Thursday, April 30, 2020

"The Enchanted April" by Elizabeth von Arnim

Oh my goodness.  What dear, sweet, charming book!  I loved it so much!  In fact, it is one of my favorite new-to-me reads of the year so far!

Back in the 1920s (when this was written), four women from London decide to go on holiday to Italy together.  It all starts when dowdy, weary Lotty Wilkins sees an advertisement offering that people can rent an Italian castle for the month of April for a reasonable price.  She knows she could never afford it herself, and asks a passing acquaintance if she would like to go there with her.  That worthy, pious, and also weary lady, Rose Arbuthnot, agrees, though she really doesn't know Lotty at all.  Together, they advertise for more people to join them on this vacation, to split the bill and make it more manageable.  Only two women respond -- crabby, proud Mrs. Fisher and beautiful but chilly Lady Caroline Dester.

The four of them arrive at the castle, San Salvatore, in search of rest and a chance to get away from their troubles.  Instead, they find joy, love, and peace.  In seeking to escape their troubles, they each come to realize that they are the source of their worst troubles.  When they learn to lay down their inner hindrances and become more their true selves, they each blossom into new and happier people, one after the other.

The castle's name, San Salvatore, means Savior in Italian.  Lottie repeatedly refers to it as heaven, and I think you could read this whole book as an allegory if you wanted to.  By coming to faith in Christ and being near him, we find joy, love, and peace, and shed our worldly troubles as we learn to put off our old selves and become more Christlike.  This makes us new and happier people.  Whether von Arnim meant this as an allegory or not, I don't know, but she certainly chose the name San Salvatore on purpose -- even if just to signify that their time there saved these four women in various ways from the troubles that bedeviled them before.

This book sat on my TBR shelves for over a year before the #kindredspiritnetwork chose it as the read-along book this month.  It was exactly the book I needed to read right now, and I'm so happy I could discuss it with other lovely bookstagrammers!  If you're looking for a bright, cheerful, uplifting read this spring, do yourself a favor and pick this up!  It reminded me of A Room with a View melded with The Blue Castle in a way.

(Mine from my Instagram account.)

Particularly Good Bits:

Why couldn't two unhappy people refresh each other on their way through this dusty business of life by a little talk -- real, natural talk about what they felt, what they would have liked, what they still tried to hope? (p. 7).

Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere: every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers -- the periwinkles looked exactly as if they were being poured down each side of the steps -- and flowers that grow only in borders in England, proud flowers keeping themselves to themselves over there, such as the great blue irises and the lavender, were being jostled by small, shining common things like dandelions and daisies and the white bells of the wild onion, and only seemed the better and the more exuberant for it (p. 76).

Was it possible that loneliness had nothing to do with circumstances, but only with the way one met them? (p. 88).

...kind ladies smiled, reason or no.  They smiled -- not because they were happy, but because they wished to make happy (p. 95).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: G.  No untoward scenes or violence.  Might have been a mild curse word or two, but I can't remember any.

This is my 45th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club and my 14th for #TheUnreadShelfProject.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

"Wade McClusky and the Battle of Midway" by David Rigby

This was a very cool book, especially since I love the new Midway (2019) movie so much.  This book really helped round out Wade McClusky as portrayed by Luke Evans in the movie and let me understand even better the pivotal part he played in winning the Battle of Midway during WWII.

Although the book title would suggest that this focuses solely on his role in that particular battle, it's actually a full biography of McClusky, going from his boyhood through his early naval career, and continuing on past the war into his retirement and eventual death.  But the bulk of the book does involve that particular battle and all the factors that went into how it played out.

My one quibble with this book is that it got a little repetitive with its insistence that McClusky has been misrepresented and even somewhat slandered in other accounts of the Battle of Midway.  I understand that Rigby was trying to set the record straight and show how heroic and pivotal McClusky's role in that battle was, and I agree it's important that it be understood aright.  But I feel like he belabored the wrongness of other historians and authors more than was necessary, rather than letting the truth speak for him.  There came a point when I would skim any paragraphs that dealt with pointing out the flaws in other accounts of the battle or reports of McClusky's behavior in it because it was kind of the same thing again and again after a while.  It started to feel more like a defense attorney was writing this, or a religious apologetics professor, rather than a historian and biographer.  

But I enjoyed this book overall, and I learned a great deal about Midway and the US Navy's aviation program and presence in WWII as a whole, which was really cool.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG for some war-related accounts of violence and danger.  No cussing that I can recall.

Luke Evans really doesn't look anything like the real Wade McClusky, but he did such a marvelous job of portraying his quiet, calm, detail-oriented, attentive, steady leadership.  Though I suppose I might be biased, being an Evans fan already.  If it hadn't been for him talking about this movie on his social media accounts, though, I might never have gone to see the movie at all, which would have been a tragedy!  Because it has become one of my absolute favorite movies ever!

This is my 13th book read for #TheUnreadshelfProject2020.

Friday, April 24, 2020

"Be Free or Die: The Amazing Story of Robert Smalls' Escape from Slavery to Union Hero" by Cate Lineberry

I first learned about Robert Smalls on Facebook, of all crazy places.  I can't believe I knew nothing about him!  Especially since he was quite famous during the Civil War.  Hmm.

Born a slave in South Carolina, Robert Smalls was working on a paddle-wheel steamer in Charleston harbor when he hatched a daring plan of escape.  He and the other crewmembers, also slaves, smuggled family members and friends aboard the steamer one night and chugged boldly past multiple Confederate forts. Smalls impersonated the white captain, fooling all they met thanks to a borrowed hat and the dim light of early morning.  They made it to the Union blockade ships and delivered not only the steamer into the US Navy's hands, but also a cargo of valuable weaponry.  And, most important to them, they had reached freedom.  Smalls and his wife and their young children forged new lives for themselves, and Smalls went on to meet President Lincoln, pilot boats for the Navy, and eventually buy the plantation home where he was born a slave.  After the war, he eventually became a US Senator!

This is a very readable biography of Smalls' life, mostly focused on the Civil War years.  It does delve into his childhood and adult life before his heroic escape from slavery, but it doesn't spend a lot of time on his life after the war.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for discussions of slavery and mention of things like rape, killing, and torture.  Not super-detailed or descriptive, but still not something I'd like child or tween read.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

"A Table by the Window" by Hillary Manton Lodge

Have you ever read the last book in a trilogy first? I accidentally read book 3 of the Two Blue Doors series first (Together at the Table).  And I thought I could get the first two books from the library and that would be all okay... but then the library closed up.  Argh.  So I did what any self-respecting bookworm would do, and bought all three from Barnes & Noble's website because even a pandemic is not going to stop me from reading this series!

Turns out it was a good move because I really loved A Table by the Window too.  And now I have Reservations for Two on my TBR pile waiting for me to finish one of the books I'm currently reading so I can start it.  I didn't want to read it back-to-back with this one because sometimes that makes books in a series bleed together in my head, which I dislike.

Anyway.  In A Table by the Window, Juliette D'Alisa is working as a food critic in Portland, trying to process her grief over her grandmother's passing, and supporting her mother in her battle with cancer.  Also, she's tired of being alone and tired of people trying to set her up on dates, so she tries out a dating website and begins exchanging emails with Neil, a bacteriologist (I hope I got that right) from the Carolinas.  They connect.  They meet.  Sparkage ensues.  They can't figure out how to make a long-distance relationship work, but they want to try.

Through all this, Juliette is helping her brother Nico start a new restaurant, Two Blue Doors.  He's a chef, and his sous chef keeps hitting on Juliette, who doesn't told her family about Neil for quite a while.  And Juliette is also trying to figure out who the man is in the photo she found in her grandmother's cookbook and why he looks so much like Nico.

This book make me hungry.  I wanted to eat all the amazing things the characters made and ate.  Happily, Lodge includes a recipe at the end of many chapters for something mentioned in it.  I haven't tried any yet, but... I will :-)

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was that, although Juliette and Neil do meet and are physically attracted to each other, and kiss several times, there was never any question of "are they going to fall into bed with each other."  Neither of them considered that as an option, which was really refreshing, since most of the time single people in contemporary Christian fiction spend lots and lots of time either feeling guilty that they want to get into bed with someone and then doing it anyway and then being remorseful, or mourning the fact that there's just no way they can ever have sex because no one loves them or will ever marry them, etc.  Y'all, this was refreshing, okay?  And, judging by conversations I've had with my unmarried Christian friends, realistic. Very nicely done.

Also, these characters actually go to church.  Regularly.  I'm pretty tired of Christian fiction where no one ever attends church.  Also not realistic, folks!  Christians do go to church. Kind of a thing.  I mean, right now most of us are attending online, but ordinarily... they might not go every Sunday, but many of us do.

(Mine from my Instagram)

Particularly Good Bits:

My world had become unpredictable, but at least I could rely on the goodness of the Lord and the consistency of green vegetables (p. 117).

"Any experience that ends in knowledge is not a waste" (p. 249).

I came from a long line of women who wrote their own stories (p. 295).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG.  No violence, no cussing, no real innuendo, though there are some scenes where characters enjoy kissing each other.

Because I had to buy this in order to read it, it counts as my 12th book read for #TheUnreadShelfProject2020 right?  I say it does.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

"Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense" by Laurie R. King

You likely know I'm a fan of Laurie R. King's novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes.  I've read all of them.  And now I've also read this perfectly charming collection of short stories that also feature that delightful detective duo.

I'd read about half of the stories in this collection before, as King has released some of them for free or for very low prices as ebooks over the past few years.  But there were several here that were new to me... and even if there weren't, I would have loved this volume anyway because I would always rather read a physical book than an electronic one.  Blame being an old fogey if you want.  But the titular story, "Mary Russell's War," is a collection of journal entries with lots of photographs included, and I really liked being able to see those on paper, and to study them in some detail, instead of peering at them on my phone's tiny screen.

Anyway.  My two favorites in this collection were "The Marriage of Mary Russell," which I'd read before, and "Stately Holmes," which I had not.  The former isn't a mystery so much as an adventure in which Russell and Holmes' wedding plans go a bit awry... but all's well that ends well.  And the latter sees Russell and Holmes interacting with family members at Christmas time, and solving a small mystery about a visit from St. Nicholas while they're at it.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-10 for a lot of stuff about WWI, some moments of suspense and peril, and other detective-story type things.

This is my 11th book read for #TheUnreadShelfProject2020

Thursday, April 9, 2020

"Befriending the Beast" by Amanda Tero

This book has a nifty premise:  what if the beast isn't a romantic interest for Belle, but instead is her father?  I really enjoyed that particular twist to this story, as it led the characters away from the "true love will cure your problems" trope and into "what does love between a parent and child mean" instead.

Amanda Tero couples that idea with the question: What if instead of having been changed into a literal monster, it's only his behavior that is beastly?  No magic curses here, but only a daughter whose mother died when she was a child.  Her mother's death drove her father into a deep depression, and she went to live with her aunt and uncle because of her father's emotional difficulties.

Belle is happy with her aunt and uncle, but she returns to the castle because she is convinced God wants her to try to repair her relationship with her father.  Her father doesn't even want to see her, and she spends most of her time trying to clear out and restore her mother's neglected rose garden or riding horses.  But when she suffers an accident, her father repents of his distant ways and healing begins at last.

This is a very sweet story, though it treads a little more lightly on the issues of emotional abuse than I would have liked.  Belle's father can be cruel to her, and I worry a little that children might read this and feel like they need to -- or can -- fix their parents behavior if they just pray and have patience.  Also, there was more decision-based theology about choosing to have a relationship with God than I could ever be comfortable with.  If you keep those things in mind as things to watch out for, however, you can enjoy a cozy afternoon with this lovely little book.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG.  Clean and sweet, but with the above issues and some mentions of the loss of a parent and so on.

This is my 10th book read for #TheUnreadShelfProject 2020.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

"The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien (again)

Friends, a miracle has happened.

I read The Hobbit out loud to my kids over the past few weeks, and I enjoyed it!!!  For real!  I did!  I didn't merely like it the way I did last time I read it, I flat-out enjoyed it.  It was fun.  I looked forward to reading more.  That has never happened for me with this book, and I am so excited that it did now!  At last!

And I think it's totally because I was reading it out loud.  So I was hearing the narration in my own voice.  Not in the voice of a "a kindly but slightly condescending uncle telling a story to his nieces and nephews because they're all stuck at a family reunion and he feels he should be nice to them," as I put it in my review 6 years ago.  I had fun with it, I enjoyed it, I liked it.  Huzzah!

I mean, I still think Thorin is a twerp.  And the plotting is too pantsy for my taste.  And I wish Bard was in it 90 times as much as he is.  Beorn too.  Gandalf too.  But I still truly enjoyed it, and this is just... huge for me, y'all.  I have felt so bad for so many years that I don't love this book, because I love The Lord of the Rings so very deeply.  Well, I may be on the road to loving it, and I'm at least far past liking it, into the realm of truly enjoying it.  I count this as a huge win.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for a lot of suspense and action and too many spiders.  My 8-yr-old handled it fine.