REVIEW: The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

You probably already know that I love Alice Hoffman’s writing, so I was sooo excited to see she had a new novel out: The Red Garden. I purchased it for my new vice, my Kindle.
I loved, loved, loved this novel, which tells the story of Blackwell, Massachusetts – a fictional, small town in the Berkshires – from its beginning to current day. I just love this type of historical fiction, where something is traced through time, and its story is told by the people who live there. Hoffman’s story is reminiscent of the Rutherfurd books I love so much, but is much shorter and with more emphasis on the relationships of the people who live in the town. This book is at times touchingly poignant, and is at all times beautifully written. Hoffman has a way of letting you see, smell, and hear the places you visit in her books. She is one of my favorite writers.
I give it 5 Stars!!

Review: The Ivy Malone Mysteries Series by Lorena McCourtney

I came across the Ivy Malone cozy mysteries series on the Kindle Top 100 Free Downloads listing, and ordered the first book, “Invisible”, for free. I just loved the story of this spunky senior citizen who gets pulled into solving crimes! Ivy is a widow, whose only child has died as well. When she loses her best friend, too, she determines to figure out who is desecrating a nearby cemetery. Then when a young neighbor woman disappears and is found murdered, Ivy decides to figure out who is to blame.

Ivy is perky and funny and reminds me of a new age Miss Marple. She has a strong faith in God and this is a theme woven throughout the stories.

I liked Ivy so much I purchased her next story through Kindle, too. There are two more, I believe, that I plan to get in time.

Review: Louisa May Alcott – a Personal Biography – by Susan Cheever

If you know me, you know I love, love, love the Alcotts and I know a lot about Louisa May and her family. I was excited to read Cheever’s new biography on Louisa and found it at the library. I had truly enjoyed Cheever’s “American Bloomsbury” and respect her as an author. I was completely unprepared for what I found in this book. While events were portrayed as I know them, Cheever’s take on the Alcotts was fairly dismal. Bronson is painted as a self-absorbed, selfish, useless man, Abba May (Marmee) as a harpy, Anna as the goody two shoes eldest, Lizzie as somewhat angry, daft, and shadowy, and May as a selfish and self-centered conniving sibling. Louisa herself is portrayed as fairly tortured, unhappy, overworked, and misunderstood.

Now – I’m not saying that the Alcotts had their moments. Yes, Marmee could be quite opinionated (according to journals from that time) and Bronson was very absorbed in his thoughts and writings (again documented). But Ms. Cheever certainly paints this glass as half empty – not half full. The Alcotts seem like a miserable lot; and — most disturbing to me — she suggests (on p. 28) based on one line in a journal where Bronson states that families don’t like him “caressing” the students, that Alcott might have been a sexual predator, abusing his students and daughters alike. (I nearly fell over when I read that).

Additionally, this is rightly called a “personal biography” and is filled with Cheever’s personal anecdotes and thoughts. I would have preferred a little less of that and a little more Alcott.

If you don’t know a thing about the Alcotts, I actually don’t recommend this book. There are other biographies out there (Stern, Matteson, Reisen, etc.). If you do know something about the family then please do read this and get in touch with me and let me know if you are as disappointed in this selection as I am.

REVIEW: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Everyone seemed to be raving about this book, and when my friend Amy Clark over at listed it as one of her top picks for 2010 I purchased it for our Kindle. Wow – I am so glad I did because I absolutely loved this book!!

The story follows the young life of Lavinia, a white indentured servant in the 1790’s, as she is taken to a Southern plantation to work in the kitchen house with the slaves. Lavinia’s parents had died on the journey over from Ireland and she and her brother are taken as servants (her brother being sold away). The first part of the story follows Lavinia’s adjustment to her new life and her adjustment to her new surroundings – and to the loving Black slaves she thinks of as family. The story is also told at times from the viewpoint of Belle, a mixed race slave who is the daughter of the plantation owner. Belle is no shrinking violet and seeks her emancipation. The story follows Lavinia through childhood and adolescence into adulthood.

One reason I loved this story was the characters. What great characters — Mama Mae, the loving female head of the family of slaves, Papa George her husband, tough and feisty Belle, the twins Beattie and Fannie, Sam – strong and loyal, the Captain – head of the plantation, Will – the kindly neighbor, Marshall – the troubled young man of the house, Sally – his little sister, Mr. Waters – the evil tutor, sweet little Sukey, etc etc etc. This book was peppered with interesting and memorable characters. I also formed a strong liking for Lavinia. Yes, she seemed to have people dropping like flies due to their love of her, but I liked her.

The storyline in this book kept me reading and reading, often late into the night. (CONTAINS SPOILERS) Lavinia seeks to better herself by going into a marriage with a lecherous older man. Marshall and Will both fall in love with Lavinia. The slaves seek to run away to freedom. Belle and Sam keep their relationship going. Lavinia tries to help her slave family to freedom. I was never sure what would happen next. If I had one complaint, though, it was that some of the storylines were left a bit hanging – and I wondered if that was on purpose (AGAIN – MORE SPOILERS!) Where did Sukey end up? Did Marshall kill Mr. B? Who knew the tutor was abusing him all those years and how was he killed? What will become of Belle’s son???

I did hear that there might be a sequel.

If you love historical fiction, you will probably love “The Kitchen House” as much as I did – though I should warn you that the word TRAGEDY is appropriate for it. I did read that people are comparing it to “Gone with the Wind” and “The Help”. Uh-uh. It takes place in the South and it deals with slaves and servants. That’s about all that is similar. It can, in part, I think, be seen as a romance.

And I’m – as always – so impressed that it is Ms. Grissom’s first novel!!

Review: Bound by Antonya Nelson

I had read about the novel “Bound” in a Best Choices for Bookclubs book I found at the library. It sounded intriguing, so I downloaded a free sample for my Kindle (love that aspect of the Kindle!). The sample was good, I thought, so I went for purchasing the whole book. “Bound” has interwoven threads of stories, generally centered around female protagonist Catherine Desplaines. The story starts – in the sample I received – with a car accident and a dog who gets free from the wreckage as his owner is killed. He is taken in by a couple – the woman primarily – who are camping nearby. It seemed intriguing, so I was surprised when I purchased the novel and never saw those characters again until the last pages! It seems that the dog belonged to a single woman who has a daughter (troubled teen in boarding school in Vermont) and her will bequeaths guardianship of said daughter to her childhood/high school best friend (Catherine) whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in years. Am I the only person/parent who thinks this is weird?? Anyhow, the story follows Catherine’s quest to meet and bond with “Cattie” – her namesake – along with all the other relationships along the way and a lot of past history and remembrances. Meanwhile, this whole story is cast against the backdrop of the BTK killer in Wichita – which figures into all the publicity of this book, but doesn’t really go into the plot at all. Just a metaphor I suppose — and one that ties into the title — the “bind, torture, kill” serial killer, being “bound” to your past, being “bound” to those you love (Catherine has a shaky relationship with her stroke victim mother and a marriage to a man who loves to cheat on the side), these are the ties that bind, la la la.  Somehow I thought this would be a mystery as well as a story about muddled relationships.

My biggest issue with the book is that I couldn’t figure out the relevance of some of the characters and why they existed as characters — the PTSD victim (maybe another bound guy?), the no name Sweetheart, the first dog. Furthermore, I could not relate or feel any kind of affinity to any of the characters. Perhaps that’s just my problem, but slightly dim, trophy wife? No. Adulterer? No. Angry, older woman? No. Angst-ridden teen? No. Traumatized youth? No. Abandoned dog? No. Oh well.

Not a bad book, but I didn’t love it. C’est la vie!

Review: The Queen’s Dollmaker by Christine Trent

I picked up this historical fiction piece for free on my Kindle (under top 100 free books on Kindle). As those who know me know, I love historical fiction. This story centers on Claudette Laurent, a teen who is orphaned during a great fire in Paris and goes to make her life in England. Claudette had learned her father’s trade: doll making. After a short stint as a servant, Claudette opens her business in creating beautiful dolls for the wealthy. Eventually she comes under the notice of both the Queen of England and the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Parallel story lines cover Claudette’s love interests (a beau she left behind in Paris and an intriguing English gentleman) and her friend’s lives, along with another central plot, told from Marie Antoinette’s point of view, of the events leading up to the French Revolution.

While I enjoyed this book, I did have some issues with the writing – particularly in the beginning and particularly with Claudette’s parents’ dialogue (at one point it was so bad I thought it was some sort of joke). I also thought some parts were rather far-fetched (Claudette ran off to England pretty quickly, and things wrapped up very neatly at the end). Perhaps it was just me, but I detected some inconsistencies in the plotting of Claudette’s age in the first half of the book (years passed and she was still the same age it seemed). I personally don’t have a lot of knowledge about Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution (unless watching Les Mis counts!), so I found this part interesting. I was a bit disappointed to never read of Marie Antoinette shouting, “Let them eat cake!” (or “Mangeons le gateau” so to speak).

I enjoyed this book and was thrilled that it was free. I see that Ms. Trent has a sequel out, continuing the story. For me, one of the most intriguing parts of this story was the facts about doll making in that era. If you like this period for historical fiction — and especially if you can get it for free — I’d recommend it!

Review: Precious and the Puggies – a story in Scots by Alexander McCall Smith

For Christmas, my husband got me this cute little book by Alexander McCall Smith — author of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series — about Precious Ramotswe’s first case as a little girl. It reads as a children’s chapter book, but be forewarned — it is written ENTIRELY IN SCOTS. (As an Outlander fan, I could imagine the entire book being read to me by Jamie.) I had to pick up the rhythm and feel of the language and read along with it in order to keep the flow — though an anthology of words is included in the back. The story was of eight-year-old Precious as she seeks to solve her first mystery at her school, where tasty snacks are disappearing with alarming regularity.

This was a quick read for me (about an hour or so) and fun to read in the Scots language. I can see that it would not be for everyone, but if you are a No.1 Ladies fan, and if you can understand the Scots language, then I think you would enjoy it!

Quick Review: Royal Blood by Rhys Bowen

Well – you know I love Ms. Bowen’s cozy mysteries and this was no exception. Recently published, this installment has Lady Georgiana heading to Transylvania for a royal wedding while dealing with an incompetant but lovable maid, an overzealous prince, shadowy figures who are watching her, and – gasp! – possible vampires? All in good fun for this new chapter in the Her Royal Spyness mysteries. I got mine at the library!

Review: Pearl of China by Anchee Min

I gave a mini preview of this wonderful book in my last post, and finished reading it the week after Christmas. I absolutely loved this book — my very first purchase for my Kindle.

“Pearl of China” tells a fictionalized account of Pearl S. Buck’s upbringing in China as told by her childhood friend Willow Yee. Pearl and Willow meet as children – Pearl’s father was an American Missionary living in Willow’s town – and are enemies at first. Their combativeness evolves into friendship and they form a close bond which stays with them throughout their lives.

I found the history in this book so interesting – the Boxer Rebellion, the missionary movement, the Cultural Revolution. Pearl and Willow’s relationship is set against the backdrop of these events. They share the same roots and history – just as they share love for the same man. I found the story of their friendship moving and unforgettable. I was disappointed to discover it was based on a variety of real friendships that Pearl Buck had, and that Willow Yee was a fictional character.

Anchee Min is a beautiful and gifted writer. I have enjoyed her other books and truly enjoyed “Pearl of China” as well.

I’d give it 5 Stars — I loved it so much I have to own it!