Sunday, January 31, 2021

"Jewel of Persia" by Roseanna M. White

I don't read a lot of Biblical fiction, mostly because the idea of fictionalizing the life of a real person from the Bible kind of bothers me.  But Jewel of Persia is about a fictional person living at the time of the book of Esther, more than about Esther herself, so that sounded like a book that I would really enjoy.  And it turns out, I did!

Kasia is a young Jewish woman who catches the eye of mighty emperor Xerxes, who takes her as one of his wives even though she has no dowry.  Theirs is a love match, and Kasia remains his favorite wife even after many others succeed her as newest wife.  The idea of a king with hundreds of wives and concubines, and how they all lived together, was fascinating to try to wrap my head around, and it lent itself to a lot of drama and tension too.  Roseanna M. White clearly did an astonishing amount of research for this book, and she tells you at the end which plot points were historical, and so on.  

Kasia's best friend, before she leaves home to marry Xerxes, is a young orphan named Esther, who's being raised by Kasia's family's neighbor, Mordecai.  The story of Esther that we're familiar with from the Bible really only takes up the last quarter of this book, but the first several hundred pages build very deliberately toward it, showing reasons for Haman to hate the Jews so much, why Queen Vashti would refuse to appear at Xerxes' banquet and then be replaced by a total newcomer, and so much more.

This book was a lot meatier than I thought it would be.  I was expecting it would be mostly a romance set in Biblical times, and it definitely had that going on, too.  I'd say it's one of the most lovely-dovey books I've ever thoroughly enjoyed.  But it had so much else going on too, with the Jewish protagonist, Kasia, constantly battling to be allowed to practice her faith in the pagan household of her husband, Xerxes, who is king of all Persia, etc., etc., etc.  Kasia would be described today as a "prayer warrior," constantly lifting up those around her to God with prayer for his help and guidance.  

This book also has almost a kind of religious magical realism, with characters glimpsing angels and demons that help or impede them.  That was particularly intriguing, as I hadn't expected it, but it did make a lot of sense within the context of the story.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this book, even if parts of it made me a little squeamish (ancient violence can be really extreme, and though White left the gory particulars to our imaginations, some things are just never going to leave my brain...).  I do think I will reread it at some point in the future.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-16.  It never quite crosses over into what I would consider R-rated territory, but this book has a LOT of kissing, petting, foreplay, and content I would not allow my kids to read until they were in their upper teens.  There are multiple instances of adultery, and the damage it can cause is at times severe.  There's quite a bit of violence, though mostly it's implied and not described.

This was my third book read from my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

"My Side of the Mountain" by Jean Craighead George

I read this book over and over and over as a kid.  Between it and The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, I also spent a huge amount of time imagining I was living alone in the wilderness and surviving off the land.  (I also went through this phase of eating random flowers to see if they were something I should keep an eye out for if I ever needed to live in a flower-strewn meadow.  Know of any meadows where there are a lot of carnations?  I liked them.)

Well, now I've read it as an adult, and I have to say... it still sounds like a pretty idyllic lifestyle.  I read it aloud to my kids, and they really liked it too!  My son had already loved it for several years, but my daughters hadn't read it, so it was a fun new adventure for them.  And my son still enjoyed getting to hear it read aloud and experience it that way.

I really admire stories of people being resourceful and figuring out ways to do things like store food, build a home, and even make clothes.  It does seem pretty unbelievable to me that Sam Gribley's parents would have said, "Sure, go hitchhike your way to our family land in the Catskills and live off the land.  Have fun!"  But... it was the '50s.  Perhaps it could have happened.  That's far harder for me to believe than that a resourceful boy could learn enough from books that he could live in the wilderness just fine.  

And yes, I have this movie-tie-in edition.  I remember seeing the movie once, as a kid, and being thoroughly disgusted with it, though I don't remember why anymore.  But this is the edition I found at a yard sale when I was in grade school, wrote my name inside in pink cursive, and read repeatedly.  So I must keep it.

Particularly Good Bits:

"Let's face it, Thoreau, you can't live in America today and be quietly different.  If you are going to be different, you are going to stand out, and people are going to hear about you" (p. 198).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: G.  A clean and lovely classic.

This is my 14th book read and reviewed for my 3rd Classics Club list.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

That Curious Sense of Freedom: January 2021 Inklings!

You may remember that, a few years ago, Heidi Pekarek hosted a monthly link-up series called Inkling Explorations.  It was a low-key way to share book and movie scenes around a common theme, once a month, and it was really fun.  Heidi revived the series (now called Inklings!) recently, and I'm joining in this month!

The January prompt is a new beginning in book or film.  Since I recently reread The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery, which is all about new beginnings, I thought I would share this passage from the end of chapter eight, when Valancy Stirling makes a momentous decision that changes her life forever.

"I've had nothing but a second-hand existence," decided Valancy.  "All the great emotions of life have passed me by.  I've never even had a grief.  And have I ever really loved anybody?  Do I really love Mother?  No, I don't.  That's the truth, whether it is disgraceful or not.  I don't love her -- I've never loved her.  What's worse, I don't even like her.  So I don't know anything about any kind of love.  My life has been empty -- empty.  Nothing is worse than emptiness.  Nothing!"  Valancy ejaculated the last "nothing" aloud passionately.  Then she moaned and stopped thinking about anything for a while. One of her attacks of pain had come on.

When it was over, something had happened to Valancy -- perhaps the culmination of the process that had been going on in her mind ever since she had read Dr. Trent's letter.  It was three o'clock in the morning -- the wisest and most accursed hour of the clock.  But sometimes it sets us free.

"I've been trying to please other people all my life and failed," she said.  "After this I shall please myself.  I shall never pretend anything again.  I've breathed an atmosphere of fibs and pretenses and evasions all my life.  What a luxury it will be to tell the truth! I may not be able to do much that I want to do but I won't do another thing that I don't want to do.  Mother can pout for weeks -- I shan't worry over it. 'Despair is a free man -- hope is a slave.'"

Valancy got up and dressed, with a deepening of that curious sense of freedom.  When she had finished with her hair she opened the window and hurled the jar of potpourri over into the next lot.  It smashed gloriously against the schoolgirl complexion on the old carriage-shop.

"I am sick of fragrance of dead things," said Valancy.

If you haven't read The Blue Castle yet (or lately), it's a perfect book for January, when our thoughts turn to new beginnings, resolutions, and attempts to change ourselves or our lives.

(Mine from my Bookstagram account)

Check out this post on Heidi's blog about the Inklings! link-up and join in the fun yourself!  Or just see what other people have been contributing.

Friday, January 15, 2021

"The Moonstone" by Wilkie Collins

I tried to read The Moonstone a couple of years ago, and just couldn't get into it.  Don't know why.  Wasn't in the right mood, maybe?  Still, I knew I wanted to read it, since it's widely hailed as one of the first great mystery novels.  I got this lovely copy with a gift card, and it sat on my TBR shelves for months and months because I was hesitant to try it again, if you must know. 

But some friends on Bookstagram decided they wanted to do a very laid-back read-along of it, just reading it at our own pace in the month of January, and I decided it was time for me to tackle it again.  I read it in a little over a week, all 673 pages of it.  (These editions are pretty small, so the pages add up fast.)

Parts of this book made me laugh aloud, especially in the first third or so, which is narrated by a snarky, observant old servant named Betteredge.  His asides made me think of Jane Austen because of their wry satirical wit.  And his obsession with Robinson Crusoe was always funny.

Parts of this book made me wish they would be over quickly, especially the section narrated by Miss Clack, who was a pharisaical, puritanical busybody.

The plot revolved around a giant diamond looted from India and later given to a young lady on her 18th birthday.  And then it promptly gets stolen.  Collins spins the mystery out for what feels like forever, but he does finally resolve it.  For a while there, I thought he was going to just end it with us never knowing what happened to it, and if that had happened, I would have thrown my book across the room.

I'm not sure how this book managed to simultaneously feel as if it was dragging on far longer than necessary, and yet kept up a galloping sense of suspense.  I kept saying, "Why isn't this book over yet?" and "I have to know what happens next!" at the same time.  That's a rather odd mix, I have to say.

I really haven't figured out yet if I actually liked this book or not.  I definitely want to read more by Wilkie Collins, though.

(Mine from my Bookstagram)

Particularly Good Bi

The more money he had, the more he wanted; there was a hole in Mr. Franklin's pocket that nothing would sew up (p. 35).

We had our breakfasts -- whatever happens in a house, robbery or murder, it doesn't matter, you must have your breakfast (p. 128).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG.  Lots of suspense, some mild violence (people getting tied up, that sort of thing), and mention of a man having a mistress.

This is my 13th book read for my 3rd Classics Club list and my first for #TheUnreadShelfProject2021.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

"Black Heroes of the Wild West" by James Otis Smith

This is a fantastic book!  It tells the stories of three Black Americans and their real-life adventures in the Wild West.  And it does it in a graphic-novel-like style that is engaging and fun.  I found it at the library and might just have to pick up a copy to add to my homeschooling history shelves.

The three heroes it features are "Stagecoach Mary" Fields, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons.  I actually got this from the library because I'm working on an article about Mary Fields for my next Prairie Times column, and I thought this was going to be just a standard biography, text and maybe a few illustrations.  But nope!  Full-color, fully illustrated little biographies.  AND it has real photographs here and there of actual Black cowboys and pioneers.  AND it has a six pages at the end about other famous Black westerners.  Yup, I really think I'm going to need a copy of my own.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG because it does include some violence and a tense moment or two, albeit non-gory and brief.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Looking Back; Looking Forward

Most of the time, I do one post wrapping up the last year's reading challenges and such, and another declaring my intentions for the new year.  However, a lot of my new challenges are just carrying on from last year, so I'm doing them all in one post this year.

A Literary Christmas (hosted by In The Bookshelf)

I said I wanted to read and review three Christmas books for this event, and I actually read six and reviewed five!  You can read them all here.  I'm sure I will participate in this event again next December, as it's always such fun to read and share Christmas books.

(All pictures are mine from my Bookstagram account.)

My Year with C. S. Lewis

I challenged myself to read at least five books by or about C. S. Lewis in 2020.  I read seven, though two of those were Narnia books, so they weren't new to me and I didn't review them on my blog.  You can read my five reviews here.


I started the year with 537 unread books.  I read more than 50 of them, and yet, I ended the year with 527 books on my unread shelves.  Um, yeah.

The lockdowns did help in that I didn't go to bookstores or thrift stores or library book sales nearly so often, but I bought quite a few books online, and some of those were the fault of lockdowns because I was comfort-buying.  I did finally start to get a handle on how to resist buying so many books, at least -- I am committed now to not buying books that just "look good," but rather to buying ones I already know I want to read.  

My original goal was to read 24 of my unread books and clear off a whole shelf in my bedroom.  Well, I read more than double that many, but I didn't clear off a shelf, so this was a half-success, half-failure.  You can read all my book reviews for this challenge here.  (I did read several that I never reviewed...)


I'm doing this challenge again this year!  You can learn more about it here at The Unread Shelf blog.  My goal this year is to read 36 books off my unread shelves AND truly clear off a whole shelf.  I have plans to move some books from my library up to my bedroom to ease my crowding problem down there, and I think that will help keep me motivated to NOT buy more books all the time.

Heidi's Lord of the Rings read-along

We are just about finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring together at Literary Adventures Along the Brandywine.  Obviously, we will be continuing this for the next few months, as we read The Two Towers and Return of the King and discuss it together there.

My Year with Harry Potter

I want to reread all 7 Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling in 2021.  I have not read any of them since the last book came out in 2007!  It's high time I revisited that magical world.

Sense and Sensibility read-along???

I am contemplating hosting a read-along of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen here this spring or summer!  It's been a couple years since a led a read-along, and I'd like to get back to it.  I'd be doing it chapter-by-chapter like before.  If that interests you, stay tuned!

Did you have any goals for last year?  Did you meet any of them?  Do you have goals for this year?  Do tell!

Friday, January 1, 2021

The Smashing and Dashing 2020 Character Awards

Katie of I'm Charles Baker Harris (And I Can Read) didn't actually tag me with doing this, but she did encourage me to do it, so I'm going to!  You can read her post here.

The idea is to answer these with characters from books you read in that particular year.  If you want to do this too, go right ahead!  I'm not going to tag anyone, but I will provide a copy-able list of the questions at the bottom of the post.

All right.

Most Relatable Character 

I'm taking this to mean the character *I* related to the most.  And that would be Anne Elliot in Persuasion by Jane Austen.  She's quiet, shy, helpful, loyal, and generous, which are all things I either am or strive to be.

(All book photos are mine from my Instagram account.)

Most Pure Animal Companion 

Baloo the bear in All the Mowgli Stories by Rudyard Kipling.  Baloo isn't my favorite -- that's Bagheera -- but Bagheera is too much of a cat to be called pure.  So, Baloo it is.

Fiercest Fighter 

Little Bear in The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks.  I mean, he stabs a giant.  And bosses a giant around.  And demands things of a giant.  Gutsy as all get-out.

Am Surprised That I Loved You?? 

Am I surprised that I love Barney Snaith, that sarcastic, sardonic, devil-may-care sweetheart of a rogue in The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery?  No, I am not.  Are we surprised that I am currently reading it for the fifth time, even though I just read it last January?  No, we are not.

Best Antihero 

I'm not sure at all that Philip Marlowe is exactly an antihero.  A pretends-he's-not-a-hero, maybe?  A doesn't-believe-heroes-exist, maybe?  He certainly gets reluctant about hero-ing from time to time, so I'm putting him here.  He wasn't particularly well-behaved in The Little Sister, which was my Raymond Chandler book this year.

Best Sassmaster 

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Oh, the sauciness!  The sassiness!  The withering scorniness of her casual jabs and jibes!

The Best Friends of All 

The siblings in The Railway Children by E. Nesbit are such jolly chums.  I used to like imagining I was their friend and having little everyday adventures with them.

Best Villain TO HATE 

Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  He's so easy to hate.  So deserving of it.  Miserable, vomitous mass of a man.

Award for Best vs Worst YA Parents 

It appears I didn't read any YA in 2020 besides my own new book, One Bad Apple, so I will have to answer from it.  Best would be Uncle Drew and Aunt Phoebe Dalton, and worst would obviously be Mrs. Lucretia Mallone.

Ship of All Ships in 2020 

I'm going to take this to mean the couple I love together best of the new ones I encountered in 2020 because otherwise it would just be one of my usual favorite couples (::cough:: Valancy+BarneyOrJane+Edward ::cough::).  But my favorite new-to-me couple was Juliette + Neil in the Two Blue Doors trilogy by Hillary Manton Lodge.  I was very glad they did finally get together for good.  And I loved their small, quiet wedding.

Most Precious 

Jerusha Abbott in Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster is a veritable ray of sprightly sunshine, and I defy anyone to believe otherwise.

Must Be Protected 

Anybody who lays a hand on my girl El from Rook di Goo by Jenni Sauer will have an angry Hamlette to reckon with.

Honestly Surprised You’re Still Alive 

It's really astonishing that Mina and Jonathon Harker survived in Dracula by Bram Stoker.

Award for Making the Worst Decisions 

Mary Yellan in Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier is an utter nincompoop and ought to be slapped.

Most in Need of a Nap 

Thomas Lovell, the king's enforcer/chief spy/master assasin/general handyman in Charity Bishop's novel-like renderings of Tudor history, specifically in the two I read this year: The Secret in the Tower and The King's Falconer.  The poor man is always so dreadfully busy averting disasters.

Want to Read More About You

I would love to read a sequel to Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park!  Especially since the ending felt abrupt to me.  I could have used at least one more chapter.

That's it for tonight, friends!  If you want to do this tag yourself, go right ahead!  Here are the questions, for ease of duplication:

Most Relatable Character 
Most Pure Animal Companion 
Fiercest Fighter 
Am Surprised That I Loved You?? 
Best Sassmaster 
Best Antihero 
The Best Friends of All 
Best Villain TO HATE 
Award for Best vs Worst YA Parents 
Ship of All Ships in 2020 
Most Precious 
Must Be Protected 
Honestly Surprised You’re Still Alive 
Award for Making the Worst Decisions 
Most in Need of a Nap 
Want to Read More About You