Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

This is titled "An Autobiography..." but it is a work of fiction. Each chapter is preceded by quotations taken from the newspapers, songs, magazines, etc. that were published during that particular time in Mrs. Tom Thumb's life. It's an interesting way to ground the book in real history. Of course Mrs. Tom Thumb, Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump Stratton, was a real person so the story follows the general chronology of her life. But the details are fictional.

Melanie Benjamin has chosen to portray Vinnie as larger than life, craving adventure, a little cold-hearted, a lifelong virgin, a fearless and take-charge little person. Vinnie leaves home at the tender age of 17 and goes from adventure to adventure.

Vinnie's feelings about sex color all of her relationships with people and I was interested in how delicately Melanie Benjamin constructed the background experiences to form this fictional Vinnie's opinions about men and babies and marriage.

Did I like the book? Hm. Well, I found it very interesting. I was captivated by Vinnie even as I pitied her. The book only follows her into her 40s--now I'm interested to know what she did during her post-touring years. It was an engaging book, full of tragedies that were made easier to read about because of Vinnie's gift for picking herself up and moving on again. Was her life really this way? I don't know. I hope not. There wasn't much happiness for Vinnie.

So did I like it? Well, I liked the book but didn't like the story. Does that make sense? I felt bad for Vinnie's distance from all the important people in her life--her husband, her family. I didn't exactly like Vinnie. She was rather cold-hearted and superior. But I didn't exactly dislike her either. Was it a good read? Definitely. It was well written, clean, interesting, and full of period details that I really liked.

One critical note: I am always sensitive to how Mormons are treated in fiction. Melanie Benjamin may have done her research on Mr. Barnum and the Tom Thumb family, but she did not do her research on Mormon women. She let her personal prejudices write those scenes. Having descended from one of those intrepid Mormon women, I found her dismissal of them as meek doormats disappointing.

But that, however, was a very small part in a book written about a little person's very big life.

Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin by Nancy Atherton

This is one of the many Aunt Dimity books--I'm not sure the number. But there are plenty and they are all very nice. I liked the first one the very best.

This one was about Miss Beacham, a retired legal secretary recently passed on, and the search for her heir. It preached the idea that friends can be more family than family is. If you see what I mean. Lori (our main character and sleuth) meets Miss Beacham in the course of her (Lori's) volunteer work in the hospital and the two feel an immediate connection. When Miss Beacham dies, she entrusts Lori with the search for her missing. heir.

It was a cute book, uplifting and sweet. It was very sweet. Lori's life is just right--she has adorable and good children (they are welcome everywhere), a jewel of a nanny (who also cooks and cleans, when necessary), the perfect (high powered lawyer) husband, a fat bank account, a worthy list of volunteer commitments, a cozy house, a bunch of friends (many with just the right connections), a talent for sleuthing, and a connection with the afterworld (here's where Aunt Dimity comes in). Could life get any better than this?

It was a pleasant fluffy read. I guess I shouldn't complain that it was a little too "just so". I'm a girl who likes happy endings. But dare I say that I like them to be realistically happy? In any case, there is a place in every library for the mindless feel-good books...and this is one of them.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson

This book takes place in Scotland at the end of the first world war. Many husbands, fathers, brothers and friends are dead and money is tight for nearly everyone, but life is just starting to get back to normal and celebrations are in order--the war is over. Our story opens at the Armistice Ball given by the wealthy Daisy and Silas Esslemont.

Our main character is Dandelion (Dandy) Gilver, a 30-something mother of two. Married to the boring Hugh, Dandy is smart, genuine and good. She is surprised by her friend Daisy's request that she investigate the theft of some diamonds that guest Lena Duffy says were stolen at Daisy's ball. Lena is being very troublesome.

What starts out as being an investigation into a spot of possible fraud ends up being the unraveling of an ugly murder and the shattering of at least one family who had attended that Armistice Ball.

I liked this book a lot. I especially liked Dandy Gilver, who I found totally human and believable. Her approach to solving this little puzzle, though, was more thinking than doing and I found that rather unusual. She and her detecting partner did do some interviewing of witnesses and snooping around, but the large part of their "investigating" was just talking about what they had learned and thinking about it, trying to put it into some sort of order. I'm not sure that approach logically led the reader to the conclusion that Dandy and Alec reached, but it didn't bother me a whole lot. I followed their thinking even if I thought they were taking some leaps.

I liked the glimpse into Scottish country life. I liked the dialogue. I liked all the characters I met (except the murderer and I enjoyed disliking that one). I didn't like the ending. It was a little more vague than I like. I guess I like my solutions all spelled out. This ending was complete, but I felt left with a few lingering questions. I hate those lingering questions. :)

It was a fun book and I look forward to reading more Dandy Gilver mysteries.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

This review was written by Isaiah, age 13.

This book is a fictional story about a true time in history. It takes place in Germany during World War II. It tells a story of something that might have happened during that time period. The main characters of the book are Annemarie Johansen and her Jewish friend Ellen. The Germans are starting to take all the Jews away to concentration camps, so Annemarie and her family want to help Ellen and her family get away to Sweden until the war is over. Will they succeed?

I think this book is a good book and I would be happy to read it again. It is an exciting story that tells a lot about history. I highly recommend this to readers of any age.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home by Harry Kemelman

This is the third Rabbi Small mystery I've read. I've liked them all.

In this mystery, Moose Carter--son of Rabbi Small's carpenter--is found suffocated in an abandoned house. Temple politics again threaten Rabbi Small's employment there. An African American is accused of murder simply because he's a stranger in town. A drug ring is broken up.

The Rabbi Small books are a very interesting look into Judaism and the workings of a Jewish temple. I sometimes find David Small's scholarly approach to all problems tiresome. I, like his wife, sometimes wish he would just compromise and be a little warmer. But, his logic always carries the day when it comes to the mysteries that he unravels. And his grateful congregation always comes around to extending his employment contract once again.

They're engaging mysteries set among an interesting group of people. I like them. Oh, no bad language or sexual situations either. Just bad guys and murder. :)

Dreams of Stardust by Lynn Kurland

Another time traveling love story by Lynn Kurland. This one's a de Piaget family tale, if that means anything to you.

Amanda de Piaget, our Medieval damsel, is wealthy and sought after--but only for her money. She loves her family but fears she'll never find someone to love her for herself.

Jake Kilchurn is wealthy and handsome and lonely too. You know what happens next.

He gets catapulted to Amanda's world and they both keep secrets from each other, fall in love and try to hide it, etc etc. No surprises here. I did like the little mystery that awaited Jake when he temporarily returned to the 21st century. That was unexpected.

I liked the whole book. I have to be in the mood to read Lynn Kurland's romances, but when I am, I enjoy them. Her books are pretty much all the same story played out by different members of a couple of large extended families. I appreciate that they are very clean. I get tired of the breathtaking beauty of all the ladies and the amazing good looks of all the men. And I would NEVER want to stay in Medieval Britain for anyone. Nope. An entertaining book,though. I look forward to the next one that I read!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Talk of the Town by Lisa Wingate

This was a cute, feel-good book. I wasn't expecting a love story element, but there was one of those too. A bonus. :)

It's about a big city girl who visits small-town Texas in the course of her job and rediscovers herself and her values.

It's Christian fiction in the best way--with the principles well-integrated into the story and no heavy-handedness. The characters observe, experience, soul search, learn and alter. My favorite kind of book, actually.

From a cynical point of view, one might complain that the ending is just a bit too perfect. But I like happy endings, so I won't be making that complaint.

I liked how the narration in the book came from two different characters and how both of those characters made some personal discoveries over the course of the story. I enjoyed the age variation between the two--one was a new widow (whose reflections on her mourning I found touching), one an unmarried, hard-working 30-something.

Every story, I maintain, could not be possible without a miscommunication. I've perhaps said this before in book reviews. It is almost universally true. There is no conflict that is unconnected to miscommunication. But when those miscommunications are contrived or illogical (like The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen, which drove me nutty) the story feels frustrating and kicks the reader right out of belonging to it. This story wasn't like this. I felt drawn in almost from the beginning.

I liked being able to find myself in some of the introspective ideas that the main characters mulled over. I liked the little romance that one of our narrators had. I liked the town of Daily. I was glad that the idealism of the sweet little country singer was left intact. I appreciated the ideas of redemption and change that were illustrated in a few of the secondary characters. I liked that it was squeaky clean.

It was a sweet book that I really enjoyed.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

This book got a lot of press--excerpts from it were widely published and rebutted from many non-tiger moms. My sister-in-law, who has 6 kids and wants more, lent this to me. She LOVES the book and has even read it out loud to her kids. They like it too. wow.

The little blurb on the cover of this book says "This is a story about a mother, two daughters, and two dogs. This was supposed to be a story of how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. But instead, it's about a bitter clash of cultures, a fleeting taste of glory, and how I was humbled by a 13-year-old."

I don't believe the part about the author being humbled :), but it sure feels like a story about how Chinese parents are better at raising kids than Western ones. I had to talk myself down from feeling defensive about my Western parenting more than once while I was reading.

As I read this book I found myself asking: how do I measure success in my family? What are my dreams for my children? Most parents wish their children to have it better, easier, safer, more. And how do we measure our success as parents? By what we can buy for our kids? Where we can take them? What experiences we can buy for them? What sports or instruments they play? Their grades? Their talents? Their performance? These are clearly the measurements Ms. Chua uses. She experiences some resistance from her younger (Westernized) daughter and struggles to re-frame (a little bit) her measurements of success. I wonder: can we say, as Westerners, that we don't use these measurements? I believe that in at least some part of our consciousness, most of us use these yardsticks to measure our success as parents. Many, if not most, of us pursue these ends for our children with our money and our efforts and the encouragement that we direct towards our kids.

The big question this book raised for me is: is it worth it? What IS success? I hope I don't measure it by all those things I listed at the beginning of that paragraph up there. Seems like there are more lasting things I'd like for my kids: good character, a strong spiritual foundation, loyalty, family solidarity, habits of charity, kindness. I tend to think competition has nothing to do with God, nothing to do with truly loving others. Hm. The tricky part of (theoretically) rejecting Amy Chua's measurements of success, though, is that success CAN build confidence and self-esteem. The ability to work hard (and those kids have got to work hard to earn those good grades, to become experts at their sport or their instrument, etc) is a gift we'd all like to give to our kids, if such a thing can be given. So the potential results of the push for successful kids are really good. But the potential pitfalls can rip a family apart and permanently damage the spirit of a kid also. So how far to push? What is success? Well, they're good questions, worth figuring out answers to.

It was a good book. Well worth reading, especially for parents.

The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

I read this for a book club. It was a WWII/leprosy/coming-of-age/racial understanding/forbidden love/unconditional love story. Yeah. A little too much going on maybe.

Stephen, a Chinese young man from Hong Kong, gets seriously ill and must leave college to spend some time recovering at the family beach house in Japan. His father, long estranged from the family (for business reasons, not so uncommon among the Chinese), lives in Kobe Japan. WWII is just breaking out, with the Japanese soldiers pressing through China, killing and plundering. Stephen finds tranquility, acceptance, purpose and love at the beach house. Meanwhile, back at home his mom and dad are having marriage troubles and the war is growing ever closer to his family and friends.

I actually thought the book was OK. It was sweet in a lot of ways.

But. Everything happened so fast that it all felt contrived to me. Deep relationships sprung up way too fast and on too little foundation. The 20 something young man (I think he had his 21st birthday at the beach house) had a voice that sounded more like a 12-year-old boy to me. And way, way, too much happened in one year to feel real. And I had some questions about the leprosy community that Stephen learns about. I thought such communities were receiving medical help by the start of World War two? That part seemed a bit anachronistic to me, but perhaps I'm just insufficiently educated about leprosy in Japan. The book made me think a little bit about The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo, which was probably the most depressing book I've read in a very long time. It's about leprosy in Japan too.

I loved the snapshot of Japan that this book drew. I felt an attraction to life in a small Japanese village as Gail Tsukiyama painted it. I found the caretaker of the beach house, Matsu, believable and lovable.

It was a pleasant, if slightly unbelievable, book.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Rose and the Ring by William Makepeace Thackeray

This was published by the author at Christmas 1854 and I found it referred to as a classic Christmas work in my annotated Dickens "Christmas Carol". I was confused when I read it because it has nothing to do with Christmas at all.

It is actually a pantomime play created by Thackeray and a friend for children. These pantomime plays were, apparently, a great Christmas tradition in England.

This one is silly and fun and a little bloodthirsty, which is, I suppose, a combination that generally does appeal to children. We get all weird about violence in TV and games today (and don't get me wrong, I am one of those who "gets all weird" to a degree and I don't have plans to change that), but it seems that children throughout the ages have always had a taste for violence. Why is that, I wonder?

Anyway, it was a fluffy little piece of nonsense that I won't return to but for one little jewel which I really liked. The fairy godmother in this story, who by this time has tired of the godmotherly gifts always demanded of her and has grown jaded in her belief that these magical gifts are good for her grandchildren, takes a backseat role. She blesses her godchildren in this story with a "little misfortune" which, she says, will be good for them. And by the end of the story you can see that she's right! Her godchildren, Giglio and Rosalba, do indeed have difficult lives, but those difficulties only make them stronger and more virtuous and even more deserving of the good fortune that lies in store for them.

The ring and the rose, by the way, make their wearers irresistibly attractive. Just so you know.

It was a quick read, an effervescent little story and--it was written by Thackeray (he wrote "Vanity Fair"), so you know there has to be a satirical element in there--about beauty and royalty--and if you are really interested, there are plenty of others who have offered their interpretations on that score. And there have been several TV/ film adaptations too! Interesting....

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

I believe this is considered to be the first mystery published in the English language. I found its title in some other book I was reading and looked it up to read for myself.

I really enjoyed it. It is so much in the style of all of the mysteries I've ever read I kept going back to the front of the book to check the publication date. This is the first one? Really? I guess I kept expecting it to be LESS of something, but what I should have been thinking is how excellently it set the pattern for all the many, many mysteries that have followed it.

There are many narrators to this story...a butler, an evangelist, a cousin, a lawyer, a doctor. All have their different styles and perspectives. I think my favorite was the evangelist because I loved to dislike her. The book abounds with witty lines and clever little ideas.

It is the story of a giant Indian gem, stolen during battle and willed in a vengeful spirit to our heiress, Rachel. Predictably enough, the jewel is stolen. But who by? And why are the Indian "Hindoos" still lurking nearby?

It's a surprisingly long book and I found the initial narrator to be the most witty but the least engaging (I don't know why)--I picked up and put down the book multiple times during that first part. But once I got past him--and I did thoroughly enjoy him--I had trouble leaving the book alone. I loved the conclusion. I had one of those "I KNEW it!" moments, when really I didn't know it at all. It was a lovely period piece that felt modern in so many ways. I really enjoyed it.

The Dog Who Rescues Cats by Philip Gonzales

This lightweight, uplifting book was the choice of one of my book clubs for the month of December--a sweet, easy, quick read.

The title pretty much says it all. It's a true story of one man's dog who changes his life and who touches other lives as well. The dog, Ginny, is especially sensitive to others who are handicapped--particularly to CATS who are handicapped. It's pretty amazing, actually.

While the writing was choppy and a little stilted, the story was fun to read and was uplifting as well. It re-framed for me the idea of the "cat lady" who has hundreds of cats in her house and in her neighborhood that she feeds, and others of her ilk. This "cat man" (and his dog) and his "cat people" friends opened my eyes to the reasons that many choose to become saviors of animals. It's easy from the outside to see this behavior as extreme--I've never been one to see my pets as people like me and I don't feel converted to that perspective either. But what I do feel grateful for is people like Philip Gonzales and his friends who give so much of their time, resources and heart to take care of God's creatures. I do believe that all creatures deserve their measure of joy and I was converted to Mr. Gonzales' personal crusade and the good of it.

It was a sweet book, a quick read and a warming story. Glad I read it.

The Mansion by Henry Van Dyke

This is another of Thomas S. Monson's (prophet and president of the LDS/Mormon church) Christmas favorites. I'd never read it before this year.

It's a story about a good man who rigorously builds his good name and reputation by choosing carefully which charitable contributions will be most prominently noticed and by ensuring public recognition for every good deed he does. What will his reward in heaven be? He finds out.

I actually found this story to be very thought provoking. It IS difficult to do good with no thought of thanks or recognition. Not that recognition or thanks is explicitly sought by most of us, I guess, just that part of the fun of giving is anticipating the joy of the recipient and, as this story points out, our Christian charity should not be motivated by thoughts of recognition or gratitude, but by true love of our fellowman and of God. An oft-stated message, to be sure, but no less true for all of that. It's an irony that these cliched messages that are so easy to gloss over or even reject as "trite" are so prominently quoted and re-quoted because they're TRUE. And we each figure that out from time to time as we are surprised by their actually applying to OUR lives! How about that!

Anyway, I really loved this little story. It was a quick read (and it's free online!) and I think I'll read it every year at Christmas, along with Luke 2 and Dickens' "Christmas Carol".

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I don't really need to review this one, do I? Although I suppose this one was a little different because it is the annotated version.

It has been years since I read The Christmas Carol--I've watched so many different film versions so often. What the films always leave out, though, is the Christianity throughout Dickens' tale--I had forgotten how religious he was.

I enjoyed reading all the explanatory notes this time too--I usually just skip over the parts that aren't familiar to me and it was good to slow down and read some background.

President Thomas S. Monson (prophet of the LDS/Mormon church) says this is one of his 3 Christmas favorites that he reads every year. I think I may make it a tradition for myself as well.