My Favorite Epistolary Books: Real Books of Real Letters Written by Real People

This week it the real life letters  of real people. Last week I introduced you to my favorite fictional diaries. This week it is stories told thru letters and their electronic counterparts. I fell in love with this format as a teenager when my Mom bought 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff–then a new bestseller. I was hooked on the format ever-more. Just like last week, I’ve used the same cover my copy has for the image–if you click on the link, not only do I not make any money off your click, but the book you buy will have a newer cover. [Thank you to those of you who were too polite to point out I’d put these very real letters in the fictional books told thru letters post! Ooops!]

Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the representative at London’s Charing Cross bookstore, Marks & Co who handles her orders, have a sort of love-affair over great books. It’s harmless–no plotting to run away together or anything, just a shared love of superb books. This book was the first “book about books” that I read, too. It introduced me to Pepys Diary, which I’m still reading as the mood strikes me (No, not since the 70’s–I got a copy about 8 years ago). The fun these two have in their letters–well, that Helene has, goes on thru the deprivation of World War II and beyond. The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is also delightful, as are her books Q’s Legacy and Underfoot in Show Business. In writing this post I learned there is a biography of Helene published a few years ago–somehow I missed it. I don’t think I’ll read it though. I like “my” Helene. Since the book got lots of bad reviews I’ve not linked to it.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

The superb movie version is worth it too. 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

The Best Ones


Founding Mother, First Lady, Mother of a President. Even Barbara Bush can’t claim all of these! Abigail Adams was every bit as much of a revolutionary as her husband, John. While John was away earning a living as a lawyer, as a member of the Continental Congress, as a Diplomat trying to secure funding and recognition for the rebellious colonies, and later the new United States, as Vice-President and as President, Abigail Adams was mostly back home in Braintree, Massachusetts. She ran the house and farm, doing much of the hard work herself. She educated her children herself giving them a tremendous education in the classics. She raised a President, her son John Quincy. And she wrote letters. Long, beautifully reasoned arguments for freedom, justice and any other topic, to her husband and to other Founding Fathers. Along the way she wrote beautiful love letters to her husband, too. And he wrote back as effusively. Their marriage survived it all.

There are many editions of the Adams letters, just as there are several excellent television series and movies about them. These letters are often truly founding documents–landmark utterances, of America and one of it’s founding families.

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams.


Queen Victoria bore nine children and had 42 grandchildren. Princess Victoria of Hesse, was not only Queen Victoria’s granddaughter (child of her second daughter, Princess Alice), but in time she would also be the mother of Lord Mountbatten and of Queen Louise of Sweden, grandmother of Prince Philip and great-grandmother to Prince Charles and his siblings (though she lived only to see Princess Anne born). This collection shows how Queen Victoria, well known for finding her own babies ugly and babies and pregnancy to be disagreeable (“The hazard of being a wife, ” her great-great-great granddaughter, Princess Anne, said–essentially channeling Victoria), had a softer side once children were able to attend to their bodily functions alone.

The advice, counsel, news and love that she expresses–and that is returned full force, shows a different side to the perpetually mourning, always in black widowed Queen. The younger Victoria would go on to live thru the two World Wars with grandchildren on both sides, see her son, Lord Mountbatten preside over the Brexit of the 1940s–i.e. the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan and see her grandson, Philip, marry the next Queen Sovereign–her own distant cousin.

Advice to my Granddaughter


Choosing one writer’s letters over all the others was very difficult. I decided on Laura Ingalls Wilder because her letters DID surprise me. There were no tawdry letters to lovers, no barked out memos to servants or underlings, just HER.

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By now most Royal fans have learned from this “selected” collection of letters that the Queen Mother was aghast at Prince Charles having to attend Gordonstoun and not Eton–and with good reason: She knew him so well she could see there mismatch of student and school would be as horrific as his future mismatched marriage to Diana.

But what upset people was learning from a letter from Princess Margaret to her mother that she had burned some of Diana’s letters to the Queen Mother.  Most thought she did it to damage Diana. Margaret had had a good relationship with Diana, though, and her children did, too. If anything, I think she burned them to protect Diana. I also found it very sweet that Margaret revealed that “Mummy” was a bit of a pack rat when it came to papers!



Count One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother also reveals the Queen Mother’s love of the arts, which may help explain why she was able to get on so well with her formidable Mother-in-Law, Queen Mary. And, it puts the final nail in the coffin on so much of the fiction spouted in the “memoirs” of Queen Elizabeths’s governess, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford. I found it oddly telling that Princess Margaret, who railed at her own lack of formal education–that she was “denied” education [this line was given to the Queen in the drama The Crown], but that her love and support of the arts was straight from the very mother who thought that formal education was ghastly!

 The Worst Ones

Admittedly, these were not written for publication, but rather to express a besotted man’s love for his first mistress and then, in a later time in life, for the woman he gave up the Throne of England to marry. That said, they are often so utterly infantile, so bitter and so selfish that the reader can immediately see why the most popular Prince of Wales in history could never be crowned King. “David,” as Edward VIII was known to friends and family, was nearly a case of arrested development and so egocentric as to be almost unmanageable as an adult.

Frieda Dudley Ward, enjoying an upper-class wife’s prerogative of an affair, often did try to counsel him but to no avail. After years and years of the Prince’s love, of his being almost a father to her daughters, she phone the palace one day and the operator who knew her by voice from all the years, was put in the horrible position of having to tell her that he call would not be put thru. The affairs was just “over.” Wallis, we all know, went on to live the most boring exile that money could by. Her only satisfaction was knowing that Queen Elizabeth had sanctioned her burial in the royal burial ground at Frogmore beside her royal husband. Sad. [For the record, the movie W.E. about Wallis/Edward based on their way of expressing “us” was just as awful as the letters that inspired it.]


Love makes us all say things in the dark that would make us cringe in daylight. Poor Lorena Hickock. Eleanor was soon over her feelings for the woman who helped make her the most controversial (or influential) First Lady in history. Sadly, “Hick” as she was known, kept the torch burning till death. Hick’s letters are the most embarrassing in this collection.  But, as love letters go, these are pretty tame stuff. F.D.R. and Eleanor had also once written each other stuff like this, but that was long, long before. Later, Eleanor would move on to cringe-worthy relationships with younger men, too.

Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickcok.

In the one man show Give ’em Hell Harry, about Harry Truman, Harry tells a story of finding his wife Bess burning his old love letters. “But, Bess! Think of history,” a distraught Harry Truman says. “I AM,” said Bess–as she kept right on burning. It’s a shame any of these were published.

How about you? Do you save old letters? Do you have favorite published collections of letters? Leave me a comment or a link to your own post–I’d love to see what you like.

Review: Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Last Mission


Today we think of the 1950’s as a time when everyone had good jobs, all wives stayed home and scrubbed the kitchen floor in pearls and pumps and children were all named Kathy, Suzy, Jimmy and Beaver.  But when I was an undergraduate at the time Ronald Regan became president, I studied a different part of the 1950’s and 1960’s–Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), The Domino Theory, Brinksmanship, Massive Retaliation, U-2s. People like Alan Dulles, [John] Foster Dulles, George Kennan (aka “Mr. X”) were as familiar to me as the Khardashians are to today’s undergraduates.

The Good of the Book

When people think of the Eisenhower administration today, they see a genial, bald-headed guy playing golf and his wife, with her bangs, and her signature color of Mamie Pink. What really was going on was much more in tune with what I studied than with the links of Burning Tree or Augusta.

At every point in Eisenhower’s administration we were theoretically on the brink of nuclear war. When Stalin died, there was a two-year gap in established leadership of the USSR to contend with. NATO could only respond to threats to member states. That absolutely none of the nation’s worst fears were realized was due to the leadership and listening skills of one man–IKE. He famously remarked, when handed a 30 page  briefing  on one of his first days in office that the Normandy Invasion only needed 5 pages.

Ike valued and encouraged a full-on debate for most matters. Unlike JFK, whose leadership and various crises I also studied, in the case of the Cuban Missile crisis alone, for three semesters, Ike did not rush things. I agree with the author that Kennedy was too willing to make his own decisions. Ike listened, checked the facts and when necessary he had the issue re-debated–then he acted. JFK tended to want to decide and move forward. Thankfully, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK had learned a few valuable lessons. Every issue in that Crisis was debated as thoroughly as anything ever put before a president, and Ike’s influence was party to thank.

The author, a Fox journalist, does clarify for readers that Eisenhower was a religious man–but never in the ways we associate with far-right, evangelical extremism today. He prayed. He knew his Bible. He believed. He agreed with adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And, he took for granted that this was right. Ike himself did not bring up that his parents had converted to the Jehovah’s Witness–a popular new group at the time of their conversion, following a son’s death. The author was wise to admit this, though it was very apparent that Ike himself did not hold to the tenants of that cult-ish group.

The author is exactly right, too, that Eisenhower’s farewell address was very, very prescient. The President who coined the term “the military industrial complex” knew what was a ahead. It does not matter if he had a committee helping write his speeches (they all do), it matters that HIS vision was articulated so well. The author is also right that the young, impetuous JFK, was far more hawk-ish in rhetoric than the 5-Star General of the Armies ever was as President. The Torch that was passed to the new generation, was a missile apparently.

The Bad

The author does not even mention, let alone discuss, Ike’s war-time affair with his female driver–a relationship so close that, home on a rare visit, IKE started to call his wife Mamie, “Kay,” the name of his female driver.  The Eisenhowers were more or less separated at the time the war began. Like most couples of their era though, they stayed married and made the best of things, making their own peace and living their lives together again in harmony. I felt that by omitting even a brief mention of this affair, that the author gave Ike more “greatness” than he may have earned. Had someone written of FDR and not mentioned Lucy Mercer the book wouldn’t have been published.

He also chooses to ignore that though Ike wasn’t crazy about Richard Nixon (which he does state), the two families spent enough time together that Ike’s grandson, David (for whom he renamed the Presidential retreat “Shangri La” as Camp David) would marry Nixon’s daughter, Julie.

Finally, the author–a journalist– was incorrect on who the first female Cabinet Secretary was. That was Frances Perkins, appointed by FDR. Fact checking still matters.

Overall this is an excellent layman’s account of Ike’s presidency.  I thought it jumped around way too much. It also went on much longer than the stated 3 days by going on in time to show IKE advising JFK. That was very interesting, but made the title of the book a bit misleading.


3.75 Stars. Just missed the fourth star for the reasons I mentioned.

What to read after watching PBS’s The Great War on American Experience: FICTION


Image credit: PBS


Yesterday I gave you suggestions of nonfiction to read. Today it is fiction.


The Poem and the Poppy

Poppies photo from The Guardian Massimo Crisafi/GuardianWitness

In Flanders Field the poppies blow…. the most famous poem of the war begins with those words. Poppies, in Britain and the British Commonwealth are the symbol of the war and remembrance of veterans in general.  The art installation, Field of Poppies, shows one poppy for every man killed from Britain and it’s then Empire (Commonwealth).  In Flanders Field by Linda Granfield.



Once An Eagle, such a magnificent work that it has been assigned reading for American Army officers, tells the story of two young officers from their beginnings thru the end of their careers in both peace time and in both world wars. The man from humble origins, Sam Damon, and the priviledged officer of the old aristocratic mien, Courtney Massengale, are symbolic of all such officers. Those who put in decades without promotion in the underfunded, undermanned post-Civil War, post-Spanish American War American Army. Anyone who seeks to understand the American Army needs to read this book. The 1970s  tv version, in spite of Sam Elliott playing Sam Damon, wasn’t the greatest and it did take liberties with the story. Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer.



A Star for Mrs. Blake  is a sweet story of a mother’s post-war journey to visit her only son’s grave. We forget how big a part in life mourning the dead was in days past. This war was the first in which the bodies of soldiers were not sent home for burial for the most part. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt’s son and King George V’s  (English) cousin, Prince Maurice of Battenberg, were buried with the other soldiers in France or Belgium. World War I saw the creation and and solemn recognition of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the U.S. (and similar monuments elsewhere) and the Old Guard standing watch round the clock in Arlington Cemetery. Armistice Day (Veteran’s Day) and Remembrance Day (in the U.K. and Commonwealth) were all created to memorialize the dead of this war. A Star For Mrs. Blake by April Smith. You can read my original review here. (Scroll down in the post).



War Horse became a sensation when it hit the London stage and then the movie was made. A wonder of special stage effects and robotics, the audience at one performance was stunned when a white haired, elderly lady and her equally creaky husband sneaked in second before the curtain went up. A few weeks later the same thing happened with a tall, balding young man and his cover-girl wife. Yes the Queen and Prince Philip and then William and Catherine stopped in to see the show. I like the think that Granny convinced William to go, don’t you?

Anyway, before there was a play or a movie there was the book. It’s target audience is young people, but it is a book for any age. Like with the boy soldiers, it is hard for us today to realize that most of the horses (which were still widly used for transportation and farming) were commandeered as were most private automobiles in Britain. This might be difficult for Americans. But just like in fictional Downton Abbey, great houses were also commandeered and many were returned in shameful condition. American children of today may not understand this.  No matter, I loved every minute of the fabulous audio version. War Horse by Michael Morpurgo.


516OAOdHP8L._SY346_I found this book one Christmas in the 90’s as a gift for my nephew. I’ve been in love with it ever since. I even went back and bought my own copy. Like War Horse, this is about the fighting. In this case a young boy receives wooden toy soldiers his father carves in downtime in the trenches from scraps of branches or whatever. Another idea that may be hard to realize is how close Britain was to the fighting. A letter posted to the front generally got there the next day. So, the toy soldiers made it across the English Channel from France in good time. Through the expressions of the soldiers Johnny learns the terrible truth of war. This is a well done book–it is not a horror story. The Lord of the Nutcracker Men by Iain Lawrence.


51LQWqlQlWL[Please ignore the cheesy cover]. If you loved Anne of Green Gables, but weren’t aware it was a long series of books, then you are in for a treat! Book 8, Rilla of Ingleside, is the story of Anne’s daughter teenage daughter,’Rilla (who wishes, unfathomably, that she’d been named “Bertha” instead!), and the boys in her life who leave Canada to fight for King and Empire in the war. One pens an iconic poem that symbolizes the generation. I love this part ofthe story most, for poetry and music were so important to this generation–very much like today’s rap-writing generation. Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery.


The Christmas Truce

The Christmas Truce and Christmas in the Trenches


The classic from the German side is, of course, All Quiet on the Western Front, which has been made into a movie a time or two, as well.

A recent collection of excellent World War I -themed short stories, Fall of Poppies. My review.

And 1914 A Novel, a short novel about the French war experience. Scroll way down in the link for my review.

The New Book Review


I LOVED Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, so I was very eager to read the Summer Before the War when it came out. I immediately got it on audio and started listening. I loved it and so rushed out and did something I never do–I bought the hardback (I do buy fiction but only in paperback). Then something terrible happened. I lost the book. I found months later, then stumbled on the audio back on the library shelf when I was out of audio books. This week I finished the book.

The Story: Beatrice arrives in the town of Rye to take a teaching position vacated by a man who has enlisted. She meets Hugh and Daniel and a boy nicknamed “Snout”. Later a Belgian girl is added when she arrives as a refugee.

The Good: I loved the gentle tone of the story, the costume drama aspects of it. I genuinely liked Beatrice, Daniel and Hugh. I enjoyed the way the “locals” banded together at one point in the story (no spoilers).

The Bad: I felt the story got bogged down in a spate of modern day tut-tutting over “look how horrid we were back then to this group, that group and another group.” This is seems to be necessary to be published today. Dickie–aka “Snout” is Romany, various young men might, or might not be in love, and the poor refugee is a pregnant, unmarried girl. The treatment they received in that era IS despicable, but I am really tired of being beat over the head with the mea culpas over past maltreatment in fiction except for genocide. We’d all love to change history,  to make it humane, but we cannot. This bloated the book and lost the trail of the story for a little while and that hurt it overall.

It is hard to realize today that the British Army still enlisted “boy soldiers” at 14 (the Navy took boys at 14, too–I met such a man who got his first long trousers upon enlistment right after he turned 14) or that in wartime soldiers can/were (maybe still are?) shot for desertion. Shot. By fellow soldiers under orders from a commanding officer. No, “but he’s a good person,” just a summary court martial and a squad of riflemen to do the deed. Sometimes merely one officer with a pistol. Animals, too, were not treated lightly. There is one sad scene that illustrates this, but it is short and, for the time, humane.


3.5 stars. Better editing and less concern for political correctness would have made it an easy 4 star book. But it was too long due to the p.c. chorus.

What to read after watching PBS’s The Great War on American Experience: NONFICTION


Image credit: PBS

World War I connects two of my favorite historical eras–the Edwardian (1901-1910) and the “Between the Wars” era of 1918 to 1939 (yes, 1939–for the rest of the world the Second World War started September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland). As a self-styled history freak I’ve read masses of nonfiction in my life. I also love historical fiction. Here are some Great books to read about the once Great War now known as World War I. While we learn (well, we used to learn) in school that the war was from 1914 to 1918, in truth American soldiers were just in the field long enough to end it–arriving in summer 1917. Britain, France and Germany had been at it in deadly stalemate for so long they massacred a generation. Therefore most of the books are from the British experience.


41xaJJS++GL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Vera Brittain was a well-born, well-educated young woman who volunteered as a nurse. Her memoirs tell the story of her life and those of her brother and friends–all upper class (but not the loftiest of the old aristocratic families–her brother went to Uppingham, not to Eton or Harrow). The “rap” of that day and that class was poetry–they were all poetry mad. But that soon faded with the carnage she witnesses in the hospital in France. It is of her true coming-of-age that she writes–the loss of her boyfriend, the carnage she sees, the change from naive, sheltered youth to battle hardened and worldly war nurse and adult.

This is one of  the classic memoirs of the era, albeit not of the American war experience. Her experiences in the hospital were without national boundaries. It was made into a tv series shown on Masterpiece in the 70s or 80s and again recently into a movie. The book is such compelling reading. Not to be missed. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.



51QOJNA+ykL._SY346_Now book on the causes of World War I has been stuided more than Barbara Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August. JFK cited it as one of the best books he’d read. I read it in college and re-read it after college. Blundering into war? Outdated thinking? Bureaucracy? Ridiculous concepts of chivalry and honor? Read it and make up your own mind. Never was a generation more senselessly sacrificed. (I also read The Germans by Gordon Craig and together they were a master class in World War I). Again, this book is not strictly on the American experience of the war, but it is essential to understanding how it all happened and why we had to ultimately join the war.

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.


Our Leaders


A recent and very readable biography of President Wilson and a brand new biography of General Pershing (is one of two books on this list I have not yet read).


The Royal Connections


There are more substantive biographies of each of these men, but this book more than shows how the Prince Consort’s plan for peace in Europe by marrying his many children to foreign royals didn’t really work. The first cousins–two of whom, George and Nicholas, were often mistaken for twins, were bound by blood ties. But even Nicholas, an autocrat, by 1914 was hemmed in by reforms that gave the civilian government more power. Wilhelm, crippled at birth was left scarred in too many ways. George, who had trained for a navy career, but found himself on the throne after the untimely death of his elder brother, was far happier out on his Norfolk estate shooting. King, Kaiser, Tsar: Three Royal Cousins Who Led the World to War by Catrine Clay.


The Fabled Poets



No understanding of the war can skip its poets and their words. I have not yet read this book. Great Poets of World War I by John Stallworthy.

Epistolary Books Part II: Favorite Non-Fiction Diaries of Royals and War

Royal Diaries


Unlike fictional diaries, I can’t recall the first real diary–or edited diary at least–that I read. Possibly though it was Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon. The library at Indiana University had a copy and I read it with delight.  Yawn, you say? I beg to differ. He called it in the ’30’s saying that Prince Philip was in the British navy to become Prince Consort–not a complete fabrication, either. Lots of juicy stuff on society and on Edward VIII’s abdication–an obsession for me at the time.

Much later came The King’s Counsellor, the diaries of Edward VIII’s Private Secretary, Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles. Tommy went on to serve George VI and the current Queen. He was Private Secretary during the Abdication and during Princess Margaret’s affair with equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend.  His observations were fascinating looks at the royal family, but far more serious ones than the tell-all books of Prince Charles’ valet or the fictionalized “memoirs” of the Queen’s governess.

There are actual royal diaries–the Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom have traditionally kept a basic diary. Queen Victoria’s diaries were “edited” (some say “ruined”) by her youngest daughter, Princess Beatrice. In most cases we have only extracts in published official biographies (or extracts used with special permission in unauthorized works). Lord Mountbatten kept very boring official diaries of many of his trips with the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) as the heir to the throne toured the great Empire of the day.

Wartime Diaries


Civil War

41qmRKsyHtL._SY346_Mary Chestnut was the wife of a Confederate Cabinet Secretary and saw first hand much of the life of the top levels of the Confederate government during the war. Her account of life includes details such as what happened to freed slaves, what daily goods were unavailable, the purchasing power of Confederate money as well as the disagreements within the Cabinet. She did not have children, but her husband’s son served in the Army. This is a classic on the Confederate view of daily life in the war.

Mary Chestnut’s Diary




World War II

War is a popular time to keep a diary. In fact, in  the U.K. a public opinion survey organization called Mass Observation had ordinary people keep and submit diaries during World War II for “the record.”



It’s no accident that as the typewriter, and then the pc, became more widespread, publishing boomed. World War II is perhaps the best documented war in history! Diaries abound covering every aspect of life in it. There are many, many more diaries than just the best known one–Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl provides a very valuable record of the treatment of the Jews, but I’ve never read the entire book (shameful).

I’ve read many wartime memoirs and diaries–these are some of the more memorable ones. No accident that there are two on Churchill–I’ve read nearly everything on him, but these two books stand out for so many reasons. John ‘Jock’ Coville worked for Churchill as a private secretary during most of the war. On the Fringes of Power is his diary.  Lord Moran was his private physician who had to travel with him –thankfully, for he was with him in Washington when he had a heart attack that was kept secret! His diary reveals that, like JFK, Churchill kept his energy up with mediation. Churchill at War (volume 1 of Moran’s diaries) and Churchill the Struggle for Survival (volume 2).

I like diaries, too, of ordinary–or not “so” ordinary people, in wartime. Nella Last’s War chronicles her day-to-day existence as a not too happily married woman of about my current age was especially interesting to me.  The book Wartime Women is a compilation of other Mass Observation diary entries like Nella’s. Fascinating reading.

American journalist William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary chronicles the rise of the Nazis and the acts leading up to the war. I could not put this book down. It remains one of the most compelling books–not only diaries–I’ve ever read. On the other side (well, sort of….) aristocratic, Tzarist Russian emigre Marie Vassiltchikov was on the side of the Operation Vallkyrie aristocrats who tried to assassinate Hitler. If you read these, along with In the Garden of Beasts, you will be shocked!


Do you have a favorite published diary? Leave me a comment or a link to a post. I love to read about other’s favorites.

Review: News of the World. Get ready to be delighted


The Story

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd earns a living reading the newspaper to audiences in Reconstruction-era small Texas Towns. Along the way he accepts a commission to return a girl captured by the Caddo Indian Tribe when they killed her parents and sister. Johanna Leonberger remembers nothing but her life as “Cicada”– a Caddo girl. But, for a $50 gold piece, Captain Kidd agrees to take on the harrowing journey way down state to San Antonio and beyond to return her to her surviving relatives.

What I Loved

This is a road trip never to be forgotten! I loved every step. EVERY STEP. The authentic voices written for “Captain” and Johanna are unequaled. The portrayal of a child traumatized and defensive, lacking trust, but having courage is superb.The relationship that the elderly Captain and the 10-year old girl build is so sweet and so real I didn’t want the book to end. But, this is not Heidi–there is a lot of action! I loved it all. This book deserves every award out there.

What I Want

Please, please, please make a movie of this that stays TRUE to the book and doesn’t veer off into any ridiculously pc added story lines and let this guy, Sam Elliot, play Captain Kidd. I can see no one else in this role. No one. That is all.


I also want you to read this tremendous little book. It’s maybe just beyond a one sitting wonder, but it is a gem.

The audio version, read by Grover Gardner perfectly captures the spirit and tone of this wonderful book.


4.75 Stars

Yes. It IS that good.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Review: The Women in the Castle: A Novel by Jessica Shattuck


The Story

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Marianne, the widow of a famous Nazi resistance figure reaches out to find other such widows and help them survive on her estate.

Two passages that really moved me:

Martin believed in God, though. How could he not? It was unbearable to imagine there wasn’t something better out there, a divine balm for all the havoc he had seen here on earth. He believed in God not as an explanation, but as a salve–a wise, stern figure on a throne in the clouds, watching out for those below….But it wasn’t God who caused the war and the all the horror. It was people, he thought…. (p. 138.)

In the future, Martin will recall this [Christmas 1945] night as the first time–and one of the only times–he ever saw Germans crying in public…from spontaneous emotion. For this brief time, they were not hiding from one another, wearing their masks of cold and practical detachment. The music stirred the hardened sediment of their memory, chafed against layers of horror and shame, and offered a rare solace in their shared anger, grief, and guilt…(p. 149).

Years later [he] would try to find the worlds to articulate the power of togetherness in a world where togetherness had been corrupted–and to explore the effect of the music, the surprising lengths the people had gone to hear it and to play it, as evidence that music, and art in general, are basic requirements of the human soul. Not a luxury but a compulsion….The walk home was magical. No one was glum. For this Christmas night they were lifted from the damning particularities of their own lives and invited to be a small piece of eternity (p. 149).


The Good

Jessica Shattuck has more than proved she can tell a compelling story. This part she has down. I could feel the damp, smell the rot, hear the stomachs rumbling, smell the wreckage of society. The women were each haunted–today we’d say they have PTSD and then some from all that they endured. But let’s make no mistake, this is not a a Holocaust story of Jews emerging from the Hell of the concentration camps. These are all German women living with the choices they and their husbands made between the rise of Hitler and the end of the war. The end of the war was brutal–especially for women, many of whom endured repeated rapes or lived as near sex-slaves to invading Russian soldiers. The horror of that is almost too real, almost too vividly remembered by the characters even if the acts are not re-told. You can feel the strain of their recent past.

Standing up to a bully doesn’t always make him back down. Those who stood up to Hitler usually paid for it with their lives. Some were “merely” tortured or “merely” imprisoned. The families of the men who plotted to overthrow Hitler suffered for the men’s actions, too. In addition to the three widows there are the children–including Martin [in the passages above] who was sent to a re-education home to be adopted into a good Nazi family. The other children, too, have scars. And all are trying to bond, or in Martin’s case, re-bond, with parents trying to keep going, trying to keep shelter over their children’s heads and food on the table.

Even after an epic tragedy, hope can blossom, love can be reborn. This is the place where Marianne held too tightly to the past. As the other women try to get on with their lives, Marianne’s refusal to let go, to move forward, plays out in all their lives.

The Bad

There is one gruesome scene in Chapter 10 by which animal lovers will be traumatized. It is typical of the aftermath of the war though. I point it out because it still hurts me after I stumbled across it unknowingly.

While the story is extremely well told, the setting vivid, the characters were not all they could be in terms of seeming “real.” Some of that is attributable to the very real “shutting down” in traumatic situations. The rest was just “cardboard.” Marianne I came to know. Benita and Ania…..not so much.


4 full stars. I will be definitely be reading more of Jessica Shattuck’s books–this was an excellent introduction to her work for me. I want to read more.

Review: Vintage: A Novel by Susan Gloss


I found this novel while research vintage clothing stores for a novel I’m writing. It sounded fun so I got it from the library.

The Story

Violet owns a popular vintage clothing store right off the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. April joins the story by wanting to return her vintage wedding dress. Amithi Singh sells some of her beautiful embroidered silks and saris to the shop after her daughter rejects them. Betsy has a wardrobe Violet would love to sell. Then comes the landlord with the death knell for the store!

The Good

The book starts out fun and believable. I could see a vintage clothing shop thriving on a lively, liberal campus like Wisconsin, Madison. I could picture everything around it–cool head shops and coffee places, used book stores and vinyl record shops. The premise was solid and the characters, if a bit predictable, were just enough different to attract and keep my interest.  I loved Betsy’s contribution. Women’s fiction as it should be.

The Bad

Somehow the story seemed to fall apart after Violet’s bright idea to hold a drag queen fashion show to boost the store’s coffers and, hopefully, exercise her contractual first refusal to buy the building. Betsy’s story saved it some, as did April’s, but not enough.

While April’s romantic issue was believable, I found Violet’s trite and her love interest to be too rushed and blah. I wish they’d left her ex- out entirely. That seemed drama for drama’s sake.


3 Solid Stars. I would gladly read another book by this author.


Favorite Epistolary Novels: Fictional stories told thru letters, e-mails, Tweets or texts


I learned to love this format in college when I discovered Private Eye magazine and the diary of a fictitious Denis Thatcher, husband of the Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. “Not wanted on voyage” is my favorite bit of his lingo. There were more volumes to follow, but I haven’t read them. This is the original. It’s out-of-print, but widely available used. This one is also the product of two authors writing together.

Dear Bill: The Collected Letters of Denis Thatcher by Richard Ingrams and John Wells


This book took the world by storm several years ago. Aside from a rather ponderous drama on PBS Masterpiece many years ago, it is the sum total of my knowledge of Nazi occupied channel islands. But, forget about that. This is a book for the ages. I loved it all. This is a unique novel in another way as well–it was co-written by two authors. I also loved and reviewed Annie Barrows novel, The Truth According To Us.

The Guernesey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

C.S. Lewis’ best fiction, in my humble opinion, is this collection of lesson-letters from the Screwtape (i.e., the Devil) to his devil-trainee nephew, Wormwood. As accurate today as the day it was published in War-ravaged 1942, this is a classic in the ways worldly life deceives and distracts people from the life God intends for them. I highly recommend

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis


Columbine-like killer Kevin is the subject of his mother’s letters to her husband. This book is chilling, but it does have flaws–like why wasn’t this kid in therapy? Read more here on my old blog.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver


Dating and texting in Saudi Arabia? Kind of like the Duggar girls doing a wet t-shirt contest at Spring Break in Cancun! This book is written as a series of exchanges posted to friends in an internet chat room (anyone still use those?). This is a fascinating and not too overly fictionalized account of young adult life for upper class Saudi girls. It was written in Arabic and banned in Saudi Arabia. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsnea


I read this young adult cult-classic for the first time at age 54. It is so accurate I cried in places. You can read more about my reading experience here: Reflections on the Perks….

Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky


This book is just laugh-out-loud funny–and fun. I giggled all through it. You can read my review here. (Scroll down to the review).

Texts from Jane Eyre and Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg

Do you have a favorite novel told in letters or emails or other correspondence? Tell me about it–or leave a link to your blog post or book review. I love to read what readers have to say.

Review: Paris For One by JoJo Moyes



When I learned that Jojo Moyes had  new book out I was excited. Then I saw the dreaded words “...and Other Stories.” I’m not much for short stories. So, I put it into the car cd-player thinking I’d give it five minutes  and ended up sitting in the driveway listening longer than my drive!


The Good

Paris for One was super! This is actually a novella. The characters were wonderful, the story believable. I loved it. I hope there will be a follow-up–a sequel a few years after the story.

Crocodile Shoes–I laughed hard and had to share it with my daughter, who did her first “real job” presentations this week. Read the story and you’ll understand.

Holdups–A sweet, funny, scary holdup? Of course!

Last Year’s Coat–Married love at it’s best. And I can’t stop thinking about a coat my Mom “endured” so we could have what we wanted.

Thirteen Days With John C--Like in the old days when someone would meanly tell a wrong number caller that “he just left with his wife…” and let the person agonize.

The Christmas List–I adored this. It, too, should have been a full novel or novella. And there’s a tiny connection in the story you may just wonder about that makes it all even more intriguing. Listen carefully–a throw away line by the cabbie about his …..[no spoilers].

The Bad

A Bird in the Hand–Should have stayed on the hard drive or in the drawer.



3.75 Stars

Sadly, she’ll always be judged by  Me Before You

I’ve loved every book of hers I’ve read so far.