beginning and then the story goes on to illustrate it.  Consequently, these came across as a little on the preachy side.  Alcott is always a fan of making her writing somewhat moralistic, but I feel like that works better with her longer-form writing, as we are able to see characters grow and mature organically.  Here, with only a few pages per story, the lessons felt a bit too in-your-face for my tastes.  Perfectly fine but honestly not particularly engaging.

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling – 4*

My reread of the Potter books also continued in June with a chapter a day of the fourth book.  I think this is where the series really starts to take off, with a lot of connections being made.  It’s a chunkster of a book and sometimes does feel a little ponderous, but overall I still find this series plenty entertaining.

Written in Starlight by Isabel Ibañez – 3.5*

//published 2021//

In May I read Woven in Moonlight and found it to be a decent enough read that I wanted to pick up the sequel, Written in Starlight.  It’s hard to tell about this one without giving away some spoilers for the first book, but basically there is a character from the first story who ends up being sent away into the jungle as a punishment at the end of the book.  It honestly felt a little jarring, so reading the second book felt like reading the other side of the coin.  Although the main character is different, it really ties in with the first story and, I felt, tied up a lot of loose ends.  Overall, I think I actually liked this one better, even if the main character was super dense from time to time.

Led Zeppelin: Heaven & Hell by Charles Cross & Erik Flannigan – 3.5*

//published 1991//

My husband is a huge Zeppelin fan, so we have several nonfiction books about the band.  In my quest to read all of the books I own (LOL) this one was the next stop.  Published in 1991, it was written at a time when there was still a lot of chatter about whether the band would get back together, with John Bonhome’s son, Jason, as the drummer.  This book read more like an extended fanzine, with a lot of information about band paraphernalia, concerts, albums, concert memorabilia, etc.  If you already love Zeppelin and are just looking for some random tidbits, it’s worth picking up for the photographs if nothing else, but if you don’t know much about the band, this isn’t really a great place to start, because the authors definitely assume that you already have foundational knowledge about the band members and the trajectory of the band itself.  I definitely preferred Flannigan’s sections to Cross’s – I find Cross’s writing to be somewhat condescending, something I also noted when I read his biography of Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than HeavenUltimately, Cross felt like it was super important to spend a great deal of time hating on Hammer of the Gods by Stephen Davis (which I haven’t gotten around to reading yet), which, whether or not his claims were justified, just came through as rather petty.  A moderately enjoyable read, but not one I’d particularly pick up again.

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.

An Old-Fashioned Girl

by Louisa May Alcott

published 1897

So, here’s yet another winner!  The other day I talked about two of my favorite Alcott books, Eight Cousins and its sequel, Rose in Bloom.  An Old-Fashioned Girl is another of those dear, dear favorites, a book that I’ve returned to time and again, and come away with some new lesson – or an old one remembered – to strengthen and challenge me.

In this story, Polly, a quiet country girl, comes for an extended visit with her city friend, Fanny.  Fanny’s family, the Shaws, are well-off  and comfortably placed in society, while Polly comes from a large, poor family – the daughter of a country pastor who has frequently received clothes from charity, and has learned the importance of work and determination.  Polly struggles a bit to find her place in the Shaw’s home, so different from her own, but by being true to herself, Polly becomes an beloved friend and a quiet example of selflessness and kindness.

The second half of the book jumps forward several years to young adulthood.  Polly returns to town (although she has obviously been back for visits in the meantime) to live and earn her way as a music teacher while her younger brother attends college near by.  The challenges of adulthood are different, and Polly does not always succeed in resisting her small temptations, but she grows and learns, as do her dear friends the Shaws.

While many may scoff at the idea of Polly having anything to teach to the modern girl, I believe that the truths she discovered then are just as relevant over a hundred years later.  Who can argue with the validity of “When you feel out of sorts, try to make someone else happy, and you will soon be so yourself”?

Alcott deals well with deep subjects, keeping them light enough to be refreshing reading, but with a strong challenge underneath.  Her preface for this book is telling:

The “Old-Fashioned Girl” is not intended as a perfect model, but as a possible improvement upon the Girl of the Period, who seems sorrowfully ignorant or ashamed of the good old fashions which make woman truly beautiful and honored, and, through her, render home what it should be – a happy place, where parents and children, brothers and sisters, learn to love and know and help one another.

Lessons of true femininity run strongly throughout this wonderful story, and it is a story I strongly recommend.

‘Eight Cousins’ and ‘Rose in Bloom’

by Louisa May Alcott

Published 1874, 1876 (although my editions are 1917 and 1932, so practically brand-new!)

 

 

Well, I thought I had pictures of these books, but apparently not, so.

These are two of my most favoritest books in the world.  I love Louisa May Alcott over all, and Little Women is definitely a classic that everyone should read, and a book that I dearly love, but for some reason Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom are my two favorites (although An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I also recently read and may be reviewed soon, definitely ranks up there as well).  These books are about a girl, Rose, who, at the beginning of Eight Cousins has been orphaned and gone to live with her aunts and uncle.  They live close by several other aunts (in a neighborhood referred to as “Aunt Hill” :-D) and Rose’s seven cousins – who are all boys.  When our story opens, Rose, around the age of 13 (I can’t remember exactly), is rather sickly and mopey.  All of this changes when Uncle Alec, her new guardian, arrives.  With his rather unorthodox educational and parenting methods, Uncle Alec soon helps Rose become happier, healthier, and wiser.  With seven energetic cousins in the mix, there are plenty of adventures, mishaps, and life-lessons.  When we reach Rose in Bloom, time has skipped a few years while Rose and Uncle Alec (and Rose’s best friend, Phebe) have been abroad.  Home again, romance is in the air as the cousins navigate those dangerous coming-of-age years.  Throughout the books, Alcott makes everyone real and relatable, giving us lessons that are so pleasant to learn that we don’t really mind, as she has perfected the art of preaching without preaching.  While simple enough for younger readers, these books still contain a great deal of depth – books that strike me differently with every reading (and there have been many).

The first time I read these books, Mom told me that, though she didn’t realize it at the time, Uncle Alec was her inspiration for home schooling.  Even before she and Dad pulled us out of school, Mom had a rather unorthodox concept of education, frequently having me skip a day if she felt we had something better/more educational to do.  Throughout the stories, Uncle Alec encourages Rose to learn through experience and exploration, while spending plenty of time outdoors, eating well, and learning to serve those around her.  Even though Rose is a rich young woman, Uncle Alec helps her to realize that the value of people is not in their money, helping her to learn the importance of being kind to all.

I’m afraid I’m making these books sound dreadfully dull and preachy, but they really aren’t.  The stories are lighthearted and happy, yet manage to explore some serious topics.  Rose in Bloom is a wonderfully romantic tale, with the contrast between Rose’s two beaus a study on the topic of what makes true love.

Alcott does a wonderful job of stressing the importance of true beauty – kindness and health – reminding her readers that following the fleeting fashions of the world is not a profitable way to live.  I love the fact that these books were published in the 1870’s, yet still have so much relevance for modern readers.  “A happy soul in a healthy body makes the best sort of beauty for man or woman,” Uncle Alec tells Rose.  At another juncture, while discussing a school Rose used to attend, he states, “I dare say [the school] would be [excellent] if the benighted [headmistress] did not think it necessary to cram her pupils like Thanksgiving turkeys instead of feeding them in a natural and wholesome way.”  Uncle Alec is a wonderful teacher, and I can see how Mom, even at a young age, was inspired by him.

In Rose in Bloom, Rose’s education continues, though even more informally.  Returning Stateside after several years abroad, Rose is ready to take charge of her fortune and make her way in life.  Alcott was a strong believer in woman’s rights, and an even stronger believer in the importance of retaining femininity and the beauty of true womanliness while taking advantage of those rights.  Rose’s coming-of-age illustrates that concept many times as Rose grows into a strong and independent woman, while retaining the grace, gentleness, and vulnerability that are a woman’s true birthright.   Rose yearns to find true love, but is content to wait for it in the right time, and to stay busy and productive while waiting.

In her eyes love was a very sacred thing, hardly to be thought of till it came, reverently received, and cherished faithfully to the end.

I believe Alcott would have been horrified to see where the so-called feminist movement has brought women today – far more used and abused than they ever were in 1876, and entirely by their own hand.  Perhaps due in part to our lack of ability to see these other truths she unearths?

“It is the small temptations which undermine integrity, unless we watch and pray, and never think them too trivial to be resisted.”

or:

“Never mind sides, uphold the right wherever you find it.”

Or these words from one of the cousins, as he expresses to a few of the others how he yearns to find a wonderful wife.  The whole conversation is really fantastic, but a few highlights –

“Well I know this much,” added Mac … “it is very unreasonable in us to ask women to be saints, and then expect them to feel honored when we offer them our damaged hearts, or, at best, ones not half as good as theirs.  If they weren’t blinded by love, they’d see what a mean advantage we take of them, and not make such sad bargains.”

A few paragraphs later, one of the other cousins asks Mac how he intends to remedy this situation.  Mac’s answer is not that women should become more coarse, or lower their personal standards, but that men should learn to mature and do better.

“How will you begin?”

“Do my best all round: keep good company, read good books, love good things, and cultivate my soul and body as faithfully and wisely as I can.”

I think this is the crux of Alcott’s writing.  So much of the trash I read today says something like “This group expects this group to do x, and that’s not fair when they only have to do y.”  But instead of saying that maybe everyone should step up to the standards of x, they try to drag everyone down to the standards of y.  I’m not saying it very well, but hopefully you can understand what I’m driving at.  Alcott’s writing, on the other hand, encourages everyone to step up to the plate and become a better, stronger person, rather than dragging everyone down to the lowest level.  She encourages her readers, through her stories, to be strong – not physically, but morally, to stand up for the right and to do whatever it takes to become purer, kinder, and better.

“It is not cowardly to flee temptation; and nobody whose opinion is worth having will ridicule any brave attempt to conquer one’s self.”

Alcott recognized the fact that, as humans, our tendency is towards laziness and selfishness.  She still encourages her readers today to become more than the lowest common denominator – to learn to stand tall, work hard, and help others.  This is what makes her writing timeless, books worth reading almost 140 years after they were written.