Thursday, April 29, 2021

April Reflections

I read a total of twenty-four books in April 2021. I think it would be a larger number if April had two more days. I don't think I'll finish anymore books in just one more day.

Nineteen of the twenty-four books I read this month were review copies! I am pleased with this. Three of the twenty-four were rereads. So mostly new-to-me review copies.

Seven of the books I rated 5 stars.

I had two favorite, favorite, favorite books that I'd like to recommend. Both Christian fiction. But don't let that stop you from giving them a chance. Both were absolutely fantastic. Definitely literary/literature vibes. A Piece of the Moon by Chris Fabry. The Gold In These Hills by Joanne Bischof.

Books Reviewed at Becky's Book Reviews

31. Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party. George R. Stewart. 1936. 392 pages. [Source: Online]
32. The Historians. Cecilia Ekback. 2021. [January] 464 pages. [Source: Review copy]
33. Pride, Prejudice, and Poison. (A Jane Austen Society Mystery #1) Elizabeth Blake. 2019. 330 pages. [Source: Review copy]
34. Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed the World. Adrian Mackinder. 2021. [May] 192 pages. [Source: Review copy]
35. Favorite Poems of Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson. 1978. 160 pages. [Source: Family copy]
36. Sixteen Scandals. Sophie Jordan. 2021. [May] 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]
37. Why Longfellow Lied: The Truth about Paul Revere's Midnight Ride. Jeff Lantos. 2021. [August] 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]
38. Anna Karenina (Easy Classics, Russian Classics) Adapted by Gemma Barder. Illustrated by Helen Panayi. 2021. [July] 120 pages. [Source: Review copy]
39. The Talisman Ring. Georgette Heyer. 1936/2009. Sourcebooks. 303 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Books Reviewed at Young Readers 

40. The Story of Growl. Judy Horacek. 2008. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]
41. DJ Funkyfoot: Give Cheese a Chance. (DJ Funkyfoot #2) Tom Angleberger. Illustrated by Heather Fox. 2021. [September] 112 pages. [Source: Review copy]
42. Usha and the Big Digger. (Storytelling Math). Amitha Jagannath Knight. Illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat. 2021. [June] 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]
43. The Eyeball Alphabet Book. Jerry Pallotta. Illustrated by Shennen Bersani. 2021. [May] 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]
44. Shhh! The Baby's Asleep. JaNay Brown-Wood. Illustrated by Elissambura. 2021. [June] 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]
45. A Home for Peanut Butter and Jelly by Wendy Kaupa. 2020. [August] 90 pages. [Source: Review copy]
46. Ten Baskets of Biscuits. Kelly Kazek. Illustrated by Michelle Hazelwood Hyde. 2021. [April] 32 pages. [Best guess on pages][Source: Online YouTube video]

Books Reviewed at Operation Actually Read Bible

22. Court of Swans (The Dericott Tales #1) Melanie Dickerson. 2021. [January] 328 pages. [Source: Review copy]
23. Castle of Refuge (The Dericott Tales #2) Melanie Dickerson. 2021. [June] 336 pages. [Source: Review copy]
24. My Dear Miss Dupré. Grace Hitchcock. 2021. [March] 364 pages. [Source: Review copy]
25. Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis. Scott David Allen. 2020. [September] 205 pages. [Source: Bought]
26. The Gold In These Hills. Joanne Bischof. 2021. [August] 336 pages. [Source: Review copy]
27. A Piece of the Moon. Chris Fabry. 2021. [April] 400 pages. [Source: Review copy]
28. A Lady in Attendance. Rachel Fordham. 2021. [June] 336 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Bibles Reviewed at Operation Actually Read Bible

3. New American Standard Bible: Giant Print Reference Bible. God. 2004/1995. Foundation Publications. 2000 pages. [Best guess on page numbers] Source: Gift. 


April Totals


Number of Books24
Number of Pages7044

Yearly Totals:

2021 Totals


© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Thursday, April 15, 2021

39. The Talisman Ring

The Talisman Ring. Georgette Heyer. 1936/2009. Sourcebooks. 303 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Sir Tristram Shield, arriving at Lavenham Court in the wintry dusk, was informed at the door that his great-uncle was very weak, not expected to live many more days out.

Premise/plot: How to introduce this one? Think, think, think. I could mention that it has a heroine that reminds me of Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen fame. Because it does. Eustacie de Vauban is silly and impulsive and much too much into romantic novels with daring adventures and dashing, swoon-worthy heroes. She, like Catherine, has an over-active imagination. But, this book isn't her story alone. So maybe that wouldn't quite be fair.

The book opens with a dying old man, the family patriarch, Sylvester, calling his family together. He wants his granddaughter, Eustacie, whom he rescued from France before the revolution got started with all the guillotining, to be safely married. He wants his great-nephew (Sylvester is Tristam's great-uncle), Tristram Shield, to marry her. He decidedly does not want Basil "The Beau" Lavenham to be the man for the job. Though since Ludovic Lavenham's "death" there is really no one closer in the line to inherit his title and his lands. But is Ludovic really dead?

The more time Eustacie spends with Tristram, the more she knows that he is not the one for her. He is not adventurous. He is not romantic. He is not impressed with her storytelling and imagining. He is much too grounded in reality to ever be dashing and heroic. He's simply put not hero material. So Eustacie makes up her mind to run away. In the middle of the night. On horseback. What could be wrong with that?

Well, maybe just maybe as she's running away...she runs right into the middle of a pack of smugglers. Instead of being scared silly. She's in love with the notion. An adventure worthy of any real heroine! Fortunately for her, her kidnapper is none-other than her cousin Ludovic. He's a man already on the outs with the law--charged with a murder several years previous. But is he guilty of that crime?

Can Eustacie (and company) prove Ludovic's innocent of murder? Can they redeem his name, enable him to come out of hiding, and claim what is rightfully his? It will be a massive undertaking and require some help! (Enter Sarah Thane and company).

My thoughts: It can be easy to forget just how much you enjoyed a particular Heyer romance when you've read so many. The Talisman Ring is certainly enjoyable and quite satisfying...even if it doesn't necessarily stay as fresh in one's memory as being a favorite-favorite. I enjoyed the two romances in this one. But above all, I enjoyed the dramatic, suspenseful mystery! It reminded me a bit of the promise of Northanger Abbey, except in this case, there was actually plenty of adventure and danger and mystery!

 A scene between Eustacie and Tristram:

“You would more probably have gone to the guillotine,' replied Sir Tristram, depressingly matter of fact.
'Yes, that is quite true,' agreed Eustacie. 'We used to talk of it, my cousin Henriette and I. We made up our minds we should be entirely brave, not crying, of course, but perhaps a little pale, in a proud way. Henriette wished to go to the guillotine en grande tenue, but that was only because she had a court dress of yellow satin which she thought became her much better than it did really. For me, I think one should wear white to the guillotine if one is quite young, and not carry anything except perhaps a handkerchief. Do you not agree?'
'I don't think it signifies what you wear if you are on your way to the scaffold,' replied Sir Tristram, quite unappreciative of the picture his cousin was dwelling on with such evident admiration.
She looked at him in surprise. 'Don't you? But consider! You would be very sorry for a young girl in a tumbril, dressed all in white, pale, but quite unafraid, and not attending to the canaille at all, but--'
'I should be very sorry for anyone in a tumbril, whatever their age or sex or apparel,' interrupted Sir Tristram.
'You would be more sorry for a young girl--all alone, and perhaps bound,' said Eustacie positively.
'You wouldn't be all alone. There would be a great many other people in the tumbril with you,' said Sir Tristram.
Eustacie eyed him with considerable displeasure. 'In my tumbril there would not have been a great many other people,' she said.” 

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

38. Anna Karenina (Easy Classics)

Anna Karenina (Easy Classics, Russian Classics) Adapted by Gemma Barder. Illustrated by Helen Panayi. 2021. [July] 120 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: St Petersburg in 1874 was full of the most fashionable and important people in all of Russia. One of the most respected families were the Kareninas. Alexis Karenina was a government official. His wife, Anna, ran their large home. She made sure that everything was perfect when they entertained Alexis’s important guests. They had a little son called Serezha, whom Anna adored. Anna’s life was happy, but she had married when she was young. She sometimes felt that marrying someone much older than herself had made her old before her time. 

Premise/plot: Gemma Barder has adapted (but why????) Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina into an early chapter book geared towards the seven to nine crowd (but why????). The original novel has one of the greatest opening lines ever, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Tolstoy then goes on to show MANY unhappy families (and one happy one).

For those that haven't read the original OR watched one of the adaptations, I'll sum it up concisely. Anna Karenina (a married woman) visits her brother and sister-in-law when the two are at a breaking point in the marriage. (He got caught cheating). She convinces her sister-in-law, Dolly, to give her brother, Stephen, another chance--essentially as many chances as he needs. Family is everything; sacrifices must be made to keep the family whole. While visiting she has a few chance encounters with Count Vronsky (a military man). It's lust at first sight. Though she has a husband and a child, her life is utterly incomplete without HIM. And apparently vice versa? (But is this true? If Anna had said NO, GO AWAY a couple dozen times, would he have started following/stalking the next pretty girl he sees?) We'll never know because Anna didn't say no. The two begin an affair that is not so subtle. When it goes from being a little hidden to right out in the open, her marriage reaches its own breaking point. (It doesn't help that she's pregnant with Vronsky's baby). Hard choices must be made, but she follows her heart...or so she thinks. Abandoning her child in favor of her lover, she risks it all to have a half-life in the shadows. When life proves less than satisfying--why didn't he live up to all of her dreams???? why is life so hard?????)--she decides life isn't worth living at all. Goodbye cruel world of my own making. THUD.

That is one family whose story is told in the original novel. As I said, there were a couple families followed.

This adaptation contrasts Anna's UNhappy ending with Kitty's happy ending. But Kitty and Constantine's story is one visited only briefly.

My thoughts: I have read Anna Karenina twice. Once as a college student. Once as a blogger. I *might* even reread it again one of these days. But my first thought was WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD ANYONE adapt a story about adulterous affairs and suicides into an early chapter book. And I think it is a fair question. Classic or not, this book isn't really a child-friendly read. Not as originally told.

But to be fair, this isn't as originally told. In the original, for example, she goes to visit Dolly because she is heartbroken and upset over her husband cheating on her. But it's been simplified to DOLLY'S REALLY BAD MOOD FOR NO REASON in this early chapter book adaptation:

As Anna headed for the railway station, she thought about her brother, Stephen. He had written to Anna to ask for her help. He and his wife, Dolly, had been arguing. Anna loved her brother and sister-in-law and wanted to help. Plus, Anna was secretly looking forward to a few days back in the city she grew up in, away from Alexis’s dusty old friends and their serious wives. In Moscow, Stephen Oblonsky’s eldest children were running around his feet. The youngest was crying in her cot. ‘Darling!’ he shouted, as calmly as he could. ‘I think the baby wants something!’ ‘Then why don’t you pick her up?’ Dolly huffed, standing in the doorway of their tidy sitting room. ‘Me?’ Stephen asked. ‘Yes, you,’ replied Dolly, hands on her hips. ‘Then maybe you can be of some use around here.’ Stephen looked at a loss. He peered into the cot and hopelessly cooed. ‘For goodness sake!’ Dolly bustled passed her husband, scooping the baby up into her arms. ‘Shouldn’t you be meeting Constantine for dinner anyway?’ Stephen nodded and went to kiss his wife goodbye. But she turned her head away from him and started to play with the baby.
And this is how the book handles Anna's being smitten with Vronsky:
On the dance floor, Anna could not take her eyes from Vronsky’s. She felt as though she had danced with him a thousand times before. The rest of the ballroom seemed to disappear. When Vronsky asked her to dance again, Anna accepted without hesitation. When he asked her a third time, Anna knew she should refuse. It wasn’t right for a married woman to dance so many times with another man. But Anna accepted. She forgot all about politeness. She forgot that she was married. She forgot that young Kitty was in love with the man she was dancing with. All she cared about was Vronsky.

As for the suicides, it's more like boo-boos at the train station. 

Reading is subjective. I suppose there are plenty of adult readers who sympathize/empathize with Anna Karenina, who side with her, if you will. Who see this affair as all kinds of wonderful and oh-so-worth-it. But I think again there are plenty that don't. The adaptation tries with every single page to present Anna Karenina sympathetically and heroically. But the truth is, she's just not that likeable. There are other characters that are a thousand--no, ten thousand times--more likeable within Tolstoy's novel. I just don't see the point of shallowly glorifying Anna's story. Shallow in that it doesn't go the depths--readers are too young to understand about SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, DEEP DEPRESSION, DESPONDENCY. And it's like well, Anna had a boo-boo at the train station and someone else raised her children. The end. (I exaggerate. The text reads something like her family learned that there had been an accident at the train station and Anna was killed.)

For the record (mom asked me this, you may be curious too), reading this would not help you pass any quizzes or tests for school. It wouldn't help you write an essay. You couldn't really bluff your way through class discussion on the themes and significance of the original.

My questions:

  • Why does this book exist? Why was it written? Why was it published?
  • Who is the main audience? Yes, it literally says it's for children age 7+. But who is really going to be buying this one and why? It will be adults buying this one either for their own personal libraries, to give to their children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews; librarians and teachers may come into play as well. But the question is at what age does one need/want an adaptation for a very adult book? An adaptation for teens and new adults would make sense. But if you're *that* old do you want to be reading an early chapter book?
  • If you do want to give this to second graders, third graders, fourth graders to read--presumably for fun--the question again is WHY this book? WHY this classic? What are you hoping they get from exposure to the story? How are you wanting them to connect and interact with the story?
  • Is it really for adults who LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the book?

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Monday, April 12, 2021

37. Why Longfellow Lied

Why Longfellow Lied: The Truth about Paul Revere's Midnight Ride. Jeff Lantos. 2021. [August] 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence from the introduction: In the twenty-five years between 1856 and 1881, if you wanted to send a letter to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all you had to do was put his name on the envelope, and the letter carrier would deliver it to his home at 105 Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

First sentence from the prologue: In the days, weeks, and months following Paul Revere's daring midnight ride, no one, it seemed, wanted to cheer about it. Heck, no one even wanted to acknowledge it.

Premise/plot: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Turns out, he lied! But why did he lie? Why did he twist history to suit his own poetical fancy? Jeff Lantos explains all as he works through the famous poem stanza by stanza telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Well, mostly, you get the idea!) It seems that Longfellow left out some bits that are crucial to understanding and appreciating the story--Lantos has added those back into the story.

My thoughts: After a brief introduction, the book opens with the full poem. If you haven't revisited the poem since your school days, it's well worth taking your time: reading and savoring the rhythm of it all. Lantos' book does a couple of things. First, it tells the true story of Paul Revere and his 'midnight ride.' It separates fact from fiction. Second, it places the poem into context. The poem was published in 1860. The country was on the brink of another war. Lantos seeks to examine Longfellow's CRAFT. Why did he make the choices he made? Stanza by stanza, Lantos highlights the author's workmanship and examines the question WHY.

It is packed with detail. I learned so much! It's a compelling story whether your interest is in HISTORY, POETRY, or writing. I enjoyed the main narrative. But I also loved the side bars!

I loved, loved, loved everything about this one! I loved the layout. It was beautiful work. It looks absolutely nothing like the nonfiction texts available when I was growing up. The text itself was well written--backed up with research and notes--but the narrative itself was compelling. Far from dry. I love that this book encourages readers to question, to dig deep into a text.


© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Sunday, April 11, 2021

36. Sixteen Scandals

Sixteen Scandals. Sophie Jordan. 2021. [May] 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: She was going to die here, crouched beneath a table on a dirty tavern room floor with bits and crumbs of food that predated the Magna Carta surrounding her. Glass shattered nearby, and she flinched, shrinking into herself as tiny shards sprayed her and the pungent scent of sweat, ale, and wine soaked the air. If this was to be it, then it was an ignominious end. She had always imagined there would be more to her life. She had simply imagined there would be . . . more life.

Premise/plot: Primrose Ainsworth wakes up on her sixteenth birthday convinced that her REAL life is about to begin. You could even insert a Disney-like "I want" song at this point and you wouldn't be wrong. Her hopes are soon dashed. Not only is her family not planning to celebrate her birthday, they're not planning to celebrate her year. She won't be coming out this year, OR, in other words she won't be getting her season. She'll still be "in the nursery," if you will.

Primrose, well, isn't PRIM. And she won't just take this INCREDIBLY BITTER news calmly and rationally. If her family won't celebrate her day with her and recognize her entry into womanhood, then she'll celebrate with her best friend. And what better way to celebrate than to sneak out of the house and literally go to the MOST DANGEROUS place in LONDON: Vauxhall Gardens.

If she survives the night--with her purity intact--and can make it home before she's discovered to be missing by the servants or her family, then it may just be the best night of her life. (Of course, she's not worried about her purity! It doesn't occur to her that any trouble whatsoever could ever befall her).

Of course, her plans, well, her plans get off to a shaky start and then completely flop and flail. But do they? Could the most unexpected night filled with unexpected-to-her dangers still end up being the best night of her life?

The thrills begin when she is separated from her friend and finds herself on her own...but not for long....

Enter Jacob.

My thoughts: Expectations. I would suggest beginning the novel with low-to-medium expectations. It may just surprise you if you start low enough. I found Sixteen Scandals to be a contradiction that probably shouldn't work but probably does for many, many readers--myself included.

Yes, it is predictable. There is nothing original or unique about it. Not the characters. Not the plot. Not the steamy scenes. Not the tied up with a bow ending. But here's the thing, depending on the genre, or sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre, predictability can be an asset. It can be a strength in the hearts and minds of the readers. Of course, not every single reader predictably likes predictable.

The characters. What can I say about Primrose? She was incredibly annoying, full of angst, selfish, naive, full of herself, and foolish. She reminded me of a preschooler with lipstick smeared across the bottom of her face, standing in her mother's high heels shuffling around telling everyone she's off to work. I mean Primrose is so obviously out of her element all the while she's proclaiming complete, full, total independence. What she is saying contradicts how she is behaving. And Jacob?! Well. I think Jacob reminds me of a Disney prince OR a twelve-year-old's ideal boyfriend. I think so much of what makes Jacob, Jacob, is found in the imagination. He's just about perfect in every way.

Primrose's family--well, in some ways it's stretching it to say they are cardboard cut-outs. I don't think they are even that well fleshed out. They are a means to an end. How can we introduce a problem so it can be overcome magically and usher us straight into a fireworks exploding happily ever after???

In some ways Sixteen Scandals is no more ridiculous than Disney's A Little Mermaid.

The steam. Sixteen Scandals offers some steam. Probably not enough for older readers; maybe just maybe a little too much for younger readers. It is neither clean nor graphic.

I saw one review criticize the book for "being written for twelve-year-olds." And I'm not sure I'd label it exactly that. But it probably does read babyish for adult readers who read adult romances. And perhaps even for a young adult audience who is used to more depth, substance, and graphic-ness in their romances.

I mentioned A Little Mermaid, but, maybe that isn't the best fit. Maybe more ENCHANTED.

In the end, I found it silly but charming. I can read criticisms and technically agree most of the time, but, I still liked it.

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Friday, April 09, 2021

35. Favorite Poems of Emily Dickinson

Favorite Poems of Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson. 1978. 160 pages. [Source: Family copy]

First sentence: Success is counted sweetest by those who ne'er succeed.

Premise/plot: This poem collection features some of Dickinson's poems originally published in Poems (1890) and Poems, Second Series (1891). It was edited by her two friends Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson. There are four books: "Life," "Love," "Nature," and "Time and Eternity." Most of the poems are short.

The Mystery of Pain

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.
It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

My thoughts: I read this in one sitting. It is a book that I've seen about the house for as long as I can remember but have never read. It has my mom's name in it; but if she has been a lover of poetry, she's kept it a pretty good secret.

I like some poems some of the time. Poetry isn't my go-to genre. There are poets that I do tend to love. But more often than not, poetry just doesn't move me, move me like it's supposed to do.

There were definite phrases in some of her poems that nudged me, that made me think. But usually by the end of the poem, I was like I *thought* for a brief flash I was getting the poem and understood it, but then I blinked and lost it.

I think this collection does showcase some of her most famous poems. 

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

34. Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed the World

Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed the World. Adrian Mackinder. 2021. [May] 192 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence (from the prologue): Face Front, True Believer! Of all Stan Lee’s many catchphrases, this one is perhaps the most revealing. During his time as editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, back in the 1960s, he used it wherever he could. Be it in a caption within the pages of a comic book story itself, or as part of regular editorial feature ‘Stan’s Soapbox’; ‘face front, true believer’ was a rallying cry for the ages.

First sentence from chapter one: To understand what makes a person tick, you need to wind back the clock. Our past informs our present, and what came before illuminates who we really are. Ask any storyteller. To relate to a character, you need to understand where they’ve been. There’s a reason we talk about life’s ‘defining moments’. There’s a reason we think the struggles and challenges we’ve endured in life ‘build character’. One of the reasons the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has proved so successful is because the filmmakers took their time introducing their central characters before they became who they were destined to be. 

Premise/plot: This book is a biography of Stan Lee. It focuses a bit more on his career than on his personal, private life. (But I don't have a problem with that.) The subtitle really says all you need to know: How Marvel Changed the World.

It is one part biography of Stan Lee. And probably two parts the history of comic books, super heroes, and the translation of comic book super heroes onto television, film, and product lines (toys, etc.) It isn't just Stan Lee's story. It is the story of multiple publishing companies--including DC--over DECADES. It is the story of writers and illustrators. It is a story of collaborations and disagreements. It is a story of the fans--the readers and collectors. It is a story about public relations. Stan Lee marketing himself from a very young age as the face (and sometimes voice) of MARVEL. The last few chapters do focus on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a story of ups and downs. It wasn't only happy-happy-good times behind the scenes. Mackinder does a good job (in my opinion) of presenting multiple sides of an issue.

Do you need to be a super-dedicated fan to enjoy reading this biography? I wouldn't say SUPER fan as a requirement. But I think some interest in the Marvel Universe probably is a must.

It is detailed. But it is not as detailed as it might have been. It isn't marketing itself as an encyclopedia. I thought it gave enough information and detail to always provide context for understanding the bigger picture.

My thoughts: I definitely found this a compelling read. It isn't a traditional biography perhaps. I would say at least two-thirds of the book focuses on MARVEL--those who worked there, the characters created both heroes and villains, the story arcs, etc--and Marvel's place within the world. It seeks to provide not only an origin story for Stan Lee himself (Stanley Martin Lieber), but to provide an origin story for COMIC BOOKS and their place in publishing history. It is hard to imagine a world without super heroes--whether Marvel or DC.

I didn't find it dry. As I mentioned earlier, I found it compelling. I wouldn't be surprised if some chapters held more interest than others for readers. But overall, I do like this one! I learned so much!

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

33. Pride, Prejudice, and Poison

Pride, Prejudice, and Poison. (A Jane Austen Society Mystery #1) Elizabeth Blake. 2019. 330 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: “‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a husband,’” whispered Farnsworth Appleby.

Premise/plot: When one of the members of the Jane Austen Society is murdered--POISONED--the small village of Kirkbymoorside in Yorkshire is turned upside down. Erin Coleridge, the owner of a used bookstore, takes it upon herself to do her own investigating. It's not that she doesn't trust the police inspectors or detectives, but, with almost all her friends and acquaintances present at the scene of the crime--she herself was present--she wants to catch the murderer and protect her closest friends.

My thoughts: I enjoyed Pride, Prejudice, and Poison. It was a well-fleshed out mystery, in my opinion.

What did I like about it? Well, I liked the characterization and the plotting. I LOVED getting to know the characters. Blake has peopled a small village or community. And it feels lived in. The relationships seem complex--the work of years, decades, of knowing one another. Erin has lived there for years--but even she doesn't know *everything* there is to know about her neighbors, friends, and acquaintances. I loved the focus on genuine friendships among women. And it was lovely to see all the Austen quotes woven into the dialogue.

The plotting/pacing. I really enjoyed this one. I LOVED that I was kept guessing and that the list of suspects was LONG. I didn't feel the murderer was super-obvious from the get go, from the moment the body is found. (I *hate* when I guess who did it before the body even has a chance to cool.) I loved the steady-supply of clues and the increasing suspense that builds because everyone knows the murderer is still on the loose. There were times when Erin was about to eat or drink something and I was like ARE YOU SURE YOU REALLY WANT TO DO THIS?! WHAT IF THIS PERSON SMILING AND OFFERING YOU FOOD IS REALLY THE MURDERER?

I did guess the murderer--in the last seventy-five pages or so. But even then I wasn't 100% sure--just mostly-mostly sure. So she kept me hooked throughout. I didn't find this mystery tiresome.

I would say that I did feel it was a little tricksy to put a cat on the cover of this one when cat(s) didn't really play any role in the book. (One character did own multiple cats, I believe, but the cats weren't really present for most of the book. There were a few scenes maybe? And if I remember correctly the cats had Austen-related names.)

This one offers a little romance. But the romance never takes center stage. (Not really.)

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Sunday, April 04, 2021

On Reading Reviews

This isn't a post on writing reviews. This is a post on reading reviews--other people's reviews. I guess the two don't have to go hand in hand. You could love/like to WRITE reviews yet never read reviews yourself. You could love to read other people's reviews yet never write any yourself. But as for me, I love to read reviews. 

There are two times I seek out reviews. First, I sometimes seek out reviews BEFORE reading a book. I'll clarify, there are times I'm COMPLETELY ON THE FENCE if I want to give a book--an author--a try. I will read reviews to help me make a more informed decision.

For example, let's say I'm browsing Kindle's daily deals and I come across a book title. I think to myself I *might* find that book interesting/good/entertaining. But I don't know if it will really be a good fit for me. I might browse a *little* on Amazon, but really I trust GOODREADS more. I don't just read five star reviews, I want to read one star, two stars, three stars--essentially ALL the stars. Ideally the reviews that help me most are the ones that focus on the book itself--what the story is and how the author crafts it.

Second, I almost always, always, always read reviews AFTER I write my own review a book. I try not to read too many before writing my own review. What I look for in a review of a book that I've already read is different--for better or worse. Again, I seek out reviews from ALL THE STARS. I want to read the one, the two, the three, the four, the five. I want a wide range of reactions. I like to see just how/why/where opinions/experiences/reactions differ from my own. Sometimes reviews that contrast my own--overall in opinion--give me food for thought. And food for thought is a good thing. Sometimes I am not persuaded. Sometimes I'm more amused than persuaded. But I don't usually regret the time spent reading reviews.

There are plenty of times I'm confused--HOW COULD WE HAVE READ THE SAME BOOK?!?! 😂😅

Sometimes I do wish I could have discussions with other reviewers about a book. But I'm also super-super shy, so I'm not likely to leave a comment on a review post at GoodReads.

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Saturday, April 03, 2021

2021 Reading Challenges: MAY 1900-1950 Readathon

Hosted by Books and Things a book tuber on YT. Here's the video link to her announcement vlog.  And here's the GoodRead's Book Group.

May 2021 

---The challenges--- 

1. Read a book published 1900–1950 from the country you’re from 

2. Read a book published 1900–1950 from a different country 

3. Read a genre classic, published 1900–1950 (such as classic crime, classic sci-fi, classic fantasy, historical fiction, etc) 

4. Read something published 1900–1950 that isn’t a novel (such as non-fiction, plays, poetry, short stories, etc) 

5. Read a work of literature published 1900–1950 set during or exploring WWI or WWII 

Bonus challenge: Read a book from every decade of the period (1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s)

Books Read For the Reading Challenge:

1) Baby Island. Carol Ryrie Brink. Illustrated by Helen Sewell. 1937. 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]

2) Five Children and It (Five Children #1) E. Nesbit. 1902. 237 pages. [Source: Bought]





© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

32. The Historians

The Historians. Cecilia Ekback. 2021. [January] 464 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Clicking typewriter keys, muttering voices, shrilling phones . . . the barrage of noise in the office was constant. Whenever Laura left work, the echo in her ears made her feel for a while that she had gone deaf. Jacob Wallenberg, Laura’s boss, mentor, and Sweden’s chief negotiator with Germany, walked through the room and they watched him, to see whose desk he would stop at, so they could try to guess the latest twist.

Premise/plot: The Historians is a historical thriller set during the Second World War in Sweden. There are two primary narrators--Laura and Jens. But the book alternates between THREE focuses. (I'm sure that makes NO sense whatsoever. But the third pov isn't really so much one person as one location--a mountain with a mine--with shifting perspectives. In many ways it's a murder mystery, but, there's definitely some suspense/thriller vibes as well. Laura and Jens' lives are in danger almost the whole time as they try to get to the bottom of what's going on.

My thoughts: The Historians is historical FICTION. It flirts with the idea that Nazi Germany wasn't the only ones to do experiments on humans. Jens and Laura are on the hunt to figure out Sweden's secrets--secrets that apparently are costing people their lives if they ask too many questions. I think it is important that readers know this is fiction. 

I liked this one well enough. I did. I found it a compelling enough read. The more the three shifted into one big story the more I liked it. If there was one thing I didn't quite like about this one, it was that the ending just felt a bit too abrupt. Like you've invested hours into the book and then that's the ending?!?! It is definitely an ending with some ambiguity. I don't know if there's enough to make a sequel though. 

I do feel it was a premise-driven book examining how IDEAS and BELIEFS shape people, motivate people, lead to decisions, etc. For better or worse, one of the ideas is related to race and how 'the pure' Scandinavian race is superior to all others that have been tainted by mixing.

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Thursday, April 01, 2021

31. Ordeal by Hunger

Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party. George R. Stewart. 1936. 392 pages. [Source: Online]

First sentence from the preface: The misadventure of the Donner Party constitutes one of the most amazing stories of that land of amazing stories, the American West. It is worthy of record as a historical document upon what human beings may achieve, endure, and perpetrate, in the final press of circumstance. This account is intended for a full and critical history of that ill-fated band of pioneers, and has been made possible by the remarkable preservation of detailed records. It is strictly factual, based upon the evidence of the sources and upon reasonable deduction from that evidence; it is not fiction.

It almost goes without saying that the Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party won't be for every reader. It is a nonfiction account written in 1936 by George R. Stewart. 

To put the book into a little context, there were two survivors of the Donner Party still living--Naomi Pike and Isabella Breen--when he began his first draft of this nonfiction narrative. Both died before the book's publication--one in the spring of 1934 and the other in the spring of 1935. 

Stewart stresses that this book is nonfiction and not a fictional treatment of the Donner Party. That his narrative is derived from factual accounts. He drew from contemporary letters and journals, works written and published soon after 1847 (including oral testimonies), and works written and published after 1870 (including autobiographies and memoirs). 

The book opens with a decision--a decision to take a shortcut recommended by a fellow named Hastings--that would increasingly prove fatal. It is here with this decision that "the Donner Party" came into existence. These were the wagons that broke away from the main wagon train--who were also going to California but by a different route. 

His narrative provides an overview of the tragic events in 1846/1847. Sometimes his narrative focuses on specific individuals and perhaps may be said to reflect a more personal account of those events. But overall I wouldn't say his narrative style is personal or intimate. His account doesn't so much focus on feelings and emotions--trying to put the reader inside the minds of those who lived and/or died that winter--but on the actions and deeds. 

Contemporary readers may fault Stewart a couple of things. One that his narrative focuses almost exclusively on men (and boys). The narrative doesn't ask if the women were equally heroic, brave, determined, hard-working, and/or strong as the men. Occasionally, he does shift his focus to the women--briefly, very briefly. But honestly the women, for the most part, weren't the decision makers on this trip (or any trip). What choice did a woman have if she disagreed with the decisions? It's not like she could abandon the wagon train, her family, her supplies and set off cross country on her own to try to find a better way to California. 

In the case of the Donner Party, it wouldn't be completely unfair to say it was like the blind leading the blind. They didn't have an actual, physical guide guiding them along the route. They were following some pretty sketchy written guides that didn't exactly prove all that accurate. The decision makers were making best guesses or not-best guesses as the case may be. But they had no way of knowing--after that one big decision coming at the beginning of the book--if their decision would be WISE or FOOLISH. They had no way of knowing/predicting the future.

Another thing that may prove difficult for modern readers in Stewart's text, is his treatment of other races--specifically Native Americans and Mexicans. This mindset when you think about it isn't all that unexpected. He is writing an account of settlers and pioneers traveling in 1846/1847. Manifest Destiny. The West is yours for the taking. It is yours if you want it, if you work for it. COME, COME, COME. That the settlers themselves felt entitled to it, well, it shouldn't be surprising. Many of his sources would have had this perspective or bias. Stewart was also writing in the 1930s. Perhaps western films and shows weren't in their golden era just yet--but if not yet, it was still coming. Now his descriptions of events--the way he phrases things beyond telling the bare facts (which can't be changed, can't be erased, can't be cancelled)--is cringe-worthy and offensive.


If in the story I have told much which is unpleasant and much which the actors themselves would have been glad to let be forgotten, I may at least plead that I have told all in charity. I blame none of the emigrants for their acts during that winter, any more than I should blame a man for his acts during a  delirium. Upon controversial points I have honestly considered  both sides, and have given each a chance to speak, in the notes if not always in the text. 

A microcosm of humanity, to be tested with a severity to which few groups of human beings in recorded history have been subjected, destined to reveal the extremes of which the human body and mind are capable — and yet to the eye of the trapper or wandering Indian merely one more emigrant train going west.  

From the very journey which they made they must indeed be called pioneers, but they cannot be called frontiersmen. They were merely country-folk and townspeople of the middle-west, not mountain-men...By now they had adapted themselves to the routine. To the mere hardships of the life they were inured, used as they were at best to but few of the comforts of civilization. But this was not the life to which they were accustomed. 

Worst of all, they were playing — and they knew it — against Time, and they had lost the first game. 

Hatred and inhumanity walked beside the wagons. 

But in the game which the emigrants were playing against Time, the score could not be evened by a rifle bullet, and it stood heavily against them. During those last days of October snow fell as they moved along. The cattle had to nose through it for grass. On the distant mountains it lay white upon the pine-branches. Winter was in the air; it was bitter cold, and the sky was bleak. 

Sensing the crisis, some of the emigrants urged a bold push forward, but most of them were too exhausted to make a further effort. So they prepared to spend the night as best they could upon the snow. They gathered about the fire, and had something to eat. Then they laid blankets and buffalo-robes on the snow, put the children to bed bundled up as well as possible. The men and women huddled about, some making themselves beds, and some sitting crouched by the fire. They were too weary now; they would cross in the morning. Then it began to snow. 

Back across the lake, as they looked through the darkening atmosphere of the short winter afternoon, they could see the solid rampart of the pass, a mass of snow unbroken except where bare precipices stood darkly out. It was November 4th. The trap which had clicked behind them at Fort Bridget had closed in front. 

Every week now was making a perceptible difference in the emigrants. Beaten upon by blizzards, half starved, they now had more and more difficulty in cutting and dragging firewood through the deep snows. They began to suffer from the cold. About this time they must have begun to notice what afterwards seemed to them so astonishing. The women stood the strain better than the men did. Whether food was apportioned by individuals rather than by size, whether the men did more physical work and therefore expended more energy, whether the constitution of a woman is more enduring than that of a man, whether merely in these individual cases the women were hardier — these questions cannot be surely answered. Most likely several of these factors were at work, but certainly, with some exceptions, the men failed sooner. 

When men abandon a sinking ship, so the stories go, they at first conduct themselves with some degree of steadiness and order. But as the ship lurches more heavily, they feel the tension, and the rhythm quickens until the last moments are a wild running about the decks. Then the boats go down with a run; men leap overboard; and the vessel dips to the final plunge. So the rhythm seems to quicken in the rescue of the Donner Party. Glover’s men had doggedly pushed ahead in a spirit of calculated audacity; Reed’s party had been more hurried; and now Eddy and Foster with their two aids seen by comparison to run, as if they felt the ship settling beneath them.

A little after midday they came to the cabins. They found no one alive. Around them lay a scene of filth and mutilated corpses, even worse than that which earlier relief-parties had been forced to witness. The seven men stood speechless and awestruck, and as the intense silence of the forest seemed to sweep in upon them, even Fallon, the mountain-man, felt the creeping horror. 

Probably the best way to feel the actuality of the story is to travel through its setting. For the country is tangible and solid, now as then. And for this reason, I have in the telling often stressed the scene until the reader has, I hope, come to feel the land itself as one of the chief characters of the tale. 

The very fact that it may be called spectacular should warn us, however, against the fallacy of considering it typical. It is no more typical of the wagon-journey to California than the last voyages of the Titanic and the Lusitania are typical of the trans- Atlantic passage. Emigrants ordinarily suffered hardships along the Humboldt, and had a difficult struggle in getting over the Sierra, but they also had some good times upon the road, and often got through to California in good enough health and spirits.

One turns naturally to the question of what caused the disaster of the Donner Party. It was of course the direct result of their taking the so-called cut-off advocated by Hastings. But who was responsible? I have found widely spread a tendency to blame the emigrants themselves, to consider that they, or at least their leaders, were a pig-headed, ignorant lot who thought they knew more about matters than other people did and who by blundering ahead brought upon themselves pretty much what they deserved. As I have tried to show in the first chapters of this book, such an attitude is not well based.

I do not maintain that the men, or even the women, of the Donner Party were faultless, that they always made the right decisions, or that they were immune from the ordinary human shortcomings, including that of common stupidity. I do not believe, however, that they had more than their share of such weaknesses. And I object strongly to the smug conviction that because they starved to death we of a later day knowing only very different conditions can conclude that it was all their own fault. 

Nevertheless, the cannibalism, although it might almost be called a minor episode, had become in the popular mind the chief fact to be remembered about the Donner Party. For a taboo always allures with as great strength as it repels. 

The story of their ordeal is not pleasant. Few, I fear, will find it always easy reading. But after all, the merely pleasant It is thin and bloodless; a picnic in the park scarcely gives humanity a chance to show of what it is capable. Not of that sort, all will agree, is this adventure in the snow. Here, if anywhere, we see men and women and children put to the final strain of body and spirit. Yet suicide finds no place in the story. And since these too in great part endured, others in evil circumstance may be encouraged to fight boldly. By this, their story may even be said to meet the demands of some that literature should serve an extraneous social purpose. For though despair is often close at hand, it never triumphs, and through all the story runs, a sustaining bond, the primal force which humanity shares with all earthly creatures, the sheer will to live.

© 2021 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews