December Minireviews

The Other Wife by Michael Robotham – 4*

//published 2018//

I really enjoyed reading the Joseph O’Laughlin series last year.  Joe is a middle-aged psychologist who, at the beginning of the series, is diagnosed with Parkinson’s.  While the books can be read in any order or as stand-alones, they really work best if they are read in order, as you watch Joe and his life grow and change.  When I read the then-last-book in the series last July, I was excited to see that Robotham had another book in the series scheduled for late 2018.  Close Your Eyes had a rather weird ending, and I really wanted more for Joe, whom I actually really love.

The Other Wife was an addictive read that I was glad I picked up on a lazy Sunday, as I pretty much wanted to do nothing but read it.  Robotham easily reestablished me into Joe’s life and, per usual, jumped right into the action.  As always, Joe’s good friend Vincent Ruiz is one of my favorite characters, so I was glad to see him back.  It has also been fun to see Joe’s daughters grow older throughout the series, and in this book his oldest is at university and starting to make her own way in the world.

Reflecting later after I finished the book, I realized that Robotham honestly got a bit sloppy at the end.  One of the main characters (the “other wife”)  wasn’t really given any closure, which seemed quite important given the circumstances.  But I just couldn’t really justify knocking off a half star for that as the book had been so thoroughly engrossing while I was reading it.  I definitely need at least ten more books in this series, so hopefully Robotham is on it!

Early Candlelight by Maud Hart Lovelace – 3.5*

//published 1929//

Several years ago I read the Betsy-Tacy books by this author.  Despite being exactly the kind of books I would have loved growing up, I somehow didn’t get around to reading them until adulthood – and they were a complete delight!  Early Candlelight, however, is Lovelace’s historical fiction, a tale of love and survival set on the 1830’s Minnesota frontier.  While this book was an enjoyable read, and had an excellent sense of time and place, it was also a rather sad book on the whole (frontier life wasn’t super easy).  I also spent most of the book being a little confused because I couldn’t really get my head around the “class difference” between the main character, Dee, and her love interest, Jasper.  Jasper spends a lot of time dwelling on Dee’s unsuitability (and actually so does Dee), but I couldn’t understand why in the world an intelligent, educated, hardworking woman wouldn’t make him a good wife, especially considering that everyone in the area knew and respected Dee and thought she was a wonderful person??  Apparently the people in the fort were trying to cling to their class distinctions from back east, but I just didn’t get it, so it made parts of the story seem contrived to me, even though I’m sure that Lovelace was being historically accurate.

All in all, while this was a nice one-time read, it didn’t speak to me on the same level as the sweet and inspiring Betsy-Tacy books.

The Coming of Bill by P.G. Wodehouse – 3.5*

//published 1919//

This book is often mentioned as Wodehouse’s attempt at a “serious” novel, and it certainly lacks the lighthearted frivolity of most of Wodehouse’s works.  The main characters of this book are not, in fact, named Bill, but instead are Ruth and Kirk.  Ruth is a society girl with plenty of money.  Her mother passed away years ago, and she lives with her grumpy, busy father and her self-important brother, Bailey.  Ruth and Bailey have an aunt who is “famous” for writing books and articles about how people should really live.  The aunt is obsessed with self-improvement, with exercise, and with eugenics – she believes that it is the responsibility of every human to make themselves as fit as they can be, and to find the spouse who will be the ideal breeding partner so that the human race can be bettered through the generations.  When the aunt meets Kirk, a “fine specimen” who is also an artist living off a legacy, she decides he will be the perfect match for Ruth.  Luckily, Ruth and Kirk feel the same way.

If you’re looking for Wodehouse humor and froth, this book is a bit of a fail.  But if you’re just looking for a decent novel with interesting characters, it’s not a bad story.  Wodehouse is gently poking fun at several different things throughout, but at the heart of it all the story is about Kirk and Ruth growing up enough to take responsibility for their own lives, choices, and their child (the Bill of the title).  While this isn’t a book I would return to again and again, as a Wodehouse connoisseur it was interesting read just to see this stage of his writing.

Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien – 4*

//published 1949//

My local library always has a few shelves of discard books for a quarter, and if I’m feeling dangerous I take a moment to browse them when I go in.  A while back I found a very nice hardcover copy of this book and picked it up.  While this wasn’t a mind-blowing book or anything, it definitely was a fun and entertaining little children’s story about a rather pompous farmer and, more importantly, a dragon.  I can definitely see this being a fun read-aloud book – I think that kids would get a kick out of the drama.  Tolkien’s dry humor is in full force throughout and I found myself snickering on more than one occasion.  There isn’t a lot of depth to this one, but it was a fun little read nonetheless.

Winona’s Pony Cart

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1953

Those who have followed me for a while know that I fell in love with the Betsy-Tacy books when I read them this spring.  Happy, sweet tales about Betsy and her friends, these books are just a delight.  Lovelace wrote three other books that take place in Deep Valley, the town where Betsy and her family live throughout the majority of the series.  Like Carney’s House Partythis book fits into the Betsy timeline, even though Betsy isn’t the main character (although she does appear peripherally).

While I enjoyed this book, and Winona’s adventures, I wasn’t as big of a fan about this book as I was about the others.  I think the main reason was that I felt like Winona was a bit spoiled, and that her spoiledness (new word!) was confirmed by her parents’ actions throughout the story.  While, as always, Lovelace works in some very good lessons about acceptance and kindness, this wasn’t my favorite of her works.  Still, a solid 3/5, and if you’re reading the series (WHICH YOU SHOULD), I would definitely include this one.

Carney’s House Party

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1949

Besides the Betsy-Tacy books, Lovelace published three other stories that took place in Deep Valley, Minnesota.  Carney’s House Party, time-line wise, takes place in the four-year gap between Betsy and Joe and Betsy and the Great World.  And actually, it would have been nice to read this book in its place, as it helps fill a bit of the gap there.

As always with Lovelace’s works, I really enjoyed this story, which follows a summer in Carney’s life, between her sophomore and junior years of college.  Home for the season, several of Carney’s friends come to stay, leading to a summer full of fun and frolics, with a bit of romance thrown in.

While the story is happy and it’s great fun to see old friends again, the story’s beginning and end take place at Carney’s college.  These chapters seem a bit out of place, since the author takes a decent amount of time to describe the college and its main buildings and people Carney knows there–people and places that are completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.

This book doesn’t flow quite as naturally as the Betsy books, but this is understandable as Betsy is based on Lovelace herself, while Carney’s story is that of a real-life friend of Lovelace’s…  perhaps it was a bit more awkward to write about the thoughts and feelings of someone else who is a real someone else!

Still, overall another delightful book, and one that I would definitely recommend reading in that gap after Betsy and Joe.

Betsy’s Wedding

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1955

And here we have it–the long-awaited grand finale to the Betsy-Tacy books!  And while I was mildly disappointed in Betsy and the Great WorldBetsy’s Wedding fulfilled all of my desires for happy endings and brought everything together wonderfully.

This book would probably be more appropriately titled Betsy’s Marriage, as the wedding takes place within the first couple of chapters.  The only slightly unbelievable part of the entire story is that Betsy and Joe have been estranged for three years, and yet decide to get married within two weeks of being reunited.  But still, more power to them!  They settle down in Minneapolis, near Betsy’s family, and begin their life together, and it’s adorable and sweet and profound, just like the rest of the books.

I touched on my review of Betsy was a Junior/Betsy and Joe on how incredibly annoying it has been to read the forewords of these beautiful editions of these books, as the forewords are invariably written by a rabid feminist who insists that Lovelace was a rabid feminist as well (apparently because she wrote about girls who were happy and not very good at cooking), so hopefully you will excuse me while I address a few of the issues raised on this topic.

First off, the foreword of this book insists that Betsy is a wonderful example of a feminist because she always wanted to be a writer, not a housewife.  And yet the entirety of Betsy’s Wedding is about Betsy being a housewife, and loving every moment of it.  In fact, Betsy actually bemoans, on multiple occasions, the fact that she didn’t devote more time growing up to learning housewifely skills.  At one point, Joe has been working for a lady named Mrs. Hawthorne, but has now been promoted to working for a major newspaper, owned by Mrs. Hawthorne’s husband.

After dinner, when Joe’s transfer to the Courier was being discussed, Mrs. Hawthorne turned to Betsy.

“It will be hard for me to fill Joe’s place,” she said.  “Would you like to try?  I know you write.  You might enjoy working in a publicity office.”

Betsy was very pleased but her answer came promptly.  “Oh, Mrs. Hawthorne, I know I’d love it!  Joe has told me how delightful your office is.  But, Mrs. Hawthorn, I already have a job.”

“You have?”  She sounded surprised.

“Yes.  And it’s important, and very hard.  It’s learning how to keep house.”

Ah yes, she definitely sounds like a career woman, doesn’t she?

Later in the book, Betsy and Joe have their first real trouble when Joe’s aunt (who raised Joe) wants to come and live with them.  Betsy is sad to see their happy honeymoon time broken up, and although she’s agreed, she knows that her heart is still in rebellion.  And so, she goes to church to pray.

Betsy dug her head into her arms.  “Help me, God!  Please help me!” she prayed.

This was the first real problem of their marriage.  Up to now, everything had been perfect.  Her struggles with cooking, Joe’s low moods hadn’t mattered, really.  This was different.  This was a real disagreement.

Joe had decided it.  “But I wanted him to.  one person in a family has to have the final word.  I want it to be Joe, always.”

Betsy’s prayers help her to realize that by asking Joe to tell his aunt no, she is actually asking Joe to be less than himself–to do something that his conscience tells him would be wrong.  But the point is, Betsy makes an important decision at this moment.  It’s more than agreeing that Joe’s aunt can come stay.  It’s acknowledging that she wants Joe to be the leader in their home.  Betsy will always tell her thoughts and opinions and share her insight, and Joe will always listen, but she has decided that when it comes down to it, she wants Joe to have the final say, because she knows that a harmonious home exists when each person fills the role they were meant to play.

All this to say–I think that Betsy is a beautiful example of true femininity.  She is intelligent, she has dreams, she is true to herself, she is independent, but she also embraces her role as a housewife, prioritizes her husband and household’s needs above her own, and in general tries to mature into a true woman–changing and shaping her character because that’s what maturity does: it changes us from selfish, self-absorbed, self-adulating children, into outward-focused, selfless adults.

The feminist of the foreword (Anne Quindlen, if you’re interested) insists that Betsy (and, consequently, Lovelace) was a feminist because she had dreams and aspirations.  But I believe that that simply makes her a person.  It is Betsy’s goodness and yearning to do what’s right that helps her to grow into a woman.  Betsy becomes content and happy with her life when she is filling the role of a help meet–for Joe, for her parents, for her friends–because Betsy has learned that dreams are good and beautiful, but that no shame is to be found in simple loving service.

(Also, note that I started to really rant about Quindlen’s foreword specifically, but it didn’t really fit this post.  So it will be appearing as its own post very shortly.  Feel free to ignore it if you like, but you will not believe what that woman had to say about Anne Shirley and Jo March!)

 

Betsy and the Great World

by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1952

So, as you know, I have been greatly enjoying the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.  They have just been delightful and adorable and sweet and funny in every way.  The first four books were about Betsy’s childhood, and her adventures with her best friends, Tacy and Tib.  The next four books were Betsy’s journey through high school, undertaken not only with Tacy and Tib, but with a whole group of happy, friendly teens, known collectively as ‘The Crowd.’  At the end of Betsy and JoeBetsy graduates from high school.  Throughout those four years, she has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship (Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe style) with Joe.  Their friendship has had its ups and downs, but they become fast friends by the end of high school, and the closing of that book leaves us with the feeling that their friendship will probably bloom into something more over the next few years.

And so, we come to Betsy and the Great World.  Imagine my surprise when I opened it, only to find that four years have passed since we last saw Betsy!  She’s hopping on board a boat that will take her across the Atlantic to tour Europe.  And so we get this Reader’s Digest version of the happenings of the Crowd–of whom I have become very fond through the last four books–that is incredibly unsatisfactory.  This one’s dad died, this one has been sick, this one got married, etc.  And Tacy–my favorite!–has gotten married in the interim, to a fellow we barely met in the last book.

Not only that, but Betsy and Joe were “practically engaged” and then had a disagreement and now they aren’t speaking.  And even though Betsy sees Joe interviewing someone just as she is getting on the boat, she doesn’t say hello or farewell or anything (and spends the rest of the book regretting it).  So now we have a heroine who is in love with someone we don’t know very well (as Joe didn’t run with the Crowd all that much) and yet completely out of touch with him.  And so it adds this sort of uncomfortable emotion to the entire book–almost as though Betsy’s wonderful, exciting, beautiful adventure is tainted by the fact that she keeps seeing and hearing things she knows Joe would enjoy, but she can’t tell him about them, and as the reader, I don’t really care that much, because I have no idea what Joe would like, because I don’t know him at all.

Betsy makes so many other friends and sees so many wonderful things.  I think that the whole book would have been SO much better if, instead of creating this whole disagreement situation, Lovelace had had Betsy just tell Joe that she wasn’t ready to be engaged before traveling about, or something like that–something that would have allowed them to at least remain friends, so we could get to know Joe a bit and so Betsy wouldn’t spend her entire trip feeling sad about that whole relationship.

And while this book was quite enjoyable and very interesting, one of the chief delights (for me) of the rest of the series has been the wonderful interaction of Betsy’s entire family, and, naturally, they don’t figure much into this story–I missed them!

So while this book was wonderful and sweet in its own way, the whole Joe situation was a nagging annoyance, the four-year gap was very unsatisfying, and Betsy spent much of the book being sad and lonely, leaving me feeling a bit sad and lonely as well.  Only a 4/5 for this one–still excellent, wholesome writing, but not quite up to the par of the rest of the series.

‘Heaven to Betsy’ and ‘Betsy in Spite of Herself’

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1945, 1946

In 1945, Lovelace published a new Betsy story.  For the first four books, Betsy’s stories were illustrated by Lois Lenski, who captured the innocence and delight of these tales perfectly.  But when Betsy entered high school in Heaven to Betsy, the story was illustrated by Vera Neville (who continued to illustrate the rest of the series).  And somehow, that emphasizes the evolution of Betsy from a little girl to a young adult.  Lenski’s illustrations were round and childish, while Neville’s are sophisticated somehow.

These books continue to delight me.  The next four books each cover one year of high school, and watching Betsy grow and mature is wonderful.  Despite the old-fashioned background (Betsy graduates with the class of 1910), Betsy’s struggles and life-lessons are surprisingly relevant, as Betsy learns to balance her life, to be true to herself, and that happiness is found through selflessness.  

There is a perfect passage in Betsy in Spite of Herself.  Throughout the book, Betsy has tried to take on a new persona, and has, to some degree, succeeded, and the handsomest boy in her class has been her steady beau for several months.  When things end with him, Betsy goes for a walk and does some soul-searching.

“It couldn’t have lasted.”  [she said to herself] “It wasn’t true from the beginning.  It wasn’t the real me that [he] liked.  No particular compliment in having him crazy about somebody who wasn’t even me.”

I love that, the realization that if people like you when you’re pretending to be someone who isn’t you–well, what’s the point in that?  Why would you want people to only like you when you pretend?  Then you have to spend your whole life pretending instead of living.

Originally, I fell in love with these books because of their whimsical sweetness, but as Betsy grows to adulthood, I am loving them for the insight that Lovelace slowly grants to Betsy.  These are wonderful, wonderful books.  I wish that I had read them years ago.

5/5.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1943

Betsy and  her friends are growing up!  In this book, the last before the girls enter high school in Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib find themselves entangled in many adventures, especially now that they are old enough to go to town by themselves.  Times are change in Deep Valley–there is a new-fangled horseless carriage, a theater, and a beautiful new hotel.

Lovelace describes the changes to the small town beautifully, probably because these books are very closely autobiographical.  I am growing more and more fond of Betsy and her friends, and cannot believe that I have only just discovered these perfect stories.

5/5

Betsy & Tacy Go Over the Big Hill

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1942

I feel like a broken record–these books are so adorable and sweet!  In this book, the girls decide to crown a queen of spring.  However, Betsy and Tacy’s older sisters have already decided to do the same thing!  Drama ensues.

What I really love about these books is how beautifully and kindly Lovelace portrays family.  Betsy and her sister have always gotten along so well, that to see them in the midst of a serious argument is really quite distressing.  But the way that they make up, and the way that everything comes together in the end–perfect.

I am enjoying these books so very, very much, and cannot recommend them highly enough.  5/5.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1941

Guys, I love these books.  I just can’t believe that I’ve missed them all my life.  They keep getting more and more adorable!  This is the second book of the series.  At the very end of Betsy-Tacythe girls met a new girl, Tib, and in this book, the three of them go adventuring.  As I said, these books are just sweet and pleasant and very difficult to describe without making them sound silly and dull, and they aren’t.  They are very, very readable.

And Lois Lenski’s illustrations are perfect.  Bonus!!

5/5.

Betsy-Tacy

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by Maud Hart Lovelace

Published 1940

(this edition illustrated by Lois Lenski)

So the Betsy-Tacy books have been floating around my library my entire life.  I know that they were on Mom’s bookshelves growing up, but when I asked her the other day, she said that she had never read them; she just collected them at booksales thinking that they looked like nice books.  I had had much the same attitude, but finally decided to add them to the list of series to-be-read (for serious).  And I am so very, very glad that I did.  These books are delightful!

I am not even sure that I can describe them.  They are set at the turn of the century, and focus on the adventures of three little girls (this first book only involves Betsy and Tacy; Tib moves into the neighborhood in the next book).  These are the most stress-free books you could ever want to read.  I keep waiting for something bad to happen, and nothing ever does!  And yet they still manage to be quite readable, even without any kind of villain.

In this first book, Betsy lives with her parents and her older sister, Julia.  A new family moves in across the street, and they have lots of children, including a girl just Betsy’s age.  After a rocky start, the girls become firm friends.  Much of the book is not so much actual adventures as it is the stories that Betsy tells of their imaginary adventures, which are often quite imaginative indeed!

In Betsy-Tacy, the girls are quite little, but they grow throughout the series.  I have read the first three books now, but the series concludes with Betsy’s Wedding, so apparently they still have quite a lot of growing to do!

Lois Lenski’s illustrations are perfect as well.  I love her work.

I cannot express the true extent of just the innocence and joy in these  books.  They are precious and delightful and full of gentle lessons about love, friendship, and respect.  I am only sorry that I didn’t read them earlier.

5/5.