Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: The Other Alcott

Everyone knows Louisa May Alcott, the author of the much-beloved Little Women. Many readers know that the stories were loosely based on Alcott's life and family. But few people stop to think about the real lives of the other little women. In The Other Alcott, Elise Hooper imagines the life of May Alcott, the woman who is known to many readers as tempestuous and selfish Amy.

Both Louisa and May are women who love art--Louisa writes stories and May is enamored with drawing and painting. When Little Women is published, Louisa's story is praised and May's accompanying illustrations are panned. Their paths diverge, as Louisa takes up the mantle of providing for the family financially and May must care for their everyday needs, at the expense of her art. It will take a break from the family for May to develop her artistic talent and discover who she really is, away from the shadow of Amy March.

Like many girls, Elise Hooper grew up loving the story and characters of Little Women. She even lived near the Alcott's family home. Hooper tells readers in the afterword that she started writing this book the day her youngest daughter started kindergarten, because May's story had been calling to her for years. It's easy to see Hooper's love for the Alcott family on these pages. They lived in the middle of a fascinating period in history--their father was a prominent abolitionist, Louisa was one of the few women of her time to have a successful career as an author, and May experienced an art world on the brink as new styles like Impressionism came to the forefront.

But of course this must be a book about family at its core, since it is a fresh look at the little women. While the fictional March family made poverty look charming, that was not the reality for the Alcott family. Louisa worked incessantly to provide for the family and the friction in this story comes from two sisters trying to find room for both of them to have careers when there are bills that must be paid and a family that needs care. Hooper shows us a May who could be passionate like her fictional counterpart, but also cared deeply for her family. In this story, Louisa is a woman is cold in a way Jo never was, when her determination to keep the family solvent and have a successful career takes precedence over anyone's happiness.

The Other Alcott is a must-read for anyone who counts themselves among the devoted fans of Little Women. It's also a story that shows that the tension between pursuing our dreams and caring for our families is an old, familiar tale.

The Other Alcott
By Elise Hooper
William Morrow September 2017
432 pages
From the publisher for TLC Book Tours

It's Monday and I'm reading about dragons

Hello, fellow readers. How are things going?

Things are still slightly crazy here in the literary house, but we are working through it one day at a time. We are still reading, though. This week, I read (and loved) Robin Sloan's Sourdough and then I read The Other Alcott, which focuses on Louisa May Alcott's sister May, the inspiration for Amy in Little Women. That review will be up later today.

         Sourdough   Escaping Peril (Wings of Fire, #8)

Now I'm reading Escaping Peril. My nine-year-old son and I are starting a mother/son book club. This month, he gave me a book to read and in October, I get to pick one for him. I was unsure about the book he picked--the eighth installment in a MG series about dragons--but so far, it's pretty good! What books would you suggest for us to read in the next few months?

What are you reading this week?

Friday, September 22, 2017

Review: The History of Bees

In 1852 London, William provides for his family by selling seeds. But he really wants to work with bees and build the beehive that will finally make his mentor proud of him. George is an American beekeeper in 2007 who still builds his own hives, even as something strange happens to bee colonies around the world. Tao lives in China in 2098. The bees have been gone for a long time, so Tao and her co-workers painstakingly paint pollen onto trees to grow fruit. When her son is injured, Tao sets out to find out what happened to her son, the bees, and the world.

The History of Bees is, as you might expect, a story about what happens to bees over the centuries and how humanity interacts with nature. But it's also about the ways that people relate to each other and what we need to feel successful in our lives. In the 19th century, William is driven to bed by depression and readers witness his family deal with his illness and their dwindling resources in various ways. George tries to reconcile his love for the farm life he has always known with his love for his son, who finds purpose in words instead of manual labor. And in the future, Tao is resigned to her life as long as her child can have something better. When an accident destroys that hope, she becomes an angrier, more desperate person who is willing to do things she never would have imagined.

This novel seems important in so many ways. The future of bees will impact our future as humans. But this story is also about work, the difference between a job and a calling, and how we give our attention to our work and the work that accompanies being a spouse, a parent, and a person in the world. The three storylines might feel forced with a different author, but Lunde succeeds in making the reader care for each of them and brings them together in a very satisfying way.

The History of Bees
By Maja Lunde
Translated by Diane Oatley
Touchstone August 2017
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Monday, September 18, 2017

It's Monday and I'm still here...

It's been a long few weeks, friends. I had a wonderful time with my whole family, as my cousins and sister and brother-in-law came to visit, but the world is going crazy everywhere we look. The kids hit the "we love each other, but we've been together for weeks and weeks and now everything is irritating" part of summer. I was both excited and sad to send my little one off to pre-k. We've hit a few rough patches personally and in our church. I just haven't been excited about blogging. Some days I haven't even picked up a book.

But I have read some books since I last wrote one of these posts. I read What The Family Needed, which imagines a family that is granted powers that they use to help their loved ones. I also read The Bees, a collection of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy that my sister gave me for my birthday. Last Thursday was the first day of school for my kids, so I enjoyed the quiet house by reading a book cover-to-cover. Fear not, The Girl in the Tower is just as good as The Bear and the Nightingale. It's out in December but I wanted the kind of book you can just immerse yourself in, and that fit the bill beautifully!

          What the Family Needed  The Girl in the Tower (The Bear and the Nightingale #2)

My first pick for Readers In Peril this year was Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (I know, I'm the last one in the world to read this). This weekend I read Something Beautiful Happened, in which the author tries to make sense of discovering her grandmother hid a Jewish family during WWII in the wake of a relative being murdered by a neo-Nazi. I seem to be back to my two-book-a-week reading rhythm, so hopefully I can get back into blogging this week too. Fingers crossed!

         Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1)   Something Beautiful Happened: A Story of Survival and Courage in the Face of Evil

Now I'm loving Robin Sloan's new book Sourdough. What are you reading?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Review: My Glory Was I Had Such Friends

Amy Silverstein discovered that the donor heart that had beat for 26 years was failing. If she didn't get a new heart quickly, she would die. Amy and her husband send their son off to college and then pack up their life and move across the country. The best cardiac care is in California and Amy is hoping for another heart and some more time. But her friends won't let her face this alone. Nine of them create a spreadsheet and put their own lives on hold to sit by Amy's side in her hospital room. My Glory Was I Had Such Friends is the story of one woman's search for another heart and a reminder of the strength of friendship in the darkest moments.

In a single book, Amy Silverstein can help so many of us who don't quite know what to do in times of crisis. It's easy when someone is grieving or facing a lengthy hospital stay to panic because we aren't sure what the right or helpful thing would be. In My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, we are presented with a group of people who don't always do the right thing. Sometimes they say things that make Amy angry or even make her cry, but they showed up over and over again.

I appreciated that Amy claimed ownership of herself and her illness. Because she has been through a heart transplant before, she knows how to advocate for herself. Sometimes this comes off as being pushy or even mean but, as Amy's friends have to learn, no one truly know what it is like to live inside Amy's body as it is dying. It was difficult to read and eye-opening when Amy started to think about refusing the transplant. After she prepared for a new heart and it fell through, she started to think about the daily agony she was experiencing and the toll it was taking on her loved ones as they watched her fail. In a culture that focuses so much on healing, it's important to think about what it would mean to die well when that time comes.

This is a book I would recommend to everyone; at some point in our life, we will either be the one in the hospital bed or the one sitting next to it. Amy's story can help us know what to do in both of those situations to be the kindest friend we can be. It's also  a beautiful testament to Amy's friends. She writes honestly about the ways they failed her and she failed them but, in the end, this book is a record of the power of our bonds. I would be honored if anyone ever wrote about me with the love and sincerity that lives on these pages.

My Glory Was I Had Such Friends
By Amy Silverstein
Harper Wave June 2017
352 pages
From the library

Monday, August 28, 2017

It's Monday and summer is wrapping up!

Hello again! How are you doing?

I hope we're striking a good balance here in the literary house of getting lots of work done in preparation for school starting soon and also enjoying the last bits of summer. I highly recommend spending some time in a hammock if you have one, preferably with a book and a small nap. I'm excited for this coming week, as our family will all be arriving at my parent's house to enjoy the long weekend together.

This week, I finished reading Show Them No Mercy and also read Ahsoka and A Beautiful Poison. I'm almost done with When the English Fall, a debut novel that imagines how a worldwide catastrophe would look to the self-sustaining Amish.

        A Beautiful Poison   When the English Fall

What are you reading this week?

Friday, August 25, 2017

Review: A Talent for Murder

Agatha Christie is heading home from London, consumed by the knowledge that her husband is having an affair. When a man pulls her out of the way of a train, she quickly discovers that he wasn't saving her. Instead, he threatens her life and that of her daughter before informing the acclaimed mystery writer that he wants her to commit a murder for him. While Christie can craft the twists of a novel, she has no intention of actually killing a person. She will need all of her strength and smarts to outwit a man bent on murder.

Agatha Christie really did disappear for 10 days in 1926 and to this day, no one is sure where she went or what happened to her. Andrew Wilson has taken the few details we do know about that period in Christie's life and imagined what might have occurred. While the story itself is compelling, the big reveal at the end is nowhere near as surprising as the ones in Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile. 

It's interesting and difficult to write about a person who actually existed, even if you are putting them in imaginary circumstances. But I couldn't imagine that the woman who wrote such delicious twists and such crazy characters would have been the way Wilson portrayed her. She is obviously a woman in crisis, but she comes off as a rather boring individual. It almost seems as if the author was so concerned with not creating an upsetting portrayal of a real woman that he forgot to really develop the character that lives on his pages.

It's always fascinating to debate what happened in history, since we will likely never know the truth. I'm glad Andrew Wilson imagined what might have happened to our beloved Agatha Christie, but I wish he had brought her to life more vividly.

A Talent for Murder
By Andrew Wilson
Atria July 2017
320 pages
Read via Netgalley