2020 finished in as much of a blur as the rest of the year. Fall blended into Winter 2020 as I discovered new authors and returned to trusted favorites to ease my way into a New England winter. I traded the beach for mountains for daily walks and reps on my stationary cycle while listening to entertaining narrators on Audible selections. In the evenings, I picked up my tablet/hardcover/paperback and a mug of hot chocolate (or glass or red wine depending on my work day), and nestled into a loveseat with heat from the wood stove rising to warm me in my loft reading nook.
From left to right, top to bottom, here are quick reviews of the fourteen books I read this quarter. Each book is linked to Amazon for additional reviews and convenient purchasing.
Based on accounts from survivors, Benjamin crafts imagined characters who battle the ferocity of an 1888 storm with triumphant survivals and agonizing defeats. At the story’s heart is 16-year-old Raina Olsen, a Nebraska schoolteacher in charge of a one-room schoolhouse and its young students. Unlike my school days during the Blizzard of ’78 in Boston, there are no down hooded parkas to bundle the children into. There are no heated buses to deliver them home to their waiting parents. There is only Raina and a 15-year-old student, Tor, to shepherd children to safety. Or at least the ones who didn’t head out on their own, walking blind into a maelstrom, like 10-year-old Anette Pederson and her friend, Fredrick. From the sting of pelting pebbles of snow on your neck to the seep of icy slush sloshing your boots to freeze your toes, I wonder if Benjamin stood outside in a blizzard to capture every sense of hopelessness and loss. Her vivid descriptions, physical and emotional, tease a reader’s guilt of having so much in light of those who had so little. Other characters and plotlines fill the pages for additional POVs, which mostly add color and contrast to the story. Raina’s sister, Gerda in the Dakota territory, also a schoolteacher, endures the storm with a vastly different outcome. Gavin Woodson, a reporter banished from New York, travels the area in the aftermath to discover and share the survivors’ stories. Raina, Anette and Gavin intersect to provide tidy outcomes for the story’s end. Benjamin also provides a commentary on the role of the news media in shaping and driving a population’s actions and choices. Immigrants settled the Great Plains drawn by the allure of free homesteads and land to plant and reap their dreams. An unforgiving climate, however, can murder those dreams in an instant, whether it’s prairie fires, flash floods, or blizzards. Only the strong in heart, mind, soul, and body can survive. I finished the book with a couple of plot questions. I think they could have been omitted or resolved differently for a reader to completely bond with each character. Overall, I enjoyed learning about another lesser known piece of history in a lesser represented part of the country, the Great and Mighty Plains of the United States.
I received a free Advance Reader’s Copy from Penguin Random House for my honest review.
Mr. Backman, sir, how do you conceive your characters, and write them complete with quirks and flaws? I’d love to take a writing course with you. From the author of another beloved favorite, A Man Called Ove, Backman introduces us to a father-son police detail and victims of a botched robbery and hostage situation. You expect drama and disaster. Instead, you laugh and want to become friends with every one of those hostages, including their captor. Wait for the surprise twist as to the captor’s identity. It’ll reset preconceived notions and challenge you to think of motives and desires.
I timed this one well. Listening to Greenlights, with McConaughey reading, in the week leading up to and after Christmas, I burned the calories added from holiday desserts and stocking stuffer candy by riding my stationary cycle to finish out a chapter. Is McConaughey an egotist? IMHO, yes – isn’t every successful actor? Is he sexy? IMHO, yes – including his native Texan drawl. Do you need to keep both in mind to enjoy his memoir, looking back on the first fifty years of his life? Yes. Interjections of his personal “prescriptions” and bumper stickers on life philosophies add to his reflections on his greenlights, and red lights of life.
I have to admit I nearly abandoned this one. I started it back in the summer and after about seven chapters felt like it was going nowhere. There were also a couple of inaccuracies / unbelievable responses which irked me. I knew it was a coming-of-age mystery with serious consequences to come, but it felt like it was taking too long to get there. In fact, I think the entire first fifty pages or so could have been lopped off without damaging the story. It was set-up for a story line which never materialized. Yet, after continuing to read other rave reviews, I decided to give it another shot. I’m glad I finished it for the character resolutions but for something pegged a mystery, I felt the slow pace detracted from the intent.
<unrated> Lilli’s Chair by A. Baxter
I’m including Lilli’s Chair in my list as I did read it this quarter. However, with the possibility this self-published historical fiction may be recalled for some editing, I’m going to withhold my review until I know it’s been updated.
One of the most rewarding reasons for enjoying a book is the way it relates to you on a personal level. On the surface and at first glance, I thought Beantown Girls would be a gentler read for the popular WWII genre. And it was. However, the push into a five-star rating didn’t come from learning about the Red Cross Club Mobile girls, it came from my personal connection. As I read the story of three friends from Boston, all I could picture was my Mom (from Boston) who was the same age as the characters in 1944. Her fiance was in the US Navy in the South Pacific and her brother was in the Army Air Force in Europe. I know she leaned on her best friends to get through the darkest days of the war as part of the home front efforts charged with keeping up morale through their loving, lively letters to their men overseas. Their efforts were as important as the work done by Fiona, Dottie, and Viviana traveling through England, France and Belgium serving coffee and doughnuts with a smile and a wink.
Real Life Beantown Girls, circa 1943
A Secret Gift offers another example of putting our current situation into perspective. In 1933, as The Great Depression gripped a nation, one man in Canton OH, brought humanity, care, and a glimmer of hope to its struggling residents through his anonymous benevolence. The CA book club I joined selected this moving read as an appropriate December choice. Five dollars from a stranger went a long way in 1933. Outreach and compassion goes a long way in 2020.
I love Boston, the major city I grew up near and have spent most of my life near. Perhaps it’s the history which roots me in admiration. Or maybe it’s the people, hardy New Englanders who don’t put up with a lot of BS. Unable to visit the city for an afternoon at the Boston Public Library, complete with a walk through the Public Gardens in the Back Bay, I found a slice of connectivity by reading The Red Coat. The coat connects two women and their family stories from the monied enclave of Beacon Hill to the working-class Irish-predominant South Boston neighborhood. Carson, also a Boston area native, wrote with authenticity to the people, places and relationships which ensue within the small Boston Brahmin Parkers, complete with estrangements, to the close-knit King family. There were a couple of King family members whose characters dropped off with sudden plotlines stops, but otherwise, The Red Coat offers a walk through Boston, in step with Caroline Parker and Norah King.
Susan Meissner is one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Her level of research and detail transports the reader back to a time and place of authenticity. Beyond the facts, her characters come to life in those settings. After reading Erik Larson’s non-fiction, The Splendid and the Vile, earlier this year, Charmed Life re-visited London during the Blitz with a fictionalized account. Similar to Meissner’s As Bright as Heaven (still my favorite by her), again a historical event tears apart a family, keeping the reader wondering if a reconciliation will transpire. I decided to read Charmed Life before I dove into Meissner’s most recent, The Last Year of the War, yet another WWII story (albeit set in the US). As I feel like I desperately need a break from WWII books, I’m set to soon read Meissner’s newest release. I’m excited she has moved off the WWII genre by taking a look at the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The Nature of Fragile Things launches Feb 2, 2021. But, poor Susan! I noticed there are two other books coming out in Jan – Mar 2021 about the earthquake. There’s sure to be competition for “Share-of-Voice” as we call it in marketing. I won a copy of A Splendid Ruin by Megan Chance from Goodreads and Vera by Carol Edgarian comes out Mar 2, 2021. Should I remain a loyal Meissner fan, or should I read Splendid Ruin? I see a Venn diagram in my future.
Retta, Gertrude, Annie, and I walked miles in November as they faced truths, longings, and failings as mothers to daughters. A rich story of family relationships, race, and societal expectations comes to life in South Carolina circa 1924 as the three women’s lives intersect to support and uplift each other. I could have walked miles more listening to this powerful story.
After seeing multiple recommendations for Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe across several Facebook groups, I took a diversion from historical fiction to the magical town of Wicklow, Alabama. Am I too much of a realist to enjoy the suspension of belief to enjoy magical realism? I’m afraid so. Or, maybe my fear of flocks of birds (brought on my childhood trauma of watching Hitchcock’s The Birds at an early age) blocked me from relishing this touted title. In any case, three stars from me – just not my favorite genre.
Similar to The Beantown Girls, my enjoyment from reading The Life and Times of Mary Vaux Walcott derived from my connections on a personal level. I picked it up over a year ago at the recommendation of Ashley Sweeney. Marjorie Jones is another Wheaton alumnae; I hoped to connect with her as well regarding publishing advice. I had a lovely email exchange with Marjorie and finally this November picked up the biography she wrote. I’m glad I did. Marjorie’s expansive research painted the life of Mary Vaux. I learned about another independent woman of the late 19th century, a New Woman, in Mary Vaux Walcott. She traveled the American West capturing her reactions in the beauty of her watercolors of North American botany. She studied and catalogued. She climbed and camped. She married a man she loved despite her father’s misgivings that Charles Walcott was a man of the world, a non-Quaker. Learning about her Quaker upbringing reminded me of a childhood friend. Fairly uncommon in suburban Boston in the late 60s/early 70s, she was a Quaker and I recalled her gentle, kind nature and that her mother was a leader in the faith. We drifted apart in middle school and I completely lost track of her in a high school class of 480 students. After finishing the book, I searched for her on Facebook. With a unique first and last name, I found her living in New Mexico and we re-connected and caught up after 45 years. Thank you, Marjorie, for teaching me about Mary Vaux Walcott which prompted me to find my friend, Martha, who has the beautiful soul of a Walcott floral painting.
As I recall, my sons read The Things They Carried in high school for summer reading. I don’t recall, however, reading it with them, or discussing it. Now, I need to. Can there be a memoir about the Vietnam War, or any war or conflict, from a soldier’s perspective which isn’t heart-wrenching? I don’t think so. Anguish and regrets weigh more than any military backpack these soldiers carry, primarily because they’re carried long after the backpacks are stowed in the dusty reaches of an attic, footlocker, or basement. I hope there will be more written about America’s forgotten war and its victims.
Thank goodness! After the tears streamed down my cheeks from Tim O’Brien’s compelling memoir, Mr. Dickens and His Carol stepped in with a lighter fare for the holiday season. Silva offers up an imagined account of Charles Dicken’s inspiration for A Christmas Carol. Not only was the story entertaining, but the undertones of a writer’s life and the demands faced from publishers and readers soothed my anxious moments as I await agent responses. Even the great Charles Dickens struggled.
For more recommendations, check out all my top book picks for 2020 and other reviews across genres, including a new one from a special guest blogger, my son, who reviews Ken Follet’s newest, The Evening and the Morning.
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