Review: Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

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I LOVE John Green’s books. His teens are smart, connected to the world beyond high school and its associated cycles of drama, have deep emotions and, best of all, are completely believable. Plus he lives in Indianapolis. Enough said, right?

One of the down sides to listening to books in the car is not always being able to get a quote written down that I want to remember. This book was full of them!

 

The Story

Aza and Daisy are best friends who love to hang at the Nora Appleby’s. Both worry about paying for college, but Aza worries about certain germs even more. Worries to the point of needing appropriate psychiatric help. Several years ago she lost her Dad and met a boy named Davis Pickett at “SAD Camp”–the name they gave the Brown County camp both attended that specialized in helping kids who were grieving.

“Your now is not your forever.”

Fast forward to now late teen age years when Aza and Daisy re-encounter Davis whose billionaire father has disappeared. “To be alive is to be missing.”  The changes this event and the re-birth of Aza’s relationship with Davis bring to both BFFs makes for a compelling story. From writing fan fiction, creating underground art, dealing with out-of-control anxiety and lingering loss, to falling in love and learning about the truth and consequences of money, this book packs a punch. “Wealth is careless.”

Love is not a tragedy or a failure, but a gift..

….nothing in this world is deserved except for love…

….love is both how you become a persona and why..

….no one ever says ‘good bye’ unless they want to see you again.

I am happy to know that a movie of this book is in the works.

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

My Rating

4 Solid Turtles

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Review: Gilded Suffragists by Joanna Neuman

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How perfect that today, when yet another famous women, this time Oprah Winfrey, is being mooted as a presidential possibility, today I am reviewing a book about the birth of suffrage for American women.

Back in the Gilded Age and the Edwardian Era, women became aware of a failing on the part of most democracies: They denied woman the right to vote. The Votes for Women movements that sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic had two sorts of champions: Ordinary Women and the Grande Dames of Society. In the United States, the suffragist movement, achieved instant press coverage thanks to women with married or maiden names like Vanderbilt, Harriman and Whitney. The press was well used to covering their storied parties and balls, but this was something new. The women had found a purpose in life that wasn’t about conspicuous consumption.

When women get bored, watch out! Things change.

This is also the era in which society women founded New York’s first “gentleman’s club” exclusively for women–the fabled Colony Club. It is also when society women like President Theodore Roosevelt’s serious-minded niece, Eleanor, (soon to become Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt) founded and populated the Junior League. Denied careers, often forced to make a career out of an arrange marriage, these women knew how to work a room, organize a committee, influence and flatter men and make change happen–whether it was slum clearance, immigrant assimilation, public health, the formation of public libraries or any number of other causes these ladies were the backbone of such campaigns. Suffrage was their shining moment.

Not that things went smoothly or that the women all got along! Nope. Just like your average PTA or college sorority, there were factions, fissures and almost fist-fights along the way. But the women got it done. Period.

Joanna Neuman’s well-researched, brilliantly told tale of the true story of women’s suffrage coming to America is a great, short read at only 160 pages of actual text. You will come away seeing the legacy of Founding Mother Abigail Adams’ spirit continuing to imbue American women with a sense of what is right and of how to achieve it. You will come away thinking differently of the supposedly vapid-party-hearty types with big money, too.

Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought For Women’s Right to Vote by Joanna Neuman

Rating

4.5 Stars

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the USS Contessa

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The Story:

Merchant ship the USS Contessa,  a “banana boat” owned by a fruit company, traveled with a hold full of refrigerated bananas while the upper decks held passengers willing to save a little money on a cruise by traveling with the smelly fruit! (I can’t stand bananas–especially the smell!!!) Then World War II happens and the ship is needed for other uses.

What I Liked:

I enjoyed the stories of the people–Captain John, George Patton, Lord Louis [the reader said ‘Lewis’] Mountbatten, Walter Cronkite and a host of others. This part of the book was very lively and engaging as was other parts of the back story, such as the story of the movie Casablanca or the beginnings of the OSS/CIA.

What I Didn’t Like:

The author seemed to be stuck in the convoy systems zig-zagging. I never felt the story come together. It was more like a string of anecdotes than a history of the ship’s service.

 

Rating

3 Stars

Review: A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas

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This one checked a lot of great boxes!

  • Christmas-theme
  • Civil War Era
  • Quilts
  • Family
  • Romance
  • Faith

 

 

The Story

Eliza Spooner must cope on the Kansas Prairie when her husband Will, for no explained reason, decides in the LAST year of the Civil War to finally volunteer to fight for the Union. Many in their area of Kansas support the Confederacy (think back to 8th grade history here and the Kansas-Nebraska act and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision). Eliza and her children, 14 year old Davey and 12 year old daughter Luzena (yes my, “Please no weird names” annoyance kicked in. Luzena was explained though). She is blessed to have a group of good friends with whom she makes quilts. And it is her love of quilting and her husband that compels her to make a small, lightweight patriotic quilt for Christmas to warm her husband as he marches with the Army.

My Thoughts on This Book

First, this isn’t really a “Christmas” book, but a Civil War era family story. I mentioned above that it was never explained why Will waited so long to join the Army.  I also didn’t really think anyone would sacrifice all their fowl and poultry to have feathers to stuff a quilt! Who knows! I found one scene–a memory if I remember correctly, to be very like a scene in the Little House books. No matter. I loved that she wrote a totally believable teenage attitude for the last part of the story! I did find the ending to be contrived–a bit too contrived, but there you go.

Those are little things. I loved that Eliza stepped out in courage and that she lived her faith by being slow to speak and slow to anger, by showing forgiveness, by  offering sanctuary and by not giving in to worldly temptations–without being “too good to be true.” These character traits make this a good book for Christian teenagers as well as for adults, though this is pretty much a woman’s book.

My Rating

3.5

A Quilt For Christmas by Sandra Dallas

I listened to the audio version.

 

You can read my review here of another of Sandra Dallas’ books, The Persian Pickle Club. I thought it was fun that “Persian Pickles” (i.e. paisley) was mention in A Quilt For Christmas, too.

Review: Code Girls by Liza Mundy

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Introduction

The role of women in World War II has often been narrowed to three roles: factory workers, secretaries and nurses.  As time goes on and more and more papers have been declassified, we’ve learned that women’s roles varied quite a bit more than those three roles. Recently more and more attention has been paid to women in the background of various historical events with mathematical skills such as in the book and movie Hidden Figures which details the role of African American women as mathematicians on the space project and in the book Glass Universe about women at Harvard’s observatory. Given those two, it is no surprise that a new history book, Code Girls, deals with women hired to help break the codes used to encrypt messages sent by the Nazis, the Japanese and other Axis nations during World War II. Like the British at Bletchley Park, the United States had a code breaking apparatus. It provided work for a surprising group of well-educated women. This book is their story.

What I Liked

This is how layman-level history should be told! Plenty of research to back everything up, but it was told in a breezy, keep-you-interested style. I loved the way the stories of individual women were woven into the fabric of the book. We learned their backgrounds, their roles and their results–this really held my interest. Surprisingly, given I have nil, zip, nada, no interest in mathematics, I found even the slightly technical aspects of this equally fascinating. I suppose it helps that binary math was one type of math I “got,” and one discussion focused on a similar type system.

Today it seems amazing that such a talented pool of workers were marginalized just for being women.  The first women selected were, naturally, recruited from the Seven Sisters Colleges (women’s “Ivies” of the day) so they were very well educated, very literate, and generally better off financially. But others were brought in with different backgrounds–many from the ranks of public school teachers. It is hard to recall that 80 years ago high-achieving women often had no employment prospects beyond teaching school–even when they were degreed mathematicians! (I can also see how their freedom was part of the “doom” of the public schools. A captive catchment of very talented teachers was lost).

I thought about today’s culture of “tell-alls” and whistle-blowers and Wikileaks. I thought of the supposed selfishness of young adults today. I wondered if today’s young adults and today’s culture could handle the absolute secrecy needed for the job. On the whole, I think they could–after all today’s health care system requires intense privacy restrictions. Military and government service–the State Department, the National Security Agency and others still have a strict system of “need-to-know” and even seemingly innocuous jobs like a copy room clerk require confidentiality agreements. I think most young adults today would find exactly what these woman found: challenging, fulfilling and purposeful work–even when dull and repetitive. The secrecy would bring about the same group loyalty today too, I believe.  It would be as eye-opening to our young people today as it was to these women to learn just what the threats were to security.  Learning of one’s own naivete is part of growing up.

Just as amazing was the “hardship” of how the women lived during this time.  Sharing a bed–either at the same time as another women or using the same bed as a woman working a different shift, putting up with limited shopping hours, having to take care about dating relationships in a way unfathomable to most people today–wow! A ton of extra stress on top of a very stressful job. As the story tells, some couldn’t hold up under the stress, but most did.

What a shame that we then dispatched these talented women back to the home–which many found stifling. It is very easy to see how the women’s liberation movement was born after experiences like this brought out the best in women and then they were sent back to cooking, cleaning and child care. Even if they loved their families it had to be an intellectual let down. I found the stories of the women who did go home and who decided to thrive where they were as interesting as those who remained, against the odds, at work. This was a generation who really made mark for good on our country. It was as inspiring to see how they coped after the war as during it.

Additionally, it should be an outstanding movie!

My Rating

4 Stars

A Must Read for Book Clubs

A novel to read in memory of a heart-throb: I Think I Love You & David Cassidy

For those of us born in the early 1960’s, David Cassidy, was often a first big crush. Happily, I had an older brother so I can claim John, Paul George and Ringo for that role. But, David still had a huge part to play in my elementary school romantic dreams. His death today was very sad news.

So, to help us all remember him fondly, I’m revisiting a book I read, reviewed and loved back in 2011–Allison Pearson’s I Think I Love You–the title being from possibly the most iconic Partridge Family song (and which provided a great Hugh Grant romantic moment in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

July 26, 2001

I absolutely LOVED Allison Pearson’s first book, I Don’t Know How She Does it, so I figured I’d pretty much love anything she writes. Plus, having been a huge fan of the TV show, The Partridge Family way back in the early ’70s, I was sure I had a hit on my hands. I was carried back to childhood reading about Petra and Sharon and their David Cassidy obsession. I could just feel myself back in Uncle Bob and Aunt Jeanie’s basement rec room, sitting on my Grandmother’s old couch, across from the dog couch, watching David Cassidy on the black and white portable, “coke-tails” in hand (the cherries eaten before the opening credits passed). I can remember (although I’m POSITIVE he’s blocked the memory–it IS cringe-inducing) my brother, much too mature for the show as he was in JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, debating with his best friend Ronny if Danny Bonaduce was or was not one of the best bass players in the country FOR HIS AGE. (They always emphasized that last part.) Pearson’s story is of lost love, ships passing in the night and a stolen opportunity set right. To say more would spoil it for the true believers–the grown up “David girls” who WILL want to read this book.

However, like a lot of follow-up-to-a-blockbuster, this book needs better editing. The story gets away from Pearson in places. Not that this ruins it–it just makes it a chore in spots. I find myself hoping we’ll get Sharon’s story next. Sharon who enjoys her birthday spent eating rissoles and chips and “I get to pick the Blockbuster.” Sharon who eschews art school saying “I can always paint at home, can’t I?” and then shames us all by doing so and doing it well. Sharon who is perfectly content in an ordinary marriage in an ordinary town in South Wales. We can all learn so much, much more from her story. I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson.

So, there you have it folks. A book that should now sell a million new copies as middle-aged women weep over it, remembering getting into their jammies to enjoy home-popped pop corn, store-brand cola with a cherry in it and watching David as Keith. (Or that cool date Danny had with Jody Foster.) Ever notice how Tracy always played a tamborine or a triangle and neither are ever heard in a song……

 

Review: The Other Alcott: A Novel by Elise Hooper

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The Story

The Alcott sisters, Anna, Louisa, Lizzie and May mirrored the fictional March sisters of Louisa’s famed Little Women in a few ways–but not all. Elise Hopper has imagined the life of the youngest Alcott, May, in a few ways that are similar to Amy March–both study art, and in others ways that bear no resemblance to the youngest March sister.

What I Liked

I was relieved that May was not the bratty Amy of Little Women! The first part of the book was a bit lacking in depth so I began to grow fearful of the fictional Amy taking over the fictional May….if you can follow that! Happily, with part II the book found both its footing and May’s identity as separate from Amy.  I liked that, when possible, Hooper kept things in tune with the historical record. I’ve read a lot on the Alcott family so my expectations were fairly high for the story’s truthful portrayal of all the Alcotts. In the end, that turned out not to matter, for range of emotion that Hooper gives May–especially in regard to her famous sister, makes May real in every way.  This is a superb story, engagingly told. Do stick around for the Afterward when the author tells what is, and what is not, historical fact–it is well worth it.

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As portrayed here, May was a slightly shallow young woman who found substance through her study of art. I liked that Louisa was shown “warts an all,” as an often daunting task mistress who harped at May about family responsibility. As May studies art, experiences life in new cities and makes her own circle of friends she becomes someone I could respect–and would have enjoyed knowing.

I liked, too, that the author responsibly created personalities for various artists that were believable and in tune with their own era. No one has overly modern views, even if they find fault with the events or expectations of their day.  [Portrait of May by Rose Peckman]

John Ruskin

Of all the art and artists scenes in the book, I especially loved the scene with May and John Ruskin, as May is sketching the works of J.M. Turner in a museum. I wish every student could read that scene and learn from it. I’ll give you a hint–it is similar to Matthew 7:7!! (No spoilers now!)

 

My Rating

4 Stars

The Other Alcott: A Novel by Elise Hooper

Review: Christmas in London by Anita Hughes

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The Story

Louisa receives the career-making chance of a lifetime when Baking With Bianca’s desert fails and her cinnamon rolls are brought in to save the day. Off to London to do a tv show, Christmas at Claridge’s her professional life is made. And, possibly, her personal lie, too. Kate’s TV career is taking off. Since leaving Prince William and Kate’s alma mater, St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, she’s put in the time. Now, with Christmas at Claridge’s, her mark is made. But will some blasts from her past enhance or endanger her happiness and success?

What I Liked

I loved it all. It’s light and fun, well-paced and jolly. Just what a Christmas book should be.  The food sounds so delicious, the venues so inviting and the worst thing that happens to anyone is an attempted tryst that is solved with the words “No thank you.” Pass the eggnog and the mince pies, please! This one is a winner.

P.S.

But even in a fictionalized Royal Family, they mostly live at Kensington Palace–not St. James. But who, other than me, cares, right?

My Rating

4.0

THE Christmas book for lovers of contemporary romantic stories!

Christmas in London by Anita Hughes

Review: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

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The Story

“I believe in it, because it is impossible.”

Fisheries scientist Alfred Jones leads a sedate life married to career-obsessed banker Mary. His job with the British government’s fisheries agency is not very taxing and not terribly well-paid. When he is first contacted about helping with a scheme to release salmon in a stream in the Middle Eastern, mostly desert, nation of The Yemen he is skeptical. But then 10 Downing gets involved and it all gets surreal.

 

What I Loved

The whole way the projected is schemed and “sexed up” by the Prime Minister’s media guru/ communications director, Peter Maxwell was spot on and too funny for words. “Prizes for the People” was genius! In my mind every time the P.M. appeared in the story I immediately saw chubby, pink aristocratic David Cameron. Naturally, a feel-good project was needed to offset the bad press of the war in Iraq! I loved the whole epistolary set-up of the novel with e-mails, deposition-type interviews, newspaper and other reporting. Such fun.  The author really knew the government. His portrayal of smarmy, suck-up politicos is unsurpassed.

What I Didn’t Like

Really, it would only be what I liked less. Mary got tedious and then suddenly Harriet…. [well, that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?].  One big farcical element took it down a small notch in my rating [again to say what it was would be a spoiler].

I am in another world, a world where faith and prayer are instinctive and universal, where not to pray, not to be able to pray, is an affliction worse than blindness, where disconnection from God is worse than losing a limb…. (p.214)

It saddened me that he expressed the common theme of knowing no one (in the UK) who actually goes to church or even believes. Yet he expresses the idea that in the [fictional] Yemen everyone believes and prays all day without mentioning that the laws in such real  countries as the Yemen represents REQUIRE all outward signs of belief and that to fail to turn up for prayer or to close your business at prayer times or  to ignore hundreds of other faith-related obligations but a person’s life at risk. His “awe” at their faith was a bit annoying due to this omission.

My Rating

3.75

 

Sadly, the author of this fun send-up of the British government died a few years ago, but did live to see his book become a well-received movie. You can read his obituary here.

The movie version, staring Kristin Scott Thomas Thomas, Emily Blunt and Ewan McGregor can be watched on Amazon here.

 

Review: The Kaiser’s Last Kiss aka The Exception by Alan Judd

The Story

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s deposed Emperor, is living out his days in exile at Huis Doorn in the Netherlands. He and his controversial 2nd wife, Hermine, live in a sort of gilded cage–able to travel freely only 15 miles from home.  Born Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild, Wilhelm now spends his days railing at Juda-England, as he now calls his mother’s country, chopping wood, smoking, and feeding the ducks.

When the Nazi’s invade Holland, the Kaiser is given an SS security detail headed by Martin Krebbs, a young officer not sold-out on the SS or Nazi ideals, but who none-the-less discounts the idea of an “interior” life.( “You were what you did; the rest was froth.“) All the same, he arrives not sure he cares about an old Emperor–he wants to go back to the war.

Not long before the Nazis’ arrival, a new well-educated maid, Akki, joins the staff at Huis Doorn and the Kaiser takes a liking to her. She has lovely hands and hands are sexual thing to him–a part of a woman’s beauty and sensuality. And, she is very well-educated and respectful.

Trouble arises, as you can imagine! To say more would be to spoil the story.

The book is now a movie starring Christopher Plummer as the Kaiser. The movie’s trailer is at the bottom of this post. The story has been re-titled The Exception. Names have been changed, too.  (I have not, yet, seen the movie).

What I Liked

I thought Judd’s portrayal of the twisted, lonely, and often deluded Kaiser, was excellent. He also captured the personality of the scheming Hermine as well. I thought each of the major characters were believable. More depth would have been nice, but the story was very compelling as is. He did not bog the story down in too much historical minutia–even though I’m a reader who often enjoys that. This kept the story moving at a fast clip.

What I Didn’t Like

If you’re going to write a book–even a novel–on royalty get a grip on titles and forms of address! If you don’t know, look it up! Judd was all over the place with this and it was annoying.  Even though real life added some confusion, he should have figured out how the staff would properly address the Kaiser and his wife. By all the residents at Huis Doorn Wilhelm and Hermine were treated exclusively as Emperor and Empress. When the Nazis were present they insisted he was simply Prince Wilhelm. Yet Judd never could get it right. This was irritating.

The other thing that I wasn’t so happy about was that the beginning of the book seemed to mostly be just retelling parts of this video:

 

My Verdict

Overall, this was a great fast-paced story and I enjoyed it. But for the title thing I had to knock it down a bit in my rating.

3.75 Stars

The Kaiser’s Last Kiss  (aka The Exception) by Alan Judd